Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

How the Media Became One of Putin’s Most Powerful Weapons

After decades of wielding Soviet-style hard power, Russia is developing a subtler form of influence.

Vladimir Putin is a news junkie.

The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t use that expression when we talked by phone, but that’s what he described to me: a man at the center of an ever-churning machine processing vast amounts of news and data at his command.

“Sometimes we’re wondering what is the limit for a human being for absorbing this huge amount of information,” Peskov told me, “but, well, it’s really a very, very, very heavy job.”

Peskov, speaking fluent English, described the operation. “First of all, the information and press department of the presidential administration prepares digests on print media, on Internet sources, on domestic media—federal and regional.

“We have special people working around the clock, preparing TV digests. We’re recording TV news on the [Russian] federal channels for him during the day. Obviously, it’s very hard for him to watch news so we make digests, let’s say, zip versions of TV news, divided into issues.”

Putin views these summaries in his car, plane, and helicopter, Peskov said.

“It’s quite convenient when he’s going home, let’s say, from [the] Kremlin, when he is not spending a night here … he can use this 20 minutes for really understanding what happened during the day in terms of information.” He watches TV news channels in English and German—a language he speaks fluently thanks to his posting in Dresden as a KGB agent in the late 1980s—and receives English- and German-language newspapers.

“Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t say that [Putin] is a fluent user of [the] Internet,” Peskov added, “but he is fluent enough to use some resources, plus, definitely, he is comparing what he sees and hears from [the] press … with the news he’s receiving—when it comes to foreign affairs—from his foreign ministry, from his special services, from intelligence, from various ministries, and so on.”

As a former KGB officer and head of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, Putin knows the value of information. His concept of the media, however, is a far cry from the First Amendment. For him, it’s a simple transactional equation: Whoever owns the media controls what it says.

“There should be patriotically minded people at the head of state information resources,” Putin told reporters at his 2013 annual news conference, “people who uphold the interests of the Russian Federation. These are state resources. That is the way it is going to be.”

From his first days as president, Putin moved quickly to dominate the media landscape in Russia, putting not only state media but privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s influence.

“The limitations on the media have existed for the 15 years that Vladimir Vladimirovich has been in power,” Alexey Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, told me during a December visit to the Russian capital. The war in Ukraine, he added, has solidified Putin’s view of the media: “It’s not an institution of civil society, it’s propaganda. [The Russian broadcasters] First Channel, Second Channel, NTV, Russia Today internationally—these are all instruments for reaching a goal inside the country, and abroad.”

Early in his presidency, Venediktov said, Putin told him how he thinks the press works: “Here’s an owner, they have their own politics, and for them it’s an instrument. The government also is an owner and the media that belong to the government must carry out our instructions. And media that belong to private businessmen, they follow their orders. Look at [Rupert] Murdoch. Whatever he says, will be.”

Putin pursues a two-pronged media strategy. At home, his government clamps down on internal communications—primarily TV, which is watched by at least 90 percent of the population, but also newspapers, radio stations, and, increasingly, the Internet. State-aligned news outlets are flooded with the Kremlin’s messages and independent outlets are pushed—subtly but decisively—just to the edge of insignificance and extinction. At the same time, Putin positions himself as a renegade abroad, deploying the hyper-modern, reflexively contrarian RT—an international news agency formerly known as Russia Today—to shatter the West’s monopoly on “truth.” The Kremlin appears to be betting that information is the premier weapon of the 21st century, and that it can wield that weapon more effectively than its rivals.

Employees of TV Dozhd edit footage of political journalist Mikhail Fishman from their temporary office in an apartment building. (Jill Dougherty)

When Western news outlets report on a “takeover” of the press by the Russian government, it usually evokes images of Putin, a puppet master behind Kremlin walls, ordering armed men to break down doors and haul away journalists. But in Russia, there are other ways to control the media—less dramatic, less obvious, but just as potent.

