Staunton, August 24 – Before Ukraine, many Russian TV journalists were ashamed of their willingness to conform to Kremlin guidelines but justified it by their mortgages and family responsibilities, Pavel Sheremet says. But the Ukrainian war has allowed them to see themselves not as “petty propagandists and cowards” but instead as “defenders of the Russian World.”
That has allowed many of them to become even more complicit with the regime and even to be proud of it, the former ORT program host who resigned over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine told Dmitry Volchek of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service.
It is important to understand that what is going on among Moscow journalists is not simply the imposition of censorship, Sheremet says. Rather there are incredible pressures from the regime and there are pressures that arise from within the journalistic fraternity because of its earlier willingness to go along.
“When the war began,” he says, there was no censorship “as such.” Instead, “there was strong external pressure: letters from the Presidential Administration, anonymous denunciations from within the channel, and letters from angry citizens demanding that enemies of the people be held responsible.” Some resisted, “but then the pressure became unbearable.”
The situation was thus “much more complicated” than many imagine. “We are dealing with a closed circle when we all are becoming hostages of this game.” Some TV journalists on their own initiative showed pictures of what they believed were the horrors of the Maidan, that produced an official response, and then the journalists reported that.
As a result, “Russian society simply went insane,” Sheremet says, and television journalists bear some responsibility for that. “For a long time,” he says, he “could not understand why [his] colleagues who had covered hot spots and wars with him were conducting themselves as dogs of empire and dogs of obscurantism.”
But then it became clear, he continues, all the years under Putin, when it was “quite shameful to work in news programing on state channels,” people excused themselves by pointing to their personal needs, even as they were prepared to call “white black” and the reverse. Now, with the war in Ukraine, they could feel swept up in the mood of patriotic euphoria and even “with satisfaction, do their dirty deeds.”
One example of the responsibility that Russian television journalists have failed in, Sheremet says, is in their representation of the Soviet past to young people. He says he is “shocked” by the nostalgia for that horrific period seen among the young. “We did not tell our children about the horrors of Soviet times and we playfully let the genie out of the bottle by talking about what a great country we were, one that the entire world feared, forgetting that to be feared and to be respected are entirely different things.”
“Some speculated on the Soviet past purely politically in order to hide their impotence and inability to run the country now. But young people took all this for the real thing.” That too played into the attitudes of the population, adding to journalists’ responsibility “for the hellish actions of politicians” because it “gave them an ideological basis.”
According to Sheremet, “the virus of immune deficiency of conscience has disordered from within practically all of the professional Russian society which works with meanings, information and ideology. Only a horrific stress can cure all this.” Consequently, in the near term, there is likely to be a further degradation and more witch hunts at home.