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One of the paradoxical things about Vladimir V. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule over Russia was how the society was still relatively open.
Despite all the state control over the media, people could read or watch whatever they wanted, including foreign newscasts like the BBC and CNN. The internet was largely unfettered, a portal to the rest of the world. Unlike, say, China, you could criticize the president with some assurance that the police wouldn’t be knocking on the door.
As the war in Ukraine continues, Mr Putin has strangled the remnants of a free press to justify an invasion that has been almost universally condemned – and thus came close to the mind-numbing orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. The result will be to isolate the country, as Mr. Putin isolated himself, leaving him with a unilateral vision of the world that is no longer debated.
Two of the country’s remaining independent media flagships – Ekho Moskvy, the liberal radio station, and TV Dozhd, or digital upstart Rain – went off the air last week, harassed by authorities for reporting accurately from Ukraine. Access to Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, platforms vibrant in opposition to Mr. Putin’s war, has been blocked, as have other online sites in Russia.
Many foreign news outlets withdrew their correspondents or stopped reporting in Russia after Mr Putin signed into law a measure on Friday punishing anyone spreading “false information” with up to 15 years in prison.
“Just two weeks ago, it was unimaginable how quickly most of them would be shut down,” said Nina L. Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School in New York. and great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita. S. Khrushchev. “And yet it is.”
Beyond the immediate impact on the ability of Russians to learn about the war next door, Mr. Putin seems to have crossed a threshold in the country’s history. It sequesters Russian society more than at any time since the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in 1986 launched a policy called glasnost, which has become known as “openness” but more accurately means ” the act of speaking”. ”
Access to foreign reporting and independent voices on social media challenged the Kremlin’s monopoly on state media – as Mr Gorbachev’s efforts broke the Soviet monopoly on truth. Independent media outlets have, at great risk to journalists’ personal safety, uncovered abuses during Russia’s war in Chechnya, political and human rights crackdowns and the extraordinary wealth of people close to Mr Putin – all subjects taboos in state media.
The impact of silencing them could be much wider and last much longer than war, pushing the country from authoritarian rule to something worse.
“Putin is trying to turn Russia back into a totalitarian dictatorship of the pre-Gorbachev era,” said Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “He will eventually fail, but he will cause great damage to Russian society by trying.”
Kremlin propaganda and restrictions have already disconnected ordinary Russians from the horrific violence ravaging cities across Ukraine – even those who have relatives on the ground telling them otherwise. They concealed the difficulties of the Russian army, as well as the human costs for the Ukrainians whom Mr Putin claims to defend.
Those who watch Russian television instead see the country’s troops taking part in a largely bloodless “special military operation” to protect Ukrainian civilians from a neo-Nazi government. In this alternate reality, Russian troops distribute aid to civilians or help evacuate them to safety; Ukrainians fabricate reports of Russian military setbacks – or even bomb their own cities.
The result has been to create a blind view of war that few dare to see. Not a single member of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, voted against the bill criminalizing “fake news”.
“There is less and less access to accurate information from the West amid the relentless hammering of increasingly hysterical state propaganda, which is certainly having its effect,” Sergey Radchenko said. , professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Europe.
Mr Putin was a KGB lieutenant colonel, serving in the former East Germany when glasnost was introduced. He later said that he, too, recognized the need for the Soviet Union to become more open. Only up to a point, however.
From the start of his presidency in 2000, he understood that the media – especially television – had the power not only to shape his political image but also to help him govern. He moved quickly to regain control of the main television channels from two oligarchs, Vladimir A. Gusinsky and Boris A. Berezovsky, who championed agendas not always in line with the Kremlin.
But print media faced less direct pressure, and the internet overflowed with new outlets, making Russian and foreign sources widely accessible. Independent media like Ekho Moskvy were mostly left alone, serving as quasi-independent sources of news and debate, at least for the educated elite. The station was itself a child of glasnost, founded in 1990 by frustrated state radio employees who wanted a platform for genuine political discussion.
The Russians attributed the station’s survival to its shrewd editor, Aleksei A. Venediktov, and the Kremlin’s need for both a safety valve for liberal debate and a source of information separate from its own propaganda. It was where opposition figures long excluded from state television could give interviews and presenters could debate the impact of Kremlin policies on ordinary people.
Ahead of its closure last week, the outlet promoted voices critical of the war and of Mr Putin himself. Russia’s prosecutor general accused him of “deliberately spreading false information”.
As in many spheres of Russian life, tolerance for contrary or unorthodox views in the media has been eroding for years. Maria Snegovaya, a visiting scholar at George Washington University and a fellow at the Center for New American Security in Washington, said there had been a “qualitative shift” in Mr Putin’s government.
She dated it to the protests that rocked Mr Putin’s ally Belarus in 2020; the poisoning of the great Kremlin critic, Aleksei A. Navalny, and his subsequent imprisonment; and constitutional changes enacted last year allowing Mr Putin, now 69, to extend his presidential term until 2036.
All generated significant opposition in Russia that seeped into public discourse, despite the Kremlin’s efforts. Mr Navalny became famous for his investigations devoted to exposing corruption, including a 143-minute YouTube documentary after his arrest that accused Mr Putin of secretly building a palace on the Black Sea coast.
“I have always refrained from calling Russia totalitarian, but I think the military situation, the war, pushed the authorities towards that,” Ms Snegovaya said from Bulgaria where she was helping Russians who fled the country in recent months. last days.
A tougher step would be to create an analog to China’s Great Firewall, which restricts access to foreign websites on the outside and strictly controls what is allowed on the inside. Russia calls its vision of a sovereign cyberspace the RuNet, though it has so far refrained from imposing total control.
In today’s digitally connected world, Mr. Putin may find it difficult to completely cut off Russia. Even in the Soviet Union, information traveled across borders. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, which allow people to evade Internet restrictions by concealing the country they are connecting from, can help spread information in much the same way as samizdat, illegal copies of books or censored articles circulated clandestinely in Soviet times.
“It will be difficult for the Russian government to block all outside information,” said Jamie Fly, managing director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the US-funded network founded during the Cold War, after news broke that he, too, ceased his operations inside Russia. “History shows that people will go to great lengths to seek the truth.”
Those who do now will be a small minority. As Mr Putin’s rule continues, critics fear he will take even stronger measures to maintain the Kremlin’s unchallenged grip on power.
“We have a long way to go before we get to 1937,” Mr. Radchenko said, referring to the year of Stalin’s Great Terror, “but for the first time the road is clear. You can see far ahead, as if on a cold, chilly winter morning, and there, in the distance, you can barely make out the outlines of the guillotines.