BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. For the past six months, the Kremlin has spun an alternate reality about what's happening in Ukraine.
FRANCIS SCARR They say that they're following in the footsteps of the Red Army, which fought against Nazi Germany in liberated parts of Eastern Europe.
THOMAS RID The goal is to activate an emotional response. And whether you use information that is factually correct or factually incorrect is of secondary importance.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO They started shutting down Russian media. We could see that the law is changing, that everything is changing on the fly.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They can say that journalism in anticipation of war is like a criminal group.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER There is such a moral duty to try to get people to believe that what is happening is wrong.
ALEC LUHN It's not that people are brainwashed. It's that people want to be brainwashed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Inside Russia's information war…. after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's been just a tick over six months since Russia invaded Ukraine. And over those months, we've read, viewed and listened to reports horrifying and heart wrenching. Stories about resettlement camps in Donetsk. Of airstrikes on hospitals in a theater in Mariupol. Hundreds and hundreds of murdered civilians found and showing signs of torture on the streets of Pucha. This, of course, is not the version of the story shown on Russian media. Those who don't see past the official accounts see a different war. One driven by Putin's virtue, his quest to shield Russian sovereignty and Christian values from the depravity of the West. To mark this grim anniversary. We consider the information war Putin is waging effectively against his own people. That campaign is going far better than the one in Ukraine. First, we turn to journalists in the fight struggling to deliver the facts on the ground to Russians in Russia from abroad. OTM producer Molly Schwartz has the story.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ On the day that Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine, Alec Luhn and Veronika Silchenko headed to downtown Moscow. They took a film crew. They expected to find massive protests.
[AMBI STREET NOISE WITH YELLING].
There were some protesters. There were also lots of riot police.
ALEC LUHN There was filming arrest after arrest after arrest. People were coming out of the metro and unfurling a banner or holding up a sign. And as soon as they did that, even before they could get it all the way unfurled, riot police would have already grabbed them and would be packing them off into a police van.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO It was very easy for them to pick people up.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Alec and Veronika are married. They both work as freelance journalist for Vice. Veronika's from Russia and Alec is from the US. They were filming these protests for a documentary they were making called The Russian Bubble.
ALEC LUHN And all of a sudden a couple of riot police grabbed me from behind and dragged me into a police van, shoved me up against the van, frisked me down and put me in the van. The whole time I was trying to explain that I'm a journalist, I have an accreditation, I have a right to be here.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO I asked for the main commanding officer to get Alec out. He came and did it because they normally don't arrest us. Like it doesn't really happen.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In the past. Alec and Veronika status as foreign correspondents protected them from the kind of government harassment that Russian journalists routinely faced. But then after Russia invaded Crimea eight years ago, and especially in the last six months, things have gotten a lot worse for anyone reporting in Russia.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO Like, the whole atmosphere became worse because they started shutting down Russian media. We could see that the law is changing, that everything is changing on the fly.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the government passed a law against the spreading of so-called "fake news.".
NEWS CLIP Putin has signed a law banning calling the invasion of Ukraine what it is an invasion and a war which is now punishable up to 15 years in prison.
NEWS CLIP The Kremlin today blocked Facebook and Twitter, and there are no independent media outlets left. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The fallout was immediate. ABC News, CNN, CBS and others temporarily suspended their work in Russia. Reuters and Bloomberg stopped publishing bylines on their articles. Even The New York Times, which has had a reporter in Moscow since 1919 reporting all through the Cold War, announced its departure. For outlets trying to keep their reporters on the ground in Russia. The new laws are a dangerous maze to navigate. I spoke to a foreign journalist who wouldn't speak to me on the record about how they work in Russia, because they said going into detail would be, quote, a gift to the FSB. The crackdown decimated the foreign press, but it also wiped out a whole segment of the Russian press who are now reporting on Russia from outside of Russia.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They can say that journalism in anticipation of war is like a criminal group.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Kirill Martynov is the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta Europe, which launched in Riga, Latvia's capital, in April.
KIRILL MARTYNOV And everyone who helps us is basically a criminal, still.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Like most of his staff, Martynov, used to work at Novaya Gazeta, the biggest, most prestigious independent news source in Russia. For almost 30 years, Novaya Gazeta kept publishing through censorship laws and assassinations of several of their journalists. But then last March, the Russian government forced the paper to close and its journalists to leave the country however they could.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They don't have direct flights to Europe from Russia.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Almost all of Europe had closed its airspace to Russia. So to get to a country that the next door neighbor, Martynov, had to fly halfway around the world through Istanbul.
KIRILL MARTYNOV People travel by bus like it was the 20th century to cross international border.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Riga is Latvia's small capital city. It's become a kind of haven for Russian journalists. They've received humanitarian visas from the Latvian government.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE You go to market to buy some bread or milk and you meet ten people that, you know, this is crazy.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Katerina Kotrikadze is the news director and anchor of TV Rain called Dozhd in Russian.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE I am from Tbilisi, Georgia, originally, and I know what a small city looks like. But this is even smaller because all of us are concentrated.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In the first week of the war. Russia's prosecutor general put pressure on the channel. TV Rain announced they would temporarily halt their operations. And on March 3rd in a dramatic final broadcast, the staff gathered behind the anchors table.
[TV RAIN Anchor speaking in Russian]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ [TRANSLATING] I think friends on this note, we should end our broadcast...
MOLLY SCHWARTZ And no to war. Definitely no to war.
NEWS CLIP Nearly five months after being forced to close down, Russia's last independent TV channel is back on air. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In July, TV Rain relaunched in exile from Riga.
NEWS CLIP Over the next 2 hours, we will cover the top news of the day. It's a phrase that I haven't uttered in four and a half months. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Putin's latest assault on the independent press is a market departure from the past.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE It was important to have couple of independent media organizations in Russia to save some kind of connections with the Western world.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Katarina Kotrikadze.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE When they were blaming him for being not Democratic or for human rights violations in Russia. He would always answer, Come on, we have TV Rain, we have independent radio station in Moscow. We have independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. He wanted us to be some kind of show for the Western partners. But after he started this war, it didn't make sense anymore. He didn't want to pretend. He didn't need to pretend anymore.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Since Putin came to power in 2000, 28 Russian journalists have been assassinated and 28 more Russian and Ukrainian journalists are languishing in prison.
ROMAN DOBROKHOTOV So our journalists work now from Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany, France, Britain, America, Austria and Portugal.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Roman Dobrokhotov was introduced to me as Russia's greatest ever investigative reporter. He founded The Insider in 2013. A scrappy online outlet that covers things like how Putin was behind the poisoning of his political foe, Alexei Navalny. Then in July of last year, FSB officers showed up at Dobrokhotov's apartment, and at his parent's apartment in the middle of the night.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE They took all the computers, phones and also my passports without any explanations. So I understood that they don't want me to leave the country. That's why I left the country. The next day.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Dobrokhotov managed to get out of Russia without a passport. Crossing the border by foot. Martynov, Kodrikadze, and Dobrokhotov all told me that one of the ways they're able to report on Russia from abroad is by working with a network of shadow journalists who are still in Russia. Kirill Martynov.
KIRILL MARTYNOV They don't have accreditation, they are not a real journalist in terms of Russian law. I don't know how sustainable is it, it's quite dangerous and we don't understand even what kind of problems they can face.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ When they were making their documentary. Foreign correspondents Alec Luhn and Veronika Silchenko knew it would be risky to report on the ground in Russia. But they say it gave them insights that are really hard to get from a distance.
ALEC LUHN For us, the big question since the very first days of the war was what's going to happen when the body bags start coming back?
MOLLY SCHWARTZ He speculated that maybe the invasion of Ukraine would end up being like the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
ALEC LUHN Where, you know, a bloody invasion poisons the population against the government. And in that case, that contributed, I think, to the decline and fall of the Soviet Union.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In fact, the war in Ukraine has been far deadlier for Russia than Afghanistan ever was. Around 15,000 Russian soldiers died in Afghanistan over the course of a decade. The numbers aren't totally clear yet, but estimates show that around the same number and potentially many, many more Russians have already died fighting in Ukraine in the last six months.
ALEC LUHN Dagestan has the highest casualties of any region. But even there, grieving relatives were suspicious of anyone who question the invasion. [CONTINUES UNDER]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ This is sound from the documentary the couple filmed last May.
ALEC LUHN [LUHN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Luhn is speaking to a woman whose husband was killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. She tells Luhn that her only hope is that when she leaves this world, she and her husband will spend eternity together.
[WOMAN SPEAKS IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Luhn asks if she knew her husband was in Ukraine.
