There were more than 20 of us sitting around the long conference table: tanned broadcasters in white silk shirts, politics professors with sweaty beards and heavy breath, ad execs in trainers—and me. There were no women. Everyone was smoking. There was so much smoke it made my skin itch.
It was 2002, and I was just out of university, living in Moscow and working at a think tank meant to be promoting Russian-U.S. political ties. A friendly Russian publisher who wanted me to work for him had invited me to what would be my first meeting in Moscow. And that’s how I ended up surrounded by Russian media gurus tucked away on the top floor of Ostankino, the Soviet-era television center that is the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda—home to the studios of the country’s biggest channels. Here, Moscow’s flashiest minds gathered for a weekly brainstorming session to decide what Ostankino would broadcast.
At one end of the table sat one of the country’s most famous political TV presenters. He was small and spoke fast, with a smoky voice: “We all know there will be no real politics,” he said. “But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained.”
“So what should we play with?” he asked. “Shall we attack oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like a movie!”
More than a decade later, that movie is increasingly dark and disturbing. The first thing Russian militias do when they take a town in East Ukraine is seize the television towers and switch them over to Kremlin channels. Soon after, the locals begin to rant about fascists in Kyiv and dark U.S. plots to purge Russian speakers from East Ukraine. It’s not just what they say but how they say it that is so disturbing: irrational spirals of paranoia, theories so elaborate and illogical one can’t possibly argue with them.
This is even before the bombs start falling on them: “Information war is now the main type of war,” says the Kremlin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kieselev, “preparing the way for military action.” And Putin’s Russia is very good at it, having combined the dirtiest mechanisms of PR, brainwashing techniques pioneered in cults and a rich KGB tradition of psy-ops into a sort of television Frankenstein with which it controls its own population, conquers neighboring countries and attacks the West.
It poses new dangers. And I know, because I saw it grow.