I am a professor of history and I teach courses, amongst other topics, on Russia and the USSR. I try to explain to my students how Russians see themselves and their history, and how the Western Mainstream Media (MSM is the internet acronym) present Russia to its readers. Of course the MSM’s bull’s-eye is Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but Russia itself is also a target.
How can this be? After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia fell to its knees, its economy wrecked by Russian western wannabees, so-called liberals, applying «shock» treatments. The idea was to wean the Russian people quickly from socialism, but the liberals only succeeded in ruining the personal economies of ordinary Russians who lost their savings twice in 1990s. Never mind, it’s the price you have to pay, MSM might have advised, if you want to be like us in the west. And who wouldn’t want to be like us?
President Boris Yeltsin, who came to power by dismembering the USSR, was presented in the West as a hero. In fact, he was playing court jester to President Bill Clinton. «Good ol’ Boris», said Clinton, as Yeltsin sent tanks against the Russian White House in 1993 and rigged elections in 1996 with the help of the US embassy in Moscow. You do what you have to do, American government officials would have commented. Yelstin kept his «power», in so far as he had it, showing his gratitude to the US by behaving like Clinton’s pal when he visited Washington. It was great material for the MSM, not so great when viewed from Moscow. You remember the first Star Wars film when princess Leia was captured by the evil giant worm, Jabba the Hutt, who kept her on a leash? Yeltsin was certainly not the beautiful Princess Leia, but the leash was real enough.
Being dependent on the United States, Yeltsin got nothing from Clinton beyond personal survival. In the meantime, long-time Soviet ally (and western ally too) Yugoslavia was destroyed by NATO. You remember NATO, don’t you, supposedly organised for defence against the USSR, but then turned to aggression in the name of a bogus «Responsibility to Protect». There was no gratitude, I would comment in passing, for Serbia’s role in World War I and Yugoslavia’s during World War II, or Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s declaration of independence from Stalin. To be sure, gratitude is not a value in relations between states.
The US government must have been uncertain about being able to keep Russia on Jabba’s tether because NATO was given a new task to encircle Russia, expanding eastward, contrary to commitments not to do so, made to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, another MSM pet. It was to be a new cordon sanitaire, though no one called it that.
Finally, Yeltsin resigned at the end of 1999. Vladimir Putin was elected president in the following year, and he set about to integrate Russia politically and economically into the rest of Europe. In spite of Putin’s best efforts with US President George W. Bush, Russian relations with the West did not work out. As one of my students discovered in doing a Master’s thesis on the MSM and Putin, the Russian president was characterised from the beginning as the former KGB officer, who wanted to bring back the USSR, the farthest idea from Putin’s mind. Political cartoons portrayed him with hammers and sickles in his eyes, or morphing into Stalin. Another showed him bringing breakfast into the Lenin mausoleum. «Wakey, wakey, Vladimir Ilich», Putin was heard to say.
How could the West (read the US) so misrepresent Putin, and why? For one thing, Putin did not want to lie calmly at Jabba the Hutt’s feet. He set out to rebuild Russia’s economic, political, and military strength. Western Europe has seldom been at ease with a strong Russia. Western Russophobia in fact dates from at least the early 19th century. A confident, independent minded leader in Moscow is the last Russian that the MSM would want to embrace. Putin is the bull, or rather the bear in the china shop. The western man of power fears and hates subjected «others» who depart from their assigned roles as bowing servants.
Putin began to speak too candidly about aggression when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 on a bogus pretext and bankrolled «colour revolutions» in Georgia and the Ukraine in 2003-04. Nor did Putin like it when President Bush pulled out of the ABM treaty at the end of 2001, even as Putin was trying to make friends.
We have to guard against Iran, Bush said. There is no threat from Iran, Putin insisted, nor has there ever been one. Russians suspected that Iran was just a cover to reinforce the NATO (read US) encirclement of Russia. There is a settlement now with Iran on nuclear issues, but ABM development and deployment continue apace. Russian suspicions of the US would seem justified.
Putin also dared to challenge openly the main plank of American political ideology, US exceptionalism. The United States is the exceptional nation, so the idea goes, «the Shining City upon the hill», destined to impose its values and interests on other peoples and nations, for their own good, whether they want it or not.
One thing you can say about MSM, it doesn’t like a counter-narrative. «We’re an empire now», said Karl Rove, one of Bush Jr.’s neocons, «and when we act, we create our own reality». MSM, he might have added, serves as the empire’s bullhorn, reinforcing the new «realities», just as depicted in Orwell’s 1984. Trouble was, and still is, that these «realities» are not reality to most other people living outside of the US and its vassal states. Who cares what they think, Rove commented in effect, we’ll go on creating new realities, «and you, all of you [out there], will be left to just study what we do».