[LUHN SPEAKING TO WOMAN IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ She says yes. She found out from the news. The widow says they all know what they're fighting for. That her husband died as a hero.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ And NATO poses a real threat to Russia. With every question, the mood in the interview gets a little more uneasy. Then Luhn asks if she thinks the offensive in Ukraine is to defend Russia.
ALEC LUHN [LUHN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The widow's eyes widened for a second and she asks, Why are you interviewing us?
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE [WOMAN SPEAKING IN RUSSIAN]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Did, the district administration approve this? The widow cuts the interview short and the journalists head out.
ALEC LUHN After the interview, the family called a local official and he ended up putting out a police alert for us. Police questioned us for about 2 hours. They couldn't find anything wrong with our documents, but it was pretty tense there for a while. [END CLIP]
ALEC LUHN When we were first reporting right after the war started, you know, we were reporting on why the protests were so small. And I remember one person who was protesting the war telling me, well, it's not that people are brainwashed, is that people want to be brainwashed. And I think what she meant by that was that it's very difficult in that environment to question the war because everyone, you know, is going along with it. I guess what we learned on this reporting trip to Dagestan was that that's even more true. If you've lost a loved one in the conflict, it's even harder to question the conflict. You can live as a military widow and receive state benefits and be acknowledged and even celebrated in the community. Or you can put your entire family at risk by questioning the war.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The Russian government hasn't been publishing any numbers since March about how many people have died in this war. It's another sign of the tight control they have over what information is circulated. But Silchenko thinks the restrictive new laws could backfire.
VERONIKA SILCHENKO For many years now, the Russian propaganda was so effective also because there were a lot of independent media which existed. So for many Russians who lived in Moscow since Petersburg or big regional cities, they didn't feel that the information was forbidden and they didn't feel the need for information. They didn't feel the craving. But now I think this may create that craving for the alternative information, because even in USSR people were jamming the radio and trying to listen to the BBC Russian service. That's why this service existed. It was kind of for a lot of people a game to see what they are actually saying in the free world. And I think maybe it will happen again. It just will take years to get to that point.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In hindsight, it's clear that the slow strangulation of Russia's independent press was inevitable with the patience of a model KGB officer. Putin began to tighten his grip immediately after taking office, incrementally, suppressing more and more information. Really ramping up attacks on the media in the year before the invasion. Grooming Russian viewers over the past eight years to see Ukrainians as an enemy, as people who persecute ethnic Russians. And the strategy has worked. Now others are copying it. Serbian President Alexander Buzek recently started claiming that ethnic Serbs are being persecuted in Kosovo. It sounds familiar. For On the Media, I'm Molly Schwartz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the lexicon of Putin's information war. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. In April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information to mobilize public opinion about the First World War across all available media, producing tens of thousands of posters and pamphlets and editorials depicting the enemy as a remorseless, soulless monster. After that war ended, the committee was impugned as having oversold the threat. So FDR, his efforts to rally Citizens for the next World War were a had more transparent and a touch less hysterical. There was still censorship and egregious suppression of dissent, but not quite as egregious. I mention this only as a reminder that using domestic propaganda to get a country behind a war is by no means novel, and U.S. hands are by no means clean. But this is about Russia now and how its propaganda has evolved. Molly.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ In 1923, the Cheka, which was the Soviet secret police at that time created the first ever office dedicated to disinformation. It's a history that Thomas Rid, professor at Johns Hopkins, SAIS writes about in his book Active Measures.
THOMAS RID The KGB or its predecessor organization, The Cheka, was born deceiving its adversaries almost from day one. That is very different in Western democratically accountable intelligence agencies. Yes, Western intelligence agencies also did engage in psychological operations and deception. But then if we closely trace these operations, we see that they almost completely stopped in the late fifties, early sixties mid-sixties. The Soviets did the opposite.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ They doubled down. The KGB upgraded their disinformation department to an entire service called Service A for active measures.
YURI BEZMENOV Active measures actively repudiated in the language of the KGB.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Yuri Besmenov, a former KGB spy.
YURI BEZMENOV It's a great brainwashing process.
THOMAS RID The goal is to activate an emotional response.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Thomas RId.
THOMAS RID And whether you use information that is factually correct or factually incorrect is of secondary importance.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The crucial tactic was to mix fact and fiction.
