Artyom Sheynin, Michael Wasiura, Russian TV
Star of Russian federal channel television host Artyom Sheynin (left). Michael Wasiura playing his role as “That American” on Russian TV (right). Photo credit: Screenshots from Russian TV

PERSPECTIVE

This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Read Part 1 here.

At an hour when most of the people tuning in could only be retirees, housewives, off-duty taxi drivers, and others with a 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. gap in their weekday afternoon, the fact that Russia’s main channels all featured programs on issues of international importance might appear admirable to an American audience accustomed to seeing soap operas, Jerry Springer, Judge Judy, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians at such hours. 

This is why context is key. The aim of these shows is not to enlighten, but to distract

Domestic Russian issues were conspicuously absent from most episodes. It isn’t possible for the Kremlin to convince its constituency that they live well. Russians are fully aware that their life is not utopian. However, it is surprisingly easy for Kremlin propaganda to persuade them that ordinary Americans and Ukrainians are no better off. In fact, life in those other countries is worse. Every afternoon and evening, the message was relentless: Authoritarian stability beats democratic chaos any day of the week.

Even though my mention of Buk 332 (an anti-aircraft missile launcher) triggered no international incident, my first few appearances on the show prompted a naive hope that maybe today would be the day I finally got these propagandists to break character and confess the truth. It took all of a week for me to understand the situation was hopeless. 

The trick the Kremlin played was to make accurate reporting come off as implausible to a critical mass of the population, and the Kremlin’s spin doctors pulled off the illusion by bringing people like me into its talk show studios.

No matter what I said or how forcefully I thought I was saying it, a multi-vectored chorus was going to shout me down. I was going on Russian television saying things that directly challenged the legitimacy and stability of the Kremlin leadership itself — yet I was invited back to do it again the next day, the day after that, and the day after that, for nearly four years.

So far as I’ve been able to figure it out, my role in this spectacle was to act as a sort of vaccine,  a controlled dosage of dangerous ideas. Modern authoritarian propaganda does not succeed by banning uncomfortable truths — but by burying them. 

The Iron Curtain was long gone; Facebook and its Russian analog, VKontakte, replaced Radio Free Europe and Pravda. My father-in-law, out in the provinces, was free to download the BBC Russian Service app to his smartphone, and he did. 

The trick the Kremlin played was to make accurate reporting come off as implausible to a critical mass of the population, and the Kremlin’s spin doctors pulled off the illusion by bringing people like me into its talk show studios.

When truth is presented as one of multiple competing “versions,” most people will not believe it, especially when presented by the designated villain. The powers-that-be do not care which absurdist version viewers accept so long as the majority of them reject the authenticity of incontrovertible evidence readily available one or two clicks away. 

Russian domestic propaganda is infotainment in its most concentrated form. Yes, the “experts” all have fancy titles, and many of the more patriotic contributors drive their own Land Rovers or BMWs to the studio rather than relying on a ride from the channel’s fleet of cars, but fancy titles and fancy cars do not necessarily correlate with common sense. 

Deconstructing Reality: The Skripal Affair

It was remarkable to me how insistently wrong so many of the “experts” were about essentially everything, from the rise of “nazism” in Ukraine to the growth of “tolerant fascism” in Europe and America. The first example I encountered concerned the Russian state’s attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal using a chemical nerve agent.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 4, 2018, Skripal and his adult daughter, Yulia, were found slumped and unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, England. Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer turned double agent, had served four years in a Russian prison before being released in 2010 as part of a spy swap. Subsequent reporting leaves little doubt that Skripal, even in his new life in small-town England, had continued consulting with Western intelligence services. 

https://twitter.com/antartica81/status/1499657551331446785

When I started appearing on shows in late April 2018, the story was still in the news where the aforementioned assembly of “experts” found evermore clever means of explaining away the obvious truth, and they really did seem to believe in their own versions of events. Why? 

Because look at all of these emergency workers in hazmat suits; some equipment manufacturer must be making a fortune on this circus. 

Because didn’t you know that if we’d really wanted to kill that lowlife scumbag, there are less incriminating murder weapons than a Soviet-vintage chemical nerve agent that any competent laboratory could immediately trace back to the Kremlin? 

Because actually, the Czech government oversees laboratories that conduct research on chemical nerve agents of the Novichok variety, and so clearly this was Prague getting back at London for the whole Chamberlain appeasement debacle that lost them the Sudetenland back in 1938. 

Because it really seems as if the powers in London understood that the English side was not ready for the upcoming FIFA World Cup — to be held that summer, here in Russia — and so the chessmasters at MI6 obviously decided that faking a Russian chemical weapons attack in a sleepy cathedral town would provide just the right excuse for a face-saving boycott of the tournament. 

Because have you ever noticed how many Russian exiles in England end up dying under highly suspicious circumstances? The failure of the British government to get to the bottom of this trend seriously suggests that the British government itself is responsible for the murders of all these exiled Kremlin critics.

It requires a certain perverse talent to keep missing the target in every conceivable direction. I was forced to conclude that the “patriotic experts” brought in to discombobulate viewers from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok are very good at what they do. 

In all of my off-air conversations with my talk show interlocutors — during commercial breaks in the studio, over tea in the green room, all the way through a bottle of vodka after hours — none of them ever broke character, because none of them was consciously playing a role. 

Somewhere up in the editorial staff meeting room, someone must surely understand that all of the talking heads they assemble and all of the discussion “material” they cherry-pick are creating a false picture. But during my four years of work in this dystopian fantasyland of Russian propaganda, I only encountered three or four figures who I suspected of being even slightly more aware of what they were doing. The people responsible for brainwashing others seem to have sincerely brainwashed themselves before turning their attention to society as a whole. 

Which brings us back to the Skripal affair. In September 2018, six months after the initial incident, Scotland Yard publicly identified the suspected assassins and published surveillance camera stills that showed them traveling from London to Salisbury, then setting off from the train station in the direction of the nondescript residential neighborhood where Skripal lived.

And yet, even after open-source investigators identified the perpetrators as Russian military intelligence officers traveling to England on authentic Russian passports issued under pseudonymous cover identities, the reaction from Russian propagandists was still to insist that this version of events was simply one more in the long line of Western-funded “fakes.” 

On the air, I was allowed to ask the first few words of a question — “Why were these supposed tourists walking, not in the direction of the Salisbury Cathedral that they claim to have come all the way from Moscow to see, but instead set off from the train station directly towards the home of the Russian intelligence defector who coincidentally came down with a nasty case of chemical nerve-agent poisoning a few short hours later?”

Of course, I could never get out the full thesis without being interrupted.    

This is Part 2 of a four-part series. Read Part 3 here.

Michael Wasiura is a freelance writer. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he received a Master’s Degree in International Economic Analysis from Fordham University, then taught English in Moscow before becoming a fixture on Russian television.

Michael Wasiura

Michael Wasiura. Photo credit: Courtesy of Michael Wasiura