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Dmitry Kiselev Is Redefining the Art of Russian Propaganda

Nobody exploits basic human insecurity and fear quite like Putin's favorite TV host

Photoagency Interpress/Zuma Press/Newscom

On the evening of February 23, a little more than a day after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev in the middle of the night, ceding power to protesters on the Maidan, Dmitry Kiselev was in an especially apocalyptic mood. Kiselev is host of “Vesti Nedeli,” or “News of the Week,” which airs on Rossiya, a state-owned channel that reaches 90 percent of Russian households. Every Sunday for two hours, he holds forth on his many bugbears, phobias, and hatreds: the degenerate West, traitorous liberals at home. In recent months, the show had developed a near single-minded fixation on Ukraine—or as, Kiselev saw it, the fascist usurpers that had seized power in Kiev and were being propped up by the NATO machine. On this particular night, he declared that the ouster of the Putin-aligned Yanukovych government represented nothing less than the “end of statehood” for Ukraine. The country was now under “external control,” he said, by which he meant the shadowy forces of the West. “With the starry blue flags of the European Union, made smoky from the fumes of burning tires, the country was plunged into a condition in which human life is only worth a kopek.”

Since the Maidan protests, and especially after the fall of Yanukovych, Russian television has been engaged in a propaganda onslaught unprecedented in the post-Soviet era, implying or inventing dark suspicions about Western motives in Ukraine while painting Russia’s own meddling as a heroic answer to the call of justice. Kiselev is the most high-profile, not to mention theatrically gifted, character in this on-air drama. At 60, he has a round, soft face, thin white hair cut short to the scalp, and a smile that is at once cherubic and menacing. His delivery is dynamic and highly mannered—he paces across the set and punctuates his points with the hand gestures of an overeager mime. He might make his fingers dance in the air or glide his hand across his body, while accusing pro-European protesters in Kiev of launching a “war against Russia,” or declaring the violent clashes between protesters and police last December to be a “co-production” ordered and paid for by the U.S. State Department. At times, his speech can have an almost lyrical quality, even when its content is quite ominous, such as the night he stood in front of a large photo of a mushroom cloud and reminded viewers that Russia is still “the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust.”

It is programs like Kiselev’s that help explain why, according to polling by the independent Levada Center, 67 percent of Russians say the new government in Kiev is not legitimate, and 85 percent consider the collapse of the Yanukovych regime a coup. Ninety-two percent of respondents told the Levada Center that television was their main source of information about events in Ukraine.

Outside Russia, Kiselev is perhaps most famous for his pronouncement that gays and lesbians “should be prohibited from donating blood, sperm, and, in the case of a road accident, their hearts should be either buried or cremated as unsuitable for the prolongation of life.” He made the remark in April 2012 to a studio audience—who clapped approvingly—but the segment did not receive widespread attention until a year later, after Russia passed a law banning “gay propaganda” in the presence of minors. Since then, Kiselev has spent a lot of time trying to explain himself. It was a “controlled flame that I used to ignite the discussion,” he told one interviewer. The problem with homosexuals, Kiselev told another, “is that they carry themselves provocatively . . . deliberately encouraging and provoking a situation so they become victims.” Still, Kiselev can’t stay away from making gay jokes, if that’s the right word for them: In February, he suggested that the Iwo Jima monument looked like men having sex. “A fevered subconscious could ascribe just about anything to it,” he said, his lips curling into a self-satisfied grin. “Take a closer look: a very modern theme, isn’t it?”

Kiselev’s true target is not the millions of viewers who watch the Rossiya channel—though his ratings are strong, he does not win his time slot—but the handful of people in the Kremlin who set the accepted tone for the country’s political culture. He praises Vladimir Putin extravagantly on air. On the occasion of the president’s sixtieth birthday in October 2012, Kiselev delivered a twelve-minute panegyric that concluded, “In terms of the scale of activity, Putin as a politician is comparable among his predecessors in the twentieth century only to Stalin.” Above all, his show is a portal into the darkest, most conspiratorial urges of the current iteration of Putinism. For years, Putin did not make any ideological claims to legitimacy. Instead, he based his power on Russia’s improving fortunes and rising standard of living. But since his return to the presidency in 2012, he has tried to assemble a new justification for his rule, based on an amalgamation of conservative values, Russian exceptionalism, and a sense that the country is under threat from the malicious encroachments of the West. The crisis in Ukraine, which Putin sees as a proxy struggle between Russia and the West, has only intensified these impulses, and Kiselev presents this worldview at its most uncompromising.

Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images
If Kiselev has one particular skill, it is that of the prisposoblenets, a person who senses exactly what is required of him and uses that knowledge to maximum advantage.

One Monday last December, Putin signed a surprise decree that called for the “liquidation” of RIA Novosti, a state media agency that, while undoubtedly a government organ, had developed a reputation for competence and professionalism. He ordered the creation of a new state media behemoth—Rossiya Segodnya, or Russia Today—with the mission of improving Russia’s image abroad and named Kiselev as its head. A few days after the announcement, Kiselev went to RIA Novosti’s headquarters to introduce himself to its journalists. He went out of his way to distance himself from his on-screen persona, explaining that his TV image projected “a certain theatricality, a dramatization, a grotesqueness.” “This does not mean that every one of you is obliged to reproduce this in your own performance,” he told the crowd.

But after a few minutes, the staff began to challenge Kiselev. They wondered, for example, whether they would still be able to interview experts with independent views, or how Kiselev distinguished between his attitude to a particular government and, as he put it to them, the “sacred” fatherland. Kiselev grew visibly irritated, and his speech became tight and clipped. Objectivity, he told the journalists, “is a myth that is proposed and imposed on us.” Imagine, he said, a young man who puts his hand on a girl’s shoulder and says: “ ‘You know, I have long wanted to tell you that I regard you objectively.’ Is that what she is expecting?” he asked. “Not likely.” In this same way, he concluded, “Russia needs our love.”

What makes Kiselev’s role in the state propaganda apparatus especially remarkable is that he initially came to fame for opposing Soviet censorship. In January 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had by then taken his last, reactionary turn to the right, ordered a crackdown against demonstrators in Lithuania. Soviet troops shot into a crowd gathered at the central TV tower in Vilnius, killing 14 people. Kiselev, then a young anchor on a popular Soviet news program, refused to read from the censored version of events and was banished from the airwaves. Yevgenia Albats, the editor of the respected liberal magazine The New Times, was a young investigative reporter at the time. “I have respect for what he did,” she told me. “It was a very difficult step to make, and especially courageous for someone from his circle of television personalities.” (In 1994, the Lithuanian government gave him a medal for his stance; in April, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė revoked it.)

That’s not to say that Kiselev necessarily held heartfelt democratic beliefs; it’s possible that he was simply playing a character. Like Putin and those close to him, he came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when almost everyone had long stopped believing in communist ideology and saw the Soviet Union as a hollow, decaying mess. Most of these people were not prepared to adopt the dissident’s life, however, and so they played along with the state—which, for the well placed, could bring a life of relative privilege and comfort. And yet this doublethink bred an abiding cynicism. Yevgeny Kiselev (no relation), a respected TV journalist who left Moscow for Kiev in the mid-2000s, briefly worked with Dmitry Kiselev on Soviet television in the late ’80s. He recalled that sometimes Dmitry would record broadcasts extolling the wonders of Gorbachev’s perestroika—and then, minutes later, could be found in the hallways mocking perestroika and its associated values to anyone who would listen.

All the same, Kiselev spent the 1990s in the company of liberal journalists, an ambitious bunch who were excited about the opportunities they thought the new country could offer. Albats would occasionally see Kiselev at an informal liberal discussion club that would meet around Moscow. “He was very interesting, educated, he spoke well, thought well; talking with him was always intriguing,” she told me. (This winter, Kiselev aired a segment that tried to discredit Albats, who is Jewish, by showing her portrait with some words written in Hebrew. “I was stunned,” Albats told me. Back when she knew him, she said, “there was nothing racist or nationalistic in the way he spoke.”)

Kiselev studied Scandinavian languages in university and had developed an affinity for Norway, in particular. His first show in the early ’90s was called “Window to Europe,” a kind of travelogue filmed in various cities across the continent. He built a dacha outside of Moscow that Irena Lesnevskaya, a TV and media executive who produced a show with him, described as “absolutely a piece of Scandinavia deep in the woods.” It all felt very European, she told me: “How he brought out the wine, how he held the glass, how he laid out food on the table, the kinds of pictures hung around the house.”