You can, of course, take a gang of men, give them some guns, and send them off to seize a broadcasting center. That’s what happened in October 1993 when Russian lawmakers revolted against Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. They failed, but 69 people died in the attack on the government’s Ostankino Television Center. In 2000, shortly after Putin was inaugurated as Russia’s president, government security forces arrived at the offices of the parent company of NTV, an independent channel generating high ratings for its investigative reporting, and began seizing documents. The authorities chalked the raid up to a business dispute, claiming that NTV’s owner, media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, owed his creditors $300 million and wouldn’t pay them back. State-controlled Gazprom-Media took over the channel less than a year later. While NTV is still one of Russia’s biggest channels, it has been politically neutered and now hews closely to the Kremlin’s viewpoint.

But there’s also a bloodless, modern approach: apply pressure, and wait. Pass laws that constrict the space available for independent media. Set legal traps, citing anti-terrorist legislation. Send the tax police to carry out endless inspections of a recalcitrant broadcaster or their business associates, denying that political views have anything to do with the investigation. Don’t kill them, just maim them. Try to squeeze them into irrelevance.

Such has been the fate of TV Dozhd (TV Rain), named after a popular radio station called Silver Rain. Dozhd is the only remaining television channel in Russia that presents a non-governmental perspective on politics and public life. Founded in 2010, it has reported on politically sensitive issues like corruption, the 2011-2012 Moscow street protests, and the war in Ukraine. But in January 2014, the station got into trouble when it polled viewers on whether the Soviet Union should have allowed the Nazis to capture Leningrad in order to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Russians who died during the Siege.

For many Russians, including Putin, whose families starved and died in Leningrad, even asking the question was sacrilege. That, at least, was the justification Russia’s media authorities gave as several cable providers took Dozhd off the air and the state telecommunications operator temporarily suspended all of its broadcasts. Now the channel is watched mostly on the web, though it’s still available as part of a few cable packages.

In December, the channel’s landlord broke its lease. I was visiting Moscow that month, and one of Dozhd’s anchors invited me to do a live interview on Ukraine. When I asked where the studio was located he gave me an address that I knew, from nearly a decade living in the Russian capital, was in a residential area. “Yes, it’s an apartment building,” the staff told me. “Just come up to our floor.”

With a light snow falling, I walked to the neighborhood, located the building, took the elevator up, and found myself in a tangle of bikes, baby strollers, and other homely equipment. Yes, it was a private flat, and yes, it was now also a studio. Inside, to the right, a young woman was seated at a computer. To the left, in the living room, was the studio, complete with a camera, lights, and a TV news desk where an anchor and his guest were discussing the economy. I took some pictures, but the staff asked me not to reveal the location of the apartment.

They asked if I wanted makeup. “Down the hall in the bathroom,” they told me. That’s where I found a professional makeup artist, her powder and lipsticks arrayed near the sink. “My friends ask me where I work and I tell them, ‘In a bathroom!’” she laughed.

The anchor, political journalist Mikhail Fishman, took it all in stride. “Just like Soviet times,” he quipped. Dozhd was broadcasting from a private apartment, he told me, because the Kremlin had made it clear that no one should rent space to the channel. It was the second time that the staff had been forced to move.

Fishman was convinced that Dozhd’s travails had all been orchestrated by the Kremlin. “There were some reasons, formal reasons, having to do with economics,” he said, “but no one has any doubts it was a decision issued from above.”

“Does President Putin himself give the order?” I asked him.

“That could be,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s really crucial. There is not a significant event in the media business that can happen without the direct sanction of President Vladimir Putin. … So, in that sense, as an experienced journalist, I have no doubt that, before shutting Dozhd off from the cable system, [the authorities] got permission from Putin. Other things that are less significant can just happen by themselves.”

Putin indicates the direction and his bureaucrats, eager to please the Kremlin, push to shut down what remains of free media, Fishman said. “In that sense, we are all in a position of threat. I think, in the next year or two, it will be very tough for journalists in Russia, very tough.”

If the Kremlin wanted to eliminate Dozhd, the channel’s founder, Natalya Sindeyeva, told me later, “they would have shut us down. We would have been one of the first it would happen to.

“There was no mission to shut us down, no.” Sindeyeva added, “but to make us, let’s say, weak—there was that task. They squeezed us.”

