Thursday, March 05, 2015

New Censorship in Russia

(From Censoring to Constructing the Agenda: on the current state of Russian media)

Who is controlling and directing Russian media today? How and to what degree such control is being executed? A general idea may be derived from various episodes and comments but a joined up picture of how separate media stories develop and link up with more general lines in propaganda and with underlying ideology needs specialist study. From the false story of the ‘crucified little boy’ in Ukraine to ‘gayrope’ ('gay Europe') and to an anti-American interpretation of the idea of a ‘monopolar’ world, is there a coordinating centre, a media politbureau where ideas, arguments and clichés are coined and then spread throughout a seemingly diverse media?

Vasiliy Gatov, a Russian journalist, media manager and researcher, has published an article on the development of new censorship in post-Soviet Russia. The article, entitled ‘Putin, Maria Ivanovna from Ivanovo and Ukrainians on the Telly’, is on and Radio Liberty sites. (In English here and in Russian here.) 

Tetradki recommend this study to all those who are interested in how Russian public discourse is developing, the role of the press and the situation within the media. Gatov gave us permission to republish a few excerpts from his article. (Translation by Arch Tait.)

Censorship returns (90s to naughties) 

When in 1991-2 the old “Soviet” newspapers collided with the economic difficulties of the time, they rushed for assistance to the very president and government they so relentlessly criticised. Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Trud, Argumenty i Fakty and other publications which regarded themselves as “the foremen on Perestroika’s building site” pointed to the “duty of the State to promote freedom of speech”, and demanded they should be paid for providing support during the turbulent events of those years. Boris Yeltsin’s Administration decided to oblige and, for example, awarded the editors, many of whom were members of parliament, premises on a “gratuitous use” basis. [...] The foundations for future adverse changes were thereby laid, in the form, on the one hand, of politically motivated privileges and, on the other, of a deliberate intermixing of journalists with the political and economic elite. Government subsidising of the media began very early, and was to became one of the cornerstones of the New Censorship.‘

Gleb Pavlovsky [a leading media strategist and advisor in the 90s] claims that, already in summer 1996, the Foundation for Effective Politics proposed that the concept of media management should be, not a short-term emergency measure to get round the election problem [Russian presidential elections in 1996, narrowly won by Boris Yeltsyn - Ed.], but a permanent policy of the Presidential Administration. More detailed proposals were made in 1997 when information wars between the oligarchs’ media empires were at their height.

The coming of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin in summer 1999 required another media mobilisation. The individual chosen as Yeltsin’s heir was not a well-known politician. Indeed, his public profile was all but non-existent. Quite when Yeltsin would decide to step down nobody knew. They prepared to rally round at a moment’s notice. There were teams of officials, spin doctors and creative executives in the Presidential Administration and, crucially, around it, at the ready to solve the problem. 

The nature of the Friday policy planning meetings changed at this time, and directors of the main television channels began being invited to attend. At first the meetings were chaired personally by Alexander Voloshin, director of the Presidential Administration, but the job later passed to Alexey Gromov who was first Putin’s press secretary, then deputy head of the Administration. From 2000 to 2008 there were also “Surkov planning meetings”, especially where the activities of the United Russia party or regional policy were concerned. If “Gromov meetings” were essentially coordination of the week’s agenda and the apportioning of responsibilities between the key information channels, “Surkov meetings” were, according to those present at them, effectively a dictating of required content. 

The “Gromov meetings” created a new in-group of media managers linked by the fact of being allowed to attend them. After NTV was brought to heel, the channel’s new management were also invited to the Friday meetings, and in 2006 the conclave was extended to include Margarita Simonyan [of Novosti Press Agency] and the managers of REN TV and TVTsentr

Fundamental to the New Censorship was the post-communist personal loyalty of editors, key journalists and professional groups, and that was delivered by Gromov and [Mikhail] Lesin. [former Minister of the Press, President’s adviser and up until recently chief of Gazprommedia group - ed.]

