BOB GARFIELD: You're watching a news item on Russian state TV, and heavens to Trotsky, check this out – a demonstration against Chechen separatists, not in Moscow but in the heart of New York City. Even the American people are taking to the streets in protest. They carry signs. They chant. And, luckily, state TV is able to track down the story and dispatch a crew. Well, actually, luck has nothing to do with it. Since 2004, these demonstrations have been staged for those cameras and the supposed protestors paid in cash to participate, cash that The Wall Street Journal has traced back to the Kremlin in one of the weirder propaganda campaigns of the post-Cold War era. Alan Cullison is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who coauthored this story, and he joins us from Moscow. Alan, welcome to the show.
ALAN CULLISON: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me exactly who these protestors were and how they got there.
ALAN CULLISON: They were a combination of people there. A lot of them were inner city folks who just arrived to get paid maybe 20 or 30 dollars to stand out and get their picture taken. There were quite a few junkies from methadone clinics, but, you know, there were a lot of people who didn't really have much else to do. If you gave them enough money, they'd stand out and basically protest anything. In the summertime, they said that they got quite a few pensioners from Brighton Beach, and then there were some organizers as well. A taxi driver from Massachusetts, who was designated to lead the movement by Moscow, hooked up with a couple of jewelry merchants in New York who were paid quite a bit to get the crowd out there.
BOB GARFIELD: Who was behind this?
ALAN CULLISON: Well, the organizers in the United States, it was clear that they were Russian émigrés. A couple of people within the movement said that the money and the support and the idea of this traced back to a fellow by the name of Vasily Yakemenko. He's head of a youth group and political movement here in Russia that's closely supported by the Kremlin. He's been famous within Russia for organizing pro-Kremlin protests, and in the summer and autumn of 2004, the correspondence indicates that he just decide to start doing it in the United States as well.
BOB GARFIELD: How much money was behind this scheme?
ALAN CULLISON: It was clear that they had spent two or three thousand dollars some months. I think they easily topped a million, maybe a couple million.
BOB GARFIELD: What did Russian TV viewers actually hear along with the pictures of the fake protests?
ALAN CULLISON: Well, the state television report was, you know, pretty straightforward. It said that an international movement in the United States has protested today at Ground Zero in New York against the double standards of the United States in the war on terror, and then quoted a couple of people saying that, you know, they think the Chechen terrorists really ought to be sent back to Russia because it displeases them that they're living in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: So the Kremlin is upset that the United States is not a better partner in its war against the Chechen separatists and is using this little propaganda device to further its case with the Russians. Historically, state TV has been just a tissue of lies. How do you suppose Russian viewers process all of this?
ALAN CULLISON: You know, Russians a lot of the time will talk about how television is full of lies, but actually, Russian television is very influential. I think most Russians who see what's on TV tend to believe it. A lot of people close to the Kremlin have been convinced that the United States has been staging protests in the former Soviet Union essentially by paying for them - at least that's the belief of the Russian on the street. Really, if you ask them, they are convinced that, for instance, the Orange Revolution in Kiev, everyone who filled the square there and basically overthrew the government in 2004, they were paid by the Americans to be there, and they, at least according to correspondence that we saw, wanted to start up their own movement on American soil.
BOB GARFIELD: The G8 summit is headed for Moscow later this year. There were suggestions that there's a connection between your story and G8, as if the Wall Street Journal were somehow enlisted to embarrass the Russian government.
ALAN CULLISON: Yeah, that's been a suggestion, that the black arts of Western propaganda are going to operate a little bit more heavily before G8, and they'll pull out sort of different stories that will be embarrassing to the Kremlin during the G8 presidency, which is actually an important moment for Putin.
BOB GARFIELD: Does nobody [LAUGHS] look inward at the other explanation, that Putin is ever more authoritarian, ever less democratic, and that any reaction from the West to Russia has to do with the government and not with some sort of native predisposition to weaken the Great Bear?
ALAN CULLISON: There's an awful lot of suspicion of the West right now, that the West will do everything it can to weaken Russia. I think people who are worried about Putin's authoritarian streak here are definitely in the minority. The majority of Russians really like him a lot. I think his popularity ratings are at record highs right now.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Alan, thank you very much.
ALAN CULLISON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alan Cullison is the Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the suffering book biz considers the big flip.