No knock at the door by the police? No armed men? “No, of course that’s not the way it is,” she observed. “At least not yet, and I hope it will never happen.”

Like Fishman, Sindeyeva told me that Putin sets the course at the Kremlin but doesn’t issue direct orders to stifle the press. “It’s definitely not coming from the president,” Sindeyeva said. “Let’s say, he’s not exactly a nice guy, but he doesn’t know about all these details. It does come from the presidential administration, however. It’s not his order, though. It’s the general context.” That context, she pointed out, can also include vengeful businessmen angered by particular coverage—the kind of banal complication that news outlets around the world must contend with.

Somehow, Dozhd has survived, fundraising to pay salaries and expenses and charging its Internet viewers roughly $10 a month. Adding to the confusing welter of political signals coming from the Kremlin, the channel’s editor in chief, Mikhail Zygar, was one of five TV journalists invited in December to interview Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. By mid-February, Dozhd had found a new home in Moscow’s Design Factory Flakon, a hip space for media, design, and events that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London.

But the pressure took a toll. “Before we were shut down we had approximately 12 million viewers per month, which, for a not-very-large channel, is not bad,” Sindeyeva told me. Current viewership is about 5 or 6 million.

Sindeyeva does not consider her channel an “opposition” broadcaster. “We’re just one of a few who try to do their journalistic job to inform people and tell them what’s happening,” she said. “We never had any position on the government. Simply, we do what others aren’t doing. We have people on the air from all points of view—bureaucrats, even hide-bound propagandists from the Kremlin, and the opposition.”

In other words: in Russia, it’s complicated. Writing for Global Voices, Dozhd’s chief editor, Ilya Klishin, observed that, when he visits the United States, people “expect horror stories about the daily nightmare I endure under the pressure of a totalitarian regime.” But, as he described it, “Many aspects of living in Russia are strangely difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced life here.” For instance, Klishin wrote, “You can’t say Russia has no independent media; I work at an independent TV station, after all. But the devil is in the details, and, in this case, we’re hopelessly outgunned.”

“What’s happened in Russia would be like Fox News taking over the airwaves in the U.S., booting MSNBC from cable TV, and reducing liberals to broadcasting online from a small private apartment in Brooklyn,” Klishin said.

Alexey Venediktov (right) has managed to defy predictions and keep his independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, on the air. (Jill Dougherty)

Echo of Moscow still broadcasts from its studios in the 1960s-era, Soviet-style high-rises that line New Arbat Street, a main thoroughfare in Moscow. When I stopped by in December to see Alexey Venediktov, a friend for more than two decades, the office was buzzing with preparations for the day’s shows, with Venediktov good-naturedly barking orders to his young staff. His wild mane of curly hair and beard were gray; in a few days he would turn 59. He’s a cat with more than nine lives—a journalist who has managed to pursue objective, critical reporting without being shut down by the Kremlin, or by businessmen.

Everything seemed reassuringly similar to what I remembered from visiting the station as CNN’s Moscow bureau chief in the late 1990s and early 2000s: the same long hallway with a well-worn carpet, lined with framed photos of newsmakers whom he has interviewed, from Hillary Clinton to the late Russian activist Boris Nemtsov. But Venediktov had just survived another battle royal for survival.

One of his reporters had tweeted a crass remark about the death of the elder son of Putin’s chief of staff. In an end-run around Venediktov, the station’s main shareholder, Gazprom-Media, had fired the reporter and locked down Echo’s offices. Several journalists I spoke with predicted the end, finally, for the station. But the reporter apologized and Echo is still on the air. The story behind the story is anything but clear. One former Russian media executive told me in confidence that Venediktov was just a pawn in a bigger battle between two media clans feuding over money and influence.

But for Venediktov, on that cold Moscow morning, victory—even fleeting—was sweet.

“You’re still alive,” I jokingly told him.

“Half alive!” he laughed. Like TV Dozhd’s Sindeyeva, Venediktov knows he lives beneath the sword of Damocles. He used almost her same words to explain that there was no direct order from Putin to shutter his station. “If there had been we would have been destroyed. But there was no command, no command.”

