By Julia Davis, for CEPA

If there was ever a perfect example of the way Russian propaganda operates and the degree of brazen arrogance exhibited by Vladimir Putin’s pet propagandists, the September 6 edition of Full Contact with Vladimir Solovyov was it.

There was fakery and pomposity, but mostly outrage, when the Kremlin’s No. 1 mouthpiece responded to a public attack made by critics within Russia. There was a wonderment in Vladimir Solovyov’s eyes and voice that ideas like this could be stated in public. And then a promise to root out those responsible for such lese-majesty. “You know how this country works,” he told his enemies in what can only have been intended as a threat.

The drama developed on September 5 after a poignant essay by Valery Garbuzov, who was at the time the director of the US and Canada Studies Institute (ISKRAN) at Russia’s Academy of Sciences. ISKRAN is one of Russia’s leading think tanks. 

Garbuzov decided, heroically, to tell the truth in a public space rammed with lies. He must have known what was coming.

In a piece entitled “On the lost illusions of a bygone era,” published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the longtime think tank leader (he had worked at ISKRAN for 23 years) argued that Russia is in the throes of a post-imperial crisis and has returned to expansionism under Putin’s administration, even though Russia’s “menacing character” was kept under wraps for more than 30 years. 

Garbuzov explained that Russia’s ruling elites perpetuate anti-Western mythology to remain in power, resurrecting long-outdated narratives about the ever-present “Anglo-Saxons.” He explained how the Russian government is using state-controlled media to further this agenda, stating, “These myths are being spread day and night by a new generation of well-paid professional political manipulators and numerous panelists on television talk shows.”

Garbuzov noted: “The purpose of all this is quite obvious — plunging one’s own society into a world of illusions and accompanied by great-power and patriotic rhetoric, undisguised and deliberate indefinite retention of power at any cost, preservation of property and a political regime by the current ruling elite and the oligarchy integrated with it.”

Taking an obvious swipe at Putin and his pet propagandists, Garbuzov wrote: “The current domestic minions of authoritarianism (like the satraps of ancient Eastern despotisms that have sunk into oblivion), apparently completely devoid of any historical consciousness, without hesitation, with touching tenderness, sincerely identify the head of state with the state itself, the temporary ruler of the country with a great national and historical constant.”

The satraps were predictably upset. Very upset. In Putin’s increasingly dictatorial Russia, no one speaks in this way about his trusted spokespeople.

Solovyov appeared soon afterward, visibly furious and threatening legal action as well as less detailed promises of revenge. Shortly thereafter, Garbuzov was fired. His former colleagues at the ISKRAN then penned a message of support, identifying Solovyov’s program as the heart of the witch hunt and comparing him to Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Predictably, the show of solidarity was short-lived. The fear of further retribution likely motivated Konstantin Remchukov, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, to quickly remove the post from the website. 

It wasn’t enough to calm Solovyov. He began his show,  “My name is Vladimir Solovyov, and woe to my enemies!” and threatened to eviscerate his opponents using Russia’s mock justice system. That made Solovyov very certain of a positive outcome, as he threatened his critics, “I will f… you up!”

The accusation of spreading “primitive lies” and being compared to Goebbels got under Solovyov’s skin (even though, as a broadcaster, he may have greater similarities to Axis Sally and Lord Haw-Haw than to the true heads of Russian propaganda, men like Kremlin string-puller Alexey Gromov.)

After concluding his diatribe, Solovyov gave a shameless demonstration of precisely the factual distortion his critics accuse him of. He showcased the trailer for Hulu’s new documentary series, “Drugs. Power. Chaos,” announcing that the film focused on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and examined the impact his supposed drug use had on the latest events in Ukraine. 

The host, who routinely demands more censorship in his own country, bemoaned the alleged interference by the US government in blocking the docu-series premiere. Solovyov accused American democracy of being “sick” and theatrically sighed. 

The trouble is that the supposed documentary is imaginary. It does not exist. A phony trailer was posted on a Telegram account clearly marked as a “parody.” It was then shared on an obscure blog.  Anyone who cared about fact-checking could have discovered this within seconds with a website search.

Much later in the show, Solovyov was informed that the documentary was a complete fake. There followed a rare moment when viewers could observe a master propagandist presented with one of his lies, live on air. What would he do?

Without blinking an eye, Solovyov remarked: “They say it’s fake! I don’t know about that. Every frame of it is true! Every phrase and every answer is true! So what’s fake about it?”

By Julia Davis, for CEPA

Julia Davis is a columnist for The Daily Beast and the creator of the Russian Media Monitor. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Screen Actors Guild, and Women In Film.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.