In 1999, thanks to his reputation for independence, producers working for the BBC asked Kiselev to host an episode of a series on journalistic practices in Russia. His topic was ethics. Kiselev held forth on the difference between journalists and “agitators,” and the need to show “the whole proportion of the world.” Anna Narinskaya, now a critic for the newspaper Kommersant, worked as a producer on the series and told me that his attitude seemed genuine. “At the time, it wasn’t in his advantage to talk like this. His competitors, who were more famous and powerful, were terribly biased,” she said. (She remembers Kiselev as deeply unpleasant and saw him repeatedly grope another female producer during filming.) In the BBC segment, Kiselev also delivered an impassioned argument against blending journalism with propaganda. “People will, of course, swallow anything,” he said. “But if we keep lowering the bar and drop morals, we will, one day, find ourselves splashing in the mud like pigs and eating each other, along with this mud, and then we would not be able to sink any lower.”

As the 2000s began, with Putin finding his way in the presidency, Kiselev wasn’t in high demand. For all his success, he had not broken into the top echelon of Russian TV personalities, whom he envied for their prominence. He was competent and skilled, but lacked the natural charisma of a TV star. It looked as if his career had plateaued; for a while he had very little work on television at all. Lesnevskaya remembers him as “modern, sweet, talented—but always jealous.”

Fortunately for him, at that time, Ukraine was just beginning to develop its own TV industry. (Previously, it had simply transmitted Russian broadcasts.) In 2001, Kiselev was hired by ICTV, a station owned by the Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, and given responsibility for hosting several programs and building up the news division.

Kiselev enjoyed life in Kiev, taking up residence in a converted guesthouse in a wooded area outside of town and buying a red Mini Cooper. At ICTV, he was informal and democratic. He furnished his office with folding chairs from Ikea and insisted that his subordinates address him informally, as “Dima.” The young staff looked up to the experienced journalist from Moscow who spoke of importing the standards of Time magazine and the BBC. Oksana Sokolova, a junior correspondent when Kiselev arrived, told me that his approach came as a revelation for those who had studied “the Marxist-Leninist school of journalism.” “Dima presented us with something entirely different: how to structure information, select outside experts,” she said.

Kiselev could also be tough on government officials. He cajoled Ukraine’s general prosecutor, who was avoiding coming on air over some embarrassing matter, into sitting for an interview. After a stray missile crashed into an apartment building during a training exercise, Kiselev called for the minister of defense to resign, which he did, the next day. Alexander Bogutsky, the station’s general director, recalls him standing before the newsroom, telling the channel’s staff: “Colleagues, let’s make a decision. We’re already in Europe. Begin Europe with yourself. Live as if you were already in the European community.”

But then came the tumultuous 2004 election battle between Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western challenger, and Viktor Yanukovych, the favored candidate of the ruling party who was seen to be close to Moscow. A fraudulent vote count that favored Yanukovych provoked widespread protests that grew into the Orange Revolution. It was during this time that Kiselev began to change, both as a boss and as a host.

At first, he was likely responding to directions from on high. Pinchuk, ICTV’s head, is married to the daughter of Leonid Kuchma, the Ukrainian president at the time. Kuchma was backing Yanukovych to succeed him, and before long ICTV was enlisted as a full-on propaganda operation during the campaign. It may have been that Kiselev finally saw his chance to become a truly influential media figure or simply worked himself into a frenzy that assumed its own momentum. Whatever the reason, he took on the assignment with gusto. It wasn’t long before he discarded his commitment to journalistic independence and began to advance some of the theories that have become his primary obsessions today—in particular the notion that Yushchenko and his allies were Russophobic agents under the influence of the United States. His on-air commentary grew shrill and paranoid, provoking objections from many of the staff. Anyone who tried to argue with him, Sokolova said, would butt up against his “unappealable position: ‘It’s this way, and guys, you simply don’t understand anything.’”

After Yushchenko won the presidency, ICTV decided not to extend his contract. “With the image he had created for himself, he couldn’t remain any longer,” Sokolova told me. And so Kiselev returned to Moscow. He found work at Rossiya, the state-owned channel that is the most faithful to the party line. In August 2012, Kiselev was named host of “News of the Week,” and over the course of many months, constructed his current on-screen personality. For the first time in Russia, he was truly and inarguably famous.

