Russia This Week: The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists?

December 19, 2014
US Journalist James Kirchick appears on RT on August 21, 2013 in rainbow suspenders and protests Russia's anti-gay laws.

In Russia This Week, you will find links to all the stories of Russia Update in the last week and to special features, plus an article following up on the news and trending topics below.

This Week’s Stories in Russia Update:

Russian Magazine Prices Go Up
Russian Grain Exporters Halting Purchases; Grain Remains in Warehouses
– St. Petersburg Book Store Refuses to Sell Book on Siege Due to Nudity
Opposition Leader Alexey Navalny’s Final Speech at His Trial
Russian Grain Exporters Halting Purchases
St. Petersburg Book Store Refuses to Sell Book on Siege Due to Nudity
Russian ‘Mistral’ Sailors Return To Russia Empty Handed
Opposition Leader Alexey Navalny’s Final Speech at His Trial
Navalny Sentencing Scheduled for January 15
NATO Policing Baltic Airspace
Belarusians Line Up at Banks to Exchange Rubles
Prison Authorities Claim Medical Student, Suspected of Terrorism, Injured Himself in Stavropol Prison
Russia To Send Combat Aircraft And Advance Anti-Aircraft Missiles To Belarus
Ruble ‘Stable’ At Around 60 To A Dollar, Still 22% Less than A Month Ago, Oil Expected To Drop
Surge of Interest in Russian Kvass Dealer after Putin Press Conference
Sberbank Raises Interest Rates on Deposits, But Site Still Down
Putin Takes On Some Tough Questions from Journalists – But Only Partly Answers Them
Putin Begins Year-End Press Conference Upbeat on Economy; Denies Russian Regular Army in Ukraine
Ruble Recovers from Dramatic Plunge Before Putin’s Speech
Further Sources on Release of Yevtushenkov from House Arrest, But Gesture Underwhelming
Russia’s Justice Ministry Says It Will Comply with European Court Decision In Yukos Case But Doubts Remain on Payment
With the Ruble Down, What Role Do Sanctions Play Now?
Putin Meets with Jewish Leaders on Hanukkah – and An Antisemitic Tweet from @Navalny
Who is Affected the Most by the Ruble Crash?
Yevtushenkov, Head of Sistema, Freed from House Arrest: TASS
Robbers Steal $10,600 Worth of iPhones in Moscow; Lay-Offs Rumored at LifeNews
Russians Hasten to Buy Gadgets, Appliances, Food
Russia Holds ‘Massive Surprise Drill’ In Kaliningrad, Complete With Nukes
Estonia Expels Italian Politician and Journalist as Russian ‘Agent of Influence’
Sberbank’s Capitalization Falls Due to Rumors It’s Ceasing to Give Loans to Individuals
In Current Economic Collapse Role Of Sanctions Overstated, Role Of Putin’s Policies Too Often Ignored
How Does Russia’s Current Economic Crisis Stack Up With Others?
Estonia Charges Former Intelligence Officer with Treason as Double Agent
Will Russia Introduce Foreign Currency Controls?
Russian Opposition Leaders Blame Rosneft’s Sechin for Ruble Fall; Sechin Blames Opposition
Ruble Continues to Plummet Despite Emergency Interest Rate Hike

Last issue of Russia This Week: The Kremlin’s Ukraine Policy is a Mess


‘Managed Spring’: How Moscow Parted Easily with the ‘Novorossiya’ Leaders
Putin ‘The Imperialist’ A Runner-Up For Time’s ‘Person of the Year’
It’s Not Just Oil And Sanctions Killing Russia’s Economy: It’s Putin
Christmas in Grozny

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Recently, Russian and Western journalists and bloggers have bitterly debated the question of whether it is ethical to appear on the same speakers’ platform with Russian reporters working for state or pro-government media. Given the increasing control over the media in Russia, the Kremlin’s vicious disinformation war on Ukraine, the harassment of independent journalists and even a climate of impunity for murder of reporters, it seems that appearing next to representatives or supporters of the Russian state is now a moral issue.

