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June 30th 2014 print

Michael Galak

The Long Arm Of Russian TV

The Soviet Union made sure there was little communication between its subjects and family members overseas. Putin's Russia has turned that policy on its head, but the goal is the same: turn the diaspora's hearts and minds against the West

russian propaganda

As a rule, I do not watch Russian channels on cable TV because we do not have a subscription. However, I happened to be aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic on May 9, the 69th anniversary of VE Day, which the Russians consider end of the WWII — Victory Day, Den Pobedy, as they say. The ship was pulling in Russian TV via its satellite dish and my cabin’s screen was full of explosions, dirty faces, screeching tanks, bloodied bandages, German (not Nazi) aggression, genocide, Russian and Soviet sacrifice, mounds of bodies, miraculous survivals and tears of loss, plus the exhilaration of the victory and grief and guilt of survivors.

Above all this were the wise generals who led the fight all the way to Berlin, and the all-knowing, all-powerful Party, which never erred in dictating tactics and strategy. Curiously, the screen also brought   images of breathtakingly beautiful female soldiers, who often outnumbered their male comrades on the film’s re-created battlefields.  If one could remove one’s gaze from these Kalishnikov cuties, the other surprise came in the shape of  NKVD officers – Stalin’s ruthless enforcers in real life – whose sole concern in this version of the Great Patriotic War was providing spiritual guidance to scared and confused soldiers.

The trauma, inflicted by the WWII on Russia was immense. No Russian family went unscathed, and even today, all these years later, no Russian is indifferent to this date, myself and myself very much included. Despite the pulchritudinous privates and sex-bomb sergeants on the screen, tears were in my eyes as I watched. Automatically, subconsciously, like a well programmed robot, I was emotionally associating myself with an act of the national  sacrifice shown on TV. Despite my anti-Soviet past, I felt at one with Mother Russia. She was tugging on my dissident heartstrings, and I was hearing the call to all her sons and daughters, no matter where they might be, to share once again the pain and joy of sacrifice and triumph.

That was when, suddenly, the alarm bells went off, jangling with the uneasy feeling that something was not quite right, that my expatriates’ emotions were being expertly manipulated. As soon as this thought crystallised I was able to think clearly once more. The fog of emotion forbidding independent thought was dispersed like mist in a morning breeze. I regained in that instant the ability to think independently, that most precious gift which life in the West has given me. I woke up with a start and thought, ‘Hang on, I resent being played for a fool.’ That is how the idea to write this piece came about.

My, my, how things have changed

Back in my time, when the USSR was still functioning and I still lived there, contact with compatriots living overseas was deemed ideologically suspect and politically subversive. There’s a lovely anecdote about an old Jewish man unfortunate enough to have a brother in Chicago, a capitalist businessman no less. They had never written to each other, both knowing full well the grievous consequences that could arise, and almost certainly would arise, from a renewed connection with a bourgeois exploiter resident in the heart of Moscow’s Cold War adversary. One day this old man was called to KGB headquarters and asked about his American brother. Shaking in his boots, the old man feebly insisted that he was, and always had been, a loyal Soviet citizen, and he swore blind that he had never corresponded with his brother, not even once. To his surprise and without explaining themselves, the KGB interviewers gave him to understand that it would suit their purposes if he were to restore and renew family ties. When the KGB says ‘Dance!’ a wise man dances, so the quaking geriatric took a seat at the KGB desk and began writing.

“Dear Chayim,” he began, “at long last I have found the time and the place to write you a letter.”

Yep, the Soviets were not happy at all to let their people  communicate with foreigners, lest ideologically pure Soviet citizens be contaminated by bourgeois heresies. That is also why, by the way, so few Russians were taught foreign languages and, if they were, the instruction was abominable and the results usually worse.

With the collapse of the USSR, which Mr. Putin calls the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century, the situation changed. Millions of Russian speakers migrated to other countries. The Cold War was over and ideological confrontation with it. Or so it seemed at the time. However, paradoxically, the further away from Russia the native speakers moved, the stronger a cultural, emotional and linguistic identification with the homeland became. The KGB boys had evolved, now recognising the emotional pull indigenous cultures exert on those who do not speak the languages of the lands to which they had moved.