“I always said if someone’s not satisfied with me—goodbye!” he sighed. “I’m almost 60 years old. Everything’s fine. I know how to do the right thing for myself. I will act correctly, otherwise my girl won’t love me! She’ll despise me and my son will despise me. He’ll say ‘Pop, you’re acting like a coward!’”

Some of Venediktov’s supporters think he caved to the Kremlin in the case of the errant reporter. “I defended our editorial policy,” he countered. “Every reporter who was on the air before the crisis is still in place, in spite of the fact that they asked me not to let this person or that person on the air.”

“They,” of course, is the Kremlin. But did officials in the Kremlin actually call him directly and say that?

“No, the Kremlin did not summon me, happily, but my friends in the Kremlin, they expressed their displeasure. They don’t even call, they just pour it on me—not in the Kremlin but in this or that cafe. They meet with me and they say, ‘Why do you need Parkhomenko on air? Why Albats? Why Latynina?’” he told me, referring to journalists who are identified as liberal and who criticize the Kremlin. “And I always say ‘ratings and ads.’”

The crisis, Venediktov said, actually boosted visits to Echo’s website. But on the radio side, the station has lost 15 percent of its listeners who don’t agree with Venediktov’s editorial policy on Ukraine, which includes criticism of the Russian government. “We had a million and now it’s 850,000 in Moscow daily,” he said.

“Those listeners [that Echo lost] didn’t want to hear that side of the story. … Before, they were prepared to listen to both sides but now, sectarianism—from both sides—has significantly sharpened. It’s a mental war.”

If a “mental war” is raging inside Russia, internationally Moscow is waging an information war, with media the weapon of choice. As Putin sees it, the West started this particular conflict and Moscow’s mission, as he told journalists from RT, Russia’s global broadcasting arm, is to break the “Anglo-Saxon monopoly on global information streams.”

During a recent interview with the National State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), a reporter asked the president why the world “doesn’t see the truth”—meaning Russia’s truth—about the war in Ukraine.

“First of all, the world is complex and diverse,” Putin answered. “Some people see it, while others don’t want to see it and do not notice it. [The] world media monopoly of our opponents allows them to behave as they do.”

Russia is locked in “informational confrontation, ideological confrontation,” Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, explained to me. “Sometimes information begins to dominate the reality and to change the reality like a broken mirror. So that’s why, the more you ensure your presence in the informational flows globally, the more you succeed in delivering your point of view. … You have to have a very sophisticated and a very developed system of communication of your ideas and your point of view to an international community.”

RT is the Kremlin’s most important weapon in that communications war. Its editor in chief is 34-year-old Margarita Simonyan, who was appointed to her position when she was only 25. I knew her then, when I was working for CNN in Moscow, and we’ve stayed in touch since. In December, I visited her in her office not far from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

RT was created in 2005 as “Russia Today,” with the mission of trying to explain the country to the rest of the world, but Simonyan told me that she soon gave up on that effort. “Been there, done that!” she said. “We’re over with that. We don’t think that works.” The channel now broadcasts in English, Arabic, and Spanish, and its website also appears in Russian, French, and German. Simonyan proudly reported that the channel had just surpassed 2 billion views on YouTube.

She bristled when I noted that RT seems fixated on the foibles of American democracy. I mentioned the network’s coverage of fracking, a process to extract oil and gas that has helped the United States become the world’s leading oil producer. Russia, another major oil producer, sees this development as a threat, and RT offers a constant stream of stories on the health dangers of fracking. It shoots video reports from small American towns where the technique is being employed, interviewing affected residents and harping on the U.S. government’s failure to protect them.

“We’re not focused on the United States,” Simonyan insisted. “We’re focused, more or less, on opposing mainstream media. … We feel the world has been, for decades and decades and decades, informed in a very biased and very narrow and shortsighted way.”

Besides, she challenged me, “when was the last time you saw something non-critical about Russia anywhere in the mainstream media? Show me! I haven’t seen anything, ever, in my life! Show me a single piece that is positive about Russia, a single piece about anything in the mainstream media. Can you remember any?”

