Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 9

By Petr Silantyev

Ten years ago a man lay down in front of a tank on the embankment beside the Russian White House. The images taken by our camera team were shown all over the world. “The Transfiguration.” That’s what we called our report on the events of those three days in August 1991 when we first saw in our fellow countrymen not the faceless “Soviet people,” but the citizens of a new country.

Seven months ago Russia’s Press Minister Mikhail Lesin announced his department’s plans to promote a positive image of Russia in the United States, pledging to invest plenty of money in this.

I could only welcome the minister’s educational ambitions, given that I am always writing about what I think is the top priority: For Russia and the United States, West and East, to focus more effort and resources into improving their basic knowledge of each other. But there is something I would like to clarify something.

What is “a positive image of Russia”? As an American analyst once said, propaganda cannot be any better than the policy it is promoting. But what is good and bad?

In the Library of Congress and in the public libraries of any American town you will find books by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. They have always been published and republished in the United States. America’s great writers learnt from them and were inspired by them. Known in dry officialese as “Russia’s invaluable contribution to world culture,” this is perhaps the most important collection of knowledge about our country which mankind possesses. Russia’s great authors wrote about the struggles of the undying human spirit embodied in the Russian people on the Russian land. I would venture to propose that from their point of view, in the twenty-first century the sense of the nineteenth century. It is only the manner of our existence that changes.


I do not hold with theories of the irreversible dangers of computerized virtual reality. Books, incidentally, are also a virtual reality. The first printers were also considered to be evil sorcerers by some of their contemporaries. The Internet is only taking its first steps, even if they are fast, big steps. It stumbles, naturally, but it moves forward. I know how to place Russia’s “golden library” on the net in such a way as to guarantee that it will reach a sufficient audience of users, including Americans. I will not be able to achieve my patent, however, judging by the reaction of the decisionmakers I have approached with my proposals. Their attitude can be detected in a statement about the Russians made by the head of Gazprom Media, Alfred Kokh, in an interview in the United States a couple of years ago: “They are still so enamored of their ballet and classical literature that they are no longer capable of doing anything new.”

No, I don’t think we are capable of adding anything fundamentally new to the principle of how to sell oil, gas, aluminum and so on. I would also agree that we have the country and the economy that we deserve. Kokh says that thinking and inventing is not the same as knowing how to work, “in the sense of digging,” as he put it in his memorable interview. Kokh and the other titans of new Russian capitalism did indeed take risks and did not shy away from finding clever ways of digging a path through the blockages in the Soviet empire, upwards to a bright future.

In the corridors outside the first session of the Council of Ministers in the White House after the putsch had failed, I remember one of the victors letting slip that “we will have to walk over certain layers of society.” And the Morlock remained stuck where they were. What can the success of people like Kokh lend to the image of the future depicted by Wells 100 years ago? Or to a positive image of the new Russia?

I also remember watching an old man, shaven, albeit badly, with medals on his clean but threadbare jacket, looking around in embarrassment and then heading over to the rubbish bin where I had just thrown out some old, battered books and magazines, choosing himself something to read. Was he a Morlok too?

I do not pine for the Soviet socialist state that collapsed in 1991. But I do get a lump in my throat thinking about the old people who deceived themselves and were themselves deceived.

The most despicable thing in the country of “developed socialism” were the lies. But then, state-sponsored lies are despicable in any social and political system. In a totalitarian state everyone lies to everyone about everything: That is what holds it together. It is a widely accepted fact that the fall of the Soviet regime began with glasnost, the Russian version of the First Amendment. At that time we did not only acquire freedom of speech; we were freed of the fear of Big Brother.

The people who gathered on the Moscow barricades on August 19 experienced the thrill of being free among the free. Were we also deceiving ourselves? But that fleeting moment did occur: A moment of truth, a “positive image of Russia.”

Gorbachev said that no one would ever learn the whole truth about the putsch. In 1991 the bust-ups between him, the putsch committee and Yeltsin were far less important than the truth that opened up before the defenders of the White House: Soviet politicians and generals, the embodiment of state power, were as naked as the Emperor in his new clothes. Not just because the putsch committee suffered a humiliating defeat. Its very creation was just another recipe thought up by the “cooks” running the country (as in Lenin’s famous dictum). And though it was a minority of Muscovites who turned out onto Moscow’s streets, the majority were already so fed up with the stupidity and hypocrisy of the party nomenklatura that they were ready to sympathize with any opposition. Such mass awakenings in world history rarely lead to what one might call a revolution. We know how all revolutions end. We also know what has happened in Russia over the last ten years. There is a joke that sums it up: A man is handing out leaflets in Red Square. The KGB pick him up, and take a look at the leaflets: “But there’s nothing written on them!!” The man responds, “Why write it down? Everything’s clear anyway.”

