The Invention of Russia
From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War
Viking Press, New York, 2015, 384 pages
Book Review published on: May 12, 2017
Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia is a gripping tale of how reality is created and, when necessary, recreated to cover-up problems, reorient the populations focus, or deflect Russian responsibility for its actions or mistakes (the shoot down of the Malaysian airliner is a prime example, as Russia offered several versions of events or reality before the Netherland Report implicated Russia with damning proof). Ostrovsky offers Western audiences a perspective of unusual import, which is the Kremlin’s view that there is no “truth,” only reality as President Vladimir Putin’s propagandists proscribe it. Understanding Russia’s methodology will help westerners confront the manipulations of reality and excessive use of simulacrums at the Kremlin’s disposal.
Ostrovsky assesses Russia’s use of media to create a new internal and external reality for its citizens and its diaspora abroad. First, he describes how the media creates new lies to replace those that were dismantled when the Soviet Union collapsed and lost its legitimacy. This requires that “things that did not exist could be turned into reality by harnessing the power of TV” to foster patriotism, collectivism, state power, and the primacy of the state as core values of Russia’s citizens in support of Putin. Second, Ostrovsky describes how the main characters (ideologists, television executives, and editors in charge of the messages and the media) “composed the storyline, produced and broadcast it, and in the process led the country from freedom to war.” The book, as a result, is the story of the “Russian brand” that these people invented. The words and images they produced concealed facts and invented an alternative reality supported by lies and repressions. Today, television remains the medium that perpetuates Putin’s power and stirs hatred toward the West.
Putin, of course, has either guided this effort or has been guided himself by the characters mentioned above. He and his ensemble of propagandists work from the idea that the West betrayed Russia and continuously try to surround Russia on all fronts. Putin believes that America’s policy is based on “arrogance, exceptionalism, and impunity” (it is hard to find three words that better fit Russia’s leadership, but that is a debate for another time). Media executives, among them several oligarchs or burecrat-entrepreneurs who initially controlled television stations and thus internal propaganda, fought for Putin’s attention, usually through expressions of extreme loyalty to him. Their media empires gradually eroded as Putin came to realize that media control is a prerequisite for power in Russia. This conviction has resulted in state control over television stations such as NTV. Putin has rejected Boris Yeltsin’s federalism and stolen political independence, Ostrovsky writes. Incredibly, it seems that Putin continues to feel insecure in his position and thus is continually obsessed with thwarting any chance for a “color revolution” to occur in Russia; with preventing Russia’s encirclement by other nations; and with addressing his need for strong internal protection, as witnessed by his recent creation of a 340,000-manned national guard.
Ostrovsky notes several times that the “TV image is everything.” It has remained, from Soviet times to today, as the primary way that Russian citizens acquire news. As Konstantin Ernst, the director of Channel One, noted, “Our psyche is set up in such a way that only an artistic form can explain the time we live in.” In regard to Ukraine, Ostrovsky writes that without Russian TV, the war in Ukraine would not have started. Television works like a psychoactive agent, a hallucinogen that does not just distort reality but invents it. Television and the rest of the media are driven by the methodology of the lie, which is based on the concept that there is no such thing as “truth,” just objective reality as created by the Kremlin. Putin’s political advisor, Vladislav Surkov, is, in Ostrovsky’s words, a master of manipulations and simulacra. When things do not go Russia’s way, an illusion of change is created, a new narrative developed, and a new reality created. Russia is thus continually reinvented to fit Putin’s latest response to sanctions, doping charges, or some other humiliation.
Ostrovsky’s book should be sought after by analysts in NATO’s strategic communications office. Without an understanding of the shifting sand of Russia’s reality, analysts will be unable to comprehend the problem set that opposes them. Likewise, any analyst interested in properly being able to assess the constant bombardment of Russian propaganda’s various versions of reality and “truth” would do well to read and learn from Ostrovsky’s work. Reality is not always what it seems.
Book Review written by: Timothy L. Thomas, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas