Category Archives: mass media

EDITORIAL: A Bun in Putin’s Oven?

Mummy & Daddy? Notice the gleam in his eye?


A Bun in Putin’s Oven?

“The most puzzling part of this story is that at press time, not a single major Russian media [outlet] has reported that Kabaeva had a son.”

Alina Kabaeva

That was the Russian website, discussing the delivery of a male child by unmarried 26-year-old rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabaeva.

And yet, not a single major Russian media outlet had the least bit of interest in the story.

This woman is a major celebrity in Russia.  She’s posed in the Russian Playboy (chickening out and hiding herself behind furs).  The fact that she was pregnant and then gave birth is major entertainment news, and there is only one reason that the mainstream press would have ignored it:  Namely, that the Kremlin doesn’t want it reported. And what reason could the Kremlin possibly have for being interested in the pregnancy of a gymnast?

Well, for nearly a year now, rumors have been circulating that Vladmir Putin was having an affair with Kabaeva, and now she turns up with a bun coming out of the oven and no father in sight.  Where was the coverage during the pregnancy?  Where is the coverage of the birth?  If Putin isn’t the father, who is?

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Kozlovsky on Freedom of Expression

Oleg Kozlovsky, writing on Robert Amsterdam‘s blog:

On 5th November the world’s attention was drawn to American presidential elections and the victory of Barack Obama. Meanwhile, Russian authorities used this day to declare an unprecedented reform in the country’s recent history—changes to the Constitution. Dmitry Medvedev in an annual address to the houses of the Parliament suggested that the presidential term should be increased from 4 years to 6 years and the Duma’s term—to 5 years.

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Annals of State-Controlled Media in Russia: The "Rebranding" Outrage

Radio Liberty exposes the shockingly brazen efforts of the Kremlin not merely to control the news within Russia itself but to conduct a massive propaganda campaign in English in the West. Have you ever seen a more perfect example of malignant neo-Soviet smugness than the smirk on this young lady’s face, she a so-called “reporter” for a state-sponsored media outlet no different than in Soviet times. She’d better be careful, a complexion that dark could get her into plenty of trouble on her beloved Russia’s mass transit system.

When French police briefly detained Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov last month at a fashionable winter resort in France on suspicion of “illegal trafficking of young girls,” public officials in Moscow condemned the action as evidence of an “anti-Russian campaign.”

Aleksei Mitrofanov, a State Duma deputy of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, told NTV shortly after the incident: “They [the West] inherently dislike us. During the Soviet Union, when we were poor and traveled abroad with $25 in our pocket, they were suspicious, seeing us all as KGB agents. Now when we are trotting around the globe with large sums of money, they are still suspicious of us.”

Many Western and Russian observers agree that relations between Russia and the West are getting worse — but they disagree about why. Westerners blame rising tensions on the Kremlin’s more aggressive policies, not only with regard to its CIS neighbors but also Western energy companies and the European Union. Russian observers, on the other hand, accuse the West of failing to consider Russia’s legitimate national interests and indulging in unreformed Cold War attitudes, the worst expression of which is “Russophobia.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he shares Mitrofanov’s sentiment. Asked by a journalist in Dresden last year about Russia’s negative image in the world press, Putin said, “They dislike us simply because we are big and rich.” He elaborated on this thought during his January 24 meeting with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi in Moscow. “As Russia’s economic, political, and military capabilities grow in the world, it is emerging as a competitor — a competitor that has already been written off. The West wants to put Russia in some pre-defined place, but Russia will find its place in the world all by itself,” he said.

Regardless of who or what is ultimately responsible for the worsening relations, the Kremlin has been concerned enough by Russia’s rapidly deteriorating image abroad to launch a series of public relations events designed to enhance not only the image of the Putin regime, but also such key institutions, as Gazprom, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the armed forces.


