In the past we’ve often seen what happens when pro-Kremlin figures, be they politicians or pundits, attempt to promote their government’s line abroad, outside of the space that they control via the state and its monopoly on force. In case you haven’t seen what I’m referring to, microwave a bag of popcorn and watch this video sometime. If you don’t have time to do that now or in the new future I’ll tell you what you’re missing- a verbal bloodbath.
You see, inside Russia’s borders, power and force are used to marginalize and suppress facts or ideas the system doesn’t like. Echo chambers are constructed in which horribly bad ideas like Eurasian geopolitics are allowed to incubate unchallenged. Then someone with these ideas steps outside into a world in which people don’t necessarily assume that Russia is a great power with the right to invade sovereign nations and folks who don’t accept the idea that the misdeeds of the West give a free pass to Moscow. When they can’t even get their most basic premises past the gauntlet, the train wreck ensues.
There is, however, another reason why Russian narratives don’t work out so well outside of the space the Kremlin can control with force. We’ve seen time and time again that making up phony stories or transmitting fabricated stories without any attempt to confirm the claims is no grounds for dismissal in the Russian state media. In response to the crucified boy story, to use one of the best examples, critics were told that it was their responsibility to prove it didn’t happen, a complete reversal of the burden of proof. As it turns out, however, making up fake stories happens to have consequences outside of Russia. Criminal consequences, as it turns out.
Meet Ivan Blagoy, an adept in the ways of Russian “journalism” and a Berlin-based correspondent for Channel One. Yes, that’s the same channel that brought us such classics as the crucified boy of Slovyansk and the “foreign satellite photos” of a Ukrainian plane shooting down a stock photo of a Boeing 777 that was passed off as MH17. Ivan’s in hot water now because of a story he published which alleged that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl was gang-raped by migrants for 30 hours, after which the German police forced her to claim the sex was consensual so as to cover up the case. As the reader can most likely guess without even reading the link, the story turned out to be false. The German police found that the girl was neither kidnapped nor raped, and she returned home on her own (New information on this, see UPDATE below).
A fabricated story such as this one would normally be dismissed as par for the course in Russia, but as it turns out, Germany doesn’t tolerate this kind of nonsense. In Germany there are laws against inciting hatred against certain groups of people (in this case migrants), and unlike Russia such laws are actually applied with at least some measure of consistency.
No stranger to lying, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov doubled down on the allegation at his press conference today. Basically implying once again that Russian “investigations” of crimes outside of Russian territory are somehow superior to those of local law enforcement, Lavrov told conference attendees: “It’s apparent that this girl absolutely did not voluntarily disappear for 30 hours.” Of course in the real world, children and adults go missing, sometimes for even longer periods of time, without being kidnapped or assaulted at all, but it’s Lavrov, so what did you expect?
Now as soon as you talk about a case like this, a few poor counter-arguments from the Putin fan club immediately come to mind. I write “immediately” because these people are so ridiculously predictable. So let’s begin!
“What about free speech?!” Bullshit, Putinoid. Your Dear Leader’s state locks people up for poems, questioning the Crimean annexation, standing alone with a sign, and other rather innocuous actions that would be protected speech in virtually any liberal democracy. In Russia, laws against “extremism” and “inciting ethnic hatred” are selectively tailored to fit policy. Ergo one can rail against “degenerate Europeans,” Ukrainians, and Turk to one’s heart’s content without fear of getting dinged for extremism. Similarly, neo-Nazi or fascist politics are more or less tolerated if not directly or indirectly supported by the state so long as the people in question are on the Kremlin’s side of things. So long as a racist neo-Nazi proves himself useful to the Kremlin, particularly by fighting their dirty war in the Donbas in some capacity, he’ll have a “roof” as they say here.
Are there societies which would allow this kind of race baiting and hate-mongering? Sure. There’s actually a country that not only protects this kind of speech, but in fact tolerates it among its most popular presidential candidates. Check it out, Kremlin fans. Perhaps you can move there if you think Germany’s too restrictive on your media’s right to fabricate stories. Oh…Wait…No.
Seriously though, the German’s aren’t prosecuting the guy simply because he lied. In response to the story there have been anti-immigrant protests and ironically enough, Russians have been involved in some of them. In this sense the Germans are treating this matter in a way not unlike the shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre exception in the US, which of course is known for being far more tolerant of what is labeled “hate speech” in European countries. And on that note, the US doesn’t have endless tolerance for this kind of behavior either.
Next one might try to insist, much like Lavrov or some of the Russian immigrants in Germany, that the story is actually true and the police are just covering it up. Well the burden of proof is on the claimant, friends, and the fact is that young people, especially teenagers, go missing all the time for stupid reasons. The idea that police in Berlin are somehow successfully forcing a Russian family to stay silent about such a heinous crime is simply idiotic. Even in Cologne, where police reacted rather incompetently during the New Year’s assaults on women, the story got out and made huge waves not just in Germany, but throughout the world. Thankfully there were plenty of liberal, leftist, and Muslim pundits who immediately condemned the attacks in the press and similarly spoke out against anyone who might downplay what happened in a misguided attempt to oppose racism. To date I have yet to see any such apologetics.
In the end I think the supreme irony here is that in a real media organization, Blagoy would have just been fired for fabricating stories, and I’m not convinced this is his first time. Yet thanks to the Kremlin media’s tolerance for outright bullshit, he’s now getting hit with a criminal charge. Can’t say I really have much sympathy for him. It’s not just the lying, it’s the aim of the lying- demonizing an entire group of people and promoting a mindset whereby Russians in his audience wanted that 13-year-old girl to be raped. They were actually upset at the idea that she wasn’t. This kind of mindset is by no means exclusive to Russians or the Kremlin media’s target audience; it’s actually quite commonplace. It’s also something that the media, and in this case the Western media duly included, deliberately nurture. This time one of the purveyors tried it outside of his safe zone, was caught, and may be held accountable, but there are so many other fish in the sea.
UPDATE: Apparently further investigation suggests that the girl did indeed have what was called consensual sex with two males, though this is statutory rape because she was 13 (age of consent in Germany being 14, which by the way, what the fuck, Germany?!) Take a seat right over there). While nothing was said about the national background of the two males, they are being investigated by the police, thus negating the Russian claim that the girl was kidnapped and gang raped, as well as the claim that the police are deliberately covering it up and obstructing justice.