Direct Line, a popular annual call-in show with Vladimir Putin. (c) Anton Belitsky / Demotix.

Federal television in Russia has long been suspected of propaganda. Four Russian TV producers share their stories of life behind the lens.

This month COLTA.RU published three articles about what it’s like to work for federal television networks in Russia. These organisations have long been controlled by the authorities: they work as a single propaganda machine. The first two included an account by Liza Lerer, a former editorial manager of Russia 1’s marketing board, and a profile of Yulia Chumakova, Channel One’s South bureau chief, and the author of the infamous ‘crucified boy’ story.

The third article, published here in a translation by Anna Aslanyan, comprises four accounts: two former employees of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) and a former producer at the private channel REN TV share their experiences anonymously, while Stanislav Feofanov, a TV Center (TVC) producer, speaks under his real name.

The conversations with the ex-VGTRK staffers were first recorded by Aleksandr Orlov, former deputy editor of Russia 24 and Russia 2. Orlov lost his job in July 2013 for supporting Alexei Navalny on social media, and is now working on a forthcoming book on Russian TV. Orlov has collected oral testimonies from several federal TV employees, former and present, and here he shares two of them with us and COLTA.RU. The other two stories have been told to Dmitry Sidorov, who prepared the article for publication.

Former VGTRK employee

‘I remember, we had an editorial meeting in February 2014, when the editor said a ‘cold war’ was about to start. Not an information war, because everyone already knew about that, it had started a lot earlier. No, he meant a ‘cold war’, which for many sounded atavistic.

He said we live in an era which makes the 1970s-1980s look like kindergarten in comparison, so those of you who don’t want to be part of it can find themselves some other kind of work, outside a news channel. The rest of you: welcome to the club. Very few people left, and even then those who did didn’t do it straight away but after a while. They left quietly, without much song and dance, without any breast-beating, so to speak. Respect to them for taking a stance, and also for being so prudent. The rest of us stayed.

The top managers certainly weren’t stupid. They discussed the most delicate issues at meetings between themselves rather than at the big ones, where there’d be 25 to 30 participants, heads of departments and divisions. After Friday editorial meetings in the Kremlin, the management would come to the office, call their posse and have a meeting between two or three people. After highlighting all the subtle points, they’d pass it on down the chain. The channel’s policy was absolutely inscrutable, another feature of the ‘cold war’: everything’s totally closed, no open discussions.

Words like “Junta” [reference to the Kyiv government after the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych], “Ukes” [slang for Ukrainians], “Bendera men” [reference to followers of Stepan Bandera, Ukrainian nationalist leader, often misspelt] – that was for the presenters, for those talking to the camera.

Those phrasings were fine-tuned for them at closed meetings. I’ve never heard the editor-in-chief refer to Ukrainians in that way directly. Editorial meetings were for setting an agenda. We understood that, if it’s Ukraine [we’re dealing with], then you have to give it as much coverage as possible, you have to have one story a day from Crimea, Donetsk, Kiev.

In March 2014, after the referendum [in Crimea], there was a regular assignment: at least one original story a day from Crimea, or more if possible. You had to talk about it every day: how Crimea is developing, how sciences and trades are thriving there, how the newly-acquired citizens grow more and more affluent and happy.

What angle to take in your coverage, whether to include the views of people who weren’t so happy– this was never even discussed, it wasn’t needed, it was just a waste of time. The same went for the reporters. They fulfilled a purely technical role: approach the right speaker, take the right stand-up, say the right words.

On a personal level, you can understand those people who have seen conflict, the war correspondents: on the one hand, they had their bosses, from top to bottom, pouring massive propaganda into their ears; on the other hand, when you’re on the frontline, being bombed, after a week or two or three (the guys could be stuck there for a couple of months at a time) you start to hate those people shooting at you. It’s quite natural for their stories to have a bias. However, there were some sensible reporters who didn’t make a mountain out of a molehill. If one shell was fired, they said one shell, and not carpet bombing.

As I said, everything was controlled by hand. When the first Minsk negotiations began and there was talk of some kind of peace, the words “fascists”, “Bendera men”, “junta” were banned. Then the situation began to get worse, and it all started again. When [Igor] Strelkov [Russian separatist leader] began taking cities, they gave him whatever airtime was available, broadcasting him every which way. Then he had to be moved out of the spotlight, and we simply stopped broadcasting him as much.

