Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 42

There has been some reaction in the Russian media to Press Minister Mikhail Lesin’s demarche earlier this week involving Russia’s image in the United States. During a February 27 press conference, Lesin said that his ministry was working on a series of advertisements aimed at improving Russia’s image in the United States. Asked about the cost of this project–airtime on American television can be very expensive–the press minister said that in addition to state funds, the ministry could “also use its revenue from various tenders” to fund the advertisements and that the Russian business sector might also contribute to the campaign. Lesin said he was “not embarrassed by the word ‘propaganda,'” and said that no expense would be spared on the project. Noting criticism from the U.S. State Department–which, in its annual human rights report released earlier this week, criticized pressure by the Russian government, and specifically by the Press Ministry, on independent media, including Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most–Lesin said that his ministry was planning to release a report later this month about freedom of expression and of the press in the United States. He claimed that freedom of speech is greater in Russia than in America, contending that the media in the latter “basically belong to fifty major corporations” and thus “express the views of only about fifty people,” while in Russia “there are about a thousand companies.” Lesin said his ministry was considering the idea of giving grants to groups in the United States which are fighting for freedom of speech in America–an idea which reportedly elicited snickering from some of the mainly Russian journalists who had gathered for the press conference (Moscow Times, Vremya Novostei, February 28). Lesin said today that the Press Ministry will hold a competition between advertising companies for producing pro-Russian advertisements abroad, and that more than ten companies have already expressed interest in participating in the propaganda campaign. Lesin also said that he had already received suggestions from various ministries and agencies concerning themes for the advertisements (Russian agencies, March 1).

The newspaper Izvestia, which has supported most government initiatives since Vladimir Putin’s accession as head of state, wrote today that Lesin’s demarche amounted to “the restoration of a system of counterpropaganda” and that there was “in principle nothing shameful” in this. The paper quoted Vladimir Kulistikov, head of the state’s RIA news agency, who called Lesin’s idea “absolutely correct,” adding that what is needed is not in-your-face propaganda, which “the Soviet experience” had shown to be ineffective, but a means of giving the world “a full information picture of our realities.” Kulistikov supported such Kremlin initiatives as President Putin’s recently announced plan for a European antiballistic missile defense system and the recently introduced 13-percent flat tax. While Izvestia backed Lesin’s ideas in principle, however, it concluded that Russia’s international image would only change in earnest once it really became “a European democracy and a country with a genuinely liberal economy–then it won’t be necessary to spend money on propaganda” (Izvestia, March 1). Likewise, the business newspaper Vedomosti printed largely negative reactions from various Russian and American observers. The economist Oleg Bogomolov said Lesin’s initiative would amount to little more than uselessly “scattering budget money.” “If you stifle the press,” he added, “and it becomes known in the West through both Russian and local [Western] media, then even spending millions to refute it will not succeed” (Vedomosti, March 1).

Lesin’s initiative is a logical extension of the “information security doctrine” which the Kremlin’s Security Council promulgated and Putin signed last year. That document, among other things, identified what it characterized as information threats to Russia’s security, including “false information on the policy of the Russian Federation, activities of federal power structures, events in this country and abroad” and “the aspirations of a number of countries to infringe upon Russia’s interests and dominate in the global sphere of information, along with forcing Russia out of domestic and international information markets” (see the Monitor, September 15, 2000). It is also interesting to note that Lesin’s demarche follows other recent actions by the Kremlin and the government in the area of propaganda. The government has promulgated a decree entitled “On the start of universal patriotic education,” which lays out what amounts to ideological education for youth. One leading backer of the idea of patriotic education, Aleksandr Gurov, a top official in the pro-Putin Unity party and chairman of the State Duma’s Security Committee, was quoted as saying that such education was necessary in order to reverse the “nation’s degradation,” which he said was the result of “malicious actions against Russia” carried out by a “Fifth Column of agents of influence” who were “educated in a pro-Western style” and are “genuinely convinced they are acting in Russia’s interests” (NTV, February 25). Yevgenia Albats, the independent Moscow-based journalist and offer of a book on the Soviet KGB, called the patriotic education initiative a “Soviet-style state program” (Moscow Times, February 27).