“Redaction No.6”: open vs secret management

In late April 2000, at the height of the presidential election campaign, a document came into the possession of Veronika Kutsyllo, head of the political section of the magazine Kommersant-Vlast’ (Kommersant-Government). The headline writers of [Kommersant] Publishers promptly baptised it “Version 6”. [In the Russian original - “Редакция N 6”, an obvious allusion to Chekhov’s 1892 short story ‘Ward No.Six’ about a lunatic asylum where constructed reality clashes with real life. ‘Палата номер шесть’ - Ward No.Six is used figuratively in Russian to describe a place or a situation bordering on insane. - Ed.]  Gleb Pavlovsky, at the time more than close to the Kremlin’s politics, responded to a request to reminisce about Version 6 with a mixed memoir. On the one hand, he said, he had doubts about the document’s provenance; a little later, however, he added he could remember that kind of language being used and the details, but could not put a name to the authors. 

Version 6 hypothesises that the future administration of President Putin will live in a situation where there needs to be a distinction between overt and covert policy. Overt policy will declare adherence to the norms of the Constitution, law, international obligations and political standards. The covert component will almost completely restore the ideological and organisational control of every element of civil society.

“The moral state of society,” its anonymous authors write, “currently rules out any direct statements or actions by the president of the Russian Federation and his Administration aimed at suppression of the opposition and its leaders, or gaining control of the media and communication of news. Accordingly, the designers of the present programme identify as a key tactic that the political department of the President of the Russian Federation should adopt a dual approach to accomplishing its tasks: one official and overt, the other covert.” 

Among the covert tasks, Version 6 identifies gaining control of the media and journalists. It proposes, for example, under the auspices of the political department:  
“To influence the activity of the media ... by collecting and making use of special information on the conduct of each media outlet’s commercial and political activities, its personnel, those managing its organisations, its sources of finance, economic, material and technological resources, formal and informal contacts, financial partners, etc.; 
“To influence the work of journalists ... by collecting and making use of special information on the conduct of their professional journalistic, commercial and political activities, sources of financial support, place of work, formal and informal contacts, financial and personal partners and others.” 

Even more blatant is the authors’ proposal of two approaches to working with the media. The first should see the setting up of an agency (making use of the Administration’s resources) to investigate, accumulate and process information obtained and recycle it to the public “appropriately retouched”. The second approach would be to “induce a financial crisis in opposition media, or media sympathetic to the opposition, rescind their licences and certificates, and create conditions under which their operations became either manageable by the state or impossible.” 

Intervention intensifies

In 2005, the practice of managing the media in Russia achieved a stable form that has survived almost unaltered until the present time. The model has proved effective, and even able to adapt to progressive (at least in technical terms) trends. And the system has been obliged to evolve: having felt its way to the levers of power in the field of news coverage, it went on to begin intervening in the news agenda. The system has also been forced to extend its reach from traditional media to the “new media”, from broadcasting and the press to the interactive sphere, from a domestic agenda to an international agenda. 

The system has to operate in an environment where, on paper, the laws ban the practice of censorship. The interests of the censorship system, however, coincide with the interests of the political establishment: to ensure maximum conservation and maximum survival of the existing model, irrespective of what justifications may be put forward at a particular moment by its leader. These can be, as in 2000-2015, “countering terrorism”, “constructing a pyramid of power”, “innovational development”, and even “spiritual supports”. The mission of the New Censorship is to change the agenda in such a way that a substantial majority of the public support the accompanying ideas, regardless of their opinion yesterday or today in respect of their local, professional or social agenda. 

