A Spoonful of Sugar

Sadakat Kadri watches RT

In the hope of understanding Alexei Navalny’s fate, I’ve been watching RT. The Kremlin-funded media network formerly known as Russia Today has dubious form when it comes to apparent poisonings. A couple of years ago, its editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, interviewed the two men suspected of smearing Sergei Skripal’s door handle with a ‘novichok’ nerve agent. She didn’t challenge their claim that they visited Salisbury to admire its cathedral spire. Almost despite itself, however, RT’s coverage of Navalny’s sudden illness has been revealing.

The editorial line is, essentially, that anything could have happened. While acknowledging German claims that Navalny was probably poisoned, RT presenters also point out that no toxin were recorded by Russian doctors, who attributed his collapse instead to a ‘metabolic disruption’ caused by low blood sugar. If his illness does turn out to be sinister, they caution, mysteries open up. Western media are rushing to speculate about Kremlin involvement, but the person responsible could be a traitor in Navalny’s entourage, on a mission to discredit Russia. ‘Everyone needs to take a deep breath,’ one analyst said, ‘and think of the damage that can be done by wild allegations.’

One note in the cacophony almost rang true. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has targeted so many politicians, functionaries, oligarchs and celebrities over the last nine years that it would be premature to presume Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement. Motives abound and the finger of suspicion points in all directions. But one Kremlin-sanctioned enormity is clear – beyond any reasonable doubt. Since the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow in 2006, it has been dangerous to criticise influential people in Russia. Putin presides over a state that’s at least criminally negligent: rich and prominent individuals can harass weaker adversaries with ease and sometimes get away with murder.

RT’s UK incarnation claims to ‘challenge dominant power structures’, but whatever might be said about the network’s coverage of Western hypocrisy and venality, the station is institutionally subservient to Russia’s moneyed and political elites. And the coverage of Navalny’s misfortune – far keener to explain hypoglycaemia than contemplate the possibility of an attempted assassination – reflects this in multiple ways. Because, as RT never reports, its editor-in-chief has skin in the game. A couple of months ago, in response to a three-part exposé by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, Simonyan launched a defamation lawsuit against Navalny and his associates.

The complaint turns on RT’s claim to have achieved ten billion YouTube views, and an Anti-Corruption Foundation investigation alleging that the figure was inflated by bots and links to porn sites. The clash has an intensely personal edge. In his first broadside against Simonyan, entitled ‘Parasites’, Navalny ridiculed a trashy television show hosted by her husband. Made using RT facilities but sold for personal gain, it has earned the couple almost £5 million in four years.

Navalny’s follow-up was even more stinging. It claimed that Simonyan was inspired by Putin’s annexation of Crimea to script a patriotic rom-com, so abysmal that not even the state-run Cinema Fund would finance it. The president’s deputy chief-of-staff, Alexei Gromov (who had appointed Simonyan to head Russia Today when she was only 25), stepped in, instructing the Ministry of Culture to give the project a million pounds, no strings attached. The Crimean Bridge: Made with Love! was a commercial disaster and universally panned (except by RT, which called it ‘colourful, interesting and funny’), but Simonyan’s bank balance emerged intact. Almost half the 100 million rubles facilitated by the Kremlin went directly to her and members of her family. Simonyan personally took nine million rubles: about as much as the entire cast earned during the two-month shoot.

RT’s case against Navalny is due in court on 15 September. Another defamation action (brought by the billionaire Oleg Deripaska, whose charitable work Simonyan recently praised) is also imminent. Meanwhile, money-laundering investigations are underway against Anti-Corruption Foundation branches nationwide; a former deputy prime minister is among several well-heeled litigants trying to prevent Navalny disclosing allegations of dishonest enrichment; and a damages award to Yevgeny Prigozhin, another tycoon close to Putin, was so crippling that Navalny recently announced he’d be dissolving the Foundation and restarting under a new name. Prigozhin won’t make that easy: on Tuesday, he let it be known that he intends to reduce ‘comrade Navalny’ to ‘pennilessness and shoelessness’ – unless the comatose man dies first.

It’s evident that many rich and powerful people dislike Navalny. It would take deep stupidity or dishonesty to deny that some want him dead. Official narratives in Russia, like dominant power structures in the West, deserve to be scrutinised accordingly. That’s not about to happen at RT. On the morning after Navalny’s collapse, Simonyan tweeted about his condition eight times, stressing the risk of sudden falls in blood glucose levels. Apparently, she always carries coconut-almond candies, just in case. If only someone had thought to give Navalny a spoonful of sugar, she suggested, he’d have been fine.


  • 29 August 2020 at 2:55pm
    cato says:
    Excellently researched and well-written piece.