Against the backdrop of the war, the propaganda machine began producing some incredible stats: Russia 24’s airtime shares grew progressively, by a factor of 1.5, 2, 3—compared to before the war. You and I know that everyone who works in TV is an adrenaline junkie, and look, there’s a war. A real one: blood, guts, shell holes in the ground and buildings. Some might think it’s a game, the postmodern existence; others just know you can make shit loads of money out of it—not on the war as such, just on good coverage of it: get some new leverage as a result, find new financial opportunities. And they are working systematically towards that.

Suddenly, we had lots of stringers working for us, loads of small productions. They made poor quality videos; someone sent in a 45-minute film about the Donetsk People’s Republic, in which all the militiamen are doing is walking up and down, smoking, with some nonsensical lives and synchs thrown in. Even from the propaganda point of view, it had absolutely zero value: foggy format, like a bad art-house film. And they gave it prime time and four repeats at the weekend. I asked them: “What the fuck?” They said: “Mate, you don’t understand, it’s getting huge stats.”

Unlike the war in Georgia [in 2008], this system was perfectly honed. The honing hadn’t been done in three days or in a single meeting. It had taken weeks, months, years.

There was no channel war now, I mean, no competition. A directive came from the Presidential Administration saying: stop trying to outdo each other, stop showing who’s got the best exclusives here. The only exclusive stuff you could have was when one person found someone’s granny, and another found someone else’s granddad. On the whole, though, it was a massive stream [of content]. United in a common impulse, everyone shared everything with everyone else: pictures, speakers, contacts. Everything became a single whole. Different holding companies, different shareholders, different media organisations. A united propaganda body emerged.

There were no discussions among the channel’s staff. What happened during the smoke breaks was more like emotional outbursts, and then only between people who more or less trusted each other. Not everyone talked to one another. An atmosphere of distrust developed: potentially, anybody could dob you in. Yet people knew everything about each other. The editor was aware of my views, and he didn’t invite me to take part in discussions. He knew I wouldn’t be happy about it, and I was absolutely fine with that.

There aren’t that many people with principles, like [Arkady] Mamontov or [Konstantin] Semin, people who believe in all that. The majority are like Dmitry Kiselev, level 50 trolls, or whatever he calls himself. About 40 to 50 per cent of them went to the Bolotnaya protests, they were dead against it all. Yet they didn’t leave—for trivial reasons, families, mortgages. Besides, everyone knew there was nowhere to go. Some drowned their sorrows, some disappeared into drugs, others didn’t drown their sorrows in anything, instead they went into “internal emigration”, reading books at weekends, trying to forget everything that happened during the week. For me personally, it was, however pathetic it might sound, a tragedy. I knew that for 18 months I had been involved in rather shameful things.

Still, 25 per cent of the people were diehards who thought they were fighting for the right cause. When it first started, I talked it over with my friends—real, close friends, most of them have nothing to do with TV—and we agreed simply not to bring up the subject. Everyone knows what shit we’re in, what’s happening in the country. Why rub it in over and over again, why pour more salt on the wound? But when you’re actually creating it yourself, perhaps after a while the weaker ones begin to believe in it. Putin’s 86 per cent – that’s the world we live in.

My own sociological survey, based on nothing except my feelings, is as follows: 50 per cent of my colleagues were people like me, 25 per cent were diehards, and the remaining 25 per cent were those who just don’t give a fuck about anything. If [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky came to power and started his own channel, they’d go and work there. If some fascist came to power, they’d work for him.

Unless there’s some dramatic change, these people won’t be able to return to proper journalism and proper standards—simply because they don’t know what it is. They’ll all have to be chucked out of the profession. You’ll have to rebuild it completely, to recruit others and train them differently.’

Former VGTRK news broadcaster

‘Every Friday at midday there was a meeting in the Kremlin, attended by all the editors-in-chief. The editor of our channel received a print-out—a schedule detailing everything, the what and the how, who’d be best to invite as experts. In fact, it was a guidelines brochure, a sheaf of A4 pages, about a centimetre thick.

During the meeting, the editor would make notes, any corrections were made in pencil, right there on the page. They brought me some pages from that folder, and I used it as a schedule to work from.