It is clear that the three days in August were the culmination of the democratic process in Russia. It is clear that the new-born democracy was premature. It is clear that, having been the demos–the people–for a short time, the Russians quickly turned back into the ochlos–the mob–but more atomized and disunited than under the Soviets. The catharsis of liberation was gradually replaced, at best, by a cynical indifference to so called public interests, and at worst by a new fear of and servility towards the new authorities.

Just before the modest anniversary celebrations of the August events, a former member of the putsch committee commented that “the people did not understand our noble aims”. He now probably takes comfort from the fact that the people did not understand Russia’s “democrats” either. In the autumn of 1993 my cameraman and I, among other correspondents, were on the receiving end of blows from the truncheons of the superbly equipped burly young men cordoning off the crowd which was once again “defending” White House, this time from Yeltsin. This time the mass opposition was being managed by “cooks” in the form of comic opera characters, and as expected they lost. The “pointless and savage insurrection” was professionally put down by tanks and riot police, but the professionals drew their own lessons for the future and prepared for it for another seven years. In 2000 Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia. The votes of the majority, which included the defenders on the barricades from both 1991 and 1993, went in favor of the “strong hand,” the guarantor of stability, the one single leader of Russian-style “manageable democracy.”

Putin’s team won and is still winning, using PR combined with the subordination of the main news channels in one form or another. There are certain advantages to be had both from the monopoly on information that state’s “organs of control” enjoy, and also from professional knowledge of methods of “gray” and “black” propaganda. It may be assumed that the final “house-training” of the opposition and the purging of popular political rivals as well as unpopular oligarchs will be implemented by using exactly these methods. But on the whole, prior to 2004 the main task of state PR will be to create some sort of blanket virtual reality in patriotic-religious tones, to compensate for the dashed expectations of the electorate.

I will accept both patriotism and Orthodoxy. Russia would not have survived its 1,000 years without them. We would not have the history or the culture that we are so proud of, however paltry Kokh thinks it to be.

My only fear is that the advertising and PR professionals that I know may supplant the truth with lies.

There are two approaches to what is called the mass audience: To lower the level of the virtual product to the level of the given audience, or to raise the audience to the level of the product (ideology, religion, image). If we are talking about commercial advertising, then we may even allow that the first option is preferable. But when we want to make sure that we Russians are understood and respected in the outside world, a different quality is needed, both of the product and its producers.

As far as I know, Russia’s Press Ministry is holding a competition among advertising companies to participate in a “PR campaign to promote a positive image of Russia.” The ministry will probably make its choice in collaboration with the president’s administration, which also plans to recreate something like the Novosti Press Agency–the main foreign policy propaganda tool in Soviet times (the state news agency RIA Novosti has succeeded it, but its capabilities clearly fall short of the budget and staffing power of the old Novosti).

Thus the quality–and content–of the image of Russia will be controlled exclusively by the highest organs of the state. This is where it is tempting to replace Russia’s Story with Putin’s Story. Naturally, it is possible and indeed necessary to talk about the difficult achievements of the current Russian leadership, about the construction of the new Russian state and about those who are building it. But this will not be the whole truth. Governments and states are transitory, but Russia and her fate will remain as they always have been: An enigma not only to foreigners, but also to the Russians themselves.

The “eternal questions” remain–not about the state, but about man. About the true and the false in him. About his future on the Earth and in Russia. About Faith, Hope and Love, which–however friendly the patriarch is with the president–depend least of all on the state. And the state? Well, the state is what we are ourselves.

Are we good or bad? “Negative” or “positive”? However much money is spent, I don’t think that any journalist or any PR company in the world could provide an answer to that–let alone the answer that the press minister wants. Another level is needed here. Ask the old man, my friends: He will give you Tolstoy to read.

Petr Silantyev is a Russian journalist working as a consultant with RIA Novosti.