Masha Gessen, author of Man Without a Face, a biography of President Vladimir Putin, who as a lesbian parent was forced to leave Russia, recently published an update on her Facebook page explaining why she abruptly left the recording of an NPR program where she was to debate Anna Arutunyan, author of The Putin Mystique. Arutunyan was a writer for Moscow News, now defunct, and contributed in the past to Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s Russia Beyond the Headlines. Today, she writes for a range of papers from USA Today to, but her opinions, while mildly critical of Putin or the Russian government, basically support the Kremlin’s perspective, such as an article on the web site of the European Council on Foreign Relations claiming Putin is a “victim of circumstance” – instead of a perpetrator – in Ukraine. Gessen believed that by appearing on the same platform with Arutunyan, she would be legitimizing the false premises of the Kremlin; critics of Gessen said she was incorrect in characterizing Arutunyan as a “state journalist,” mainly on the somewhat shaky grounds that Moscow News was “liberal.”

In the course of this guild feud, ancient battles were recalled, whose scars were never healed. Arutunyan was once involved in a famous debate in 2006 on Ekho Moskvy with New Times editor Yevgeniya Albats, which grew out of Arutunyan’s piece in Novy Mir, claiming US and Russian press were at a “dead end.”

Arutunyan maintained that slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya – murdered in retaliation for her frank journalism about Chechnya and Putin’s rule — was a crusading human rights activist rather than a journalist. Arutunyan said that the claims Politkovskaya made about the war in Chechnya could not be confirmed. At that time, Arutunyan wrote an article which debunked Putin’s authoritarianism, slammed the Russian opposition for the Nation and contributed to a journal edited then by Kremlin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky who supported Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – all of which earned her condemnation on the website of La Russophobe.

Albats criticized Arutunyan for failing to interview any of Polikovskaya’s colleagues for her piece and also not backing up her claims of non-factual material in Politkovskaya’s pieces – information that Sergei Sokolov, the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta said was borne out when the Russian government opened up a number of criminal cases about war crimes in Chechnya, even under Putin, related to Politkovskaya’s pieces. The European Court of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch also validated the cases.

Gessen was characterized by Kevin Rothrock, editor of the blog aggregator Global Voices’ Russian section, as “defending” Arutunyan back then, as was blogger Oleg Kashin – as if the role Arutunyan was playing in smearing a respected reporter and claiming the Russia media isn’t censored or intimidated was a perspective they endorsed.

But in fact, as can be seen from that long-ago and convoluted thread on LiveJournal, Gessen objected to the manner in which Arutunyan was confronted, which seemed overly inquisitorial on Albats’ part – and her debate was with Albats, not with this unknown younger journalist, Arutunyan. She also maintained that any person could write using secondary sources if they wished and defended Arutunyan as someone “young” and “not very bright” because she felt her lapses were lack of skill, not deliberate. She didn’t call Arutunyan’s whole article “subtle” and “precise,” but said that about merely one point that resonated for her, regarding the dilemma of Russians journalists who “desire to make a difference” but who face “the utter impossibility of verifying information” — precisely because of the nature of the country they live in. Gessen, who also covered the war in Chechnya, also did not believe Politkovskaya’s reporting was beyond criticism.

But today, any of the participants of that debate might revise their remarks 8 years later – especially because Arutunyan’s claims that in 2006 Putin’s authoritarianism was a “myth,” or that no Russian media could really prove censorship, surely ring hollow now, as so many outlets have been blocked or censored or intimidated. And her continued role in criticizing the Russian independent media as biased even as she defends the actions of the Kremlin certainly deserves more scrutiny now.

So on November 13, Gessen blamed NPR producers for not warning her in time that she was to debate someone whom she believed worked for state media – and who had defended these perspectives on and Voice of Russia — and so walked off the set in protest, as she refused to appear on the same platform with such a person whom she believed distorted reality.