Today, instead of persecuting poor sods for communicating with family in the West, official Russia cherishes those same connections. It has opened the tap of Russian patriotism and exclusiveness far and wide. Russian-language programs can be heard and seen all over the globe – in Germany and Holland, in France and Vietnam, in the US and Australia, in Dubai and Argentina, in Israel and Canada.  Now the Russian Federation’s satellite and cable networks (there are no other channels; all Russian-speaking broadcasting overseas is monopolised by the state) make significant efforts to draw the diaspora towards an official point of view. With millions of Russian speakers beyond the Russian Federation’s borders this effort promises significant dividends, political as well as economic. Germany has almost half a million Russian speakers, Israel and the US around a million each, with significant communities  also residing in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, well, the list goes on and on. Needless to say, within all these exile communities, the number of TV screens broadcasting in Russian outnumbers the screens broadcasting in the host nations’ languages. Indeed, Russian TV is the chief form of home entertainment and information in many such households.

There is an anecdote about a fresh migrant to America’s largest Russian enclave, Brighton Beach in the Big Apple’s borough of Brooklyn, who phones a mate still in the Old Country. “Senya, my friend” enthuses the new migrant, “you should really come here soon! I have already met all our old friends and we had such a good time at a restaurant on Brighton beach! The food was great, the vodka crisp and cold, and we talked all night about the good old days! Come now, don’t delay!”

“That’s good to know,” responds his friend, “but what about America? What does it look like?”

“Who knows!” responds the New American, “We don’t go there.”

And why should he “go there” when all the financial, cultural and emotional needs are serviced right there, via satellite, in his own home, with Russian-language TV providing full-time entertainment congruent with an exile’s cultural, linguistic and emotional background? If not for state-controlled Russian-language TV these Russian speakers would have been lost to the Kremlin. This invisible emotional rope, while serving propaganda objectives of the Russian government also provides a plethora of other benefits. Let’s enumerate some of them.

 “You and I are of the same blood” — Rudyard Kipling

First, there is the simple matter of profit, which get to the Russian elite’s pockets. The beauty of such a scheme is that Moscow, in its drive to maintain control over the way the Russian-speaking diaspora thinks, would have provided these TV channels for free. But they do not have to. Russian speakers, not realising that they are the target of ideological driven marketing campaign gladly contributing their hard, cold cash to the state’s coffers by paying for subscriptions.

Second, it is an inculcation of Russian imperial pride or, as Moscow propaganda describes it — a pride in Russian history, culture and traditions. Russia and Russians are presented as noble, honest, upright and idealistic people. The big surprise is that characters on Russian-language TV are not presented with visible haloes, for they are a universally saintly bunch. It goes without saying that whatever such good and virtuous people do cannot be bad, as in, for example, the annexation of the Crimea.

Third, the programming confirms the alleged treachery and animosity of the West. Look, how wronged Russia was and still is by the West, the meme insists over and over again! No matter how we try to please them, the only thing that will satisfy the West is our weakness and subjugation to their dictates.

It would funny, easily shrugged off as a manifestation of traditional Russian paranoia, if the message was not so readily taken as gospel, isolating this exile society from the mainstay of the world development and communication. The unceasing message of Russia’s victimhood being beamed to the diaspora brews irrational resentment, ambient anger and it does so while deepening communities’ isolation.

These combined messages serve to achieve the ultimate aim of the Kremlin’s propaganda masters: driving a wedge between host societies and the Russian diaspora, cocooning Russian speakers from the societies in which they live. An isolated community is easier to remotely control. This wedge is not  difficult to recognise if one remembers the persistent attempts of the then-USSR to do the same between NATO and America, French and NATO, Canada and the USA,  and Europe.

An inability – or is it a disinterested refusal? — to provide a counter argument, to defend Western values and educate the Russian speakers in the real motives of their Kremlin “benefactors” leaves the field of ideological battle occupied by only one side, in effect awarding the contest by default to the opposition. It is irresponsible and, potentially, dangerous. There is virtually no counter TV message, cable or digital. There is no political and ideological analysis, no streamling of reasoned, well presented rebuttals which, repeated as it is day after day, is bound to make an impact.

This inactivity is to our own peril.

Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978