A call for fire:

How the me­dia helped pave the way for Russkiy Mir in the in­de­pen­dent Ukraine

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Dmytro Krapyvenko

How the me­dia helped pave the way for Russkiy Mir in the in­de­pen­dent Ukraine

The ma­jor TV chan­nel in Ukraine had re­trans­mit­ted con­tent from Os­tank­ino, Rus­sia’s pub­lic broad­caster, up un­til 1996 when In­ter, a pri­vate TV chan­nel in­fa­mous for pro-Rus­sian sen­ti­ments, took over its fre­quency. The post-colo­nial tra­di­tion did not evolve un­in­ter­rupted in Ukraine’s me­dia space since the soviet time. In the 1990s, Ukraine had me­dia that were fairly re­silient against any Rus­sian in­flu­ences.

Pri­vate broad­cast­ers of the in­de­pen­dent Ukraine, such as 1+1 chan­nel, shaped a gen­er­a­tion of celebrity jour­nal­ists who spoke Ukrainian on air, did not work un­der the man­age­ment of Moscow ex­pats and have be­come house­hold names. Ra­dio Lux played good qual­ity mu­sic from Ukraine and around the world with­out fo­cus­ing al­most en­tirely on low qual­ity Rus­sian pop mu­sic. Dubbed into Ukrainian and screened at ICTV, Alf re­mains a leg­endary TV se­ries. Ukrainian prod­ucts were of­fered in other niches, from an MTV-like pop mu­sic shows like Tery­to­ria A to erotic mag­a­zines like Lel or Mis­ter + Miss. Re­gard­less of their aes­thet­ics, the fact was that Ukraine had its in­for­ma­tion in­de­pen­dence with a fo­cus on it­self. The likes of In­ter with their cheesy New Year con­certs broad­casted from Rus­sia did not have a de­ci­sive pres­ence or in­flu­ence in it.

Rus­sia’s new in­for­ma­tion in­va­sion be­gan in the 2000s with oli­garchs en­ter­ing the scene as the own­ers of the big­gest me­dia hold­ings in Ukraine and for­eign in­vest­ment com­ing into the me­dia mar­ket from Rus­sia pri­mar­ily. The process looked like a dis­torted ver­sion of colo­nial glob­al­iza­tion. This en­vi­ron­ment cul­ti­vated a mes­sage por­tray­ing Ukraine’s me­dia mar­ket as out­dated and un­der­de­vel­oped, and pro­fes­sional ex­pats were seen as its only chance for trans­for­ma­tion. The Rus­sians seemed to nat­u­rally fit into the role of these ex­pats as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the re­gion’s metropo­lis. It was then that a num­ber of myths were born: “no­body will buy your con­tent in Ukrainian”, “no­body reads in Ukrainian”, “Ukrainian is for the coun­try­side and West­ern Ukraine”, “busi­ness doesn’t speak Ukrainian.”

While Ukrainian jour­nal­ists ve­he­mently op­posed the tem­nyks, the un­of­fi­cial in­struc­tions with mes­sages for the me­dia, in the era of Leonid Kuchma’s pres­i­dency, they failed to re­spond to these colo­nial mes­sages. When the branch of Kom­m­er­sant, a Rus­sian busi­ness mag­a­zine, opened up in Ukraine, jour­nal­ists hailed the ar­rival of a pro­fes­sional busi­ness me­dia with de­cent salaries. That’s how the pro­fes­sional crowd per­ceived the open­ing of Rus­sia’s No1 busi­ness news­pa­per in Ukraine. More smaller out­lets, in­clud­ing Ex­pert or Pro­file, fol­lowed suit. The new gen­er­a­tion of jour­nal­ists from the 2010s barely re­mem­bers these brands to­day. Back in the day, how­ever, each of these out­lets saw it­self as a civ­i­lizer that was bring­ing high Rus­sian stan­dards to the abo­rig­i­nals.

As Vladimir Putin grad­u­ally cracked down on me­dia free­dom in Rus­sia, more and more ex­perts, con­sul­tants, spin doc­tors, me­dia man­agers and jour­nal­ists moved to Ukraine. Para­dox­i­cally, they were leav­ing a coun­try where demo­cratic elec­tions and free­dom of speech had been long gone and mov­ing to Ukraine to preach their “suc­cess sto­ries”. Sur­pris­ingly, Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness es­tab­lish­ments em­braced these white émi­grés as top pro­fes­sion­als ca­pa­ble of trig­ger­ing the de­vel­op­ment of their own projects.