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine and allegations of Russian involvement in the conflict, it was hard to find positive stories about Russia in the Western press, I conceded. But I told her—with the exception of major newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post—there wasn’t much reporting on Russia, period. Only the most sensational (and usually negative) stories received substantial coverage.

Sitting at her computer, she told me that she has trouble sleeping these days, thinking about the carnage in Ukraine, and she blames it all on the United States. “We feel like we’re at war,” she said angrily. “What are we supposed to think? That’s exactly the opinion of many Russians—that the conflict in Ukraine is a result of American meddling."

But it didn’t start with Ukraine, she went on; Russia has felt under threat for 15 years, ever since NATO bombed Belgrade. “I mean, we were completely in love with the United States before that. Completely,” she said. “You had Russia wrapped around your little pinkie! Then, for some ugly reason, you bombed our little brother. We more or less hate you ever since, I mean, as a country.”

“If you talk with anyone in Russia,” she explained, “all of them will tell you that America is out there to get us, to expand NATO to all our borders, to get Ukraine into NATO, Georgia into NATO. To have their bases all over the place, in order to make us weak and to make us—basically, to destroy the nuclear parity.”

Our conversation soon turned to American “exceptionalism,” which the United States, Simonyan said, exploits to justify bombing other countries. “Why do you think that you are the wisest, the fairest, the most, the best?” she asked me. “Whenever Obama says, ‘We are an exceptional nation,’ seriously, people here in Russia get really angry, and many feel threatened. Because the last person we heard such words from was Hitler.”

RIA Novosti editor in chief Svetlana Mironyuk and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev look at an iPad together during his visit to the news agency in June 2011. (Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters)

A little over a year ago, Svetlana Mironyuk was one of the most influential figures in the Russian media. She was editor in chief of RIA Novosti, a Soviet-era news agency, which she transformed into a sophisticated, modern, and influential digital behemoth—a network covering more than 45 countries and reporting in 14 different languages. She hired a number of popular, influential journalists from liberal media outlets, and her website carried live reports from anti-Putin protests in Moscow during the winter of 2012. Yet Mironyuk was able to preserve a good relationship with the Kremlin. In September 2013, for instance, RIA Novosti hosted Putin’s annual, high-profile Valdai Conference, with Mironyuk on stage introducing the Russian president.

But by December 2013, Mironyuk, suddenly, was out. RIA Novosti was shut down by the Kremlin, then reorganized as part of a new agency headed by a Kremlin-friendly broadcaster known for his high-voltage on-air presence and frequent rants against the West. Mironyuk eventually left Russia.

Last November, I met with her at a coffee shop in New York. Sipping her latte, she explained what had happened. In the early days of his presidency, she said, Putin was aware of Russia’s negative image around the world and was intent on changing it. The Kremlin began soliciting proposals on how to do it.

She and her husband, Sergey Zverev, former deputy chief of staff in the Yeltsin administration, had started a public-relations company, and they had an idea. “In the current world,” she said, “it makes no sense to do propaganda, or to lie, because everything is absolutely visible.”

Positive changes like economic reforms were underway in Russia, and Mironyuk and Zverev thought the Kremlin should spread the word by approaching international lobbying firms, PR companies, and experts. “If you try to communicate with them on a realistic basis,” she explained, “in three to five years they will change their minds because changes in the country would be visible, not only for people on the inside but for Westerners as well.”

But by 2006, she could see that Putin was losing interest in slow, steady steps to burnish the image of Russia. When Russia Today, now RT, went on the air, Mironyuk recognized that the new network would be the lead agency for Russia’s international propaganda and decided to refocus her efforts on improving RIA Novosti, where she had played various leadership roles since 2003.

If anyone understands how the Russian press operates, it is Mironyuk. And when we spoke, she was adamant that the perception in the West that the people running Russia’s media outlets are Soviet-style ideologues is wrong. They have no ideology, she said.

