Meet Vladimir Putin’s homophobic, vitriolic, charismatic master of propaganda
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared at home in the wake of his actions in Ukraine – and the masterful spin his intervention has been given.
The joy that greeted Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March was due, at least in part, to a propaganda system less complete but more virulent than its Soviet predecessor.
At the center of the system is a remarkable journalist called Dmitry Kiselyev. A long-time and popular presenter on the state-owned Channel One, Kiselyev has “put the nation on a diet stripped of critical voices and soaked in patriotism.”
In December 2013, Putin put Kiselyev in charge of a big media-holding company, Rossiya Sevodnya (Russia Today), which replaced the relatively balanced RIA Novosti news agency. It’s separate from the country’s TV news channel, also called Russia Today, which broadcasts to the world but is milder in tone and more closely allied to the narrative lines put out by the state.
Kiselyev has boasted that Russia is “the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive dust.” He said it with a mushroom cloud in the background. He heaped abuse on the Ukrainian government, its armed forces and the country itself – “there is no Ukraine, it is only a virtual concept, a virtual country … now it’s a failed state.”
The bullet-headed, pugnacious newsman’s delivery is confident, sarcastic and often witty, and he is deeply attached to Putin’s view of the world. He dismissed the demonstrators in Kiev who dethroned corrupt President Victor Yanukovich as Western stooges, and told the ethnic Russians in Ukraine that they are at risk from the “fascists” who have grabbed power in the Ukrainian capital.
He has a particular fascination with and disgust for gays, notoriously saying that they “should be prohibited from donating blood, sperm and, in the case of a road accident, their hearts should be either buried or cremated as unsuitable for the prolongation of life.”
Responding to criticism for his remark, Kiselyev said that he believes the problem with homosexuals “is that they carry themselves provocatively … deliberately encouraging and provoking a situation so they become victims.”
He spoke those words in 2012, and a year later a law was passed barring “gay propaganda,” which criminalized virtually any mention of homosexuality. Russia has never been known for a warm attitude toward the LGBT community, but this intolerance from the top is a considered policy, serving to mark the country off from a “degenerate” West.
Kiselyev and the propaganda machine under his control have challengers. One of the sharpest, Sergei Medvedev of the New Economic School, wrote recently that the Ukrainian adventure, and above all the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, had inflicted an “irreversible defeat” on Russia, that it had sealed the loss of Ukraine to the West. In the English-language Moscow News, Gregory Bovt highlighted the “prohibitory and restrictive laws” that Putin’s government has introduced but said that most of them don’t affect ordinary Russians since they are leveled against heavy Internet users and nongovernmental organizations.
Bovt also notes that “Russians’ political involvement has reached an all-time low,” not because people are frightened but because they are generally content with their leader and proud of their country. More surprisingly, they say they feel better off this year than last, though after a growth rate of little more than 1 percent last year, economic growth this year is expected to be negative.
Grabs of territory, bellicose rhetoric against an old enemy and relentless and well-crafted propaganda have, for the moment, produced a state apparently largely sealed against doubt. No matter that the West is patently reluctant to ramp up sanctions and is eager for negotiations, Russia’s leadership deems that the people need an enemy once more, and its president, with his propagandist-in-chief, is happy to dust off an old one and parade it as new again.
PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on the screen of a television camera during his visit to the new studio complex of television channel ‘Russia Today’ in Moscow June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Kochetkov/Pool