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18 November 2018

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The Invention of Russia

Arkady Ostrovsky (Viking, $30)

An important means ever at the Russian state’s disposal has been the media. And it is this fourth estate, and its role in “inventing” the Russia we see today, that concerns Arkady Ostrovsky (The Invention of Russia, Viking, $30), whose book was awarded the Orwell Prize soon after it was published.

Chronicling the role of Russian media in politics from the 1980s to the present day, Ostrovsky shows how it has been repeatedly used to shape and guide events by those who have held its reigns. From the “meticulously planned suicide” of the USSR to the Yeltsin elections, from the wars in Georgia and Ukraine to the rise of Putin, Russian media has been a reality unto itself. Quoting Nobel laureate Ivan Pavlov, Ostrovsky notes that in Russia “we are mostly interested in words and have little concern for reality.”

This sentiment reached its culmination, Ostrovsky says, in Crimea and Ukraine: “never before had wars been conducted and territory gained primarily by means of television and propaganda. The role of the military was to support the picture.” There, the media did not merely mis-report or distort reality, “they invented it,” making up stories of atrocities, hiring actors to portray victims and combatants, spreading ridiculous falsehoods to muddy the waters.

Interestingly, tying together the ideas raised by both Clover and Satter, Ostrovsky writes:

“Those who produce Russian propaganda are not driven by the idea of reestablishing a notional ‘Russian World’ or rebuilding the empire – they are too pragmatic for that. They act not out of conviction or a sense of reality but out of cynicism and disrespect for that reality.”

A sobering conclusion indeed. Yet the final edge piece in beginning to frame this puzzle ought come from Boris Nemtsov, the gifted politician who was both inside and outside the Kremlin over the two decades before his murder last spring. One year prior, in May 2014, Nemtsov wrote this about modern Russian politics:

“I can’t remember such a level of general hatred as the one in Moscow today... ‘national traitors,’ ‘fifth column,’ ‘fascist junta’ – all these terms are coming from the same Kremlin office... The Kremlin is cultivating and rewarding the lowest instincts in people, provoking hatred and fighting. People are set off against each other. This hell cannot end peacefully.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2016