THOMAS RID I think some officers in Stasi and elsewhere as well and at KGB sometimes use that 80% true, 20% false mix. Because if you have lie is shielded by truth, then of course it is harder to find the lies.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ An example of this is an operation that people know today as operation infection.
THOMAS RID Designed to enhance the fear of AIDS and to claim that the US government had designed HIV AIDS, which is complete lie, obviously. But it's important again here to appreciate there was genuine actual fear of this new mysterious virus in the early 1980s. There were also disclosures of U.S. government programs that had used medical experimentation on U.S. citizens, and the Soviets deliberately used that real existing doubts that Americans had about actual stories and just connected the dots in a way that was exaggerating and outright forging this information that the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, had created AIDS.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ The theory was picked up by the American press.
NEWS CLIP A Soviet military publication claims the virus that causes AIDS leaked from a US army laboratory conducting experiments in biological warfare. [END CLIP]
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Sometimes the lies and truth became so intertwined that Soviet intelligence agencies actually deceived themselves.
THOMAS RID Active measures take you really into a bit of a constructivist nightmare scenario because the way we describe them is part of how they work. I was terrified when I wrote that book that I would essentially ascribe more effects to these operations than was really there in practice. If I did, I would in a way participate in the active measure.
MOLLY SCHWARTZ Sometimes you can never really know if an operation worked, but it's a history that's very relevant today.
THOMAS RID KGB, and we know this from the Archives, was an organization that was very history focused. Putin himself will be familiar with that history. So in that sense, I have little doubt that they still consider active measures as a key component of their tradecraft and are engaging in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thomas Rid is the author of Active Measures. Francis Scarr is a senior digital journalist for BBC Monitoring, where he follows Russian state media essentially disinformation in the here and now. In a piece in the Telegraph, he noted that though Putin's so-called special operation now is waged with the corporeal weapons of war, it really began a little over eight years ago when Ukrainians ousted its pro-Putin leadership. Followed hard upon by Russia's annexing Crimea. And since then, the Russian media have covered Ukraine far, far more than it covers itself.
FRANCIS SCARR These talk shows I watch, they dominate the daily schedules on Russian TV and they almost never talk about what's going on in Russia. Only if Putin's given some big speech or its this annual press conference or something. But they never talk about the reality faced by Russians. It's constantly focused on Ukraine and sometimes the West more broadly. This obsession really with Ukraine, that Ukraine is this bridgehead for the United States to launch some kind of invasion against Russia. It has become an American client state, has been consumed by Russians since 2014. And this kind of thinking starts to seep into the wider consciousness of ordinary Russians. When the tanks cross the border on the 24th of February, when Russia started launching missiles at Ukrainian cities, people accepted it because they'd been told for so long that Ukraine was hostile towards Russia and this confrontation was inevitable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 70% of Russians, you observe, receive their news from state TV. You also made the fascinating point that Russians in general were never all that interested in the news.
FRANCIS SCARR Yes, it's a strange kind of paradox where the average Russian pensioners, the average Russian housewife or a bored security guard sitting in his cabin, they're likely to have state TV on in the corner. It's background noise. These talk shows, they're not designed to be watched. With your powers of reasoning switched on. They're entertaining, there's lots of flashing lights and big displays on studio screens. People have said to me when I put these clips on Twitter of Russian TV, they almost look like game shows. It's designed to play to people's emotions. You turn on and you'll hear some angry so-called experts screaming about Ukrainian fascists or something. Also, it's important to point out that this isn't happening in a vacuum. A lot of Russians see Ukraine in terms of the Russian empire, where it's this sort of far flung borderland. It's not really a sovereign state.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's what Ukraine means. Right? Borderland in Russian.
FRANCIS SCARR Exactly. Even in the 21st century, when we like to think of sovereign states having the right to protect themselves and the right to exist on a fundamental level, it's something that a vast amount of the Russian population disagrees with because of these long running preconceptions. This is something that can happen anywhere, not just in Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From your hours consuming these shows, you've noticed an evolving lexicon in state media for describing the war. At first, the invasion was called a, quote, special operation. But when things weren't going the way that Russia expected, there emerged a new framing, still a predominant one. It is a war, but it's not against Ukraine. It's against Naito.
FRANCIS SCARR Yes, that's exactly right. The first month of this invasion, Russian TV spoke of it in almost surgical terms that they were just removing Ukraine's military potential, its capabilities, but without targeting civilians in any way.