2012 picket outside Ostankino TV studio, Moscow. (c) Ilya Pitalev / VisualRIAN.

Different people chaired these Kremlin meetings. Alexei Alexeyevich [Gromov, former Kremlin press secretary] used to do it, a very long time ago. I’m not sure about Surkov [former deputy head of the Presidential Administration]. Then it was Dmitry Sergeyevich [Peskov, current Kremlin press secretary]. When Peskov came, it was fine at first. Later, though, you couldn’t approach him at all: write a letter here, register there. People started kind of worshipping Peskov, he was like: “Putin, c’est moi”. He never said that, but that’s what it looked like. Gromov, on the other hand, was always: “Anything I can help with, guys, just let me know.”

Now they’ve suddenly started what they call “intercom conference calls with Peskov”, morning and evening. I don’t know when they started. I think it must have been at least two weeks after Putin’s triumphant return, after he went missing [in March 2015]. They talk over the intercom, the yellow phone. Something’s up. No idea what—thank goodness I’m not there.

Before, there were no major changes to our work. You felt that everything was going smoothly, and then those briefings began, which always came from the top. Nowadays, if the channel discusses THESE decisions or THOSE issues, they always get a call from upstairs, or call upstairs themselves. The editor is free to run a story about some traffic accident near Moscow, or not to run it, but as far as big politics, war and peace are concerned, he has no freedom.

Take that parade in Serbia, for instance. It wasn’t quite in Putin’s honour – it was to commemorate Victory Day, but Putin, shall we say, attended it, even though he was a bit late. The parade was really glam, “totally beautiful”, like. Russia 24 took the signal off Serbian TV and transmitted it to Moscow. The Serbs had arranged it all, and we’d arranged an interpreter who interpreted their TV presenter at the parade. There was just a minor complaint about the interpreter being a girl. The editor-in-chief was away at the time, his deputy was in charge. The chief had told him: “We’ll show the parade for a while, then we’ll cut from it to a little window and show it in the window”. Apparently, he hadn’t cleared the issue, and so the parade is on, and it’s huge, no one expected it to be so big, and then the deputy does as the chief told him: he broadcasts the parade for a while and then cuts to a window.

All hell broke loose, [Oleg] Dobrodeyev [VGTRK director-general] called three or four times, shouting like mad that you have to put the parade back on and broadcast till the end. While he’s at it, he also shouts about the woman interpreter: why isn’t a man translating? What a brouhaha we had over that parade… Naturally, we put it all back, broadcast till the end, and after that there were more calls: “How could you possibly have done that, what on earth were you doing?” The speeches had long finished, he [Putin] had long left for Milan, and we were still broadcasting. There you have it: a decision made by the editor, even though he is, in fact, in charge of what’s on air. He got it wrong and got his arse kicked.

We ran a news piece once about a working meeting between Putin and the president of Kyrgyzstan, which hadn’t happened yet. The thing is, we used to have this rule: we don’t announce events with the president’s participation, except major, international events or some important national ones, like an address to the Federal Assembly.

As for ordinary working meetings, we don’t announce anything: neither the region where it’s going to take place tomorrow, nor anything else. Announcements were extremely rare, following a special go-ahead. Usually we did it day by day, almost always after the fact. We got into huge trouble once when a correspondent said live on air that a plane had landed, even though it hadn’t landed yet. There was a five minutes’ difference, but it was a terrible scandal.

Now with Kyrgyzstan, this lady who said it on air, she isn’t particularly bright anyway; she hardly ever writes anything herself, she’s more concerned about her make-up. She’d previously got into arguments over the no-announcments rule, so over the years it got imprinted in her brain, the “no announcing” thing. So now she saw the future tense, the info saying the meeting is likely to take place next week, but out of habit she said “had a meeting”. And further on, where the text had “they will discuss”, she mentally changed it to “discussed”.

The manual control applied even to the weather, there were direct instructions on it. Like, you have to invite [Roman] Vilfand [prominent meteorologist] right now, and he has to say that the winter is going to be horrible and we’ll all freeze. You ask: “What if we don’t have a cold winter?” Because we know that the winter is mild. But there’s a general tendency to blow things out of proportion, to make it clear they depend on us: we’re going to cut off your gas now, and you’ll all freeze. They kept nattering about it all the time: “We are facing a cold winter.”