The first in a series of such events was a visit by presidential hopeful First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. According to many Russian commentators, the main purpose of Medevedev’s trip was to present him to members of the world policymaking elite. Medvedev’s 16 percent public approval rating is second only to Putin’s, and it is double that of his closest contender, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Gazprom is also seeking to buff its international image following damaging publicity around the very public gas spats with Ukraine and Belarus and the company’s reputation as a state-controlled monopolist. According to the Russian media on January 16, Gazprom’s management has had negotiations with a consortium of Western public relations firms led by the Washington, D.C.-based company PBN about improving Gazprom’s image in the United States and EU.

Inside Russia, Gazprom has a wealth of public relations tools and resources at its disposal, since it owns fully or partially hundreds of media outlets, including Channel One and the Ekho Moskvy radio station. Gazprom is currently conducting negotiations to acquire Putin’s own favorite mass circulation newspaper, “Komsomolskaya pravda.” Aleksander Prokhanov, the publisher of the national-patriotic weekly “Zavtra,” regularly praises Gazprom for its “imperial role.”

Trip To The South Pole

Following the killings of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former security services officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, the FSB has also been in dire need of an image makeover. And, like the Kremlin and Gazprom, it too has initiated a public-relations campaign, although its effort has a more unorthodox flavor. At the center of its campaign has been an expedition to Antarctica, the declared purpose of which was to reinforce Russia’s claim to that frozen wasteland, undermining the United States’ “monopoly” over the South Pole.

The purpose was twofold. To show that the FSB is at the frontline of Russia’s national interests and revive the Soviet-era “heroic” image of the KGB. In 2003, FSB head Nikolai Patrushev made similar efforts and erected, with a group of FSB officers, a Russian flag at the North Pole, and, in 2004, an elite FSB force led by Patrushev put a Russian flag at the peak of Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.

So on January 3, two FSB MI-8 helicopters flew from Punta Arena in Chile with Patrushev, First Deputy Director and Federal Boarder Guard Service head Vladimir Pronichev, and other assorted FSB officers on board. The expedition landed at the South Pole on January 7, where Patrushev telephoned Putin to extend his best wishes for the Russian Orthodox Christmas.

Russian television channels covered the FSB expedition extensively, noting that the trip was wholly supported by private sponsors and that the Russian flag planted at the South Pole symbolizes the restoration of Russia’s superpower status.

Russian television broadcasts, however, failed to inform viewers that Patrushev was calling from the permanent U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, staffed by almost 100 U.S. citizens. Patrushev’s team was bivouacked there waiting for suitable flight weather. And the phone he used to call Putin? That was actually borrowed from a U.S. explorer, according to NTV.

Spy Meet

Back in Russia, the FSB organized another event at its Moscow headquarters. On January 13, it invited 118 representatives of international foreign intelligence services accredited in Moscow to a Russian Orthodox New Year’s reception. Attending the reception were representatives of 55 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, and China.

It was the first time the FSB had organized such an event. Following the reception, the semi-official “Rossiskaya gazeta” published a lengthy interview with Patrushev on January 18, in which he extolled the quality of his agency’s antiterrorist operations, saying the FSB is the “best partner of the West” in the fight against international terrorism. The FSB now has official representatives in 31 foreign states, 20 of which are located outside the former Soviet Union. According to Patrushev, the FSB has even created a special Directorate for Foreign Special Service Cooperation designed to oversee contacts with foreign security services.

The Russian Defense Ministry, riddled by stories of soldier hazing, desertion, corruption, and public mistrust, has also joined the image-improving effort. On January 15, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the creation of a new Public Council for the Defense Ministry, which was founded at the behest of President Putin. The Public Council, which includes clerics, pop stars, and others from many walks of life, is chaired by Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning filmmaker known for his pro-imperial and monarchist views. It will also include Muslim and Jewish clerics as well as popular singer, actors, and composers.

And in trying to improve its image Moscow might also set up its own network of nongovernmental organizations. For example, Anatoly Kucherena, a member of the Public Chamber, told RFE/RL on February 2 that he wants to create Russia’s version of the U.S. rights watchdog Freedom House.