[RUSSIAN SPEAKING MEDIA]
FRANCIS SCARR The idea that the average Russian view I got from this was that Ukraine didn't really exist as a sovereign state and it would soon give in and be controlled by Russia, whatever that might mean politically. Once it became clear that Ukraine was actually putting up a fight, Russia had to try and explain this to its domestic audience.
FRANCIS SCARR Firstly said, Oh, it's because we're not targeting civilians were only targeting military targets, which of course we know not to be true that this is taking us longer than we expected because we don't want to cause unnecessary loss of life. And the other way they did this was to say, well, actually, we're now just fighting a proxy war against the West. The West is sending weapons to Ukraine. They're making our job much harder. As more and more time passed and it became clear that this was something that was going to go on for a long time. They started using terms like World War three.
KATERINA KOTRIKADZE Or talking about a clash of civilizations between the West and Russia. But what I've seen in the last few weeks, which I think is quite interesting, is that perhaps this is something we can compare with the West as well, where people say, oh, there's war fatigue, people aren't interested in this story anymore. There's other stories like rising prices, perhaps. In Russia, too. There's also fear from the Kremlin that people might become fatigued with the war. So I started to see other stories creep back into these talk shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What are these stories that seem to be creeping in, interrupting the Ukrainian narrative?
FRANCIS SCARR There's been a lot of coverage of the LGBTQ community in the United States and also across Europe. There was a law going through the German parliament, an amendment to a previous law on the rights of trans people to self-identify. Disgusted by this, as if Western civilization has gone down the drain. And Russia doesn't want to become like this.
[RUSSIAN SPEAKING ON TELEVISION]
BROOKE GLADSTONE On Russian TV. A war correspondent, when asked to give the latest from the front, said that the Cossacks told me, we're going to smash those LGBT troops.
FRANCIS SCARR That's the kind of language now quite common on Russian TV. Absurd things, like one presenter saying the other day that people in the UK would simply die out because so many people were gay, that they had just stopped reproducing.
[RUSSIAN MEDIA ]
FRANCIS SCARR Of course, Russia itself has a very, very low birthrate. So that just illustrates this kind of disconnect between them constantly talking about what's going on abroad and never really addressing what's going on in their own country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You are about to mention another storyline that has playing along with the war narrative.
FRANCIS SCARR The energy crisis, particularly in Europe. They will pick up on all kinds of stories from regional websites, for example, that people in Sweden have been shoplifting more and more because they simply can't afford basic necessities. In Germany, how certain cities have had to turn off the hot water because they can't afford the gas anymore. The way they frame it is that this is an immature generation of European politicians who are making decisions not in the interests of their own people, but simply feuding with Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you tell me a little bit about the media stars of these narratives? One of them I know is Olga Skabeyeva, known as The Iron Doll of Putin TV, and also Margarita Simonyan, who's head of the international state broadcaster R.T..
FRANCIS SCARR Olga Spavor together with her husband, Yevgeny Popov, who is also a deputy for Putin's party, United Russia in the Duma. They co-present their show, which is called 60 Minutes, which I believe was named after a show in the US.
FRANCIS SCARR Since the war started, this program is comically now two and a half hours. It's broadcast twice a day in the morning and then in the evening, Olga Skabeyeva is particularly anti-Western. She has been one of the main mouthpieces for the Kremlin in shaping this narrative of Ukraine being a kind of fascist proxy state controlled by the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She's also a big voice in the notion that this is a war against NATO. They need to demilitarize NATO, not just Ukraine.
FRANCIS SCARR Indeed, sometimes I think even the guests on these shows who are all really behind the war effort, you get the impression that they're not on board entirely, because the way she talks about the situation is sometimes as if she actually wants some kind of nuclear war.
[OLGA SKABEYEVA SPEAKING]
FRANCIS SCARR And Margarita Simonyan, the other one who you mentioned. She is a frequent guest on these talk shows. She said a few years ago she saw RT's role as being at the forefront of the information war against hostile entities, which is how she sees the West.
[MARGARITA SIMONYAN SPEAKING]
FRANCIS SCARR Another major figure is Vladimir Solovyov. He has a late night talk show and a morning radio program which lasts for several hours. He's spoken of Ukraine not deserving to exist as a state and is known for his personal attacks on Western politicians as well.
