THE opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics on February 7th had panache. A troika of light floated above the stage, colourful domes of St Basil’s lifted into the air and a magical dance from “War and Peace” gave way to a study of the Bolshevik revolution drowned in red light.
The “Dream about Russia” show, produced by Konstantin Ernst, the head of Russia’s Channel One, with the help of American technicians, conjured up a modern, sophisticated European country proud of its culture and its history: “the country I want to live in,” tweeted Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and journalist.
But there was a glitch: one of the five snowflakes did not unfold into an Olympic ring. The response of state television was immediate and telling: instead of letting the mishap pass, the live feed was instantly replaced with a recording from a rehearsal. This substitution of reality is just one measure that gives the Russian media a whiff of Orwell’s “1984”.
Just as Vladimir Putin’s greatest project has been protected from terrorist attack by a “ring of steel”, so the president himself is protected from political subversion by a virtual “ring of steel” surrounding the media. Channel One has rebranded itself as “First Olympic” and dressed its presenters in Russian sports uniforms. Any critic of the Olympics has been branded an enemy. Editors have been warned that carping reports would threaten their publication’s survival.
In the run-up to the Olympics the state-dominated media have been purged. A wave of consolidation began with RIA Novosti, the state news agency, which was always loyal to the Kremlin but in a subtly intelligent way. Svetlana Mironyuk spent 10 years reviving the RIA Novosti brand and turning it into a modern multi-language service that tried to project an image of Russia similar to the one in the Sochi opening ceremony.
But in December she was replaced by Dmitry Kiselev, a television presenter whose venomous anti-American and homophobic rants would have been extreme even in Soviet times. RIA Novosti itself has been lumped with Russia Today, a foreign-language propaganda channel. The consolidation of media assets coincides with the vaunting of traditional values and the penalising of free speech.
On the eve of the Olympics, Mr Kiselev’s masters launched a campaign against Dozhd, a private cable and internet TV channel. The brainchild of Natalia Sindeeva, a 42-year-old media entrepreneur, it is financed by her husband, Alexander Vinokurov. “I wanted to create a channel for people like us,” says Ms Sindeeva. Its young journalists rejected everything Mr Kiselev stands for.
It came on air in 2010, during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev (now prime minister), who endorsed it by his own appearances. Marginal in size, it captured the spirit of the young, creative Moscow types who protested against the Kremlin in December 2011. But its reach grew fast to 18m homes, including many outside Moscow.
Recently Kremlin propagandists have unleashed a hate-campaign against Dozhd. Cable-TV operators have been instructed to drop it from their packages, depriving the channel of advertising revenues. The trigger for the crackdown was probably Dozhd’s reports of a luxury country estate belonging to Vyacheslav Volodin, deputy head of the Kremlin administration, as well as of protests in Ukraine. But, as Ms Sindeeva says, what irritated the Kremlin most was Dozhd’s independence.
Although the state formally controls only two main broadcasters, many private ones come directly or indirectly under a media empire of Yury Kovalchuk, a friend of Mr Putin. Besides National Media Group, which has stakes in three TV channels, including 25% of Channel One, Mr Kovalchuk also has a large indirect stake in Gazprom Media, Russia’s largest media group, which owns five television channels, several radio stations and a publishing company. Gazprom Media’s structure is complex: it is 100%-owned by Gazprom bank, almost half of which belongs to Gazprom’s pension fund. Most of this is managed by a firm linked to Mr Kovalchuk.
Companies linked to Mr Kovalchuk also control most television advertising. In 2010 he bought Video International, Russia’s largest advertising agency. Gazprom Media and Video International account for two-thirds of the country’s television-advertising market. Until recently Mr Kovalchuk played almost no role in Gazprom Media, but he has recently been more active, say insiders. He was involved in the appointment of Mikhail Lesin, a founder of Video International, as head of Gazprom Media.
Mr Lesin is no stranger to Gazprom Media assets. Most of them, including NTV, were seized from Vladimir Gusinsky, a media tycoon who created them and then fled the country after Mr Putin’s arrival in the Kremlin in 2000. Mr Lesin, then minister for press and mass communications, endorsed a secret agreement under which Mr Gusinsky was made to sell his assets to Gazprom in exchange for his own freedom and safety.
The agreement served as evidence in the European Court of Human Rights that the attacks on Mr Gusinsky were politically motivated and in breach of the European convention. As head of Gazprom Media, Mr Lesin last autumn negotiated the purchase of media assets from Vladimir Potanin, another Yeltsin-era oligarch.
One radio station, Echo Moskvy, which is two-thirds owned by Gazprom Media and one-third by Mr Gusinsky’s American firm, has kept its independence, largely thanks to the personal relationship of its editor, Alexei Venediktov, with Mr Putin. But this may soon come to an end. Next week Gazprom Media will hold an extraordinary shareholder meeting that could replace Echo’s long-serving chief executive with one of Mr Lesin’s protégés.
Tellingly, Echo Moskvy has come under fire for a blog on its website comparing the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Using classic Soviet language, deputies from the ruling United Russia party have denounced this as part of an “anti-Sochi campaign unleashed in the Western media”.
The state is also strengthening its grip on the internet. One of the country’s most popular social networks, V Kontakte, has been taken over by a Kremlin-friendly oligarch, Alisher Usmanov. A new law, hastily pushed through the Duma, allows Russian authorities to block internet sites without a court order on the grounds of vaguely defined “extremism”.
As somebody who lived through the end of the Soviet Union, Mr Putin is well aware of the dangers of a free media. The Soviet Union was supported by repression and ideology. Once these twin pillars were removed it came tumbling down. Mr Putin’s main instrument of governance has been money that bought loyalty. But with the economy slowing and the currency wobbling, Mr Putin is now trying to reinforce his position.
The media can create and hunt enemies both in the country and abroad, blaming Russia’s troubles on traitors and ill-wishers. Meeting a public council in Sochi, Mr Putin likened Western criticism of Russia to the “deterrence theory aimed at hindering the development of the Soviet Union. Now we are seeing the same thing.” The Sochi Olympics were meant to mobilise the Russian people for a new struggle. But, without a freer media, the sophisticated and civilised country unveiled in the opening ceremony will remain as its title suggests: a dream.
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