Russia stretches across 11 time zones and 6,200 miles. With such expansive territory, the country’s topography and demographics are more diverse than fretful Western media encourage us to believe. There is one thing, however, that 96 percent of Russians have in common: Channel One, the most widely broadcast state-run television channel in Russia.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin can be found across the spectrum of television programming on Channel One. In a column for Prospect,Ben Judah writes that a “relentless, never-ending PR campaign [is] … spinning the prime minister into various guises designed to appeal to different groups across Russia’s fractured society.” Putin has appeared on The Battle for Respect, a popular hip-hop program. On another program he comes to the rescue of a desperate housewife by ordering an avaricious grocer to lower his sausage prices.
Mostly, Putin appears as a vigorous adventurer. “He is the picture of Russia’s strength,” writes Judah. “Rural Russians can identify with Putin swimming bare-chested down a river … after the Moscow metro bombings in Late March, Putin sought to shore up his image by single-handedly tagging a polar bear.”
The spin isn’t entirely malicious. “Men here can expect to live to the age of 59 on average–below the life expectancy of Pakistanis or even Palestinians,” says a Russian diplomat trainee named Masha. The prime minister has to promote health and exercise at any cost, he says, “and if that means bare-chested calendars, swimming shoots, judo or being on a rap show–so be it.”
With only 33 percent internet penetration, television serves as the common platform for Russians, but that reach doesn’t always serve Putin’s interests.
When, at a recent televised charity concert for sick children, Russian rocker Yuri Shevchuk, a legendary dissident artist, challenged Putin on his record of civil rights abuses, including the lack of media autonomy and crackdowns on public assembly, the country watched Mr. Putin squirm in his chair and defend freedom of speech in an angry retort.
As Vladimir Kara-Murza of World Affairs Journal writes, “This was widely taken as a message that … a promise made in such public setting by the prime minister of Russia would not be easily broken.” The very next day protesters in Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square were being beaten and detained by police.
“At the end of the meeting with Mr. Putin,” writes Kara-Murza, “Yuri Shevchuk proposed a toast ‘on behalf of our children’ who, he hoped, will grow up not in a ‘gloomy, corrupt, and totalitarian country,’ but in a ‘bright and democratic’ Russia, where ‘everyone is equal before the law.’ ‘Like toast, like drink,’ Mr. Putin retorted. The glasses were filled with plain water.”