[VLADIMIR SOLOVYOV SPEAKING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE We started talking about language framing the war. There's also new language framing Putin himself. On state media, he is called "supreme commander in chief." Do you have any other buzz words like that?
FRANCIS SCARR Yes. The way they describe the Russian soldiers fighting and the Ukrainian soldiers fighting is quite telling. So the Russians, they're called liberators, rescuing people from the suffering they've been subjected to for eight years. They say that they're following in the footsteps of the Red Army, which fought against Nazi Germany in liberated parts of Eastern Europe. On the other side, you've got the Ukrainian army. They're called Nazis. They're called fascists. Sometimes they even call them Satanists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I found it interesting. That the army of Ukraine was referred to as armed groupings of Ukraine, where as the Russian troops were referred to as the United or the allied forces.
FRANCIS SCARR Almost sounds like the Second World War. And on the other hand, you've got this acronym in Russian for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which is VSU. And they started saying VFU on TV, which means, like you said, armed groups, armed formations, which for the average Russian would be reminiscent of the way Russian TV describes rebels in Syria. So what it really does is plant this idea in the viewer's head that the Ukrainian army is not the legitimate army linked to a sovereign state, but some kind of paramilitary force.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay. So we've got as the narrative that the Russian army is liberating Ukraine, that the Russians are forced to use Ukraine as a proxy in its fight against NATO and all the corrupting influences of the West. From the beginning, we've had de-Nazification as a justification. Are there any other ones that have come up? Meduza said that the Kremlin has issued some interesting ideas to Russian state media. Meduza being an independent news service outside the country.
FRANCIS SCARR They said sources in the Kremlin said the Kremlin has issued a kind of recommendation for Russian media to start comparing this war to historic wars that Russia fought in the Middle Ages. If you look at the way Putin talks about historical figures, it's a real hodgepodge. He's very much a man of the Soviet era, but he would talk about the kind of Russian imperial past. He would talk about the Second World War a lot. But then there are the figures like this medieval prince, Alexander Nevsky, before Russia existed as a modern state, of course. Fighting against the Teutonic Knights. Recently it was the anniversary of Peter the Great's birth, and Putin went to an exhibition that had been set up to mark the occasion. He clearly spends a lot of his time thinking about himself in terms of the unfolding of history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The baptism of the Kievan Rus in 988. Meduza says that the Kremlin says state media ought to draw parallels between the current war and that. Do you know what that's about?
FRANCIS SCARR One of the ways in which they talk about the LGBT community in the West is that it's a kind of deviation from Christian values. And the countries in Europe and the US and Canada have turned their backs on their traditions and become essentially depraved. And I think what this is saying is that Russia is staying true to these values from when Kievan Rus This kind of Russian proto state or Ukrainian proto state, you could argue, began this sort of tradition of orthodox Christianity in the eastern Slavic world, drawing these dividing lines between the West and Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it too much to say that it's framed as a battle for the soul of the world?
FRANCIS SCARR Well, it's definitely something that comes up on TV occasionally. People in Russia will say that they are orthodox Christians. But that's very much, I think, because they identify that with being Russian. The narrative beamed out by the state is that Russia needs to protect its values. Whether these values actually exist or not is another question. If you look at the divorce rate in Russia, it's extremely high. The number of abortions as well, things that wouldn't necessarily tie in with the kind of so-called traditional values they're trying to promote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much, Francis.