Russia is also aiming to increase the amount of “positive news” in international media. To this end, Moscow has reinforced foreign television and Internet broadcasting. For example, Russia has extended broadcasts of the English-language Russia Today television station and has launched Internet portals like and

Or as Putin’s EU envoy Sergei Yastrzhembsky has said, “Russia needs rebranding.”

All aboard the Happy Bus: Vote for "President" of Russia

The Wall Street Journal identifies six candidates for the post of “President” of Russia in 2008. Who do you think is the best alternative from their slate? Vote below:

Who should succeed Vladmir Putin as “President” of Russia in 2008?
Dmitry Medvedev
Sergei Ivanov
Mikhail Fradkov
Vladimir Yakunin
Mikhail Kasyanov
Garry Kasparov
Free polls from

While considering how to mark your ballot, consider this from the Washington Post on how the Kremlin is seizing control of even the most seemingly mundane aspects of the mass media to manipulate the public for its own crass purposes:

Every Sunday morning, two favorites of President Vladimir Putin play prominent supporting roles on a television game show called “Happy Bus.” In sunny clips spliced into the show’s airtime, Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov hand out awards and urge young people in general to live healthy lives. Ostensibly, the two men have perfectly straightforward reasons for appearing on the show: Each week, one team of contestants is sponsored by Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant chaired by Medvedev. The opposing team is sponsored by the New Generation Foundation, headed by Ivanov, who is also defense minister.

But “Happy Bus” is widely viewed here as proof of the Kremlin’s ability to commandeer the airwaves — even the most trifling show — to aid Putin in anointing a successor. By most accounts, the president has narrowed his choice to Medvedev or Ivanov, and over the last year each man’s image, particularly Medvedev’s, has been rigorously burnished. “Happy Bus” debuted in May on NTV, a network owned by a Gazprom subsidiary.

With the centralization of power in the Kremlin, Russian politics has become ever more tightly scripted, and genuine electoral competition has withered. Whoever turns out to be Putin’s nominee will dominate television and almost certainly ride unimpeded through the presidential elections in early 2008, analysts said. “Putin, Medvedev and Ivanov are the three main heroes, the three main characters on the news,” said Anna Kachkayeva, a professor of broadcast journalism at Moscow State University. “It’s a command from the administration.” Producers at Russian television stations, including the makers of “Happy Bus,” declined to discuss coverage of Ivanov and Medvedev.

In presidential politics, Russia has an electoral college of one — Putin. When Vladimir Ustinov, the former prosecutor general and a perceived favorite of the security services, started making some very president-in-waiting noises last year, Putin fired him. He was rehired as justice minister, a much less influential position. Putin himself denies he is the decider. “There will be no successors. There will be candidates for the post of president of Russia,” he said Thursday at his annual news conference, which this year ran to three hours and 30 minutes and was attended by about 1,200 journalists. “I reserve the right to express my preference. But I will only do it once the election campaign begins.”

Since the reelection of Boris Yeltsin in 1996, when a group of media tycoons threw the full weight of their television stations behind his faltering candidacy and demonized his Communist opponent, tight management of broadcast journalism has been a critical instrument in Russian presidential elections, including Putin’s two campaigns. But unlike in 1996, when the power of television was wielded by wealthy businessmen, today those media assets are controlled by the state or companies loyal to the Kremlin.

Ivanov, 54, has long been well known both at home and abroad as minister of defense. Medvedev, 41, was an obscure figure until 15 months ago. In November 2005, Medvedev and Ivanov were simultaneously made first deputy prime ministers, in addition to their other titles. Since then, Medvedev’s public image, down to his haircut (shorter and more stylish), weight (he’s clearly lost a few pounds) and choice of clothes (more casual), has been carefully refashioned. The makeover has become the talk of the town. The wooden, cautious and loyal official of a year ago has become a self-confident and assertive politician tinged with some very Putinesque characteristics — in particular, his occasionally brusque scoldings, sometimes directed at other ministers, delivered with the colloquial phrases and tightly coiled physicality that many Russians love in their president.