Kevin Rothrock then made a vulgar-titled slam on Gessen on his own blog, A Good Treaty, calling out alleged factual errors. He said that Arutunyan didn’t work for, although she had appeared a number of times on the Kremlin’s propaganda station. Like others who joined the fray, he implied Gessen was hypocritical for insisting on integrity when she had worked for Vokrug Sveta, a magazine that had been pressured by the government, and had met with Vladimir Putin himself.

Gessen stood her ground, saying that Arutunyan indeed worked for the holding company Rossiya Segodnya, which means “Russia Today” – a confusion that has persisted since Dmitry Kiselyev, appointed by Putin as the head of the holding Rossiya Segodnya, launched a restructuring and rebranding in April inside Russia, culminating now in the opening of foreign bureaus for in London and other cities, the English-language Sputnik this month. This restructuring has involved taking control over the previously more neutral Russian-language outlet, RIA Novosti, eliminating the English-language RIA Novosti, closing the English-language Moscow News and both Russian and English editions of Voice of Russia, the radio station and web site.

As for Vokrug Sveta, as Gessen explains in the paperback edition of her book on Putin, Vokrug Sveta was forced to publish items from the Russian Geographical Society under threat of a takeover, months after she came to work as editor, and as soon as a conflict arose over her boycotting Putin hang-gliding with cranes, she was out of a job – one that Putin himself offered to restore her to, but which she didn’t want under those circumstances.

But while Vokrug Sveta may be pressed into publishing Putin’s nature adventures, it has not been involved in purveying disinformation about the war in Ukraine or slamming LGBT, like other state media. So the would-be hypocrisy-exposers regrettably have strayed away from the actual worst content again – the grotesque war propaganda – which would prompt Western journalists to think twice about appearing next to a Russian state media employee nowadays.

And of course, the fact that any journalist would meet Putin as part of their job because he’s a newsmaker and world leader — even if at the top of the propaganda pyramid — also seemed to escape the whataboutists.

Mark Adomanis, a generally pro-Kremlin blogger for Forbes now based in Moscow, published a further denunciation of Gessen in Moscow Times, trying to dismiss the seriousness of the moral dilemma by claiming that the real issue is that lazy journalists don’t check their facts. Adomanis grossly mischaracterizes Gessen and Arutunyan as having “views so close to be indistinguishable” – although Gessen has never, like Arutunyan, claimed Putin’s authoritarianism was a “myth” nor that Putin was a “victim of circumstances” in Ukraine.

One of Arutunyan’s last pieces in Moscow News, for example, left unchallenged Putin’s claim that there was a “military coup” against Yanukovych and that “no Russian troops had been involved” in the forcible takeover of the Crimea, when in fact Yanukovych himself fled, and Putin himself confirmed the presence of additional Russian armed forces. Meanwhile, Gessen in a recent piece in Slate explains how Putin has been undeterred in his war against the West, of which Ukraine is a part.

Yet rather than looking at these substantial differences in interpreting Putin, the debate raged on Gessen’s Facebook thread and among other journalists on the issue of whether journalists should either go on themselves or appear on the same platform with Russian state journalists or those who supported the Moscow perspective, albeit from independent positions. Adomanis added that Russia propaganda is “ineffective” – which is hardly the case, given how much energy he himself has invested in countering Gessen – and given the fact that he himself now writes for Rossiya Segodnya’s new propaganda site, Sputnik.

Regrettably this debate devolved into the guild question of “who is a state journalist” and whether Russian state journalists are in a special category not on par with reporters for BBC or Voice of America funded by the UK and US, or whether those who once worked for state media in its better years are forever tainted, as are those who freelance for state media occasionally along with reputable publications.

The much-needed discussion on the nature of the Kremlin’s disinformation itself and what it means to purvey it unchallenged was thus derailed into an analysis of edge-cases and hypotheticals. What if there was a journalist who used to work for RIA Novosti when it was better, but didn’t now, could you appear on the same panel with him? If Gessen herself was somehow compromised by Vokrug Sveta’s forced coverage of Putin, and through meeting Putin, the font of Kremlin propaganda himself, should she be entitled to pin red letters on the breasts of other reporters? If Arutunyan wrote for USA Today and other Western publications along with Russia Behind The Headlines (RBTH), and says Putin overreaches in his image-making, doesn’t that “clear” her from suspicion?