FRANCIS SCARR Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Francis Scarr is a senior digital journalist for BBC Monitoring, where he focuses on Russian state television. Coming up, how Russian propaganda changes minds and influences people.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER I had the truth. Sounds a lot like people who believe conspiracy theories. I realize it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Independent journalist Anastasiia Carrier was born and raised in Yoshkar-Ola in what she says is a poorer province in western Russia. She spent the last few years in the U.S. working as a reporter and actively wrenching herself away from the propaganda she'd imbibed all her life about Russia's unequaled prominence, probity and purity that she took on as articles of faith and fact. For most of her childhood, though, news and politics were just faint voices in the background from adult conversations overheard or brief flickers on her grandma's TV tuned to the evening news. Her grandma, a professor of German, was an avid news consumer.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER She was a very easygoing, cheerful person who loved and loved Soviet Union.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1999, Carrier's grandma finally found a new leader in which to instill her trust. Carrier was still in kindergarten then, but she remembers the catastrophe that rocked her world in September of 99. Over 300 people died in three separate bombings of apartment buildings. Carrier avoided tall apartment buildings on the way to school for weeks afterwards in fear. That was when Putin, then director of the KGB, spoke out to the people.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER This confident and young person who said that he's going to hold Chechen people accountable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2000, riding a wave of popularity after the bombings, Putin ran for president, much to the delight of Carrier's family. On Election Day, she and her grandma stood in line outside the voting booths a few blocks from their home.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER And then she took me in the in the booth with a curtain and she lifted me up and showed me where to mark for Putin. I was so excited.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So were the Chechens ultimately to blame for those apartment bombings?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Later, I learned that there is a group of historians and journalists who blame Putin directly or indirectly for orchestrating those bombings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there proof of that?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. They caught some of the KGB agents, I think, delivering the bombs and the buildings. And Putin around this time was the director of KGB or he just stepped down. I remember this is what Litvinenko was working on when he was poisoned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ah, Litvinenko, who was poisoned by people associated with Putin.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. And another reporter –.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anna Politkovskaya.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. She was also working on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And she was killed as well. All right. Now let's jump ahead to 2011, 2012, when you changed high schools.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER I had teachers who were more encouraging of real critical thinking. We would talk about different kind of governments, economic issues, history. The topic of the Soviet Union and Stalin's repressions came up and she spoke about the repressions that left millions of Russians dead. And this was new to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that the moral clarity felt alien.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER It really did. But at the same time, my family became interested in so-called alternative history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alternative history as determined by Putin.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. One of the big ideas is that Stalin is this misunderstood genius who saved Russia and the people who died. It's just necessary sacrifice. And probably because of the teacher who pushed back in such a casual way, I never really became interested in this alternative history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea. And that's when you became staunchly pro-Putin.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER The coverage in Russia was that the new Ukrainian government was Nazi government, and anything Nazi connected is a very sensitive topic for Russians because victory in the Second World War is a huge point of pride. So the idea of Nazis is triggering in any shape or form. This was my sense of what was happening when I came to the U.S. for the first time for half a year as an exchange student. So I was removed from Russian propaganda and I got to see the snippets of the Western coverage of what's happening. And I remember feeling that this was bizarre and wrong. And then I went back to Russia. This was after Putin actually annexed Crimea. And this was where it became more of an issue for me. I started to feel like this is such an important thing that Russians done were saved, brothers and sisters from Nazi regime. We help them to get back to Russia that they allegedly missed. So I become more pro-Putin. But I also realized that the West is really unhappy with this. So the stakes are higher to have a strong leader. That is Putin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How was the West presented in the U.S. in particular when you were back in Russia?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER The West couldn't stand the idea that Russia was so big and so strong and that the sanctions that was happening, it was just the US couldn't bear the idea of Russia doing good around the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 2016 you moved to the U.S. to attend university and in West Virginia, and for a whole year you were in contention with a lot of your classmates?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes, I moved to the U.S. for a second bachelor's degree and I became more outspoken politically. In journalism class conversations, whenever I felt like somebody was saying something wrong. I would insert my so-called fact check. But I don't think anyone around me was particularly invested on trying to get me to see the reality. There was definitely a lot of I'm going to let you finish this statement and we're going to move on from this topic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you feel patronized?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER No, I didn't. If anything, I felt a little more special for having this opposite point of view to the popular narrative. I have the truth. Sounds a lot like people who believe conspiracy theories and realize it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you write anything?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. When the conversation about the Russians hacking the election started, I strongly did not believe it. And I was trying to find a proof that this didn't happen. And I did find a piece that said that it's nearly impossible to hack the certain kind of voting machines at the moment. So I was pretty sad on this. And at the same time we had an opinion writing class and they wrote about the US and the Western media treating Russia unfairly and misunderstanding all the great things we do in the world and annexing Crimea, to my shame, made appearance in this piece and they used and this photo found online of allegedly building in Crimea, showing a lot of Russian flags from the windows as a proof that Ukrainians really wanted to join Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You brought your piece to the editor at the local paper, right?