By Dan Drollette Jr, November 9, 2022
In the previous issue of the Bulletin’s bi-monthly magazine, the executive editor, Dan Drollette Jr., interviewed Russian independent journalist Farida Rustamova about what it is like to try to do honest, accurate, uncensored journalism from modern-day, Putin’s Russia for a primarily Russian audience. (Rustamova has written for numerous non-government media outlets in Russia—such as Meduza and TV Rain—on Russian politics and society. She has written for non-Russian publications as well, including The New York Times, The Financial Times, and BBC News Russian, among others. She publishes the Faridaily newsletter.) The talk, done with Rustamova from an undisclosed location via Zoom, mostly consisted of how to avoid the surveillance state.
This interview takes a different focus: From her first-person observations, what is the pulse of Russia today among average, everyday Russians?
(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity. It was conducted before Putin announced a call-up that could sweep 300,000 Russian civilians into military service after setbacks in Ukraine.)
Dan Drollette Jr: Earlier in our conversation, you said that Russian journalists that are not affiliated with the state don’t have that many outlets in which to reach a Russian audience.
Farida Rustamova: Russian TV channels—run by the state—are the most popular source of information for most of the Russian population, especially when it comes to older generations. They were brought up at a time when that was just much more common, and the habits of a lifetime have stuck—even though it’s mostly propaganda, and even though the internet is so much better (though you have to have the right tools to get around the censors).
The problem is that state-run television news has so much money, and so many resources. They are literally everywhere. As a consumer of news, it’s hard to keep a critical mindset after being exposed to this deluge.
As someone who works independent of the state, it’s quite difficult to fight against.
Drollette: Just to play devil’s advocate here for a moment—I suppose that some people must say to themselves: “So what if journalists cannot provide a critique of the war that’s happening in Ukraine? Why should I care? I’m just worried about being able to buy groceries for this week?” How do you respond to that kind of attitude?
Rustamova: By “devil’s advocate,” you mean someone who is on the side of the interior ministry—or at least someone who is not very involved in politics, is that right?
Drollette: Yes, as if I were an average Russian person, in a place far away from Ukraine, many thousands of kilometers away. What do you say to people who are not worried about being fed propaganda?
Rustamova: I would tell them that the government is trying to totally brainwash them; that the TV broadcasters do not intend to tell them the truth about their own government, or about what is happening in their own country—or next door to their country. That is why criminals are shielded, and the corrupt go free.
I think that people have an inkling of what’s going on, but are not aware of just how bad it really is.
And because there is no trustworthy outside information, that means that the government is not accountable, and the average person starts to feel that they cannot do anything. There is a feeling of total helplessness among most Russians, with the realization that they don’t have any tools to impact their own government.
Back when we had some kind of independent information in Russia, it could at least bring to light the many, many obstacles that Russia needs to overcome. Independent media had been shown to be quite successful, prior to the crackdown on the press a few months before the start of the Ukraine war.
The non-official, independent media then was much, much bigger then than it is now. And people were generally very, very interested—they kept looking for independent information that was not smothering them with propaganda.
I, myself, saw people holding copies of the newspaper I worked for during demonstrations by the opposition. And when the authorities realized the impact of outside voices—and saw the huge size of our audience—they decided to crack down, and prevent us from becoming more mainstream.
Consequently, if you are independent in Russia, then the state says that you have to be marginalized. You have to be the outcast—with a very small audience.
Drollette: What do you predict will be happening?
Rustamova: So far as the media goes? Putin was very successful in depriving the independent media of any support from inside the country, and from the outside too.
And I’m not sure how things will go on. Because, you know, it’s so very difficult to predict anything right now… There are 102 million people in Russia; we absolutely cannot leave them alone with Putin’s propaganda and his nuclear weapons.
Drollette: I know this a hard question to answer, but is there generally support in Russia for what’s been happening in Ukraine? Is there a groundswell of anti-war feeling? I mean, surely, if mothers in Russia hear that their sons have died in a police action that they didn’t even know was happening…
Rustamova: There was a Russian philosopher who theorized that Russian society consists of three parts. One-third of it consists of people who generally support the system—members of law enforcement for example, as well as people who depend on the state and who prosper from it—people who earn their fortunes, their livelihoods, from the existing situation.
Another third consists of people who are part of the opposition, who are fighting against this anti-democratic, nepotistic trend that seems to take hold in Russia every so many years. They feel that the capital of the country has become corrupt, and it has turned into a… I forget the word in English, just give me a second. It’s probably swamp. Yes, “swamp.”
The last third is people who are so poor, so unhappy, so indifferent, that they just want everyone to leave them alone.
And, unfortunately, it is very easy for the forces of propaganda to tilt this last group to the side of the system—to push them, however reluctantly, to support those already in power. As in “Give us what we want, and we will leave you alone.”
Drollette: So one-third support the regime, one-third oppose it, and one-third say “A curse on both your houses, just leave me alone”?
Rustamova: Yes. And I would say that this third part mostly consists of very poor people. There are a good number of people in Russia who are living in poverty or near the threshold to poverty. These people just want to survive. They don’t care about politics. To them, how the country is run is a lot like the weather—it’s a force you cannot change.
In an article in the September 13, 2022 issue of the Washington Post titled “Putin, tone deaf and isolated, pursues war ‘goals’ and refuses to lose,” Russian sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky characterized 80 percent of Russia’s citizens as loyal but passive, with the war as none of their business; they’d rather focus on their own lives and avoid politics. “These people do not trust television but they do not trust the internet either,” Kagarlitsky said. “So television propaganda doesn’t work on them, but any kind of antiwar propaganda or opposition discourse doesn’t work on them either, because they just do not turn on anything that has to do with politics or economic issues or general values or anything that doesn’t affect them directly.”
Kagarlitsky said that when they do go online, such citizens seek out videos about hunting, fishing, cooking, fashion shows, animals, and similar items. Under Putin, “a good citizen is a passive citizen, who is not getting himself or herself involved in anything.”
 In August of 2021, the Russian government formally designated independent news outlets—such as Russia’s TV channel Rain—as so-called “foreign agents” receiving funds from abroad and engaging in political activities. Rain TV had been instrumental in covering the poisoning and imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and was highly critical of authorities’ crackdown on dissent. “The [foreign agent] label implies closer government scrutiny and carries a strong pejorative connotation that could undermine the credibility of media outlets and hurt their advertising prospects,” said an article in the Voice of America (https://www.voanews.com/a/europe_russian-police-detain-journalists-who-back-media-freedom/6209854.html) about the public protest.
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Keywords: Cold War, Putin, Russia, Ukraine war, authoritarianism, dissent, sanctions
Topics: Special Topics