Marketing Putin And Russia To A Foreign Audience – Analysis


An October 22 Komsomolskaya Pravda feature “Russia Should Stop Shying Away From Defending Itself in the Foreign Press“, has been circulated within English language Russia watching circles. This piece emphasizes the opinion that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia in general have been lax towards the negatively inaccurate comments about them. With numerous examples to the contrary, there is a reasoned basis to offer another impression, which does not rule out the notion of official Russia being periodically behind in answering negativity against it.

Putin, a good number of other Russians (including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United Nations Ambassador Vitaly Churkin) and some others, do not appear apprehensive about responding to negatively inaccurate comments about Russia. The qualitative level of these replies and how they are covered (if covered) in foreign media are key factors influencing how Putin and Russia are viewed abroad. A few instances involving Putin and foreign media immediately come to mind.

At a 2006 press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia (Putin’s birthplace and city where he began his political career), the then American President George Bush initiated a a candid exchange with Putin. Bush suggested that Iraq had greater democracy, while expressing the hope for Russia to be more like Iraq. Putin briefly answered with the preference for his country not to become like Iraq.

The English language mass media reporting of the Bush-Putin press conference exchange included the suggestion that Putin was more provocative than Bush. (I recall the BBC’s Matt Frei liken Putin’s response to a “Zinedine Zidane head butt“.) Putin did not initiate the provocatively questionable comment that took issue with his country’s political development. Should he have simply ignored Bush’s remark and risk being called a weenie by a Russian public, which has by and large supported him? Putin’s reply to Bush prompted a noticeable burst of laughter, among those in attendance at that press conference – in a way that can be taken as a touché acknowledgement for Putin.

During a recent gathering of the Valdai Discussion Club, Putin was not shy in noting the condemnatory Western response to an anti-Muslim film, in comparison to the greater Western tendency of exhibiting sympathy for the imprisoned Pussy Riot activists, who violated the sanctity of a chapel, in a church, which was demolished in 1931, as part of an anti-religious process. (The Pussy Riot selected Cathedral of Christ the Savior underwent reconstruction in 1994.)

In its mention of the recent Valdai Discussion Club event, the October 25 Reuters news article “Pussy Riot Got What They Deserved: Putin” compares the jailed Pussy Riot activists with the producer of an anti-Muslim film as excerpted:

“At Thursday’s dinner Putin raised his voice, looked straight at the questioner and asked why Westerners who criticized Russia for sending two of the young women to labor camps far from Moscow had not come out in support of a jailed American who made an anti-Muslim hate film.

‘Do you want to support people with such views? If you do, then why do you not support the guy who is sitting in prison for the film about the Muslims?’ the president shot back.

This was an apparent reference to ‘The Innocence of Muslims’, a crude hate video that triggered violent protests across the Islamic world when it was aired on the Internet.

An actress in the film has identified an Egyptian born Californian, Mark Basseley Youssef, as its author. Youssef is currently detained on suspicion of violating his probation terms for a bank fraud conviction.”

In short, Youssef is portrayed as someone who has been arrested for something other than free expression. The timing of his most recent arrest coincides with the uproar against the film he is credited for producing. The airing of that film did not involve uninvitingly going into a mosque, much unlike Pussy Riot selecting a high profile church’s chapel to perform its “art”. As a non-endorsement of “The Innocence of Muslims” film, these thoughts are stated to exhibit the spin factor element.

The Reuters piece in question downplays the approach that American government officials have taken on these two occurrences. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it a point to call the anti-Muslim film “disgusting”. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland offered no condemnatory note of Pussy Riot’s action, in a tersely worded statement about the right of “freedom of expression” being challenged by the sentencing of the Pussy Riot activists. As quoted, Tommy Vietor, a White House official mildly acknowledged an understanding that some might be offended by Pussy Riot’s action.

Pussy Riot would have likely not been challenged and/or sentenced had they performed their act in an area like their own residence, or a venue where they were invited to perform, or another place that was not the meeting point and property of people who do not agree with their views and methods. The disrespectful manner that Pussy Riot and their legal representation exhibited in court went counter to seeking a lighter judicial decision. With a pious attitude, the Pussy Riot activists offered no apology for how they carried on. While one can disagree with the two year sentence handed out to the Pussy Riot activists, the length of internment for the given charge is a far cry from a brutally oppressive dictatorship.