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. And he and the other editor pushed back and they pushed back. And I edited and edited and edited until it becomes a different piece. Because when I tried to fact check all the anecdotes I used in the story, I couldn't really find the sources. And I couldn't really understand where some of this facts even appeared from. But I still stood pro-Putin, and I still felt that the West somehow misinterprets Russia. And I couldn't figure out where the media went wrong because as a journalist, I was trained to fact check, to collect information and evidence. And then there was the coverage of Russia, which I didn't agree with, and they really couldn't understand at what point of the news organization somebody would give an order to start lying. And I started to sense that it was possible that no one really gave this order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this process of unraveling your own beliefs and, you know, our beliefs are part of us. You experienced an acute sense of political homelessness.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes, I think that me being proud of being Russian became one of the cornerstones of my identity. I didn't realize how big it was for me until it was pulled out from under me. And I didn't really realize who I was or what was true about the world for some time afterwards. It took a long time and a lot of work to just educate myself enough on history and the current affairs to start to form an opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You told our producer that you couldn't really accept that one thing is false and that everything else is true, that it's not how the world works. What did you mean?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER When I was trying to make sense of what happened to me. All the lies were connected to each other. I would accept that this was a lie. And then that would pull two more lies from the past that I learned. And the best way to sort through this was just to stop believing everything. Everything I was raised with was a lie. It is truly fascinating, looking back of how many small things that I thought were common knowledge were based on some kind of misinformation, propaganda, something very small that added up to something toxic, in the end. The biggest part of it is that I believe that Russia could do nothing wrong, that Russia was the power for good. And I had evidence that proved that Russia wasn't the power for good, and that cast a long shadow of doubt on everything else I ever knew about Russia. And the more I started to learn about the Russian history, the more I started to realize that there were a lot of half truths that I was taught in school, especially about the darker times of the Soviet Union.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about how you learned that stuff.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes, I had a wonderful teacher. She was my politics professor. Sally and I took her international relations class and they showed up at her office almost every day. She would recommend me books, and she was really a key person in helping me pull through this very dark and lonely time of not knowing what was true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So six months ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Things shifted again. Did this have an impact on your own ideological shift.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Before the war in Ukraine, this disagreements with my parents, this realization that they are under influence of propaganda, was just something that inconvenienced my ability to be honest and freely talk about what was happening or what I believed. There was this conversation I recently had with my parents, and I don't remember what exactly I was saying, but at this point, I'm already writing about the war in Ukraine, for Politico magazine. And I already interviewed refugees from Ukraine. And there was this one woman who told me about her neighbor being shot by Russians for nothing. About the starvation of people who sit in the basements, about their car wrecks. And you can see that the scores were shot. So I have all this information as a journalist, I collected and fact checked and I'm trying every now and then to bring it up to my parents. And I'm not credible enough just because I'm in the US. I think my parents pity me for being brainwashed. I brought up this information I collected and my my dad asked me not to call him. And it sounds like a small thing, but the only time my dad raised his voice in me in such a way, it was when I cursed at him when I was a five year old kid to make him stop tickling me. So this was huge. This was a big moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah. As if you're cursing at him again by bringing up these things.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER He got very defensive. Their beliefs just don't really make sense in the context of their character. They were supposed to be spared because, again, they're educators and there are so many Russians who do not have the same level of education. They do not have the same financial safety. They didn't travel around the world. My parents did. They travel every year. So they were supposed to just keep this thing and they didn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've reported on groups like QAnon. You've talked to your parents. They all are forced to live or choose to live in pretty impermeable media bubbles. You say essentially you have to get them to trust you, but how do you do that?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER I think you should be poking in their beliefs and providing them with facts that would hopefully get them to doubt their beliefs, but not push it on them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, that really worked well with your dad.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Right? Yes. Yes. No, you're right. You can just hope it's going to work. I know that from my time there is nothing anyone could have said or done to change my point of view. So I think what we can do with anyone who has beliefs based on conspiracies is to just keep talking without trying to humiliate them or enrage them and hope that whenever they have doubts, they're going to come to you with questions and you will have a productive discussion. It's a little bit trickier with Russians now because there is such a moral duty to try to help Ukraine and to get people believe that what is happening is wrong. Maybe just because you don't want your family and friends to support the bloodshed. So I think there is a responsibility to have this conversations and hope that something is going to come out of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anastasiia, thank you very much.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Thank you for having me. This was this was fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anastasia Carrier is an independent journalist who reports on business, politics, misinformation and online radicalization.
And that's the show this week! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber. This week, Molly Schwartz was the lead producer for the show. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nervano and Adrienne Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios.
I'm Brooke Gladstone.