    • 31 August 2020 at 2:08pm
      Squeeth says: @ cato
      I would have preferred a comparative analysis and have added some in another comment. Custom and practice is laid at the door of RT, rather than analysis of the degeneration of reportage into journalism, which is far from unique to Russia.

  • 29 August 2020 at 2:56pm
    Sharmini Mahendran says:
    Thumbs up, excellent writing and reporting.

  • 29 August 2020 at 3:11pm
    ohneeigenschaften says:
    Speaking of spoonfuls (or sackloads) of sugar:

  • 29 August 2020 at 4:03pm
    t h wengraf says:
    Will we see a similarly-grounded denunciation of key UK media (to name only the Guardian and the BBC), and the UK oligarchs in their successful campaigns (for example the three year one against Jeremy Corbyn?). If not, what should we as readers of the LRB (for which until now I've had a lot of respect) conclude?

    • 31 August 2020 at 2:09pm
      Squeeth says: @ t h wengraf
      To be fair, the anti-Corbyn faction shot at an open goal; Corbyn was abject in his pusillanimity.

    • 6 September 2020 at 4:06pm
      Bob K says: @ Squeeth
      Big words. So you were saying Corbyn was timid and Navalny was not?

  • 29 August 2020 at 4:29pm
    ChrisT says:
    Excellent piece, always good to know where the vested interests lie in news management, be good to have a follow-up piece on the BBC and their news department, is it true it’s broadcasting by Conservatives?

  • 29 August 2020 at 7:48pm
    BrendanInCPH says:
    I'll just second (or third? or fourth?) the gratitude for an incisive piece. As an aside, it's an unfortunate fact that many on the left champion RT as a dissident voice against prevailing Euro-wisdom. I wonder if the author has any comment on this phenomenon?

    • 30 August 2020 at 11:58am
      Sadakat Kadri says: @ BrendanInCPH
      Thanks for the kind words, and yes, I agree. The championing doesn’t just come from the left, of course. Plenty of right-wingers also think RT is a good alternative to mainstream media, and the network has done its bit to muddy political perspectives in the run up to pivotally illiberal events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Admiration on the left feels particularly wrong though. Plenty of the guests invited on to RT are intelligent and decent, but the network as an institution doesn’t boldly speak truth to power. Margarita Simonyan apparently sees its international role as similar to that of a Defence Ministry ( and at home, it exists to shield an increasingly violent kleptocracy from scrutiny. That’s not a progressive agenda.

    • 31 August 2020 at 8:35am
      BrendanInCPH says: @ Sadakat Kadri
      Simonyan's take is very illuminating, thanks for that. A she points out, that RT was founded after the Orange Revolution and Russia's "loss" in that affair, and that its most overtly propaganda-esque reporting been during the various Russian military entanglements in these last 15 years, seem crucial.

      As for the left/right support for RT's journalism, if it can be called that, I suppose it's another element of Vladislav Surkov's strategy of bewilderment - keep both sides on the hook at the same time; obfuscation as strategy.

      Incidentally, I don't think the Western media gives enough weight,as a matter that drives policy, to the fact that Russia, much like the US, has been, directly or by proxy, at war for decades now.

    • 31 August 2020 at 12:25pm
      Netherwood says: @ Sadakat Kadri
      Perhaps she sees it acting as a defence ministry because Russia feels it is under attack, because an information war has been launched against it? In fact, your link there would support that view. DFR Lab is an initiative of the Atlantic Council. That's a body which has been relentlessly promoting the Russia as a threat meme for years now. No surprise as the AC is funded by such entities as Saab, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumann, and various NATO governments (the UK is generous, donating not only as a government but also as the FCO).

      I think you can see the connection? A body that talks up conflict with Russia, and a threat from Russia, is funded by an alliance that is looking for a role and arms manufacturers who are looking for tension to increase the size of their contracts.

      Perhaps, if we curbed such influence over our media (and they are influential, here we are citing them on this blog) then Russia might be inclined to be less, erm, defensive? At least in the information sphere.

  • 30 August 2020 at 4:23am
    Leslie Louis says:
    Not a shred of evidence about "Navaly's fate", merely innuendo Spectator style, and unworthy of LRB. His "smearing"credentials are established in the first paragraph. Where are the Skripals? why have they never been heard of again? Leslie Louis.

    • 2 September 2020 at 4:17pm
      Netherwood says: @ Leslie Louis
      Good point. It is customary in the UK to sneer about those two Russians in Salisbury. But why have British journalists merely repeated our government's line? There are so many holes in it that it really deserves some decent investigative journalism.