An excerpt from the aforementioned Reuters news article:

“Putin’s comments came amid a wider clampdown on dissent in Russia, which has included arrests of opposition leaders on criminal charges and tighter controls on media.

This has led to fears that the political system, which is highly centralized under the Kremlin, is becoming increasingly ossified and intolerant.”

Not noted are the numerous non-jailed political and media figures in Russia, who continue to state critical comments against the Russian government. The above excerpted comments do not consider whether the arrested individuals (who are not specifically named in the Reuters article) are actually clear of any legal wrongdoing. Compare the Reuters article’s treatment of the arrested Russians to that of the arrested Youssef in the United States. Fair and balanced eh?

Another example of Putin’s frankness is evident in his reply to critical comments made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel (about human rights in Russia), during her recent visit to Russia. Regarding this particular dialogue: short of being well versed on a claim having to do with Pussy Riot, it looks like Putin might very well be a bit inaccurate, thereby leaving himself open to the possibility of getting legitimately second guessed. In a discussion at Mark Chapman’s blog “The Kremlin Stooge”, some expressed the opinion that the likely error concerns an anti-bigotry demonstration (as characterized by those involved with it), which dramatically exhibited the hung effigy of a Tajik, to underscore the subject of ethnic intolerance. This take is in line with what is reported in a November 17 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty piece “Putin Accuses Pussy Riot Member of Anti-Semitism“. One of the two currently jailed Pussy Riot activists was at the demonstration with the effigy. Putin being wrong in this instance serves to divert attention away from valid disagreement with the biased pro-Pussy Riot reporting/commentary, concerning the group’s stunt in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Despite the slanted pro-Pussy Riot presentations in media (like those of CNN’s Erin Burnett), some in the West have not bought into the portrayal of an earnestly freedom loving Pussy Riot, bravely opposing a repressive regime. This grouping of Westerners includes former New York City Mayor Edward Koch. During the Cold War, Koch was frank in expressing his antipathy towards the Soviet government.

On the subjects of religion, Putin and Russia, Al Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem expressed some neoconservative leaning views at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which aired on C-SPAN. His comments underscore what is and is not typically preferred at Capitol Hill foreign policy establishment wonk fests – a point that relates to the matters of Putin and Russia.

Melhem highlighted how the Youssef associated anti-Muslim film is linked to sparking a violent anti-American backlash in the Middle East. He proceeds to contrast that manner to Catholics not going on an anti-Muslim terror spree after the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II by Turkish national Mehmet Ali Agca. This comparison has clear differences. Agca was portrayed as someone with clandestine ties to the pro-Soviet Bulgarian government. Hence, the target of outrage on his assassination attempt as not directed so much towards Islam. (With a considerable degree of reasonable doubt, the claim of a Soviet-Bulgarian plot to kill Pope John Paul II has not been firmly established. Over the course of time, Agca has been characterized as a somewhat murky figure. Agca and his infamous act has a cautiously stated degree of similarity with Lee Harvey Oswald and his assassination of President John Kennedy. Upon an extended overview, Oswald’s politically leftwing views and time spent in the Soviet Union did not lead to implicating the Soviet government in the assassination of Kennedy.)

Melhem made a broad comment on the United States serving as a better role model for the Middle East than Russia under Putin. On the one hand, America can reasonably claim a more advanced level of democratic development than Russia. At the same time, how practical is it to expect a quick leap from the political makeup of a lengthy period of dictatorship to an effective multiparty system of democracy in a short period? Russia’s current status is part of an ongoing and imperfect process, that has so far not reached the level of some doom and gloom analysis since the Soviet breakup.

Melhem’s AEI sponsored appearance props the idea of a tolerant West which others have not matched. The Russian government involved Valdai Discussion Club offers some critical views of the Kremlin. When it comes to political diversity, does the AEI and some other leading American think tanks show as great or greater a tolerance? In Russia, there is a noticeable non-violent public opposition to the jailed Pussy Riot activists and the Western based pro-Pussy Riot slanting, mixed in with some limited support going the other way for the imprisoned duo. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently said he believed they served enough time, while also saying that Pussy Riot are an unsavory lot.

