Putin's Useful Cynics
Earlier this month the bestselling crime writer Boris Akunin announced that as Russia was becoming a police state with political prisoners, any form of co-operation with the state by cultural and artistic figures was tantamount to collaboration. There has been much agonising since: what about if you work at a state newswire agency? Or at the Bolshoi? It’s an old debate in Russia: there are still fights about whether Shostakovich was collaborating with Stalin or subverting the system from inside. But the challenge is harder now the Kremlin has learnt to speak the language of democratic capitalism, and goes out of its way to own opposition narratives.
I once did some consultancy for a hotbed of Russian liberal journalism: Snob. The magazine was funded to by one of Russia’s richest men, Mikhail Prokhorov. The employees were the children of the Soviet intelligentsia and vocal in their criticism of the regime. But it was clear there was no way a project so high-profile could exist without the Kremlin’s blessing. This was just the sort of ‘managed’ opposition the Kremlin was very comfortable with: on the one hand it allowed liberals to feel they had a free voice and a home (and a pay cheque); on the other it only helped the Kremlin to define the ‘opposition’ as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with ‘ordinary’ Russians. After work I would sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: were we the opposition? Were we helping Russia become a freer place? Or were we a Kremlin project strengthening Putin? Were we co-operating? Even collaborating?
When Larry King announced he would be launching a new talk show on the Kremlin’s Russia Today network, RT released an ad to trumpet the new star. Keywords associated with the journalist flashed up on screen: ‘reputation’, ‘intelligence’, ‘respect’, more and more of them until they merged into a fuzz, finishing with the jokey ‘suspenders’. Then King, sitting in a studio, turns to the camera and says: ‘I would rather ask questions to people in positions of power instead of speaking on their behalf. That’s why you can find my new show, Larry King Now, right here on RT. Question more.’ The little ad seemed to be bundling the clichés of CNN and the BBC into a few seconds, pushing them to absurdity. There was a sense of giving two fingers to the Western media tradition: anyone can speak your language, it’s meaningless!
King’s move has been met with chortles of derision from Russia watchers in the West, and upset gasps from opposition Russian journalists I spoke to who still have faith in the Western media and its values. They risk their lives daily in Russia for ‘questioning more’. Coming so fast after Gérard Depardieu's move to Russia, and Liz Hurley posing for pics with a kitten and Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s a nice victory for Putin. One of Putinism’s messages has always been that beneath all the cant the West is just as cynical as Russia: Larry King is more a useful cynic than a useful idiot.
I remember a few years ago having dinner with a group of Western journalists in Moscow when many were receiving offers of employment from PR firms to help improve the Kremlin’s image. The general opinion was that the work would be ‘interesting’. When one senior western journalist took up the Kremlin portfolio he was asked how he squared it with his years of asking questions to power: ‘It’s a challenge,’ he replied.