Russian dictator Vladimir Putin
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin during a media appearance (Kremlin photo)

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is viewed by many world lead­ers and free peo­ples as a treach­er­ous war crim­i­nal, killing thou­sands of Ukrain­ian cit­i­zens, dis­plac­ing mil­lions more, and turn­ing cities into rubble.

Yet Putin’s approval rat­ing in Rus­sia has nev­er been higher.

A recent Reuters arti­cle ref­er­enced a state-run poll­ster VTsIOM, not­ing that Russ­ian trust in Putin has risen to 81.06% from 67.2% before he ordered a huge num­ber of addi­tion­al troops into Ukraine on Feb­ru­ary 25th.

How is this pos­si­ble? It comes down in large mea­sure to how peo­ple receive their infor­ma­tion. Is it fac­tu­al news report­ing or propaganda?

Some his­to­ry: Back in 1994–1996, both Vladimir Putin and his pre­de­ces­sor, Boris Yeltsin, were com­mit­ted to Russia’s mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Chech­nya. At the same time, Russia’s new­ly found­ed pri­vate and inde­pen­dent TV sta­tion, NTV, had jour­nal­ists inves­ti­gat­ing the pos­si­ble FSB stag­ing explo­sions in Moscow to jus­ti­fy the Kremlin’s actions. Such crit­i­cal report­ing had rat­tled both leaders.

While Yeltsin was tol­er­ant, Vladimir Putin prompt­ly ordered his own inves­ti­ga­tion that ulti­mate­ly put NTV and the oth­er media out­lets under state control.

It was dur­ing the Yeltsin era, that Vladimir Gusin­sky, a young and ambi­tious Jew­ish entre­pre­neur, acquired NTV, the news mag­a­zine Ito­gi (a part­ner of Newsweek), Echo Moscow radio sta­tion and the news­pa­per Sevodnya.

Gusin­sky also want­ed to be a pow­er bro­ker inside of Rus­sia, which was pos­si­ble as long as Yeltsin remained in office.

In David Remnick’s arti­cle in The New York­er on Feb­ru­ary 22nd, 1995, The Tycoon and the Krem­lin, Gusin­sky was best described as “the most pow­er­ful and mys­te­ri­ous mem­ber of the new Moscow elite.”

Rem­nick went on: “He is also Russia’s biggest media mogul and, as a result, is deeply embroiled in Krem­lin politics.”

His oth­er ambi­tion was to build net­works (media, finan­cial, polit­i­cal) in America.

At that time, I rep­re­sent­ed Mr. Gusin­sky, over­see­ing his sched­ule and accom­pa­ny­ing him at meet­ings in New York and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. His meet­ings with the Wash­ing­ton Post and Newsweek in April 1995 made a huge difference.

It was piv­otal, giv­en that he and his oli­garch bud­dies intend­ed their own­er­ship of media out­lets to advance their own busi­ness and polit­i­cal inter­ests. For Gusin­sky, it was a wake-up moment, real­iz­ing that he was posi­tioned to become a true cham­pi­on of free and inde­pen­dent report­ing in the post-Com­mu­nist era.

That ambi­tion would not sit well with Putin. Beyond the NTV’s crit­i­cal report­ing of the Krem­lin, what real­ly upset Putin was the pop­u­lar week­ly satir­i­cal TV show known as “Kuk­ly.” It dis­played a cast of hideous-look­ing latex dolls to mock politi­cians. One por­trayed Putin as a scream­ing, ugly baby, even hint­ing at him being a pros­ti­tute on the streets of Moscow. Putin would have none of that, which marked the begin­ning of the end of a free and inde­pen­dent press in Russia.

In June, 2000, the Russia’s Pros­e­cu­tor Gen­er­al had Vladimir Gusin­sky arrest­ed on fake charges and incar­cer­at­ed in the infa­mous Butyr­ka Prison. Sev­er­al weeks lat­er, Gusin­sky was giv­en a choice — turn over his Media Most assets to Gazprom, Russia’s largest ener­gy com­pa­ny, and leave the coun­try or face indef­i­nite prison time. The state’s legal claim was a demand that Gusin­sky imme­di­ate­ly repay to Gazprom a $300 mil­lion loan he had received a few years earlier.

Fac­ing grow­ing finan­cial pres­sures, Gusinisky fran­ti­cal­ly sought out­side investors, includ­ing CNN’s Ted Turn­er, to fend off an effort by Gazprom to take over his media oper­a­tions. But the high risks and lim­it­ed time left Gusin­sky with no choice but to sign an agree­ment turn­ing over all his media assets to Gazprom.

The crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion was sub­se­quent­ly closed and Gusin­sky prompt­ly left Moscow. On his last dri­ve to the Moscow air­port, he was accom­pa­nied by Boris Nemtsov, an oppo­si­tion leader who was assas­si­nat­ed in Feb­ru­ary 2015.

The news of Vladimir Gusinsky’s arrest and the Russ­ian government’s seiz­ing of his media assets made waves in many west­ern coun­tries, includ­ing the Unit­ed States. Here are a few head­lines from the turn of the century:

  • The New York Times (August 3, 2000): Rus­sia Try­ing To Get Assets of Top Crit­ic — A Bat­tle for Con­trol of Gusin­sky Empire.
  • The Wash­ing­ton Post (August 3, 2000): Russ­ian Faces Bat­tle to Save TV Sta­tion – Krem­lin Could Gain Con­trol Of Last Inde­pen­dent Channel.
  • The Wall Street Jour­nal (Jan­u­ary 25, 2001): Russ­ian Media Mogul Bat­tles to Hold On To a Besieged Empire
  • U.S. News & World Report (June 26, 2000): Is the new Krem­lin up to old tricks? — Tycoon’s arrest stirs fears for press freedoms

In the 1980s, as chair­man of the House For­eign Affairs Sub­com­mit­tee on Human Rights, I con­duct­ed a series of hear­ings on South Amer­i­ca coun­tries tran­si­tion­ing from mil­i­tary jun­tas to frag­ile democ­ra­cies. My final report empha­sized the three fun­da­men­tal pil­lars of any democ­ra­cy. They were (a) free and fair elec­tions, (b) inde­pen­dent news report­ing, and (c) a sov­er­eign judiciary.

Vladimir Putin fails on all three.

He poi­sons or impris­ons oppo­nents, con­trols the mass media by requir­ing it be state owned, and keeps Russia’s judi­cial sys­tem on a tight leash.

Of the three, press free­dom is per­haps the most important.

If Vladimir Gusinsky’s media con­glom­er­ate exist­ed today (report­ing the truth, not pro­pa­gan­da), Vladimir Putin’s poll num­bers would like­ly be reversed, and there would be a polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion capa­ble of ush­er­ing him out of the Kremlin.

It’s a good reminder that while the right to a free press can be messy from an elect­ed offi­cial’s point of view, it remains vital to any democracy.

Edi­tor’s Note: Don Bonker is a for­mer Demo­c­ra­t­ic Unit­ed States Rep­re­sen­ta­tive who rep­re­sent­ed the 3rd Dis­trict (South­west Wash­ing­ton) in the House from 1975 — 1988. He is the author of two books: America’s Trade Cri­sis and A High­er Call­ing — Faith & Pol­i­tics in the Pub­lic Square

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