Insiders and outsiders

Svetlana Mironyuk, chief editor of the Novosti News Agency in 2003-2013, characterises the period: “[...] From the outset of the 2000s, the authorities distinguished three broad categories: foes (Vedomosti, Forbes,,, and a few others (most recently Rain / Dozhd’). There was no point in asking foes to do the Kremlin any favours, or to ask them to refrain from doing something. With them, as with the Western media, there was either a brisk, business-like relationship or no relationship at all. 
Then, there were friends: the state-owned media, although the warmth of the friendship varied greatly. Initially, for instance, there was respect for Vitaliy Ignatenko at ITAR-TASS and he was not particularly pressured. Konstantin Ernst [at Channel One] always occupied a special niche. Friends included Komsomolskaya Pravda and its editor, Vladimir Sungorkin, who were outwardly independent. There was Interfax and [its head] Mikhail Komissar. Later, “friends through thick and thin” included Aram Gabrelyanov [head of Izvestia and News Media group which owns LifeNews, a popular internet and TV news outfit. - Ed.]. In terms of his degree of intimacy with the Kremlin, Sungorkin was always a closer confidant than I [Mironyuk] was. It was all a matter of personal chemistry between Gromov and his group, and the editors, as well as a bit of horse-trading. “We’ll put an exclusive interview your way, and you can do us a favour in return.” 
Finally, the third category were the half-friends, or half-foes. Initially, that list included Kommersant, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Echo of Moscow radio [Russian original also includes Argumenty i Fakty in this list. - Ed.]; that is, people you might be able to do a deal with, but not always. 

A return of direct line

In addition, in 2004-2005 one further crucial element of governmental media management appeared. Mironyuk notes, “Some time around 2002, before I [was appointed to Novosti], Lesin wired up himself and all the editors-in-chief of state-owned media with a direct, dedicated cable. [Such direct lines existed in Soviet times and were refered too as ‘vertushka’. - Ed.] A line was laid specially from the Ministry of the Press in Moscow on Strastnoy Boulevard to all the editorial offices. That was done by Koryavov, who was deputy minister at the time. Then, in 2004-2005, for all the output [to news desks - Ed.] of agencies and television a special cable was installed on the closed ATS-2 network. This was a one-way yellow telephone without a dial which could only receive calls. [At present] all these non-dialling telephones go straight back to Alexey Gromov’s office. This is now the main mechanism for managing the media. [...] 

Manufactured reality

The main innovation during the latest period of the New Censorship has been a clampdown in the government-control media, especially television, on any generation of their own news agenda. Russia, as understood by the “collective Putin”, or as those who for the time being are his loyal lieutenants would like to see it, does not need real news. On the contrary, the only tool used for managing imperfect Russian society is a manufactured news agenda which is literally stamped into the minds of the public by the TV channels. 

The New Censorship does not merely exclude real events from the news agenda: it replaces them with simulated communications whose purpose is to create in viewers a sense of dependency on the principal hero in the stories. Even during the Ukrainian crisis, the model has not been modified, except that the “pole” [thrust - Ed.] of the messages has been changed [...]

[...] secondment [of members of the media team of the Presidential Administration - Ed.] certainly goes on, and many of the texts read out on Vesti (News) or Vremya (Time) are aired, or appear on the websites of the channels, without any involvement of the channels’ editors. And indeed if, after all the filtering of staff that has gone on, editors were permitted to correct the artistic efforts of that faceless “creative team in the Administration”, things would only get worse. A distinguishing feature of the New Censorship is that it encourages journalists (the word should probably be in quotes) not only to serve up the news agenda they are handed by the Kremlin, but also to creatively embellish it themselves.
[...] The authentic, natural, real news agenda has not disappeared, it is just excluded from the “reality” communicated to Russia’s citizens. 

Image: a drawing by A.Anichkin, after The Girl with an Oar statue by Ivan Shadr, one of the symbols of Russia, albeit sardonic.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Тарас Бульба. Кто кого жёг?

(о непобедимой страдательности русских причастий)

Картина И.Репина, 1880-1891 гг., х/м.

На переговорах Горбачева с Бушем-старшим как-то был эпизод, когда переводчик спутал слова “проверяющая сторона” и “проверяемая сторона”, едва не изменив ход мировой истории. С русскими причастиями просто беда! 

Неукротимый лев американской русистики Стивен Додсон (Languaghat) прислал мне замечательный ляпсус в переводе на английский мемуаров П.В.Анненкова “Замечательное десятилетие 1838-1848”. (Thanks, Steve!)

