For those who aren’t aware, RT (Russia Today) celebrated its ten-year anniversary yesterday. It was actually a little sad, because unfortunately one of RT’s founders couldn’t be present to see the apparently massive shindig as he died in the United States, where he preferred to live, back in November. I’m sure he would have been proud.
Anyway, apparently they released this surrealist video to present to Russian speaking audiences:
Okay couple things. First of all, you have to give them credit for the inclusion of a live bear in this video. That being said, with the amount of money RT receives from the Russian state budget, around $2 billion in over a decade, they probably could have got actual pandas. Or some kind of…elite…genetically modified…golden bears. I’m not an expert on bear pricing but suffice to say they these people got enough cash to keep their own bear zoo at the RT office.
Moving on, there’s a scene where RT head Margarita Simonyan heads down to a basement where she keeps RT’s foreign workers, who she refers to as “ekspatiki” (little expats). I have to admit that term was pretty funny, but we’ve got to stop here and unpack this a bit.
The implication is that this is how the West thinks RT works, as if they hold Westerners against their will and make them work like slaves. This joke is probably a lot better than letting Russians know the truth- that their foreign workers are extremely well-paid, often above market prices in their home countries. At 3:10 we see Crosstalk host Peter Lavelle, who reliable sources say is one of the highest paid people they have. I’ve heard that budget cuts have forced them to tighten their belts a bit when it comes to hiring foreigners, but recent information suggests that they’re still paying foreigners handsomely compared to Russians, i.e. Russian citizens, i.e. Russian taxpayers…
And what exactly do they get for their money? Well in the end of the video, we get a series of quotes from people like Hillary Clinton, Peter Pomerantsev, John Kerry, etc. all about Russia’s media war. Alright, there are just a few problems here.
The first quote is John Kerry saying “They’re spending loads of money.” (Haven’t seen the original quote so I had to back-translate it from Russian). John’s right; they certainly are. And….What? Here’s Russian media telling the Russian people that they spend a lot of their money. Off to a good start!
Of all the quotes I’ve seen here, the only one where it looks as though RT is making an impact is the one from Hillary Clinton, where she says that the West is “losing” the information war. Since when did Hillary Clinton become an expert on this topic? Sure, she’s no doubt just parroting what other, possibly more informed people have said, but there’s another problem with that. When some European and American politicians got panicky about “losing” the information war, they weren’t necessarily referring to RT. If you bother to read a lot of the more alarmist writings on the topic, they’re typically referring to Russian-language media abroad, specifically in countries with large Russian populations like Ukraine and the Baltic states. There’s also concern about Russian ties to far right parties and organizations in Europe, but that’s about it. And that brings me to the next point…
Most, if not all of these quotes are from 2014-2015. RT has been around since 2005. In fact, in those days barely anyone ever watched it. Well to be fair, not many people really watch it now, especially if you’re talking about regular viewers. Their big claim to success is their Youtube channel, not any of their TV channels, and that is highly questionable as well.
Moving on, several of the people being cited would be totally unknown to Russian viewers. I doubt the average Russian viewer knows who Peter Pomerantsev is or what the Legatum Institute is. This is pretty critical because the whole gist of this segment is basically: “Look how effective we are! Look how they react to us!” But all we get are a handful of opinions, only a couple of them from people who would hold any significance for your average Russian, and most of the quotes themselves are mundane.
After the quotes, we see the statement: “And we’ll keep making them angry.” That’s it. That’s what millions of dollars of Russia’s natural wealth and tax revenue is being spent on while roads fall apart, teachers and medics go unpaid, more people sink into poverty, and bureaucrats at all levels continue to skim money out of state budgets to fund their lavish lifestyles- a handful of Western politicians expressing concern over Russian propaganda (as a whole, not RT). Not to mention that it’s actually the job of those people to comment on Russian propaganda and foreign policy. If you tried to do a survey of Americans, asking if RT makes them angry, the most common response will no doubt be: “What’s RT?” Money well spent.
