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.