Russia's official state-run news channel, Russia-1, has always been a bit brazen about cheerleading Russian President Vladimir Putin as a national action hero. But Russia-1 is taking that to a new level this week. The channel is broadcasting ads for Putin's forthcoming press conference, on the disastrous fall of the ruble, that look very little like sober news coverage and very much like the trailer for a Hollywood Michael Bay action film.
That is not hyperbole: the ads literally look like action movie trailers. They would be over-the-top even for that. Here is one circulating on YouTube, via the Guardian's always-excellent Moscow correspondent Shaun Walker (you really, really need to turn up the sound to hear the DA DA DUM, DA DA DUM soundtrack):
Just to be clear: this is a new station announcing that it will air a press conference from the president on Thursday. That's all.
There was some speculation at first that maybe it was fake. Surely, people reasonably concluded, not even Russian state media would be so cheesy, so openly nationalist, so eyeroll-worthy. But, oh, it's real, and it's spectacular.
Russia-1 posted, on its own site, a new version today that is even more ridiculous. It's mostly in Russian, but you can get the gist pretty easily: the world is terrifying, but Vladimir Putin isn't afraid, he's going to smack down all those problems in a press conference on Thursday, and it is gonna be awesome:
Of course, while the videos are unintentionally hilarious, there is something deadly, seriously wrong when you have a country's dominant and state-run news station portraying the president as an unbeatable hero, and the news as an exciting adventure ride, at a time of real national peril.
Russia's economy is in excruciatingly bad shape right now, and there is no indication that Putin is able or willing to fix it, which would require him to at least withdraw from Ukraine and suffer a humiliating defeat so as to end Western sanctions. Russian state media, by playing up the idea that the real story here is a confrontation with the West, and that Putin is a hero rather than a self-interested authoritarian who maneuvered Russia into geopolitical crisis so as to distract from the sinking economy, is just making it easier for Putin to avoid solving the problem. And it is further isolating Russians within a propaganda bubble, which serves Putin in the short term but makes dealing with Russia's problems much, much harder in the long term.
That's not an accident. These incidents seem silly, but are in fact a product of the information control that is increasingly the basis of Putin's rule. As Peter Pomerantsev puts it in his new book on life in Putin's Russia, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, "TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country. It's the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than twentieth-century strains."