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'The Message Sends Itself': In Coverage Of U.S. Protests, Russia Reveals Its Own Fears Of Unrest, Disorder


An unsubtle montage aired by the state-run Rossia-1 channel's flagship news show, Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week).

MOSCOW -- The screen depicts the Statue of Liberty backdropped by a cloud-specked sky, its outstretched arm and crowned head superimposed over the body of an American police officer whose knee presses firmly into the neck of a black man pinned to the ground and struggling to breathe.

The unsubtle montage, aired on May 31 on the state-run Rossia-1 channel's flagship news show, Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week), presented Russian viewers with a jarring juxtaposition between an enduring symbol of U.S. democracy and what many see as an incident emblematic of its flaws: the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, at the hands of police in the city of Minneapolis on May 25.

"This is America, and such attitudes to blacks are an accepted practice," host Dmitry Kiselyov asserted during the Sunday night broadcast in a scathing monologue about racial inequality and police violence in the United States. "And this same America is constantly trying to teach the planet how to live?"

For authoritarian governments around the world, footage of looting and police violence in dozens of U.S. cities is serving as fodder for renewed accusations that the United States does not practice at home what it preaches abroad.

The Russian state is no exception. President Vladimir Putin's government has clamped down on protests at home, sometimes deploying violent methods that have earned it opprobrium from Washington and the West and demands that it respect human rights. Now, amid unrest and police violence in the United States, Russia is issuing demands for accountability that echo those Washington has repeatedly made to Moscow.

"We are urging the U.S. authorities to take effective measures to improve the current state of affairs," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on May 29. "Resume good-faith efforts to honor international commitments and tailor national legislation to the UN basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement."

Accusations of U.S. hypocrisy are nothing new for the Kremlin and the media outlets it controls -- they go far back into the Cold War. Kiselyov, who is widely seen as the Kremlin's chief TV propagandist, once told viewers that Russia was the only country "capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash." On Vesti Nedeli, incendiary anti-American rhetoric is par for the course.

No Place For Politics?

Yet, while pro-Kremlin pundits and state TV programs may be amplifying the anti-American diatribes that are a frequent staple, some analysts say Moscow is forced to walk a fine line between replaying clips of chaos on U.S. streets and appearing to cheer on the popular anger at the authorities -- from local police to the presidency -- that underpins it.

"The Kremlin is very averse to anything that has to do with revolutions," said Maria Snegovaya, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank. "That's because of the Kremlin's painful history with 'color revolutions' in Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and the fear of fueling similar sentiments domestically that will undoubtedly threaten Putin's hold on power."

The Kremlin has no desire to show protesters demanding change -- and getting it.
The Kremlin has no desire to show protesters demanding change -- and getting it.

For years, Moscow has positioned itself at the vanguard of an ideological offensive against the United States, accusing it of fomenting protests that have swept out entrenched governments ruling former republics in these so-called "color revolutions."

In 2011, Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of helping orchestrate a big wave of protests against election fraud and his return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term. In 2014, the Euromaidan protests that ousted Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych had been falsely portrayed by Moscow as a Washington-orchestrated coup d’etat aimed at reorienting Kyiv toward the West.

So any suggestion that street protests, revolt, or revolution is a valid way to effect political change is taboo for those who control Russia's airwaves.

"There is a broader and very consistent message that the street is not a place for politics, indeed that popular engagement in politics only leads to destabilization and, eventually, violence," said Sam Greene, the director of the Russia Institute at King’s College, London. "That's the spin they put on the Euromaidan. And that's the context in which they want current American events to be seen."

Some Russian TV commentators quipped that a country accused of encouraging unrest abroad ultimately got a taste of its own medicine. "Perhaps America has simply begun finally to live in that same wild world they've been painstakingly constructing around themselves all those years," host Yevgeny Popov said on the popular 60 Minutes talk show.

But much of the coverage has seemingly sought to send a signal, for viewers at home, about the inherent dangers of mass unrest.

State TV reports have shown "no qualms about portraying protesters as violent," Anna Arutunyan, senior Russia analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote in a tweet. Much of the coverage, she added, reflected "what Russian political commentators are preoccupied by: the fear of popular, violent, unrest."

A looted souvenir shop after a night of protest on June 2 in Manhattan is the image Russian TV wants to show.
A looted souvenir shop after a night of protest on June 2 in Manhattan is the image Russian TV wants to show.

So beyond the triumphalism espoused by talking heads like Popov and Kiselyov, Russian news reports have often refrained from incendiary rhetoric and instead broadcast the same videos of conflagration and police violence on U.S. streets that have gone viral online in recent days. The calculation may be that the material is self-explanatory.

"When it comes to what's going on in the U.S. right now, the message sends itself," Greene said. "The Kremlin's propagandists don't need to spin this, they don't need to dress it up."

The problem the Kremlin may create for itself by fanning the flames and broadcasting graphic material from the U.S. protests, Greene argues, is that the protests and riots in fact demonstrate the street's legitimate place as a platform for people facing what they see as a corrupt, unjust political establishment to demand change.

As a result, the Kremlin has far greater incentive to denounce the violence itself, without shedding light on the complex issues that lie behind it and the genuine public mobilization they have sparked.

Doing otherwise, Greene suggested, would risk drawing uncomfortable parallels between the United States and Russia and potentially provide Russian viewers with an example to follow -- at a time when Putin's popularity is falling amid economic troubles and the impact of the coronavirus.

"[Russia's] honest coverage of the movement in the U.S. will show how isolated Trump is, and how people of diverse backgrounds are, in fact, consolidating in demanding justice and reform," he said. "That may not be a message the Kremlin wants people to receive."

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