They even used to say “Make more hell!” to us at the editorial meetings. For instance, a request comes from upstairs to send a camera somewhere, to some event, and people at the meeting ask: “But what’s the point? It’s all a bit foggy.” An embassy’s cultural centre organises some reading event, and the question logically arises: why would you need a camera? Because there’s going to be some special people there, and they’re going to put a show on. For example, some useful historian is going to yell: “You are attempting to pervert our history!” They round up those poor old men and women who have been going there for years, send a camera and a special person, basically an agent provocateur.

Direct Line with Putin [the annual phone-in show] is mainly organised by VGTRK. Some of it is done by Channel One, some by VGTRK, they’re each trying to get their share. A crew goes there beforehand, they go through several courses of training at Staraya ploshchad [the Presidential Administration office]: what they’re supposed to do and how, what regions to pick, what cities. Cameras are sent there, lots of different people go in advance, they walk around with governors and others, they organise meetings with the right people, they choose the topics, they clear all those things a million times over.

There’s a so-called “preview”, like in the theatre, when you invite your mum and dad. A rehearsal, a full run-through. Putin isn’t present, but Peskov is. He doesn’t, of course, answer questions for Putin, but he watches everything. A crew stands there, getting an approximate picture of what’s going to happen. I’ve heard what it’s like from people who’ve been there: they were literally shaking, they said they were simply ready to die of shame, because they’ve told me how old people approached the crew with their questions, and there was simply no way those questions could be aired on Direct Line.

VGTRK made pro-Putin clips in the run-up to the 2012 elections. You had to keep VGTRK mikes and vans out of sight, make sure you don’t blow your cover. If VGTRK makes a clip, it’s aired not just on VGTRK, everyone else shows it too. Who ever heard of such a thing? You have to have a proper election campaign, don’t you, financed by the campaign’s election fund! That’s why we couldn’t give away our markings. But anyway, VGTRK staffers went there, filmed it all and edited, handed it in, and a focus group watched it and took their pick. At some point you realise this is all illegal. But do you have any choice? You can either sit in the office or drive around and do something.

The situation is this: TV as such no longer exists. Even if you work on the culture desk, they’ll tell you: “This director has our support, that one doesn’t.” You can lie back and enjoy the process, or you can stop working and leave—if the standards really drop, you know you can’t stay any longer.’

Sergei Semenov (name changed), producer (REN TV)

‘I used to work on the Special Project programme [current events and history documentary series], I left a year ago. But I was still there in April and May [2014], when Crimea separated and the first purges after the Maidan protests began.

We had a commission to make a programme called Darling, I’m Having a Revolution!, a film where we tried to take a slightly different angle on Ukraine, a personal perspective: we took all the leaders of the revolution, both our own guys in Crimea and the bad guys from Maidan, and we tried to show their wives’ feelings when the husband says, “darling, I’m having a revolution”, how the family experiences that.

Naturally, when researching the bad guys we didn’t look for positive qualities, like having a wife, children and mum, but rather that he has mistresses, a debauched private life. As a Russian channel, you couldn’t approach the leaders of the anti-Russian revolution. We couldn’t send our crew there, only news services had accreditation, while the rest, including documentary makers, weren’t allowed into Ukraine, and still aren’t. We had to come up with something else, of course. That’s why everything was done through stringers, but none of the Ukrainian stringers wanted to have anything to do with Russian channels.

When we were working on Muzychko, the late Sasha Bily [prominent Ukrainian nationalist who died in March 2014], we introduced ourselves to one stringer, she was a girl, as an American channel, rather than Russian. We said we wanted to show that he’s [Muzychko] a real human being, that he’s good and fighting for the good. In other words, we blatantly deceived her.

It was hard to get people involved with the Maidan movement for filming, but that stringer knew Muzychko personally and managed to arrange a meeting with him, she caught him in between events.

Naturally, he showed himself in a good light, but if you’ve ever done any editing you know that you can always cut and edit things the way you want. His background helped us a lot: in the videos we found on the internet, he behaved like a real thug, taking his machine-gun with him when he went to see bureaucrats, grabbing them by their ties. We spliced it all together with his monologue, where he, with that threatening scarred head of his, talks about himself, how he’s smelling of roses, how he loves fishing, squirrels and his beloved.

