What the Russians talk about when they talk about us
By Tom Baxter
The war in Ukraine has faded from the headlines as this year has worn on and domestic developments have crowded to the front. But one of the war’s byproducts, clips from Russian state television, have become a staple of my Twitter feed.
One very good reason to pay attention to what various representatives of Vladimir Putin’s regime say in the handful of news talk shows that make up these clips is that they frequently threaten to nuke London or Berlin, or in the most extreme case, us. Most likely this is bombast, stirred up by the stalemate in Ukraine, but it can’t be entirely ignored.
These clips also allow us to hold up a dark mirror to the ways reality is presented, here and there.
The shows which broadcast government propaganda about the war have names identical to or similar to American shows — “Sunday Evening” and “60 Minutes” — with similar formats. The sets, with dark backgrounds which sometimes burst into news footage and swaths of colored lights, resemble the election night sets for NBC or CBS.
The shows are usually built around a central personality, like the frequently collarless Vladimir Solovyov or the steely-eyed Olga Skabeeva, surrounded by two to four expert guests. None of them disagree with each other about much, although some get much more indignant than others. Not only are the on-air personalities close to the government, in some cases they are the government, as is the case with Skabeeva’s husband, Yevgeny Popov, a member of the Duma.
This could also describe a lot of shows on MSNBC or Fox, but on the Russian shows the guests have a certain nervous look in their eyes that hints at government control. There was a viral clip a few months ago of a military expert who went on a “let’s get serious” rant about how the war was going, but that didn’t seem to start any trends. This is party-line television in its strictest form.
Like the American shows, the Russian shows spend a lot of time on politics — ours, not theirs.
Skabeeva has mused over whether the Russian government should “reinstall” Donald Trump as president of the United States, but she has expressed complete confidence that it is able to do so.
“Having elected him the first time, I think we can manage to do it again,” Skabeeva said on the air recently.
Mind you, these are the same television experts who have confidently predicted Russia would trounce Ukraine and the Russian empire will spread all the way to Sweden. Whether they had that much to do with electing Trump or not, they want their viewers to think so, especially at a time when Russia’s international prestige has plummeted.
Russian television makes frequent use of clips of Fox’s Tucker Carlson, and Solovyov has expressed concern Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky might send his “jackals” to hunt Carlson down.
President Joe Biden is routinely ridiculed as incompetent and his administration faulted for his economic and foreign policies.
“The [Biden] government is not concerned about real problems, but perverts, the sexual education of children and protection of transgenders,” Popov said recently.
In reality, it’s the Russians who seem the most obsessed with these issues, returning to them repeatedly as a justification for their new crusade against the West. The war has produced some strange blendings and ruptures of religious belief. On a recent program, a Chechen warlord who is Muslim declared that the Russians were the “army of Jesus,” and Ukraine and its NATO allies were the “army of the Anti-Christ.”
Meanwhile, the war which was so much on the lips of U.S. and Russian commentators earlier in the year drags on without a clear conclusion. A Russian network recently did a feature on an elderly man from a rural area who recently received a new car in payment for the death of his son. It dwelt a lot on how pleased the old man was with the car.
That’s about as close to a reflection of the losses felt in the Russian heartland due to this catastrophic war as we’re likely to get from Russian national television. It’s more fun to chat about American politics or joke about the recent outbreak of monkeypox.