В главе VIII Анненков пишет о полемике Белинского с критиками Гоголя (мемуар Анненкова есть здесь). На русском этот пассаж выглядит так: 

Но решительное и восторженное слово было сказано, и сказано не наобум. Для поддержания, оправдания и укоренения его в общественном сознании Белинский издержал много энергии, таланта, ума, переломал много копий, да и не с одними только врагами писателя, открывавшего у нас реалистический период литературы, а и с друзьями его. Так, Белинский опровергал критика "Московского наблюдателя" 1836 года, когда тот, в странном энтузиазме, объявил, будто за одно "слышу", вырвавшееся из уст Тараса Бульбы в ответ на восклицание казнимого и мучимого сына: "Слышишь ли ты это, отец мой?" — будто за одно это восклицание "слышу" Гоголь достоин был бы бессмертия; а в другой раз опровергал того же критика, и не менее победоносно, когда тот выразил желание, чтобы в рассказе "Старосветские помещики" не встречался намек на привычку, а все сношения между идиллическими супругами объяснялись только одним нежным и чистым чувством, без всякой примеси.

На английском переводчик мемуара Irwin R. Titunik изобразил это так (книга есть на Амазоне, цитата начинается со слов “Так, Белинский...):

Thus, Belinsky argued against the critic of the Moscow Observer of 1836 when the latter, in some strange fit of enthusiasm, declared that supposedly for the sake of the single expression "I hear" which burst from the lips of Taras Bulba in answer to the exclamation of his son, his torturer and executioner, "Do you hear this, father?" [...] 

То есть верный старший сын Тараса Остап, попавший в плен к ляхам, в переводе вдруг превратился в палача-казнителя любимого отца. Как замечает Додсон, тут трудно решить, что хуже, что переводчик не понял значения страдательных причастий или что явно не знал содержания “Тараса Бульбы”.

Как бы то ни было, а я согласен с упомянутым Анненковым критиком. Сцена казни Остапа с призывом к отцу и ответом Тараса действительно потрясающая. Прямо как из Евангелия, где Иисус на кресте призывает: “Отче! в руки Твои предаю дух Мой”.

Вот она, из XI главы “Тараса Бульбы” (текст здесь):

Но когда подвели его к последним смертным мукам, - казалось, как будто стала подаваться его сила. И повел он очами вокруг себя: боже, всё неведомые, всё чужие лица! Хоть бы кто-нибудь из близких присутствовал при его смерти! Он не хотел бы слышать рыданий и сокрушения слабой матери или безумных воплей супруги, исторгающей волосы и биющей себя в белые груди; хотел бы он теперь увидеть твердого мужа, который бы разумным словом освежил его и утешил при кончине. И упал он силою и воскликнул в душевной немощи:
— Батько! где ты! Слышишь ли ты?
— Слышу! - раздалось среди всеобщей тишины, и весь миллион народа в одно время вздрогнул.
Часть военных всадников бросилась заботливо рассматривать толпы народа. Янкель побледнел как смерть, и когда всадники немного отдалились от него, он со страхом оборотился назад, чтобы взглянуть на Тараса; но Тараса уже возле него не было: его и след простыл.

“Тарас Бульба” много раз экранизировался. В 1909 году вышла первая немая версия. Сто лет спустя, в 2009 году появились украинская “Дума о Тарасе Бульбе” и российская версия “Тарас Бульба” (режиссер Владимир Бортко). Разбирать нюансы — в другой раз. Сейчас же перепубликую широко известную американскую версию 1962 года с Юлом Бриннером в роли Тараса. Американские сценаристы вообще убрали, почти полностью, линию с Остапом. Вместо его казни — дописанная казнь польской панночки, которая и заставляет Андрия перейти на сторону ляхов. Как и роман, все киноверсии оставляют много вопросов и к Гоголю, и к режиссерам. (В YouTube есть отдельно сцена казни Остапа и крик Богдана Ступки “Слышу, сынку!”, российская версия 2009 г.)

В этой заметке, впрочем, я пока только о страдательных причастиях. (Казнь панночки начинается примерно с 1:40 в фильме, один час сорок минут)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Just discovered a new Russian word for 'selfie' — sebyashka (себяшка).

It comes from the word себя — self. To take a photo of yourself — сделать фото себя, сфотографировать себя, снять себя. Себя also contracts to ся in the endings of reflexive verbs and participles.

