Particularities of National Journalism: Russia's Mass Media in the Mirror of the Iraq War

April 2, 2003

Particularities of National Journalism: Russia's Mass Media in the Mirror of the Iraq War

 The main thing that distinguishes the media in Russia is their imaginary unpredictability, that is, their clear subservience and the absence of the habit of working with actual information.

 The main thing that distinguishes the media in Russia is their imaginary unpredictability, that is, their clear subservience and the absence of the habit of working with actual information.  Ideology has nowhere disappeared in Russia: instead of the interests of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, journalists now cater to the interests of the business group in power.  But, this time, the Russian mass media obviously have not had time to follow orders and so have clumsily shifted--from celebrating the United States to defaming it. 

After a frontal assault on Islam and the Chechens for several years, journalists are now obliged to express solidarity with Iraq and the Ba'ath Party.  In an irony of fate, after attacking Islam, people from the Caucasus, and "blacks" (1) with absolute impunity for eight years to serve the interests of the Chechen campaign, they must now write about the "just war of the Iraqis against the invaders," about victims among the peaceful population, (who previously were not even considered to be "people"); and about how rules of international law are being trampled--the same ones that they generally mocked in connection with Chechnya. 

The main contours of Russian media reporting on the war in Iraq are as follows: 

§         Until the beginning of March, the Russian mass media, for all practical purposes, did not report on anti-war marches nor did it disseminate the positions of either Western or Islamic countries.  Then, all leading mass media outlets broadcast the highly "aggressive" statement made by the American Ambassador [Alexander Vershbow] in Moscow. (2)

§         The press greeted President Putin's statement on Iraq with deathly silence.  They waited to see whether he would change his perspective.  And then they even tried to impose a slight boycott.  Elements of this boycott appeared specifically in the weak criticism of the results of the three-year presidency.


§         The beginning of the war served as a call to a three-day flood of talk shows, the main motif of which was craziness and hysterics (on the part of the participants).  The principal theme was that this is a war for oil in which Russia is losing everything (or, alternatively, is losing nothing at all).

§         On the eve of the referendum in Chechnya (March 23) almost all the mass media dropped the Iraqi war and covered the referendum instead.  The Chechen war, the victims of "cleansing operations," the conduct of the federal army, and the suffering of the peaceful population have been absolutely closed topics in the Russian press for three years already.  The press reported on the referendum in the spirit of Soviet times: the fundamental line of this reporting was how Russians resolve questions democratically in Chechnya while the Americans are conducting themselves undemocratically in Iraq.

§         The first week of war was summed up in the most popular media headline: "Blitzkrieg Did Not Succeed."  Also, the mass media persistently but very circumspectly drew an analogy between Hitler and Stalin, on one hand, and Bush and Saddam, on the other.  Just as Stalin was supported by all of "democratic" humanity, so Saddam is supported today. 

The expectant mood of the press has come to an end.  And it is beginning to follow orders in full.  Now the discussion of how "our president put Bush in his place" (on the question of the provision of weapons to Iraq), has become the hit of the week. 

In the evaluations and judgments of Russian journalists, two (contradictory) themes prevail: 

1.      They very much want the Americans to "get their clocks cleaned,"

2.      It is very difficult to sympathize with the Arabs, Muslims, and all the rest with whom they are sympathizing. 

Russian journalism is picking its way between this Scylla and Charybdis.  Some examples of the topics one can find: 

President Bush's idiocy, the stupidity of his soldiers, and the cowardliness of his army:

Fearful of expressing a personal opinion, journalists have fallen in love with commentary, "expert evaluations," and "the opinions of specialists."  As usual, Zhirinovsky and other such odious personalities are being allowed to talk loudly at this time.  It is necessary to say that Russian military personnel, specialists, officers, and their colleagues in the special services are very dry in their evaluations, but to dress them up and "present" them is the favorite business of the mass media. 

America is carving up the world:

Duma Vice Speaker Irina Khakamada has allowed herself to call Americans "an elephant in a china shop," although just two months ago all her commentary began with a call to accelerate taking our place in "world government."  All pro-Kremlin experts, all the "talking heads" of the Russian mass media articulated this perspective with an emphasis on Russia "again is not part of the action" and "Russian interests" are not being respected.  

Inability to understand American goals:

Russian mass media are in principle unable to discuss the values of democracy, freedom, rights, and responsibilities in a serious way.  So they drearily interpret any references made by the Americans to God and mission, to this being a conflict between good and evil, and other such "Protestant formulations"--after all, they are sure, that this is only so much American hogwash--no one believes in these ideals.  This is a war for oil--plain and simple--and a war for American supremacy. 

Inherent scorn for Muslims, Arabs, and "blacks":

Unlike their counterparts in the West, the mass media in Russia allow themselves to use monstrous expressions even notwithstanding their general aim to "sympathize with the Arabs."  A Muslim in Russia is a person outside the law.  It is possible to do anything with him and public opinion will not become agitated.  Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Russian citizens are beaten, killed, executed, "cleansed," and robbed but this is never in the mass media!  But Iraq is.  So journalists approach the Arabs of Iraq thus: "Yes, they are dirty beasts, but it is now necessary to keep quiet about that." 

Finally, a special subject: the opinions of Russian Muslims.  There are more than 20 million Muslims in Russia-one in every seven people.  They have their own media resources, mostly limited and regional.  This crisis is not testing the depth of their loyalty to the authorities and they view the West in a sufficiently pragmatic way.  Like the majority of Muslims in the world, they are in solidarity with the Iraqis and see the war as aggression precisely against Islam.  But in the national media, everything is done to conceal from them President Bush's announcement that Palestinian problems are to be resolved at the end of the war.   And it is said in journalistic circles that the subject of Israel has completely disappeared from the Russian mass media at the request of the Israeli ambassador. 

Finally, Russian journalists are now frequently discussing with satisfaction the contrast between freedom of the press in Russia and the dictates of censorship in the United States.  Others might say that in Russia as in Soviet times, it is possible openly to criticize the President of the United States. 

(1)    As is the usage in England as well, "black" refers not simply to someone of African origin but to a wide variety of ethnic groups emanating from Africa, the Middle East, and southwestern Asia.  In Russian parlance, it is often used to refer to people from the ex-USSR's southern periphery.

(2)   Vershbow had made it clear that a Russian veto of the second UN resolution could carry very serious consequences for the future of the U.S.-Russia partnership.  For a discussion of this, see Nikolas Gvosdev, "Russia, the United Nations and the Fate of Iraq," at


Nadezhda Kevorkova is a special correspondent for Gazeta (Moscow).