“It’s control, control, control. The only strategy they all have is ‘whatever it takes.’ No ideology. No strategy. No new approach, no understanding. No, no, no! They are struggling for influence on Putin, for being closer to him.”

“Big decision-making in Russia is big money,” she added. “When you have a monopoly on media, on advertising, on everything, then you have all power … and this is a daily struggle for survival because, if you don’t struggle, somebody will eat you.”

In the Soviet Union, she explained, at least there were rules. Now, in Russia, “there are no rules. You never know where you step and what can happen and what, yesterday, was not a mistake or breaking the rules, it can be tomorrow.”

The war in Ukraine has sent Russian domestic TV ratings soaring. Federal channels have increased their news lineups—a half hour, then an hour, and now two hours. The programming has paid off in popularity for Putin; a poll in March by the Levada Center found that 83 percent of Russians trust the president.

Yet some Russian journalists question whether that mood can last. “The level of propaganda is so disgusting that people who earlier believed in it now are beginning to doubt it,” TV Dozhd’s Sindeyeva told me. “This propaganda has begun to do its thing, to unite people around a certain idea that the country has risen from its knees and is strong. But right now, they have made the propaganda so coarse, so clumsy, that people have begun to doubt it.”

She claimed to have seen data showing a decline in the public’s belief in the accuracy of news on Russian TV, “and that is the first sign that trust is going to drop.” Sindeyeva recalled how, during Soviet times, many people completely lost faith in what they read and what they saw, becoming cynical experts in “reading between the lines” of propaganda.

But RT’s Simonyan rejects the idea that what she’s doing qualifies as propaganda, and the notion that Kremlin-controlled media is turning free-thinking Russians into zombies: “Russian television is not as mighty as it’s usually written about in the Western press. … It would be so easy to govern this country if all you have to do is get all the TV stations and make them all do what you want. It doesn’t work that way! It never worked like that!

“You remember what TV told people in the Soviet Union?” she asked me.

“They didn’t believe it,” I replied.

“That’s the point!” she said. “That’s the point! If you tell people what they don’t feel, they just don’t believe it.”

Simonyan is convinced that viewers around the world don’t believe the “mainstream” (read “Western”) media, and RT has turned that doubt into a marketing slogan: “question more.” For Putin, controlling the means of mass communication domestically is crucial in establishing a single, unchallenged narrative to unite the nation. Internationally, however, the Kremlin has taken a different approach: RT doesn’t need to monopolize its version of the truth. It simply has to undermine the viewer’s faith in the Western media and inundate them with a tidal wave of “alternative” information.

“We supplement the mainstream media, to the audience,” Simonyan told me. “That’s the point. We show what they don’t show.”

(Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)

Vladimir Putin has moved methodically to monopolize the Kremlin’s control over Russian media, both inside and outside the country. But when it comes to RT, the Russian leader says he’s only trying to counter Western attempts to brainwash the world.

Last October, Putin flew to Argentina for the launch of RT’s Spanish-language broadcasting. “The right to information is one of the most important and inalienable human rights,” he proclaimed.

But he said he saw a dark side to the growth of electronic media: It had turned news reporting into “a formidable weapon that enables public-opinion manipulations.” Certain nations, Putin argued, were attempting to monopolize the truth and bend it to their own interests. Under these conditions, “alternative information sources become especially needed.” RT, he said, is that alternative.

When I spoke with Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, I asked him if Russia has a message for the world. “That’s very interesting the way you ask this question,” he answered. “Because to send a message is not a premier goal. The premier goal is to make people ask themselves, ‘Are we OK with a single point of view? With a one-sided point of view? Or do we want to get a real variety?’”

Yet inside Russia, a real variety of viewpoints is fast disappearing. The shocking assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February, on a bridge beside the Kremlin, has unnerved the shrinking band of independent journalists still working in Russia.

Meanwhile, unofficial estimates suggest that the Russian government now spends close to $1 billion on international broadcasting, much of it on RT. Peskov called that figure an exaggeration, but added: “As a matter of fact, we would be happy to spend more, and we would be happy to spend billions of dollars, because the whole world is a hostage to information.”