Let’s look at the brief Russia-Georgia confrontation in 2008. The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, a cowardly US puppet, sent his soldiers into South Ossetia, thinking he could occupy it before Russia reacted. He was mistaken and the Georgian army was thrashed. MSM treated the flare-up as an act of Russian aggression. The proverbial Russian bear became the US cartoonist’s favourite image. One cartoonist portrayed the bear gnawing on a bone called Georgia, staring down at a tiny Bush Jr., as if to say you can’t do in Georgia what you did in Iraq. Another bear clenches Georgia in its mouth about to swallow it. It is a pervasive image in the west. US cartoonists seem to want to goad their leaders into a fight by drawing a big Russian bear growling at tiny Bush Jr. or tiny Barack Obama. «What are you going to do about it?» the nasty bear asks.
Of course the aggressor in South Ossetia was Saakashvili, encouraged by his US minders. You can do it, if you act quickly enough, seems to have been the American idea. To be fair, not all western cartoonists were on the US bandwagon regarding Georgia, but it was not long before most of them fell into line. Just do an online search if you have any doubts.
The West did not like Putin’s criticism of NATO aggression in 2011 against Libya – is there any other word for it? – and the lynching of its leader Muammar Gaddafi. In a grotesque scene, the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, like a thirsty vampire, gloated over images of his blood-drenched corpse. Putin called the NATO attack «airstrike democracy». It was a stark metaphor for western hypocrisy. There is no democracy in once prosperous Libya, only ruin, chaos and rampaging groups of violent Salafi Jihadists. Thanks to NATO, they have now made their way to Syria and Iraq. MSM incidentally criticises Russia for backing Syria’s resistance to the west’s Frankenstein monsters, so often employed from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to the present day to overthrow independent secular governments in the Middle East or Asia. If only the Jihadists had stayed in Syria and not got into Iraq to create an Islamic State (IS). In sending units of the Russian air force to Syria, Putin flushed out the US and its vassals’ backing of IS «moderates». There are no moderate Jihadists, of course; they are an American invention. Putin called the west’s bluff, and invited the US in effect to turn against its own Jihadi allies. In Washington that may not be an easy turn to make. Old habits are hard to break.
The one development which has truly unleashed the MSM’s fury against Putin and Russia is the Ukraine crisis. For the west, it’s Russia’s fault, Russia’s aggression, especially Crimean reunification , forgetting that the US and its EU satellites set off the present crisis by backing a violent fascist coup d’état in Kiev. Do an online search: the image of the dangerous Russian bear is ubiquitous. It threatened Crimeans into voting for Russian reunification. How absurd and how far from reality can you get? As if Crimeans would want to embrace the fascist junta in Kiev. The Russian bear is also depicted eating a fish called Ukraine. «I feel threatened», growls the bear, wearing an ushanka, emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. Still another bear, showing sharp teeth, offers Valentine chocolates to a babushka entitled eastern Ukraine. «Be mine… or else» is the cutline. The message is so outrageous, one begins to laugh. But upon reflection the image is not funny at all for it shows the extent to which MSM has turned reality inside out.
Then there is a recent Time, what could be more MSM than Time magazine, bemoaning «the dangerous rise of Kremlin hard-liners», the so-called siloviki, powerful functionaries, as if there are none of these types in western governments. If Pot ever called Kettle black, this is it. These new Moscow bad guys «dominate political life in Russia», according to Time, «[and]… contribute… to… an atmosphere of paranoia and aggression». Time offers us a veritable dictionary of preposterous western clichés about Russia. The aggressor’s MSM bullhorn accuses «the other» of aggression. It’s an old trick by the way often used by the United States. As for the «paranoia», look at a map. Who is trying to encircle who? Who threatens who? Who spends almost as much on armaments as all other states on planet Earth combined? It is not Russia.
Orwellian newspeak is now the norm in the west and especially in the United States. Just read Obama’s speeches. Russia and China are miscreant «others». Is this objectification of US adversaries a preparation for war? Listening to Obama, you would never know that the US brokered a fascist coup d’état in Kiev, committed flagrant acts of aggression against Iraq and Libya, amongst other states, or that it arms Salafi Jihadists in Syria. Outliers and dissidents who expose the lies are ignored, ridiculed, blackened. Whistle-blowers are jailed. And Putin, a marked man if there ever was one, is damned above all others for daring like the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s fable to expose the emperor wearing no clothes. «Do you realise what you have done?» – Putin recently asked at the UN. Nyet, Gospodin Prezident, they don’t. It used to be said that the truth will out, but I am not so sure that it will, at least in time to be anything more than a debating point amongst historians, as Karl Rove suggested, too late to matter.