“Are you a member of the opposition?” is a question I’d expect to hear during a police interrogation, not while pitching a young-adult sci-fi series to a bunch of Rolex-clad television producers in an immoderately gilded Moscow restaurant famous for its truffle-stuffed quail. But when censorship inferno, the Russian version of development hell, became a widespread phenomenon last year, it completely changed the way entertainment is made.
An important part of Vladimir Putin’s message is a near-total lack of distinction between threats foreign and domestic. The enemy—according to Russian propaganda—isn’t just at the gates. Schools, music videos, history books, and stand-up clubs—everything is a battleground now, and Ukraine, according to the narrative, is but a pawn in the hands of our mighty enemies. Putin wants to return Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence and paints the West—specifically the United States and Nato—as the country’s greatest foe. Knowing all too well that empires fall from within, he is even more worried about the enemy at home, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who just won’t give up.
When Russian security services realized that streaming subscribers numbering in the millions were being fed a diet of moderate dissidence and diversity, they had to step up lest Navalny—from his prison cell—make the kind of incursions into show business that he had on YouTube.
Russian streaming giants now have to comply with an ever changing set of unwritten dos and don’ts that include an almost complete ban on depicting politics, religion, and L.G.B.T.Q.+ characters. Some platforms have gone so far as to establish their own shadowy censorship departments—think script readers, but with the rank of K.G.B. lieutenants—in hopes of vetting projects early to avoid a cancellation mere months before the premiere.
Actors and screenwriters such as myself have to be circumspect, even among our peers. It’s not that these producers disagree with our views; they simply disagree with the idea of losing access to financing, viewers, and, by extension, the said truffle-stuffed quails.
The enemy—according to Russian propaganda—isn’t just at the gates. Schools, music videos, history books, and stand-up clubs—everything is a battleground now, and Ukraine, according to the narrative, is but a pawn in the hands of our mighty enemies.
Back in Soviet times, state-controlled film studios churned out some memorable sci-fi movies for young people: Moscow-Cassiopea, Teens in the Universe, A Guest from the Future. Most plots were centered around “pioneers”—Soviet counterparts of Boy and Girl Scouts of America—on one-way missions to discover distant worlds and civilizations. In these films, protagonists were ready to sacrifice themselves in the name of science, Communism, and the old men who sent them to space.
Nowadays, the message is a little less Utopian. Russia still wants kids to pay the ultimate price, should it call upon them, but this time the sacrifice has nothing to do with space exploration. Yunarmia, a militarized version of Soviet pioneers whose million or so members sport khaki shirts, army boots, and red berets, trains kids in firearms, first aid, and historical re-enactments. Starting in 2020, murals across Russia depicting Yunarmia cadets saluting World War II veterans began to appear, underlining the continuity of defending the motherland—be it against Nazis or whatever new enemy this country is going to fight.
So, is Ukraine and, to a broader extent, Europe going to be Russia’s next battleground? According to the Russian president, it’s the other way around.
Putin has been isolating in his bunker for the better part of the last two years. He’s denied the extent of his solitude—at his yearly press conference, Putin said that he has meetings with people; they just sit 10 feet away from him. Insiders say that that’s not entirely true. Russia’s top elites used to be able to drop by his compound outside of Moscow or on the Black Sea coast and have dinner with him, or at least a conversation. They’d have one-on-one contact, and, if they were lucky, Putin might even sign off on whatever it was they wanted from him. Not anymore. Now, to be in Putin’s vicinity, visitors must often pass through a tunnel to be sprayed down by ionized-silver mist, or spend two weeks in quarantine.
It’s something relatively manageable for journalists, but Putin’s friends (former bodyguards turned governors, heads of state-controlled corporations, and oligarchs; in other words, people he could talk to in private) can’t afford the wait. So he’s mostly alone, and like many of us in isolation, he’s watching TV.
Eventually, people making propaganda start believing it, and Putin is no exception. In trying to prove their loyalty (and get paid enough money to buy a villa on Lake Como, as one Russian propagandist did), television hosts outdo each other in spreading paranoia and searching for enemies. But it’s one thing if millions of Russians worry about NATO submarines sailing in the Moscow River; it’s another thing if Putin shares their fears.
Meanwhile, he has succeeded in scaring his counterparts in Washington and Brussels into taking his threats and bluster seriously.
Now, to be in Putin’s vicinity, visitors must often pass through a tunnel to be sprayed down by ionized-silver mist, or spend two weeks in quarantine.
“One year ago, the chances of Russia being in talks with U.S. and Nato over European security were less than zero. Biden said that Putin is a killer, and many thought that it effectively isolated Russia from the world stage,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who created Putin’s inaugural presidential campaign and later advised the Kremlin. “Improvising, Putin actually managed to get the U.S. to talk, and secured for himself at least the prospect of being part of the conversation. And Putin treasures the moments when his improvisational tactics work—he considers them a sign of his, for lack of a better word, righteous path.”
Few Russians really believe that there’s going to be a war, be they villagers in remote places whose only source of information is state-owned television or members of the urban intelligentsia with access to independent news. According to a poll by the Levada Center, 53 percent of Russians consider a military confrontation unlikely, but the majority of Russians blame the West (specifically, the U.S. and NATO) for the current situation. The age-old tropes of Americans’ trying to subvert everything Russian and provoke the country are stronger than ever. However, an astonishing 80 percent want the respective leaders of our two countries to negotiate and find a peaceful solution—one that is going to guarantee Russia’s safety from whatever threat it imagined.
In Moscow, the fear of war is expressed in whispers. There’s talk of emigration in mom groups on Facebook. (“Where can I flee with my kids, if these coo coos decide to attack? Where is it going to be safe?” reads one such post.) Inflation is rising, and bankers tell their friends to buy as many dollars and euros as possible and open a foreign bank account, just in case Russian troops move into Ukraine and Russia’s entire financial system is hit by sanctions.
Still, beneath the panic there is an odd sense of déjà vu. Together, all the Russian tanks, torpedoes, and Internet trolls form a symphony of resentment, sentimentality, and desperation, a swan song of a vanishing empire. The new pioneers, the demands to roll back NATO troops to Cold War levels, the incessant barrage of “traditional values” being imposed on every aspect of culture—if Soviet ideology was Communism, then modern Russian ideology is nostalgia.
While the world keeps guessing about what’s really going on in the Kremlin, in Russia uncertainty is a feeling that’s all too familiar.
“Even Putin’s inner circle is guessing what his next move might be,” says Pavlovsky, “but in my time working with him, I learned one thing: he doesn’t like when people ask him for clarity.”
Andrew Ryvkin is a Moscow-based journalist and screenwriter