Add diminutive suffix -shk- (-шк-) and feminine ending -a and you get a sebyashka. The coinage has a good chance of staying on as it comes out naturally and rings similarly to many other common words, eg. rubashka — shirt. It certainly will compete with the English borrowing селфи (selfie) and all but conquered another home-grown word for a selfie, samostrel (самострел — self-shoot).

Friends on Facebook say that it has been around for a few years, others agreed it's the first time they see. One mother said she'd heard it first from her children, and a language professor said that she had already had students analyze the word.

I made a contribution to further the sebyashka by suggesting a verbal form: себятить (imperfect aspect) and отсебятить (perfect aspect). The professor friend promised she'd give my new verb proper credit (to myself) when introducing her students to it.

Here is how I otsebyatil sebya (otsebyatilsya) — made a sebyashka selfie of myself.

Read also 'Selfie in Russian'

Friday, January 16, 2015

Arseny Tarkovsky Compass Awards.

Арсений Тарковский 
(1907-1989, photo mid 30s)

Cardinal Points Journal is holding their Arseny Tarkovsky translations awards ceremony and readings in New York this Saturday  (Poets House, at 4 pm.). Cardinal Points has had Russian poetry translation contests for several years now, each devoted to one particular poet. Last year's contest was dedicated to Arseny Tarkovsky, father of the film director Andrey. (wikipedia about Arseny and a portrait gallery of him.)

Winning translations will appear on the Cardinal Points website and in the 5th volume of the almanac scheduled to come out in a few months.

Cardinal Points website is here and direct link to Tarkovsky contest page is here, for additional information mail Compass (compass at StoSvet dot net) or go to their facebook page

This translation by Laurence Bogoslaw (USA) won the first prize. 

In autumn’s final weeks, on the decline 
Of bitter life,
Filled to the brim with wistfulness, I walked
Into a leafless, nameless wood.
It was engulfed from edge to edge in milk-
White fog like frosted glass. Its hoary branches
Dripped tears distilled like those
That only trees weep on the eve
Of winter that drains everything of color.
And then a miracle occurred: at sunset
Out of a raincloud peeked a gleam of blue,
A ray of light broke through, as bright as June,
A weightless spear of birdsong cast 
From future days back to my past.
And now the trees stood weeping on the eve
Of noble works and festive offerings
Of cheerful whirlwinds luffing in the azure;
And bluebirds started dancing in a ring
Like hands upon a keyboard, rising measures
From earth to the highest notes the air can sing.

In the first video, Arseny Tarkovsky reads First Encounters ("Первые свидания") in Andrey Tarkovsky's The Mirror. It is this poem that ends with the haunting lines: 'When fate was stalking us like madman, with razor blade in hand.' In the second video Arseny Tarkovsky reads 'Blurring Sight' ("Меркнет зрение"):

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Prokofiev, Donetsk, Ukraine.

Donetsk airport before the fighting.
Photo: Michael1238
The other day I was looking at pictures from Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, a city ravaged by the on-going conflict. Some of the fiercest fighting has been around the international airport in Donetsk.

The airport is named after Sergei Prokofiev, the great composer, one of the finest melodists ever, the author of many of the top 100 world favourites and some of the most recognisable Russian patriotic tunes, including the theme for Eisenstein's 'Alexander Nevsky' 'Arise, you Russian people.'

Why is Donetsk airport named after Prokofiev? After all, it's mostly known as the industrial heart of Ukraine with its many mines and steel mills. It turns out that Prokofiev was born in the Donbass region (Donetsk and the surrounding mining villages). The village where he was born was called Sontsovka at the time (Sunnyville), now Krasnoye. It used to be in Yekaterinoslav guberniya (governorate), but is now in Donetsk oblast (region).

 Here is the Dance of the Knights (Montague and Capulets) from Prokofiev's balet 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors.

Vitaly Churkin.

Western media is giving much coverage today to the Russian ambassador Churkin's UN press-conference where he used a curious phrase, 'the kingdom of crooked mirrors.' This quote is from the BBC report (follow the link to read in full and watch the video):

But speaking to the UN Security Council, Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused Western powers of distorting reality.
"Sometimes it reminded me of the kingdom of crooked mirrors because some members of the Council were not concerned about the fact hundreds of civilians are dying."

