What’s remarkable, in recent years, is how it’s been possible, even in a democracy like the United States, to create alternative realities. Imagine, then, how easy it is in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
This week, the despot’s censors forced the country’s last independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, to suspend publication. Dmitry Muratov, the editor, won a Nobel Peace Prize just last year for his dedication to freedom of expression in the paper, which Mikhail Gorbachev, using proceeds from his own Nobel prize win in 1990, helped found.
Mr. Gorbachev’s glasnost is now dead. Mr. Putin has used the war in Ukraine to crush what remained of press freedoms. Novaya Gazeta’s shuttering, which could well be permanent, followed the closures of other courageous independent media outlets in Russia like TV Rain and Echo of Moscow.
It means Mr. Putin is now even more free to spread his pathetic propaganda and have it go unchallenged. In this respect, his hand has been strengthened. His power at home, despite a war going badly, has increased.
For Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, it’s all too familiar and depressing. The chances, she said in a phone interview, of the Western perspective on Mr. Putin and his savage war getting through to the average Russian no longer exist: “They are zero. Zero.”
Ms. Khrushcheva returned in January, after a year and half in Russia, to New York, where she teaches international affairs. She previously had contact with many in Mr. Putin’s camp but no longer, not with the war.
The clampdown on freedoms has extended to her Moscow family, she told me: “My niece who is 21 was out for a walk and she was arrested just for walking.” It’s happened twice, she said. “She was checked and rechecked before being let go.” The arrests, she said, weren’t because of her Khrushchev ties, but because of new Kremlin demands to express immediate loyalty to Russia when interacting with authorities. You can either comply with that expectation or, on account of a new Kremlin law, you could potentially face a prison sentence.
Ms. Khrushcheva said she always considered Mr. Putin to be a careful gambler. He was smart enough to allow some independent media to exist. But over the years, he has slowly turned the screws. Then, with the invasion, he turned mad.
Having taken control of the airwaves, he need not worry about facing a popular uprising. Ms. Khrushcheva estimates his domestic approval rating to be at about 70 per cent. For Russians who are savvy enough, she said there are still ways to find out what is really going on through online messaging tools, such as the Telegram app. But the great majority, especially in rural areas, are susceptible to the torrent of state-controlled propaganda.
Power is all about information control. In both Russia and the United States, look to the changing media dynamics to help explain the costly toll on each country’s democratic values.
No president was more media-obsessed than Donald Trump who, undergirded by a flourishing right-wing media echo chamber, moved much of the Republican Party into a state of make-believe, even denying undeniable election results.
As for Mr. Putin, who directs his media to deny that there even is a war, Ms. Khrushcheva suspects there will be no backing down no matter how great the losses on the battlefield. Mr. Putin’s attitude, in Ms. Khrushcheva’s estimation, is that “we will go as far as we need to go to show you in the West that you don’t treat us like dirt.”
Going as far as needed, Ms. Khrushcheva suspects, could well include the nuclear option. Mr. Putin often justifies his actions by citing American conduct. He could justify using lower-grade nuclear weapons, she said, by pointing to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In her view, the Russian system can only be defeated from within, not from without. If Mr. Putin was overthrown he would probably be replaced by someone like-minded. Hopes for a new Gorbachev are unrealistic. At this point, she said, even a new Khrushchev would be most welcome. Her great-grandfather, who she knew as a young girl, had a hand in many of Stalin’s crimes but eventually exposed them and allowed for some liberalization, a period that became known as the “thaw.”
While Khrushchev became less repressive with time, Mr. Putin is on the opposite trajectory and now has total control of the media to help chart his totalitarian turn.
Glasnost was founded on the hope that the truth shall set you free. Many of us who were in Moscow at its inception hoped that once the freedom genie was out of the bottle, there would be no putting it back in.
Those hopes are now forsaken.
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