On top of that, we dug out a video [first shown by NTV a few days earlier] where someone, a man who at a distance looks very much like poor old Muzychko, is lying on the floor in front of a girl, and she kicks him in the face with the heel of her black boot, a BDSM kind of thing. We edited it in too, spliced it in between the cheesiest bits where he goes on about smelling of roses; what we got in the end was a portrait of a total and utter maniac.

When we finished editing it all, I got really scared: what will happen to the poor stringer who arranged it all? Muzychko is a total freak; his grandfather was a nationalist, a victim of repressions, his father grew up in the north under the repressions before doing time. The hatred of all things Soviet is in his blood, and he links that to the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Russians have always been his enemies, and anyone who’s against them, his friends. We got really frightened: if he sees what we’re about to release, he’ll just kill that stringer, hit her on the head with an iron club, and that’s it.

The programme was due to be aired on a Wednesday. On the Monday before, we started thinking about how we’re going to get her out. We come up with a complicated plan. But on Monday night he’s killed. So in the end, we’ve got his last interview ever – about his private life and extreme sexual adventures.

When he died, all I felt was relief for that journalist. I’m a religious man, I prayed: “Dear God, how can I save her? Do I have to have this sin on my soul, oh God? What’s it to me – I’ll just deliver another film, but they’ll do her in, and that’s it.” But a hand from heaven just went and resolved it all. After that, though, we kept joking in the studio that it was me who took out the contract on Muzychko.

Our programme has changed purely in terms of the subject matter: before the events in question [Maidan], our main enemies were the Rothschilds, Morgans and other global capitalist conspiracies, which poison us through bad food, raising oil prices, dropping them.

When the events in Ukraine started, the enemy turned from general to specific. But the atmosphere in the production itself didn’t change. We had lunch at the same time, got the train at the same time. We had people from Donbass working with us, and people from Ukraine, but they never had any problem covering those events as required.

The only difference between journalists and prostitutes is that the latter use their bodies, the former – their brains. Our financial situation didn’t change either, it’s something that only happens in bad propaganda films: “Their salaries increased, they got quicker on their feet.”

Why would an employer need that? Same airtime, same production volume. It’s just there’s a new topic now. Although working on it was far more interesting than all those Rothschilds and Rockefellers. There was less invention, more texture, more live material.’

Stanislav Feofanov, producer (NTV, REN TV, TV Center) 

‘When the events in Ukraine started, I was at The Week [news analysis programme on REN TV]. I worked under Marianna [Maksimovskaya, presenter of The Week programme] from the start of Maidan till the army’s withdrawal from Crimea.

The programme was significantly different from all the other mess going on at REN TV. We tried to tell objective stories. When the Donetsk local administration building was captured, I remember talking to the militias and travelling many kilometres to talk to the Ukrainian siloviki [armed forces personnel].

I’m always surprised when people tell you there’s no way to film from both sides. Where there’s a will, there’s a way! I remember Pushilin [self-declared Chairman of the People’s Soviet, Donetsk People’s Republic] telling us that, apparently, “Kiev soldiers are stealing all the food from the locals”.

We thought, yes, that’s a good story. So we went to a village and talked to some old ladies there, and they told us: “They’re not stealing any food from anyone, we’re getting on fine with them”. Then we went over to talk to a platoon digging a trench around a tank. We thought they were going to tie us up there and then, but they just said: “Of course, no problem. What do you want to know? Stealing food? What are you on about? We’ve got a field kitchen here.” While we were talking, two cars pulled up: the locals had brought some borscht in one car, and the other was laden with salo [pig fat].

Of course, when you arrive thinking these are punishment battalions – what’s the point of talking to them, you can tell everything by their faces – then that’s the picture you get. But we had balanced stories, we allowed both sides to have their say.

I can’t remember any examples of direct censorship at The Week. The management might have discussed some issues with Marianna, but I didn’t encounter anything. Although it was clear the programme was hanging in the balance, so its closure didn’t come as a surprise.