      We are to believe the pair carried military-grade nerve agent with them on a plane, kept it with them in a hotel room and travelled with it by train to Salisbury to spray it on a door handle without, however, wearing protective clothing. That the Skripals (why did the Russians time it so that the daughter, who lives in Moscow, was also there and whilst Operation Toxic Dagger was coming to an end?), then left, touching that handle, and went to feed some ducks (giving bread to a boy who did not fall ill) before eating in a restaurant and drinking in a pub and, only then, collapsing. But at the same time, despite their age and weight differences. They were then attended to by the Chief Nurse of the British Army, who happened to be passing, and an air ambulance (which, the following day, hosted a party of school children), whilst Bailey, cited as being a first responder at the scene, was apparently not poisoned there but by the same door handle (although other police without protective suits visiting the house in the following days were unaffected). That the stuff claimed to be used was uniquely Russian and uniquely secret, despite it being tested and in possession of other powers (a version was patented in the US in 2015) and even featuring in the TV series Strike Back.

      It was called military-grade but took hours to take effect or could even be wiped away with wet wipes.

      What actually happened to the Skripals, or poor Dawn Sturgess, we shall never know. But I would have hoped western journalists would have shown more skepticism or curiosity.

  • 30 August 2020 at 5:25pm
    RM says:
    As a state-sponsored news and information outlet, RT started well. It positioned itself as voice of those - many on the liberal side - ignored by the West's so-called MSM. It was very informative on Russian landscape and did good investigative journalism (the popularity of the RT videos comes from this). But it has degenerated into the parody of itself by that very MSM in the past 4-5 years. It has become purveyour of pure misinformation with no attempt at hiding or diluting it. It is now a very ineffective source of Russian propaganda (a hint to Mr. Putin to shut it down!)
    Poisoning has been an old tactic of Statehood of centuries gone by kept afloat by the few remaining antiquated states (and others on rare occasions). To be effective, poisoning comes with denial which is not intended to be believed. "We did it, we don't admit it, but you know it was Us, and we will do it again, so watch it you." Hence, the transfer to Germany.

  • 31 August 2020 at 6:13am
    Valeria Shmetko says:
    To be honest, not very intresting article. It is just retelling of Navalny video about RT and Simonyan and have no certain conclusion about this case excepet that RT is pro-Kremlin structure. Its well-knowed fact either in UK and Russia

  • 31 August 2020 at 9:54am
    Paul Moss says:
    Anecdotally, I'd say that most people I've found praising RT as a source of news have not been the left-wingers mentioned in comments above. Rather it's enthusiasts of UKIP, the Brexit Party, etc, who say they prefer it to "the MSM."

  • 31 August 2020 at 12:42pm
    Netherwood says:
    I do think our governments are repeating Gavin Williamson's refrain that the Russians should "shut up and go away". More worryingly, the media echoes that call.

    In our diverse media scene, which always manages to speak in one voice about Russia, we have pretty much excluded anyone or purged anyone who thinks that Russia may, just sometimes, have a point. That the Russian government might be right to levy criticism about destroying Libya, or that stripping rights from the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic States (whilst celebrating the Lavian Waffen SS) goes against European Values, or that sanctions against the Crimean people (regardless of what you think about the take over in 2014) breach human rights, or that relentlessly smearing any Russian innovation or achievement is just, well, counter-productive.

    Perhaps that is why they felt they needed RT in the first place?

  • 31 August 2020 at 1:48pm
    Squeeth says:
    The trouble with this analysis of RT, Russia and oligarchy is that it's a description of Britain. Murdered journalists, a clean up campaign with questionable finances, outside meddling....

  • 2 September 2020 at 9:39pm
    Graucho says:
    Telling blatant outright porkies has been part of the Russian establisment's MO for over 100years now. They lied about starving the Ukrainian kulaks, they lied about the purges, they lied about the gulags, they lied about Chernobyl, they lied about fighting in Ukraine, they lied about Syria. Should we believe their denials about the mounting pile of bodies around ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin ? They have cried wolf once too often.
    As the godfather says, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, so we should watch RT, not for the truth, but to glean what their hidden agenda is. Most notable is their consistent promotion of cryto currencies. It may be motivated in part as an attempt to undermine western currencies or it may be that it is the means of exchange preferred by the criminals in charge and a means of circumventing sanctions.

    • 3 September 2020 at 11:02am
      Delaide says: @ Graucho
      Thanks for this Groucho. There have been Russian apologists commenting on this article who have ignored the high probability that the Russian establishment was behind the poisoning (and of course it was Novichok, which makes it a certainty), RT’s role in deflecting blame (‘low blood sugar’, yeah, right) and have made outrageous comparisons with the political polity in the UK. They are fooling no one.

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