The Kremlin Cannot Afford to Stop Propping Up Its Constructed Reality
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Artyom Chaika, the son of Russia’s Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, owns a conglomerate of assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Chaika Jr.’s business dealings involve fraud and rigged tenders. Chaika Sr.’s colleagues are implicated in joint business with gangsters. And these are just a few elements of a large-scale investigation report published last week by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a Russian civil-society group run by the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny (highlights in English).
Russia’s political system refuses to accept grassroots muckraking or any civil-society activity it does not, itself, support. Any criticism emanating from individual activists, policy-research centers, or media that are not owned or “licensed” by the state is seen as adversary to the incumbent power. As Vladimir Putin has reiterated on countless occasions, all such people and organizations are paid for by foreigners with alien agendas.
The problem this time is that Navalny’s investigation of the Chaika affair is so graphic and so well-substantiated, it is hard to ignore.
This is a rather consistent position, but it has its consequences. The only way the Kremlin can respond to allegations published by an independent body is either by staying silent or by calling those allegations false. On top of calling the published reports deceitful, some of the officials mentioned in them have often suggested that the material was “leaked” by ill-meaning political rivals and, of course, foreigners (oblivious to the contradiction in their own logic: if it’s “leaked,” it could be true). The official reaction to Navalny’s latest effort has been all of the above.
The Kremlin ignored it for a week, while the main characters of the saga called the report false and promised to sue Navalny. On Monday the presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he actually knew about some of the facts. But the Kremlin, Peskov went on to say, was not interested in the allegations, because they did not implicate the prosecutor general personally, but his sons who are of full age.
Apparently, it is now the prosecutor general's job to decide whether to pursue allegations (indirectly confirmed true by the Kremlin) against his own family and colleagues.
The problem is that Navalny’s investigation of the Chaika affair is so graphic and so well-substantiated, it is hard to ignore. Most of the evidence presented by the investigators comes from open sources, including Russia’s own official databases. Investigative reporters from the newspaper Vedomosti have run checks on the hardest allegation contained in the report (that the wives—one actual, one former—of two high-ranking prosecutors have a joint business with the wives of two proven gangsters) and confirmed that the company-ownership details supporting the claim were genuine.
If proved true, the allegations could bring down both the prosecutor’s clan and the entire government. But, as we have already discussed, accountability does not work in our country the way it does in many other places. If a Russian official is suspected of corruption or other criminal activity, he or she would work to change the narrative, not to change the behavior, let alone assume responsibility and quit.
The result is the divergence of narratives: the official narrative grows further and further away from the narratives suggested by independent activists, researchers and the media. The majority of the Russian population, which is (supposedly) overwhelmingly supportive of the Kremlin, ends up living in a constructed reality-television show. No external signals are allowed to interfere with the worldview defended by the state-run media. Television presents everything that is going on in Russia, and in the world, as an epic battle between the sitting government and evil foreigners.
The Kremlin has learned to fine-tune peoples’ views. But there are two important consequences arising from this success. First, the official narrative is so ubiquitous that there is no way of knowing what people actually think. Many pay lip service to it, but are eager to watch Navalny’s latest documentary. Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American social scientist, once called this effect “preference falsification.” For fear of retribution or for a desire to go with the flow, people are reluctant to tell the truth, even to innocent-seeming pollsters.
Second, the Kremlin cannot stop propping up its media reality. It is one of those bicycle metaphors: the world of the average Russian will unravel as soon as the multi-billion dollar media machine stops running. The average Russian has to continue focusing on their country’s holy mission, while prosecutors, doubling as criminals, have to remain distant subjects. The quality of the picture on the screen is crucial, but it may deteriorate as Russian television is now suffering from the economic crisis.
The majority of the Russian population, which is (supposedly) overwhelmingly supportive of the Kremlin, ends up living in a constructed reality-television show.
Russia is already cutting its spending on media, but not significantly. All three major Russian channels are operating in the red. The decline of the advertising market has caused the flagship Channel One to cut its spending on content by 25 percent this year, its C.E.O. Konstantin Ernst said in a recent interview.
Economic difficulties will not, of course, prevent the Kremlin from continuing to support its increasingly divergent media universe. The constructed reality of the state-run media has become a matter of national security. The heavier the allegations, the deeper the Kremlin has to go into denial. One has to be realistic. In today’s Russia there is no court or other conflict-solving mechanism that both accusers and the accused would recognize as fully acceptable.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.
About the Author
Editor-at-Large, Vedomosti Daily
Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.Read More
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community. Read more