The interpreted state of Russian mass media and journalism has been the cause of a lot of conjecture and projection since President Vladimir Putin took office in the year 2000. Journalists and mass media in Russia are presented as being rather monolithic in their appearance and nature. However, in reality, the mass media market in Russia is very diverse and large. Furthermore, unlike the establishment narrative of Western media and journalism, mass media was founded under the then Tsar Peter the Great as a means of communication on official matters at the very beginning of the 18th century. Historical experience has played a central part in influencing the function and purpose of journalism in Russia.

Journalism and journalists have had a close working relationship with the state and those formulating state policy. This is nothing specific to Russia as there are historical figures in the West, such as Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, who spoke of the need to manipulate public opinion in a democracy as a means of engineering public consent for the ruling class and their policies. Russia has been a country in a state of political, social, economic and ideological flux. This is the case whether Tsar Peter the Great’s 18th-century reforms to open the window to Europe, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the chaos of the 1990s in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse or the current nation-building and global repositioning of Russia under President Putin.

Currently, as it was historically in Russia and abroad, journalism is a means of nation-building, but also it is an institution that is a centre of cultural production. This entails not only building a sense of common national identity as a glue for the collective citizenry but also a means of influencing and instilling values and norms in individuals. Journalism is seen as a means to bring about cohesion and stability in Russian society and to get Russia through the recent turbulent times. Information has also been instrumental in playing a disruptive and destructive role in Russian society, such as during the information wars of President Boris Yeltsin’s excesses of the “bezpredel” (without limits) era. Decades of extremes in society, poverty, chaos and instability bred a desire for stability among the people.

Media law in Russia is rather liberal, and the practice is a different reality during periods of political and/or economic instability.

Therefore, information and those who work with information are simultaneously seen as not only an opportunity to help create an idealised society but also as a possible threat to society. In terms of a government doctrine, thinking along these lines is encapsulated in the Doctrine of Information Security. The first iteration of this document was established in the first year of Putin’s presidency. Although the doctrine is not law, it does serve as a guideline and policy on the management of the information space. Connecting information management and the excesses of the past is the role of censorship. On paper, media law in Russia is rather liberal, and the practice is a different reality during periods of political and/or economic instability. Censorship is not an end but rather a means that is intended to “purify” the information space from perceived risks and threats. It has a measure of public support after the excesses witnessed during Russian journalism’s involvement in the information wars of the Yeltsin era. The practice of censorship can be introduced under the most rhetorically benevolent guises and goals. However, censorship is a daunting task given the sheer scale and size of the entire mass media industry (including print, broadcast, TV, and digital). It is a struggle for dominance in making meaning in Russian society.

The above text covers the historical, legal and institutional frameworks that have guided the function and purpose of Russian journalism. However, President Putin has addressed journalists on many occasions, where his speeches highlight a number of clear attributes of his perceived role and function of Russian journalism. These speeches are, at times, concerning the commemoration of iconic moments in Russian history or key events. For example, the Great Patriotic War, where the Soviet Union fought Nazi Germany, is an iconic event and key in attempting to shape Russian national identity and values. In 2020, Putin addressed his audience: “During this year when we are marking the 75th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, I would like to particularly emphasise the constructive and extremely important activity of Russian media outlets when it comes to preserving our historical memory and raising patriotic sentiment among youth. Journalists’ responsible civic stance, large-scale media, educational and awareness projects deserve the highest recognition. (sic)” Here journalists are held up as a crucial piece in attempts to cultivate and influence Russia’s historical memory.

Another function of journalism is a means to provide direct communication between the president and the citizens of the Russian Federation. This was an institutionalised tradition created through the annual news conference, where questions were posed and answered live. Putin noted the value of the event to him in a 2020 speech, “For me, I would like to emphasise, such events are not formal; I highly value them. Even though I have a vast flow of information about what is happening in the country reaching me through various channels, still, there is nothing more valuable than direct communication with the people, with Russian citizens, there is nothing more valuable than hearing their opinions about their lives and concerns, and again, what we need to do in order to have a better life. ” This represents journalism as an intermediary between the president and the people. Risks and threats are compounded when a political administration is not in direct communication with the people, and other political actors may use this isolation as a weakness to engage the public and undermine the government.

Journalism is seen as a potential mechanism to solve different types of problems and risks that affect Russian society. In effect, they are a form of local, regional or national “fireman” in the event and occurrence of different crises. Putin stated at the 2018 Truth and Justice Forum of local and regional media, “journalism always has its finger on the pulse of the public interest and public problems. The contribution of journalists to the resolution of these problems – from housing and utilities to corruption, without listing all of them – is extremely important.” The functions and purpose of journalism in Russia under the administration of President Putin demonstrate several different priorities that serve the goal of priming and mobilising the Russian public. Journalism operates in the information realm, with interpretations and representations of the physical realm. The ultimate goal is to influence and affect the cognitive realm, engineering perceptions, opinions and actions of Russia’s citizens and, consequently, the future direction of the country.

Greg Simons

Gregory Simons is an Associate Professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University.

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