This could only be said by those who don’t recall her trashing the Russian opposition as incompetent for The Nation in 2006, or debunking the “myth” of Putin’s authoritarianism for Asia Times in 2007, or today, claiming on the site of the European Council on Foreign Relations that Putin is a “victim of circumstances.”

Instead of staying focused on the disinformation stories themselves and the ethics of accepting them, journalists were distracted to a debate about identity provoked by fear of “McCarthyism” or the seeming condoning of suppression of free speech in violation of their own values. This derailment could only delight the Kremlin itself which would be happy to see the focus taken off the question of how to respond to its own violation of ethics and integrity, most blatantly on display in coverage of the war in Ukraine, and converted into a stale debate about guild purity.

In an environment where Russian state TV has falsely claimed that Ukrainian soldiers crucified a toddler when re-taking Slavyansk; invited universal derision with incompetent photo-shopping of evidence for its far-fetched version of the downing of MH17; and routinely serves the state to harass and vilify the opposition and critics as “fifth columnists,” prying into their private lives and broadcasting their cell phone calls and visits with foreigners, why are we talking about full-time versus free-lance propaganda status, state or non-state status, past or present? The debate should be about the propaganda itself, and how it influences the public.

RIA Novosti, in the old days before the “rebranding,” didn’t publish outrageous untruths like mass graves “filled with 400 people” or “ mass rapes of women and girls” or “organ trafficking of victims of massacres” – stories that even the Russian-backed separatists themselves readily discounted and which were refuted by the OSCE (which pointed out how its name was misused by the source). So why are we worried about what someone who used to write for RIA Novosti did – when what RIA Novosti produces now is obviously disinformation?

The question shouldn’t be “has this journalist redeemed their pro-Moscow views by publishing in a variety of outlets and not technically working for the Russian state” or “aren’t pro-Kremlin positions just another set of legitimate points of view which any journalist has” or “can’t we rationalize that the BBC, VOA and RT are all equivalent as state broadcasters, if we not only make them morally equivalent but accept Moscow’s false premise that Washington is ‘worse’?”.

The question should be: “how does a journalist concerned about truth and integrity, and troubled by the Kremlin media’s blatant lies and disinformation, respond to best challenge propagandists?” If the Russian journalists on a panel don’t think there are any lies and distortions coming out of the Kremlin – or if they seek to justify the distortions as a legitimate response due to an imagined “global Russophobia” theory – then the conversation is already half-done. We are dealing then with apologists for the Kremlin, not journalists, if they can’t concede that there is in fact a massive, institutionalized propaganda machine in Russia in the first place, spouting lies.

Given that there are such media executives and workers in Russia, from Dmitry Kiselyev on down, who are part of that machinery, and who perpetrate the known falsehoods that even some apologists blush over (like the “crucifixion” story), it would be great if Western journalists could ensure their own integrity and professional ethics and show solidarity with their counterparts in Russia in independent media who are persecuted — by never appearing on or other state television, full stop. But Western and Russian journalists are going to remain divided on this question and undermine the cause.

The solidarity of the ranks will always be disrupted by the like-minded who abhor’s content, but think boycotting involves sacrificing free speech and open debate — the very principles embraced by journalists. There will also always be those who think if they don’t “protest” by actually going on and debating their disinformation peddlers — battling on their field — they miss a valuable opportunity to “get the word out” and have viewers look over the shoulder of discredited RT anchors to reach the audience. This is how the Kremlin always hoists journalists by their own petard.