It is un­ac­cept­ably chau­vin­is­tic to ac­cuse peo­ple of any­thing based on his or her coun­try of ori­gin. The prob­lem, how­ever, was that many Rus­sian jour­nal­ists and me­dia man­agers blended their de­clared lib­eral and demo­cratic val­ues with pro­mot­ing the stan­dards of com­mon in­for­ma­tion space for Rus­sia and Ukraine. Talk shows af­ter the Orange Revo­lu­tion of­ten had guests like no­to­ri­ous Rus­sian politi­cians Vladimir Zhyri­novski or Kon­stantin Zat­ulin. Svo­boda’s An­driy Il­lenko bat­tled on air with Nikita Mikhalkov, Rus­sian film direc-

tor and a fan of Vladimir Putin. Rus­sian guests used prime time air in Ukraine to voice all their mes­sages and get ac­cess to the mul­ti­mil­lion au­di­ence. That for­mat was not dic­tated by any­one to the me­dia bosses. They filled Ukraine’s me­dia space with Rus­sian celebrity guests be­cause they thought that Ukrainian tele­vi­sion needed that.

It is fair to say that the res­i­dents of Crimea and parts of the Don­bas lost their loy­alty to Ukraine while watch­ing Rus­sian tele­vi­sion. It is equally fair to say that most Ukrainian TV chan­nels had con­ve­niently in­te­grated into the com­mon in­for­ma­tion space with Rus­sia. Broad­cast­ing within that space did not help their au­di­ence de­velop an­ti­dotes to the Krem­lin’s in­flu­ence.

Po­lit­i­cal talk shows were not the only cul­prits. In the early 2000s, a sort of “lit­tle Rus­sian vaudevilles” be­came trendy in Ukraine. These were New Year mu­si­cal films co­pro­duced with the Rus­sians. They fea­tured the likes of Oleh Skrypka, a head­liner of Ukrainian rock mu­sic, along­side the likes of Philip Kirko­rov, Rus­sia’s king of pop. When tal­ent shows be­came trendier later, the jury al­ways in­cluded at least one guest start from Rus­sia. This looked like any triv­ial post-colo­nial sit­u­a­tion where the coun­try just didn’t feel right with­out the cul­tural con­text of its for­mer em­pire. The in­fa­mous Ki­val­ovKolesnichenko lan­guage law that dis­crim­i­nated the po­si­tion of the Ukrainian lan­guage was passed in 2012, but in­for­ma­tion prepa­ra­tion for it had started way be­fore. It proved quite suc­cess­ful, too. Even the gen­er­a­tion born af­ter 1991 con­sis­tently fit into the Rus­sian cul­tural con­text, from pop mu­sic to fash­ion mag­a­zines and busi­ness press. Young Ukraini­ans stud­ied in Ukrainian schools and uni­ver­si­ties in an en­vi­ron­ment where Ukrainian was of­ten seen as a lan­guage of of­fi­cial doc­u­ments and pro­ce­dures while all truly suc­cess­ful peo­ple were ac­tu­ally Rus­sian-speak­ers. The me­dia played the key role in the con­struc­tion of this myth.

Polls, such as a re­cent one by the Kyiv In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of So­ci­ol­ogy re­veal­ing that 37% of Ukraini­ans per­ceive Rus­sia pos­i­tively, cause waves of pop­u­lar frus­tra­tion. Many of these re­spon­dents were prob­a­bly not af­fected by the Maidan and tend to be nat­u­rally pas­sive or in­dif­fer­ent as cit­i­zens, spend­ing a lot of time watch­ing TV. While they will quickly for­get a brief ap­pear­ance of a mil­i­tary press sec­re­tary re­port­ing on the fre­quency of shelling or num­ber of vic­tims, the com­mon cul­tural con­text shaped over the years is far harder to shed.

It would be wrong to claim that Ukrainian me­dia com­mu­nity has learned its past mis­takes and de­col­o­nized its in­for­ma­tion space. It does have a new play­ing field and rules. But white émi­grés are still trendy. Many Rus­sian lib­er­als in Ukraine seem to be less will­ing to as­sim­i­late here and more will­ing to use Ukraine as a plat­form for build­ing “a dif­fer­ent Rus­sia”. Jour­nal­ists still tend to use Rus­sian me­dia as a source of in­ter­na­tional news. A jour­nal­ist from a top on­line out­let men­tioned the Rus­sian Me­duza on­line out­let as an ex­am­ple to fol­low at a re­cent me­dia fo­rum. “They are gods” was her com­ment. Such faith will hardly help Ukraini­ans dis­en­tan­gle from the web of Russkiy Mir. Recipes for treat­ing such chronic dis­eases lie in­side, not out­side. It is wrong to blame Ukraine’s gov­ern­ment, how­ever flawed, for this. The so­lu­tion lies in medice cura te ip­sum – Physi­cian, heal thyself!

One other pro­fes­sional dis­ease stands in the way: many in Ukrainian jour­nal­ism are un­able to rec­og­nize their own mis­takes, say that they were wrong and apol­o­gize. Just like politi­cians, they pre­fer to count on the short mem­ory span of their co-cit­i­zens. Still, they also have good sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. Hope­fully, they won’t rush to con­struct a com­mon in­for­ma­tion space with Rus­sia ever again.

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