Future Tense

What Russians See on State TV About “the Special Military Operation” in Ukraine

A woman sits in a car with the door half-open.
Marina Ovsyannikova, the editor at the state broadcaster Channel One who protested against Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine during the evening news broadcast, leaves court after being fined about $280 for breaching protest laws in Moscow on March 15. -/Getty Images

MOSCOW—After the March 29 peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul, Russian state TV was busy trying to calm down viewers who were worried that Russia might start wrapping up the “special military operation.” While liberal Russians saw the Russian delegation’s statements about reducing attacks on Kyiv and Chernihiv as a positive sign, Kremlin supporters felt betrayed. Hundreds left angry comments on the Telegram channel of Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT. “Are we really capitulating?” they asked. “Why do we negotiate with Nazis?” One warned, “Russians won`t forgive this.”

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The citizens weren’t the only ones expressing concern, though. State TV propagandists usually stay close to the Kremlin line. But this time they deviated from the official narrative. They were in no rush to discuss the scaling back of the military activity. On the contrary, they seemed to be in denial. Vladimir Solovyov, host of the talk show Evening With Vladimir Solovyov on the state-owned channel Russia-1, suggested that the head of Russia’s delegation in Turkey, Vladimir Medinsky, was expressing his own opinion, not Russia’s official point of view. The anchor added that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is a “demon who should be exorcised rather than talked to.”

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Artyom Sheinin, the presenter of another popular political talk show on Channel One (not to be confused with Russia-1) called Time Will Tell, said on March 29 that Russians have many concerns regarding the agreement in Turkey. (If you’ve heard of Sheinin, it might be because he once attacked the American journalist Michael Bohm right in the studio.) Wearing a T-shirt with “Z” Russian military symbol, he stood in front of giant graphics reading “Army of liberation” and “The mission will be accomplished” and said: “The primary goal of the operation has been denazification. We are denazifying the regime. … And now, as Russians see it, we negotiate with the regime. Does it mean that Zelensky and others will stay in power?” (The Kremlin, by the way, has never revealed official plans to overthrow Zelensky and confirmed recently that it recognizes him as a president.) Nikita Danyuk, a guest on the show who is a member of the Civic Chamber of Russia, stressed: “There will be no concessions, no stepping back. Journalists, stop spinning this topic.”

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The Kremlin reacted to the hesitance among experts and public figures by saying that the talks between Russian and Ukraine are led by trustworthy professionals. “Emotions should be put aside,” Vladimir Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on March 30.

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Now, as the world absorbs the shocking images from Bucha, Russian state TV is talking less about the peace talks, though the negotiations continue in a video format. Instead, propagandists are spending hours convincing Russians that the footage from Bucha was staged by Ukrainian “Nazis.” With their huge audience and the policies they introduced after the beginning of the “military operation,” their work is not hard.

Fifty-nine percent of Russians get news from TV, according to the Public Opinion Fund pollster. After the start of the “special operation,” the two most popular channels, Russia-1 and Channel One, stopped showing almost all entertainment content during the daytime, giving extra space to news and political talk shows. For example, 60 Minutes, despite its name, now lasts two and a half hours—and comes out twice a day. (There is no clear relationship between the Russian 60 Minutes and the U.S. version.) All talk shows have the same concept: Experts, many of whom appear on both channels, discuss latest news of the “military operation” with hosts who talk emotionally about their own pro-Kremlin opinions.

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On TV, Ukrainian members of the military are referred to only as “Nazis,” “neo-Nazis,” or “neofascists.” According to state TV reports, they are responsible for civilian casualties, because they use residential buildings as military bases and regular people as human shields. The word war is banned: Journalists can face up to 15 years of jail for using it. Meanwhile even pro-Kremlin guests on TV sometimes struggle to censor themselves, like a political expert Mikhail Markelov, who dropped the war word during “60 Minutes on March 30 and immediately corrected himself. It is unlikely that he will be punished, while protesters all over Russia are getting arrested even for displaying posters that use asterisks.

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Showing footage of burned and bombed neighborhoods in Ukraine, TV hosts say that these territories have been liberated, and Russian soldiers are shown as saviors. Time Will Tell anchor Olesya Loseva said on March 28: “Ukrainian authorities and Nazis deliberately create the humanitarian crisis on the southeast of Ukraine, with the support of the West.” Her words were followed by a report from Mariupol, in which residents complained that “Nazis” occupied their city. Commenting on this report, another anchor of Time Will Tell, Anatoly Kuzichev, at least admitted that Ukrainians do not seem very happy when Russians enter their cities: “We are wondering why they don’t greet us with bread and salt, why they seem frustrated. But look, they have been terrorized. They are scared to death. They might live with this fear for the next month.”

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In recent years, the topic of Ukraine has dominated coverage on state TV, while problems inside Russia have remained secondary. This dynamic has only gotten worse. Last week, from Monday till Friday evening, the newscast Time on Channel One aired 40 reports, most of which were about fights in Ukraine, “Nazis” running away, Ukrainian refugees fleeing to Russia, and heroic acts of Russian army. Just 11 reports, shown in the end of episodes, were related to life inside Russia, with only half of them reporting on sanctions imposed on Russians. On talk shows, hosts and guests prefer not to discuss struggles of Russians at all, emphasizing that Europeans suffer way more from the restrictions—as if it will make Russians to feel better. Alexey Veller, a member of the State Duma (the Russian parliament), compared European politicians to hedgehogs during 60 Minutes show on March 29. “We have the saying: Hedgehogs were prickled with needles, crying, but continued eating a cactus. Europeans understand that their economy will suffer. But they must eat the cactus because of the Euro-Atlantic solidarity. And the big brother [the U.S.] urged them not to switch from the cactus to the apple,” he said.

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Anchors stress that Europeans have to save electricity and shower less because of increased gas prices. German economy will face “paralysis” and unemployment if Russia stops supplies of gas, said Russia-1’s Berlin reporter during 60 Minutes on March 30. The host, Evgeniy Popov, commented: “This sounds like apocalypses.”

The start of the “military operation” prompted some employees of state TV channels to rise up against the propaganda machine and to stop contributing to it after many years of work. In March, Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor of Channel One, became a sensation when she interrupted the live news broadcast of Time Will Tell and ran on set with a poster that said: “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” Some employees have quit state controlled media recently, criticizing the “special military operation” and accusing state TV of zombifying the population.

However, the main propagandists continue to address millions of Russians for hours daily. And they’re now being hit by sanctions personally. Solovyov has been sanctioned in the European Union and his two luxurious mansions in Italy, worth $9 million, have been reportedly seized in February. Sheinin is also on the EU sanctions list, and last week his apartment in Lithuania worth about $70,000 was seized. As their property is taken all over the world, they have less and less to lose.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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