When the Boeing [MH17] was shot down [17 July 2014], you could no longer tell stories the way we did before. Every channel screamed about the junta, the killers who shot down the plane. We were on holiday when we got a text from Marianna: “Dear all, the moment has come: our small and proud programme is closing down. We have a brave new world ahead of us, where there’ll be a new life.” Now some people are freelancing, others are out of work; some have stayed at REN TV news broadcasting. I’ve found a compromise.

Now I work for the TV Center programme Line of Defence, and this is a borderline case. We have films like Poroshenko’s Five Promises, but they’re more ironic than propagandistic. I make programmes on unrelated subjects. They don’t ask me directly to make propaganda, nor would I agree to that. I have some film-related proposals, so if the channel tells me, “You have to do this or that”, I’ll say to them: “I don’t have to do anything for you, bye.”

Of course, Line of Defence is a downgrade after The Week, but what can you do? You have to make a living somehow. There are lots of talented guys who can’t find their place on TV any more. Take Roman Super, or Andrei Loshak, who said in one of his recent interviews: “Many young journalists may not have heard my name because I’ve now disappeared from the screen.” Vadim Kondakov went to some shitty economics forum to make commercials. I’ve had offers from LifeNews and Zvezda, but that’s the last thing I want to do.

I don’t have to make compromises at TVC, but I’m not happy to see people making dubious products right next door to us—it’s not real propaganda, but it has a distinctly fishy smell.

Television has stopped being a creative thing for me. First of all, it’s to do with the choice of subject matter. There’s censorship wrapped up as “that won’t be good for the ratings”. I’ve pitched a story about Victory Day [9 May, a popular holiday in Russia]: let’s see who makes money from all those ribbons and caps. They cost about 300 roubles [£2.80] each, so if 100,000 people bought them, that makes 30 million [£280,000].

“Let’s do a film about making money off patriotism.” “No, it won’t do well for the ratings. Let’s talk about the Russian Vanga [Bulgarian clairvoyant] instead, some granny who predicts things or something.” Out of a dozen topics you’re excited about, TVC approves one or two at best, the rest of the time you have to work on things you don’t like.

Before REN TV, I was at NTV, working on the Profession: Reporter programme [an investigative documentary show] with Katya Gordeyeva and Andrei Loshak. We left when they started tightening things up after our film about the 2011–2012 protests. They shut the programme down, keeping just the brand. It still airs, but it’s made by people from the NTV crime desk. We hoped that the demonstrations, the wave of indignation would shift that state of degradation, that they’d break through the dam, and a free television would emerge.

Back then, people still distinguished between Profession: Reporter and NTV as a whole. But one of the last drops for me was a conversation I had at the “Funeral for NTV” protest held outside the Ostankino TV tower. They asked me: how can you call yourself a decent person if you work where Anatomy of Protest [scandalous documentary series by Arkady Mamontov about Russia’s 2011-2012 protest movement] is produced? I didn’t have that “who’s going to look after our channel” feeling. By then it was clear who.

The people who make real propaganda at Channel One and Russia, they understand it all perfectly well. Mortgages, debts, family problems. And yet I can’t tell you why. My story is similar: I’m currently renting, and this autumn I’m going to take out a mortgage to buy property, but I don’t understand how you can pour shit into people’s ears. It always makes me think of my mother – she’s been zombified to such an extent that I sometimes don’t know what to talk to her about, besides domestic stuff. She always has Kiselev gabbling on the telly, or Mamontov pontificating, and here I am thinking: “How can I lie to my mother?” I feel that I’m doing my own little bit too.

We used to laugh at people who made crime programmes at NTV. It was awful when some reporter blagged their way into a flat and then it was aired on a federal channel, and [Tatyana] Mitkova [NTV presenter] sent everyone a letter: “Look guys, what a cool job the crime desk did.” We thought: you can’t do that, you can’t throw an electric switch to force someone to open their door for you, and then, on top of that, film it with a hidden camera. But now the wave of unprincipled journalists has simply forced out all those who couldn’t do that.

In this day and age, you think more about your conscience than your status. How are you going to look someone in the eyes? Yourself in the mirror? So you wake up and you think: “All that nattering yesterday, I didn’t do too badly, eh?”

Can you live with that? Most people do, of course.’

Editor’s note: this article was translated by Anna Aslanyan. We are grateful to COLTA.RU for permission and assistance in translating this article. 

By Dmitry Sidorov, Open Democracy