The problem with this notion that you “get the word out” on is that any participation in, even for noble reasons of “reaching the audience with the truth,” helps reinforce the essential false premise of Rossiya Segodnya and all its works: they feign equal opportunity and free speech for alternative views, even as they undermine independence by roping you into their compromised frame. Not only do they set up false information; by being able to point to figures like Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch who have debated them on their platform, they can pretend to be like the debate shows of liberal democracies.

A journalist with integrity bent on getting on-air exposure for his critique of Russia loses in this setting, because he has contributed to the fiction that is a fair platform. He’s in fact endorsed the basic proposition of in all its advertising – not that it is just “another point of view” alongside all the perspectives of the world deserving of a fair hearing, but the alternative perspective meant to challenge the “Big Lie” of, say, the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. All of this is a profound distraction from Moscow’s own Big Lie, which is the current invasion of Ukraine.

So while it would be good to have an ever growing list of journalists who refuse to go on or refuse to appear on a panel with hacks, the effort will always be like herding cats and Moscow will always be left delighted that it has split the ranks of the like-minded once again.

Instead, while continuing to grow the number of commentators who refuse to go on, and continuing to isolate the propagandists, we should be challenging the central lack of intellectual honesty, the bad-faith approach to covering news (the weaponization in a political struggle) and the sanctifying of falsehoods as “alternatives”.

A military coup in Kiev, you say, and not the exposure of Yanukovych’s own outrageous corruption, after he gave the orders to shoot demonstrators? Really, the “little green men” in Crimea and later in southeastern Ukraine, weren’t from Russian military bases like Pskov? Then who are those soldiers in Russian cemeteries? Really, there’s a second plane shooting at MH17? How does such a technical marvel actually take place? Really, Putin is a victim of “global Russophobia” and “misunderstood” in his aggression against Ukraine when those are Russian tanks and troops in convoys moving into Ukraine, as Western journalists, OSCE, NATO and ordinary drivers with dashcams have now proven? Do let us look at the facts here; after all, men were tortured in pits in Chechnya and Politkovskaya was the one to report this, not state correspondents.

And whether this focus on the facts is done by boycotting or participating in panels, the task is still the same – to confront not only those who are knowingly part of the system of paid information apparatchiks, but the freelancers and fellow-travelers who maintain their veil of integrity by not technically working for the state yet spouting the same elements of its line.

Saying that Putin is a victim of circumstances, trapped between an uncompromising Kiev and militant Donbass, and pretending there is an “East-West split” in Ukraine instead of an invasion by a powerful neighbor, as Arutunyan has done this month in this piece for the European Council on Foreign Relations, isn’t just “yet another perspective” or “legitimate premise” but in fact a highly problematic one that any journalist who decides to be on a panel with her should challenge on the basis not only of guild identity but the facts. Putin started the war because he couldn’t let Ukraine out of his orbit into the EU, annexed Crimea forcibly and unleashed on Donetsk and Lugansk regions the GRU commanders from Moscow who feigned indigenous separatist warfare , providing tanks, artillery and even Russian soldiers. Why can’t Putin, acknowledged as a party to the conflict by signing the Minsk agreement, rein in his fighters?

While some might want to leave this set of facts no longer disputed by Western media as “a debate” or a “perspective” what they can’t claim is that it isn’t the “Moscow Line.” It is the Kremlin position and those journalists adopting it should be asked to explain why they do so well past the exposure of all the facts – soldiers killed in combat in Ukraine, tanks geolocated and validated as leaving Russia and ending up in Ukraine, separatists with weapons they could not possibly get except from the Russian arsenal.

To be sure, these challenges require more sophistication of argumentation than simply discounting that “a child was crucified in Slavyansk” or that “a second plane shot a missile at MH17”. But then, was clever enough not to run either the “crucifixion” story or endorse the “MH17 photoshop” – even as it features a German “aviation expert” who advanced the “second plane” theory.

Decent journalists need to document and expose the lies and other Moscow-run media concoct and perpetrate, and challenge those reporters who keep insisting on their status as legitimate and independent critics. If journalists want to retain credibility as independent and honest in their writing, they have to explain why they sound just like the Kremlin.