Kissing the Crocodile's Arse

Peter Pomerantsev

Last week the internet group Anonymous hacked into the emails of Nashi, the pro-Putin youth organisation often compared to the Hitler Jugend. It turns out that Nashi keeps lists of ‘enemies’ – including writers, bloggers, activists and politicians – alongside allegations to smear them with, such as ‘gave a blow job to a black man’ or ‘sleeps with prostitutes who say he has a small penis’. Top of the list of exploitable ‘weak spots’ is a Jewish background.

But the biggest stir has been caused by allegations that Ilya Varlamov, a photographer and blogger thought to be anti-Putin, received large payments from Nashi. Varlamov, who denies the charges, is said to have been given 400,000 rubles (around £8400) for two photo blogs which, if not blatant propaganda, did make Putin look rather smart. The revelations have opened up an old debate in Russia: what are the limits of co-operation with an unsavoury state? When is it OK, if ever, to take money from Kremlin Inc?

Take the case of the actress Chulpan Khamatova, who has just released a cringe-making ad saying she will vote for Putin because 'he always keeps his word.' Putin has supported the charity Khamatova set up a few years ago, to help children with leukemia, and was instrumental in opening a new clinic. Sources at the charity have said that Khamatova was blackmailed into making the ad: if she didn't do it, the charity would be destroyed. But even if the blackmail charge isn't true and she was simply returning a favour, most commentators – though some have called it shameful – seem to agree that when it comes to saving children's lives it's OK, in the words of a famous magazine editor, to 'kiss the crocodile's arse'.

But what about when it comes to working in the media? The boldest opposition broadcaster, radio Ekho Moskvy, is owned by Gazprom Media, which is state-controlled. Ren TV, a relatively independent-minded news outlet, is controlled by Putin’s ally Yury Kovalchuk. The Kremlin has made it its business to control every part of the media landscape: there is little way to avoid it. During the years I worked in Russian television (2006-10) many of the brightest minds fled from news and political analysis into entertainment and glossy magazines, much as many creative types in the Soviet Union chose to make children’s movies or work as literary translators to avoid making propaganda. But what if your vocation is proper journalism and you don’t get one of the few jobs at Ekho Moskvy or Novaya Gazeta? I remember being told about a young graduate who took a job at the Kremlin TV news channel Russia Today. They worked on several stories with no editorial constraints, but resigned when asked to do a piece dirtying Anna Politkovskaya’s reputation. The general rule of thumb was: as long as you don’t directly work on stories you are ashamed of, it’s basically OK.

But even that seemingly simple rule is often hard to judge. After several years working for smallish entertainment networks I was offered my dream project, a feature history drama-doc. I would have a large budget. I could pick my own team. But the offer came from the Putin-adoring Channel 1, by far the biggest network in the country (and the only one that could afford to do a production on this scale). The drama-doc had a story I liked: about a Second World War admiral who stood up to Stalin. It would, however, be part of a season that would be maximally exploited by the Kremlin for PR purposes, so my film could easily be scheduled right next to a programme portraying Stalin as a great war leader who saved Russia and proving the need for ‘strong’ leaders (i.e. Putin). After much soul-searching I refused. The network made it clear that having turned down the offer I had blown my chances of ever working for them. But I had a career in England to fall back on. Would I have turned the job down if I was tethered to a career in Moscow? I doubt it.