BEARR Trust Annual Lecture 2017

“Russia: The Power of a Narrative” 

speaker Arkady Ostrovsky

This year’s Annual Lecture, kindly hosted once again by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), One Exchange Square, London EC2A 2JN, took place on 26 June 2017.

Arkady Ostrovsky is Russia and Eastern European Editor of The Economist. A Russian-born, British journalist, he spent fifteen years reporting from Moscow, first for the Financial Times and then as a bureau chief for The Economist. He studied Russian theatre history in Moscow and holds a PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University. His book “The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War” (Atlantic Books) won the Orwell Prize for Literature in 2016.


How important is a powerful ‘narrative’ in shaping political reality, and how is it created? At a time when strong overarching messages often seem to count for more than the facts, the BEARR Trust invited Arkady Ostrovsky to give this year’s Annual Lecture on the ‘Power of the Narrative’ in Russia. 

Arkady Ostrovsky is well qualified to comment on the evolution of Russian media and politics. Currently the Russia and Eastern Europe editor of The Economist, he won the Orwell Prize in 2016 for The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War. This chronicled Russia’s post-Soviet transformation through the power of PR, television and the press in ‘inventing’ reality through a strong narrative: a story that people believe in.

The battle to control the narrative was fought from the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a liberal narrative initially powerful. The symbolism of Yeltsin defending the White House as a ‘Russian’ voice of freedom against the ‘Soviet’ leaders of the 1991 putsch was a powerful one; two years later, the media played a vital role in explaining the shelling of same White House as a battle between a president on the side of freedom and a reactionary parliament. At the time, the dominant narrative saw Russia as on a process of ‘transition’, from a ‘corrupt gerontocracy’ towards something ‘liberal’, ‘normal’ and ‘Western’, with capitalist economics leading to liberal politics (or the other way round). The reality might not have quite matched up to the narrative, but enough people believed in it to give it political traction.

Developing the liberal narrative involved inventing some history to create a new present. In 1991, a number of young journalists launched Kommersant, intended to be Moscow’s answer to the Wall Street Journal. This was to be a new newspaper for a new class of readers in a brand new market. But the founders took the title from a small-circulation pre-revolutionary paper, closed down in 1917. The masthead stated (and still states) that the newspaper was founded in 1909 and “was not published in 1917-91 for reasons beyond editorial control”.  The statement was an important representation of the dominant narrative, demonstrating the irrelevance of the communist period: a gap between a capitalist past and a capitalist future. Kommersantmay have been new, but it gave the impression of continuity; Russia may not have been capitalist, but it had a capitalist newspaper.

Media creation of reality played a strong role in electoral politics as well. By 1996, Yeltsin was frequently in poor health, confined to his private residence and somewhat different from the dynamic figure of 1991. Faced with the threat of a victory by communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov or the instability likely to be caused by cancelled elections, the two biggest rivals in broadcast media, Boris Berezovsky at Channel One and Vladimir Gusinsky at NTV, put aside their differences to campaign for a Yeltsin victory. Controlling the narrative through television not only secured Yeltsin’s second term – it guaranteed the oligarchs’ commercial interests and power in the Kremlin as well.

However, by 1998, an alternative narrative was emerging. As the 1998 default soured the promise of capitalist economic growth, the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia fed anti-American sentiment and Yeltsin’s health worsened, those in control of the media looked for a ‘strong and sober’ leader. Vladimir Putin was, in Arkady Ostrovsky’s words, ‘constructed’ by the media, seeing him as a reliable guarantor of the oligarchs’ interests. His media image invented in contrast to Yeltsin’s chaos and drunkenness, the ‘inventors’ of Putin also looked back to an older Soviet narrative. In 1998, NTV ran a re-make of Seventeen Moments of Spring, a 1970s TV spy series about a Soviet agent in Nazi Germany, the epitome of the ‘strong and sober’ leader. Months earlier, Putin (a former KGB officer in East Germany) had been appointed the head of the FSB; a year later he was Prime Minister.

Over time, the nationalist narrative has strengthened, as the state has increased its direct hold on broadcast media, and, in many cases, co-opted former liberal journalists and broadcasters. The news agenda has also been powerfully used to reinforce it. While for many liberals, Pussy Riot might be champions of free expression against an authoritarian regime, in the nationalist narrative, they are ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ damaging the institutions of tradition and the state. As in other countries, ‘cultural wedge’ issues are a powerful force. By 2014, the narrative of a strong, nationalist Russia looking out not just for its own interests but for those of ‘Russians’ beyond its post-Soviet borders was being used to much effect in Ukraine.

Yet a narrative only has power if people (want to) believe in it. Recent protests in Russia suggest that the Putin narrative might be losing some of its traction: while in previous years, the protest movement has been largely metropolitan, protests earlier this year drew from a wider cross-section of society. For the first time, the Kremlin seems to have been ‘behind the curve’ in responding to popular challenge. More generally, the universal reach of network television is fading, as younger people increasingly get their news online or via social media; over time, fewer voters remember (or care about) the collapse of the 1990s to which the Putin’s ‘restorationism’ was supposed to be the antidote.

What is tomorrow’s dominant narrative likely to be? Opposition leader Alexei Navalny strikes a nationalist tone, although from an isolationist, rather than imperialist perspective: opposed to immigration, anti-corruption and uninterested in assuming the burdens of the old Soviet empire. According to Arkady Ostrovsky, Navalny is “almost the new Putin”, and the symbolism of a new generation taking over from the old is striking. But in a highly personalistic system, how the transition from one generation to the next (or from one narrative) to the next will take place is very uncertain.

Finally, and looking beyond Russia, the West had a powerful narrative in 1991: the strength of the pro-Western narrative in the early 1990s rested on liberalism’s moral, as well as material value. But the ‘morality’ of the West seems to have lost much of its traction. If in Putin’s view, traditional Russian values are superior, they are to Navalny at least no worse.

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