‘When the news came in about the plane going down I couldn’t tell whether it was real. There have been so many fake pieces of news in the Russian media this week you can no longer tell what’s true and what isn't,’ B said, as we sat in a Moscow café the weekend after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been blown out of the sky over Donbass. ‘Just this week there was a story about Ukrainian soldiers crucifying a Donbass child. Then there was a story about how the White House instructed the Ukrainians to depopulate Donbass so that the US can get control of its shale gas. And since the crash, there have been stories about Americans trying to down Putin’s plane but getting the Malaysian one by accident, or the plane being filled with corpses before it took off to fake the tragedy, or the US blowing up the plane to pull Putin into a war in Ukraine to distract from their economic problems.’
You can spot the cultural influences: the crucified child is from Game of Thrones, the plane with corpses is from Lost. The borders between fact and fiction are not just blurred: they're irrelevant. When the deputy minister of communications, Alexei Volin, himself а former journalist and occasional scriptwriter, was asked if the crucifixion story was true, he said that it passed journalistic standards – and anyway what really mattered were ratings.
The nation must be kept hooked. As a plot turn the Malaysia Airlines crash is useful. Except that it's real. Which is inconvenient. As the whole Donbass war is inconvenient. Putin would much rather have a film about a war to sell his audience. In the early 1990s reports about atrocities (sometimes fabricated by PR companies) were used to persuade Americans to go to war over Kuwait: here the reports are the end goal. A war set up to have a movie about a war. The cameras of the tabloid channel Life News are called to military action before action has taken place. Though in such cases reality can intervene too. On 29 June rebel leaders sent a cortège of Russian journalists to film Ukrainian troops surrendering: the rebel leaders had even provided extras to impersonate soldiers' mothers for the ‘news’ piece. But when the Ukrainains saw the coach they opened fire, killing a Russian cameraman. 'The Russian TV people killed in the Donbass are buried as heroes,' Anna Kachkayeva, an academic and television critic, remarked. 'While the Russians who fight there with guns are buried secretly. The TV people are the real troops.'
I met Mark Galeotti, an NYU professor who has been teaching in Moscow, in a Pain Quotidien inside a business centre. 'The Soviet Union used to reinvent reality too but they still kept to a single version of the truth. Pravda would telegraph the party line so everyone knew what to say,’ he told me. Now, instead of a single truth, the TV spits out contradictory conspiracy theories. The effect is to leave the viewer so confused and he is demoralised that he gives up on trying to find a ‘real’ version. This is effective in keeping people both paranoid and passive, but it means, Galeotti said, that ‘everyone has to improvise their own version of the truth.’
I heard different improvisations during a week in Moscow. There were those who were calm and succinct, like the man who said that Google was curated by the CIA and that WikiLeaks was a CIA operation to spark the Arab Spring, and how Russia needs to create a sovereign internet to defend itself (the man just happens to design and market internet filter programs). But there were also hour-long emotional monologues, with no logical connections between the sentences, which just repeated the words ‘them’ and ‘us’ over and over, intimating but never quite clarifying who was behind some great anti-Russian plot.
The younger generation, a teacher told me, were the worst: those who had Soviet experience were aware of the TV fibs, but not the 20-year-olds. When I worked in Russian TV during the Noughties I could see how the TV was breeding conspiracy theories, breaking down critical language year after year, making pseudo-logical constructions a normal form of speech, cultivating the ideal Putin citizen. ‘The point isn’t whether or not they really believe it or not,’ Galeotti said when I asked him how many of his students he thought actually believed the new line (or lines). ‘The point is they feel intimidated enough to repeat it.’
Journalists who haven’t been shut down are shrivelled or co-opted, reporting on ‘different versions’ of the Malaysia Airlines crash and skating over the evidence against the Russian-sponsored, Russian-led and Kremlin-armed rebel army. ‘I’m leaving journalism to work in corporate PR,’ a friend who works for one of the ‘independent’ media outlets told me. ‘It’s cleaner.’
When you read the polls which claim that 80 per cent support Putin, it could just as easily read 80 per cent fear Putin. The fear that was lost in the protests of 2011-12 has returned. And Putin’s 80 per cent peak coincides not only with the popular annexation of Crimea (always described in terms of a patriotic sporting victory: ‘we won the Olympics, the hockey, took back Crimea’), but also with all the new laws against swearing, against arguing for the break-up of Russia, against ‘extremism’ – laws whose power stems from their absurdity, from the sense that the rules are unclear and therefore you can be attacked for anything at any time.
And if previously the point of giving experts and academics oases that allowed them to speak honestly and on-the-record was to show that the Kremlin was at least basing its decisions on what was really happening, now you're left with the feeling that decisions are being made on fictions, which means you can’t predict how the Kremlin will behave and all the rules are gone and anything, even the impossibly bad, is possible.