In Russia’s version of the war, Russians are liberators, Ukrainians are Nazis, and the West is full of mendacious hypocrites. To turn on Russian TV news is to enter a parallel universe, one where even the word war is forbidden. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has now blocked or restricted any other sources of coverage, so this is the only version of the world most Russians see.
To get a sense of what Russians are told about the war, I fired up Russian state TV for a few hours a day over the past week from my laptop. Though the state-run news channels do include purportedly on-the-ground news reports, much of the action is on talk shows, which are “where the more extreme or nationalistic narratives are pushed,” Sarah Oates, a political-communication expert at the University of Maryland, told me. Read our ongoing coverage of the Russian invasion in Ukraine
Hosts and panelists stick closely to the same Kremlin talking points, lending the broadcasts an endless, looping quality, even by cable-TV standards. One panel of white guys who love Putin dissolves into another, and another. “Every third word is Ukraina, America, NATO,” says Bakhti Nishanov, a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Even if you were just not paying attention … it’s in your subconscious.”
On Russian TV sets, people, walls, and floors are decked out in the “Z” marking that Russian troops paint on their tanks. I saw it used to mean za pobedu (for “victory”) and za mir (for “peace”), even though that’s not how you write the letter Z in Russian. Throughout, I heard references to parts of Ukraine being “cleaned out” and “brought to order,” and that Ukrainians “will only understand the truth about their country once it’s liberated.” The penalty for dissent is great, and the talk-show guests are in constant agreement. They nevertheless frequently end up yelling, spitting twisty consonants at one another until the host introduces a new way in which the government line is correct.
On March 1, I tuned in to Perviy Kanal (Channel One), the most influential state-run channel, to find an on-the-ground report from Ukraine. It featured a woman saying in Russian, “We’ve been waiting for you for years”—as in, she’d been waiting for the Russians to invade. The reporter then interviewed Ukrainian fighters who’d supposedly given up their arms. The soldiers’ Russian captors were shown being sweet to them, giving them cigarettes and hot food and letting them call their moms. It’s impossible to know whether this was genuine or not; Russians might have been aping a viral video in which Ukrainian soldiers offered a captured Russian some tea and a phone call.
Next up on Channel One: the scourge of “fake news” on Facebook. Finally, a villain our two nations have in common! The “fake news” the Russians are worried about, though, is reports about the war that deviate from the official Russian narrative. Indeed, last week Putin signed a law criminalizing spreading “fake” news about the war—including calling it a war—and blocked access to Facebook in Russia. Straying from Russia’s version of the war could result in a 15-year prison sentence, and Western news organizations have pulled out of the country as a result. Later in the broadcast, a pretty woman with vacant eyes came on the screen to let me know that hotels in the south of Russia were still operating. So that’s good.
“People seem nervous about going off script or even about what, exactly, their script is supposed to be,” Cynthia Hooper, a Russia expert at the College of the Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, who’s been watching the coverage, told me. Whereas previously Channel One might have provided a decent, if unideal, job for a Russian journalist, “now those same positions involve really nothing more than very, very deep complicity in manufacturing stories designed to bolster the Putin regime, fuel popular hatred against purported outsider enemies, and convey support for criminal and destructive government policies,” she said. Read: Russia and the menace of unreality
When there isn’t much good news from the front, a popular angle is how unfairly America and Europe are treating Russia. On Time Will Tell, a talk show on Channel One, pundits complained that people were discriminating against Russians abroad, in part TV evidenced by a photo of the empty Russian Tea Room in New York. “Where are the civil-rights defenders?” someone asked. 60 Minutes, another talk show, played a clip of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham calling for Putin’s assassination, saying someone should “take this guy out.” “Imagine what would happen if we suggested killing Biden!” one panelist said. “Can. You. Imagine. What. Would. Be.” On another talk show, The Great Game, war experts waxed on about the folly of invading Iraq—the sort of whataboutism that was typical of Soviet-era messaging.
To the extent that Russian television shows discuss casualties, they attribute them to Ukrainians, who, according to Russia’s state TV, use “human shields” and prevent their own citizens from fleeing through humanitarian corridors. (Foreign journalists and Ukrainian officials say neither claim is true.) An attack on British journalists outside Kyiv—which the journalists themselves attributed to Russian hit squads—was blamed on Ukrainians too. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about some of this, “no one is talking about this in the West because the West glorifies Nazis,” according to one Russian-TV pundit. (The “Nazi” claim appears geared toward older Russians, who revere the Soviet Union’s role in winning World War II.) Overall, Russian TV creates the false impression that Ukrainians are shooting at themselves, says Alexey Kovalev, the investigations editor of Meduza, an independent Russian news site that opposes this narrative and has been blocked by Russia. Kovalev has recently fled Russia, and spoke with me from a Baltic country.
And Russians, with dwindling news options, tend to buy what their government and its media allies are selling. Russians with Ukrainian relatives buy it. Acquaintances of Kovalev buy it. The alternative—that the invasion is not justified, that Russians are the aggressors—is too horrific to entertain. A recent series of man-on-the-street interviews from the independent outlet Current Time shows everyday Russians saying the invasion is meant to protect Russians, or that they don’t believe that Kyiv is being bombed. “I’m for Putin,” one woman says while walking away from the camera. “In everything I’m for him.”
Most Russians still support the war, and only 3 percent blame Putin for it, according to independent surveys. Support is strongest among those who trust state media. “Your beliefs are more important than facts,” Oates said, “and I think [Channel One] is good at helping people to lean into their beliefs. This is the narrative that people would like to be true.”
Russian news clouds the difference between truth and lies, between heroes and villains. Over time, uncertainty hardens into cynicism and resignation. “There are lots of calls in the U.S. for Russians to come out protesting and getting rid of Putin,” Maria Repnikova, a dunia-communication professor at Georgia State University, told me. “But the cynicism factor is a very, very strong thing when it comes to not coming out or not resisting.” Cynicism creates a sense that “nothing is true and everything is possible,” to borrow the title of the journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s book about terkini Russia.
Despite what Russian news says, Ukrainians are the real victims of Putin’s war. But everyday Russians are the victims of his information war. They are like the Americans who endorse the Big Lie because all they watch is Newsmax, or the ones who burrow into the warrens of Facebook and emerge with a belief in QAnon. Putin knows that if you can control information, you can control your people.
Perhaps the saddest fact is that Russians—now cut off economically, geographically, and culturally from the rest of the world—may not know what they’re in for. Watching their own channels, they are left with the rosy view that victory is near, and that they will be the victors. In the words of one talk-show pundit I saw on Russian television last week, “This will all pass. Without Russia, Europe is not Europe, and the world is not the world.”