Speaking in November about improving health care and access to drugs, Medvedev said: “There are swindlers who manufacture pharmaceuticals. Then there are other swindlers who sell those pharmaceuticals, and there are still other swindlers who act as intermediaries using state funds. The situation in the pharmaceutical industry is disgusting.”

Medvedev, who is married and has one child, is a lawyer by training and first worked with Putin in the city administration of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Putin brought him to the Kremlin, where he became chief of staff in the presidential administration. He is regarded as a relatively liberal counterweight to the staffers around Putin who served in the security services. Medvedev has no background in the KGB or its successor agencies.

He never publicly criticizes Putin, however. And he defends Gazprom, where the Kremlin placed him in charge in 2002, from charges that it is secretive, bloated and inefficient, and is used by the state as a political weapon to punish neighboring countries. On television recently, he called Gazprom a “crucial Russian company” and noted that its capitalization has jumped from $10 billion to $225 billion under state control.

Increasingly, Medvedev speaks of his modest background. “Just like everyone else, I lived in the kinds of apartments that used to be given to Soviet citizens, first a communal one and later a cramped apartment in St. Petersburg,” he said in a television interview in November. “And like everyone else, I went, and still go, to a polyclinic,” the state-run outpatient facilities that many Russians avoid. For all the campaign-style insights he offers into his background, Medvedev remains studiously ambiguous about his ambitions. “I find it distressing that I have been made a participant in some sort of race,” he said. Nonetheless, he is now the second-most-popular politician in Russia after Putin, according to opinion polls and analysts. In a poll conducted in November by the independent Levada Center, 38 percent of respondents said they would vote for Medvedev for president, making him the leading candidate. Ivanov trailed with 23 percent. Little more than a year ago, Medvedev’s rating was barely above zero.

While image-building is not unique to Russia, and Medvedev’s new position in government ensured he would get more news coverage, the almost universally friendly treatment he has received on Russian television has been striking. Among 2,064 news stories on Medvedev in 2006, there was not a single negative report on the news broadcasts of six television channels, including the three major national stations, according to a survey by Medialogia, an analytical group in Moscow. There were 17 negative reports on Ivanov, most of them centered on a brutal hazing incident in the military to which he was slow to respond, according to Medialogia.

Other potential candidates are not treated so kindly. In the same period, there was not a single positive report on Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and Putin critic who has said he may seek the presidency. Of the 40 stories in which Kasyanov was the main subject, 60 percent were negative and the balance neutral, according to Medialogia statistics. The Kremlin declined a request to allow a Washington Post reporter to accompany Medvedev on a typical daily event; he is normally covered by a small pool of reporters.

Last week was typical. Three of the national channels, ORT, RTR and NTV, ran expansive reports Wednesday night on a meeting chaired by Medvedev in which he talked about raising the birthrate and other projects. Medvedev held up a certificate that will guarantee cash payments to women who have a second child, and his remarks were spliced with images of cooing babies in maternity wards.

No critic of the management of the so-called National Projects was quoted on any of those news reports. The Kremlin declined a request to allow a Washington Post reporter to accompany Medvedev on a typical daily event; he is normally covered by a small pool of reporters.

“The National Projects are an imitation of activity,” Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the Communist Party, said in parliament last month. “Upbeat TV pictures that we see practically every day have nothing to do with the real state of things.”

“He is being built up, and he is changing himself,” said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, referring to Medvedev. “The first task was to get people to recognize him. . . . The next task was to associate him with most pleasant things from the state. He cuts all the ribbons now. “At the beginning, he was soft, like a teddy bear, but now he seems much stronger. Like Putin, he can summon up some thunder and lightning when he criticizes incompetent officials.” Bunin added, “There may be no final decision, but he is candidate number one, with Ivanov in reserve.”