These days, Kiselev (who declined to be interviewed for this article) does not shy away from the word propaganda; to the contrary, he embraces the term. As he told the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, “News of the Week” “promotes, or rather propagandizes—I’m not afraid to use this word—healthy values and patriotism.” However, his version of propaganda differs from its Soviet antecedent. Soviet news and information programs were soothing, meant to suppress any suggestion of the unpleasant and reassure the viewer that life in the communist empire was peaceful and optimistic. A Soviet newscaster, explained Anna Kachkaeva, a former TV critic and now professor at the Higher School of Economics, had the responsibility of “maintaining calm, while showing little emotion, like a eunuch reading from a scroll.”

But back in those pre-Internet times, if the state media prevented any mention of a difficult subject, most of the Soviet viewing public would remain unaware of it. Today, of course, bad news can be disseminated by other means, and so instead of ignoring inconvenient or controversial topics, Kiselev exploits them to inflame the public against Russia’s enemies. Whereas homosexuality might as well not have existed in the Soviet Union, for example, it has become something of a pet topic for Kiselev. Critics of the state get a similar treatment. During a segment on Russia’s “fifth column,” for example, Kiselev accused Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader whom he has compared to Hitler, and Sergei Parkhomenko, an editor and activist, of conspiring with Washington and Brussels to draft lists of Russians to be sanctioned by the West. In Kiselev’s world, Russia is not safe and nor is the viewer.

If Kiselev has one particular skill, it is that of the prisposoblenets, a Russian word for a crafty person who senses what is required of him and uses that knowledge to personal advantage. Like Glenn Beck, who rocketed to fame by feeding the fears of people who felt threatened by the election of Barack Obama, he has advanced his career by feeding the insecurities of his audience. “It’s acting,” said one person who has followed Moscow’s media scene for years. “The audience in the Kremlin likes it, because it cements and strengthens the stylistic preferences of the state.”

In late March, the European Union issued a round of sanctions, denying visas and freezing the bank accounts of 21 Russian officials for their involvement in the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of unrest in eastern Ukraine. Kiselev was the only journalist on the list, described as a “central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine.” It was a description that Kiselev himself might not object to. “Information wars,” he told an interviewer, have become “the main type of warfare.”

As Kiselev’s influence has grown, some have taken to calling him a latter-day “minister of propaganda,” but that overstates his power. He doesn’t set policy but instead adds an ugly maximalist sheen to decisions made elsewhere. As Kachkaeva put it to me, he is “a face, a sign, a metaphor, a symbol,” most especially of Russia’s dramatic turn inward. Under Putin, Russia has essentially abandoned its post-1991 effort of integrating with the West, of paying lip service to democratic values in public even while violating them in practice. As its recent maneuvering in Ukraine has shown, his Russia cares little about its position in the Western order; in fact, it fetishizes its ostracism. The official mood was summed up in a paper released by the culture ministry last month, which holds that “Russia is not Europe” and calls for the country to “reject the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance.” And so the fact that the Kremlin chose Kiselev, with his poisonous reputation abroad, to lead Rossiya Segodnya sends an unmistakable message: Either the whole project is meant to be antagonistic, or Putin and those close to him simply don’t care.

At Rossiya Segodnya, many of the professional journalists who worked for RIA Novosti have left, and the news service has taken on a more political slant. One recent article reprinted a call from rebel forces in eastern Ukraine for volunteer fighters, including those skilled at driving tanks. Last month, Kiselev shut down broadcast access to Voice of America, saying, “We are not going to cooperate” with “radio spammers.” He also lashed out at EU sanctions with a Guardian op-ed in which he portrayed himself as a righteous victim. Unlike Europe, he claimed, Russia does not place “any government restrictions” on “freedom of speech.” As an example, he referred to the independent cable channel Dozhd, which is in danger of closing in the face of sustained pressure it says originates in the Kremlin. Kiselev also accused the European Union of hypocrisy, pointing out that, by imposing sanctions on him for broadcasting propaganda (which is not illegal under international law), it was violating his right to free speech (which is protected under international law). It was one of his few compelling points. Many journalists would be uncomfortable with the idea of governments enforcing a line between information and propaganda.

It was also a classic Kiselev move: an attempt to tarnish the liberal European project in the eyes of Russians and drive its defenders into an impotent fury. Europe is no different or better than anywhere else, he seemed to be saying—all governments behave this way. And more than the paranoia or the war-mongering, this all-encompassing cynicism may be his most lasting achievement. Watching hours of his show leaves the viewer with the exhausting impression that no one is objective, everyone is compromised, and anyone who attempts to make sense of what is happening in Russia and the world must be serving one side or another. As the younger Kiselev might have said, We’re all in the mud now.