In a clip from the state-owned Channel 1 Russia news broadcast that’s been circling the internet since last year, a sobbing, dishevelled old man cries out from Italy to his countrymen: “People of Russia, don’t believe what they’re telling you. They don’t want us here, we’re nobody”. The man is Walter Litvinenko – father of the late Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-FSB operative turned dissident who was poisoned in London in 2006. The video is an example of how the Russian government is aiming its propaganda machine at curbing emigration.
But something fit for a nationwide TV network that covers 96% of the country isn’t what you’d sell to the young, internet-savvy crowd of Russia’s capital. In November, a project titled Moscow Global – an honest film about Moscow popped up on the web. It is a “documentary” of a different sort, but one that promotes the same ideas as the video featuring Litvinenko senior.
The film, shot in lavish Moscow cafes, boasts some B-list celebrities as interviewees. The well-off Muscovites sip cappuccinos as they talk about their experiences abroad, the hardships they’ve endured, and how they longed to come back to Russia. “There are too many rules there. Every aspect of society and interpersonal relations is regulated” says a well-dressed young man. “I was in LA – and there’s nothing to do there. It’s just a village. It’s nothing like Moscow,” echoes a semi-famous musician. “It’s all an illusion. You go there, you see these beautiful buildings, the restaurants, the smiling faces, but dig a little deeper – and you’ll understand that’s it’s all fake” concludes an attractive young woman. The interviews are interrupted by scenes showing cheerful people playing ping-pong and taking pictures of each other in a Moscow park, while the voiceover says in a calm and instructive tone that “Russian people have more soul. There’s no place for us there”.
Both videos are part of a large government effort at improving Russia’s image at home. The simple folk are persuaded with tears, the more educated with ping-pong, blonde girls, and the endless business possibilities Russia offers to those who choose not to emigrate.
The Moscow Global website states that the documentary is an independent production, an initiative of film director Alexander Golovanov, who “just wants to find out what life is for those who left Russia”. However, at the bottom of the page is a list of sponsors; clicking on their logos leads to a different kind of website, with not a hint of the “hipster chic” ideal portrayed in the documentary. The key sponsor is a foundation established by the Russian government, with the purpose of returning the Russian-speaking population back to their country and preventing brain drain. Its website features an abundance of Russian Orthodox crosses, Putin’s official portraits, and articles such as “Why the Baltic states lived better in USSR than they do now in the EU”. The board of trustees consists of high-ranking government officials, CEOs of government-owned corporations and Orthodox priests – with not a single young, upper-middle-class type.
Abroad, the Russian government is less successful at fixing its image, especially amid the terrible PR it is getting for the highly criticised adoption ban – the latest in a string of numerous, legislated human rights violations, such as the prohibition of “homosexual propaganda” in certain cities, the imprisonment of artists, and a recently established registry of “forbidden internet sites“.
But there are some PR victories, too: Gérard Depardieu, who was granted Russian citizenship yesterday by Putin himself, is one of them. The French actor becoming a Russian national is exactly what Putin needs to show that Russia is not just an authoritarian kleptocracy bent on violating human rights, but also a place where you pay an incredible 13% flat income tax – something no European government can offer. Some Russian analysts are going as far as to speculate that the Depardieu story is going to attract foreign business. Of course, Depardieu has the right to live anywhere he wants – but accepting offers from people whose private armies are known to spread terror among hundreds of thousands of people is a rather strange way to fight the proposed tax hikes on the rich.
Meanwhile, official Russian TV is beaming with joy as it welcomes Depardieu’s arrival. Soon, we shall probably see a video of the French actor telling us how wonderful Russia is, and how impossible it is to live in the west – with those pesky rules, higher taxes, and no demagogue leaders to be friends with.