This mentality is so typical these days. Like a teenage class clown, the Kremlin’s one trick is to engage in passive aggressive “trolling” and then gloat over the responses it gets. That’s all it can do. It can’t provide its citizens with better standards of living, dignity, or even respect as this video proves. It can’t allow its citizens to enjoy the modest ability to choose their own leaders every four years in a competitive political system. It babies them and has to remind them that ISIS and Praviy Sektor are illegal organizations in Russia, in case the mere mention of either organization without that caveat might lead to a wave of recruits for either group. Indeed, some have labeled Russia not a “rogue state” but rather a “troll state,” and in likening the Kremlin to an internet troll, these authors have pointed out a rather inconvenient fact. Namely, this trolling is really just compensation for a lack of real power.
The best part of this video is the grand finale, however. Pomerantsev is quoted as saying: “RT has only one viewer it needs to convince. And this is Putin.” At the very end we get a scene where someone is watching the raw footage of this very video as it was being made. We hear a soft, gentle Russian voice giving approval to something. Pull back and: OMG! It’s Putin! He must be convinced! My understanding has been that when you hear someone off camera speaking, it’s typically added in post. Then you’ve got the shot of Putin just standing there staring blankly at the screen. We still hear his voice even though his mouth is closed. He’s not laughing, smiling, or anything. It’s as if he doesn’t even know what he’s looking at. This is probably the most surreal thing in the video.
So there you have it- RT going senile at 10 years old. Now to be fair, I’m a big fan of parody and absurdist humor, and I can see they were trying to go for that. The problem is, however,that for parody to work it has to be rooted in reality. In this video, we see RT doing things that nobody is really accusing it of doing. For example, we see two men dressed like armed terrorists barreling out of a studio and past Simonyan. She enters the studio and a reporter on a green screen studio reporting from “Syria.” The implication is that the West is accusing RT of literally fabricating their coverage. Actually, this kind of thing, i.e. fabrication, does happen, but in the Russian domestic media, not RT.
No, what RT does is stuff like use the editor of a neo-Nazi publication as an “expert” on the Crimea and Ukraine. Here he is, featured in a podcast with Tim Kirby, who’s apparently gathered a great deal of fascist associates over the years. They’re discussing the monitoring of elections in the occupied territories of the Donbas, which involved a group of fake election monitors consisting largely of representatives from European far-right parties. And while they cavort with any sort of far-right neo-fascist who will parrot their line, the whole time they smeared all of Maidan and all opponents of the Kremlin in Ukraine as fascists and neo-Nazis. In addition to this, RT has recently taken to publishing laughably bad anonymous Op-Edge pieces attacking their critics. Everyone’s a “neocon,” it’s all a dastardly conspiracy against the poor, persecuted Kremlin and the glorious leader Putin.
The really offensive thing about this pseudo-parody is that it was shown to Russians, not foreign audiences. Propaganda and the military were two budget items that received major increases in 2014. While the latter was spared from cuts due to the economic crisis, the media including RT has had to tighten its belt a bit. Not so much that they couldn’t rent a ridiculously expensive office, however. And with all this money, they proudly tell the Russian people, somewhat deceptively, that they have angered some public figures in the West…starting in 2014. This in a country where the government put out an appeal for people to donate firewood so as to keep elderly people from freezing to death. Firewood, in a country whose natural gas resources underpinned what was once one of the richest corporations in the world, before Putin ran that into the ground too. “Hee hee! Look how mad we made the adults!” is basically what their telling the Russian people.
Having said all that, there is a sad irony in the sense that this “parody,” with a little modification, could have been really funny and just a few years ago. Of course the problem is that you didn’t have politicians talking about Russia’s “information war” back then, and nobody was really talking about RT. Oh well. At least it had a bear. That pretty much makes up for the whole thing.