In case you are wondering what is this kingdom he was talking about, it is a reference to the Soviet fantasy film The Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1963, wiki here, watch the video below) based on the novel of the same title by Vitaly Gubarev (wiki about him). The translation is a bit awkward but that’s how the film was titled in English. ‘Crooked mirror’ is a literal translation of the Russian term “кривое зеркало” — distorting mirror as the ones used in ‘hall of mirrors’ attractions at fairs and carnivals. The Russian name for such attraction is “комната смеха” — ‘room of laughter.’ 'Crooked mirror' is also used figuratively to mean distorted reality or distortion.

In the film, a young girl Olya falls through the mirror and, together with her mirror image twin Yalo, accidentally finds herself in a magic kingdom where all mirrors are distorted to show the opposite of what is real. The girls who played Olya and Yalo are real-life twins. Characters in the film have talking names spelled backwards. 

The chase starts when the girls decide to save a boy called Gurd, drug (friend) spelled backwards, a glassmaker who refuses to make the lying mirrors for the rulers of the kingdom. He is beaten and chained to the top of the Tower of Death to die slowly. In the end the girls overthrow the tyranny, the mirrors are smashed and evil characters turn back into creatures that their names represent, for example, Anidág-Gádina (viper) into a snake, Abáje-Jábba into a toad, and king Yagoupop-Popugay into a parrot.

It’s a bright, cheerful film with lots of music, catchy phrases and exciting play on words. I loved it as a young boy and then introduced my own children to the film, who enjoyed it as much as I had.

There are recognisable motives from Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass, but Gubarev must have also found inspiration in Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen. In Andersen’s tale, a troll makes distorting mirror that turns all good into evil. The mirror is smashed and shards are scattered all over the world. One gets into the little boy Kai’s heart. An animated Russian version of The Snow Queen was released in 1957 and has been a top children’s favourite ever since. (Wiki about the film here, it was restored and dubbed into English in 1990s.) 

The Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Corporal Widow.

Nikolay Gogol.
(Daguerrotype photo, 1845)
Russian Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the new extension of the EU sanctions with the head of the FSB security service and the president of Chechnya now on the list. (TASS report in Russian here, smoothed out English version here, BBC, without the colourful expressions, here)

The language of the MID comments is so flowery that it comes close to Nikita Khrushchev's legendary Mother of Kouzma, or Kuzkina mat' ("кузькина мать").

In one paragraph the diplomatic riposte uses a very slangy drug-world expression сесть на иглу, literally 'to sit on the needle', meaning to become addicted to intravenous drugs. This is used to describe the EU's seeming willingness to take as truthful the information coming from the US and Kiev.

Even more confusing might be a reference to "унтер-офицерская вдова", the non-commissioned officer's widow, or the sergeant's widow. It is a well-known Russian phrase, "унтер-офицерская вдова сама себя высекла" — 'the sergeant's widow flogged her herself.' It comes originally from Gogol's The Inspector-General, the 1836 satirical comedy describing corrupt and inept officials in a provincial town.

In the play, a lying Governor suggests that a complaining NCO's widow lies herself and improbably claims that it wasn't him who ordered her flogged but the woman flogged her herself. As often happens with quotes it became detached from the original and is now used in the meaning 'to punish oneself.'

Here is the original quote from The Inspector-General:

Гоголь, "Ревизор", Действие IV, Явление XV:
Городничий. Унтер-офицерша налгала вам, будто бы я ее высек; она врет, ей-богу, врет. Она сама себя высекла.

(The Government Inspector, Act IV, Scene XIV, translated by Arthur A Sykes, 1892)
GOVERNOR. The sergeant's wife lied when she told you I flogged her—it's 
false, yei Bohu, it's false. Why, she flogged herself ! 

(The Inspector-General, translated by Thomas Seltzer)
GOVERNOR. The officer's widow lied to you when she said I flogged her. She lied, upon my word, she lied. She flogged herself.

LE GOUVERNEUR. — La femme du sous-officier vous a menti, menti, j'ai ne l'ai pas faire fouetter. Elle s'est fouettée elle-même.

Read the Russian version of this post here.

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