The Russian government funded 24/7 English language television news network RT (no longer formally known as Russia Today) has served as a clear counter-point to the slants evident in Western mass media. The latter’s criticism of RT includes some negatively inaccurate comments. For quality control purposes, RT should receive a constructively fair review, along with other news organizations. Some folks come across as preferring to have a noticeably faulty RT to kick around. RT has the appearance of carrying on in an above the clouds mindset – something that seems to exist elsewhere.

The day following the nationally televised October 16 Obama-Romney debate, RT’s homepage listed as the number one world news headline, the arrest of two Green Party candidates, who decided to sit within a roadway near where the debate was being held. At the time, this act was done within hours before the event, in an area that was under heightened security. Before getting arrested, the Green Party candidates were informed by law enforcement personnel that their sit down position was hindering traffic. The two candidates did not move after being asked to do so by the authorities at the scene.

RT’s presentation of this occurrence (as the number one world news headline) appears like it could very well be an overkill payback for the faulty Western mass media coverage of Pussy Riot. This thought is stated with the belief that the motivation behind the Green Party candidates’ action (a protest, having to do with the limited clout of a political alternative to the Republicans and Democrats in the United States) is a worthy enough news item to cover. That said, countering BS with BS is not as convincing as an intelligently presented overview, which is not along the lines of an overt propaganda delivery.

In contrast to how some perceive RT, the October 22 RT posted commentary “The Unknown Putin“, un-approvingly describes the coverage (by a major Russian television network) of the Russian president living in opulence. Having not yet seen this particular segment, one respectfully wonders just how opulent the Russian president lives, relative to numerous other world leaders? At least for now, the level of Russian public discontent with Putin’s lifestyle seems to fall well short of a massive outrage and widespread protests.

Criticizing Putin and/or Russian mass media appears to offer greater professional opportunities than the criticism of some other subjects. The coverage stands to improve with a greater worldwide across the political spectrum, which should not include or be confused with factually limited diatribes. Seeing what has existed, consideration should be given to change some of the decision making at the higher profile of venues. For the purpose of providing a more objective coverage, this advocacy should not be subject to getting penalized.

In summation, the Western mass media and body politic are not solely responsible for the negatively inaccurate coverage of Putin and Russia. At times, this duh like observation seems to get overly deemphasized among some (certainly not all) Russophile leaning elements.


Recently related articles by the author:

Coverage of Russia Uncensored“, Eurasia Review, April 2, 2012

Rape, Russia and Imagery“, Eurasia Review, May 9, 2012

  • Pravda.Ru is one of several venues which carried the above hyperlinked article.

Cherry Picking the Soviet Past and Russian Present“, Eurasia Review, August 12, 2012

  • The George Mason University affiliated History News Network (HNN) is one of several venues which picked up the above hyperlinked article. The HNN pickup provides a link to the Eurasia Review piece, while posting the first two paragraphs of the article.

Michael Averko

Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. He has appeared as a guest commentator on the BBC, RT and WABC talk radio, in addition to having been a panelist at the World Russia Forum, Russia Forum New York and Experts' Panel. Besides Averko's Eurasia Review column -, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy Journal, Global Research, History News Network, InoSMI.Ru, Johnson's Russia List, Journal of Turkish Weekly, Kyiv Post, Oriental Review, Penza News, Pravda.Ru, Pravoslavie.Ru, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russia Insider, Sputnik News, Strategic Culture Foundation, The Duran, The Huffington Post, Valdai Discussion Club, Yonkers Tribune and WikiLeaks, are among the numerous venues where his articles have either appeared or been referenced. The American Institute in Ukraine and the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies, have referenced some of Averko's articles, along with academic white papers prepared for NATO Watch, Ohio State University, Problems of Post-Communism and the Royal College of Defence Studies. He has been referenced in the Council on Foreign Relations, Defense One and The New York Times. Averko is source referenced in Richard Sakwa's book "Frontline Ukraine". His Eurasia Review article on Pavlo Skoropadsky, provides the first full online English language transcript of Skoropadsky's edict calling for an "All-Russian Federation", inclusive of Russia and Ukraine. Among other issues, that article explains the relationships among the major combatants in the Russian Civil War. He can be reached via [email protected]

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