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'Invention Of Russia' Chronicles The Fall Of The USSR To Today


And at five minutes to 7 p.m. on Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev walked through the Kremlin into a wood-paneled room that was jammed with reporters. He was there to sign a decree relinquishing his duties as president of the USSR. But he didn't like the pen his press secretary handed him. It fell to the president of CNN, who had flown to Moscow to interview Gorbachev, to hold out his pen. Gorbachev accepted it and then signed his abdications from power. The USSR was dissolved the next day.


That vignette comes to us via another journalist who was not in that wood-paneled room, but who captures it with a reporter's eye for detail. Arkady Ostrovsky has reported from Moscow, both for The Financial Times and as bureau chief for The Economist. His new book, "The Invention Of Russia," chronicles the power of the media, both in Soviet times and in Vladimir Putin's Russia today.

ARKADY OSTROVSKY: The very first thing that Putin did upon becoming president was to take control over television because, in a country of Russia's size, television is still the one thing that brings the country together. The evening news is something that's watched, you know, across its eastern regions, in Kaliningrad and on the borders with Europe to the borders with China and Japan. So Putin understood that unless he controls television, unless he controls the narrative of the country, he cannot have full political power.

KELLY: To what extent does the Kremlin control the media in Russia? Is it still possible as a Russian journalist in Russia to report independently on what's happening in the country?

OSTROVSKY: What's happening is Russia still has a handful of independent newspapers, although fewer and fewer. But generally, you can still report the news, but you cannot broadcast it or really deliver it to a large audience. As soon as you hit a certain level of popularity, you get cut off. And now, the Kremlin is also trying to control the Internet - not just by controlling the servers, but, much more subtly and interestingly, by controlling the content, by controlling the message.

KELLY: What happens if you are a Russian journalist there trying to file a story and the Kremlin doesn't like it? When you say they're trying to control the content online, what happens? It just disappears?

OSTROVSKY: It doesn't disappear. They will just drown it in and bombard it with other, you know, social media messages or content, which will create this huge media noise and fog where nothing - there are no facts, there is no truth, you can say anything you like. It's all relative. Like with the downing of the Malaysian airliner during the war in Ukraine, they offered immediately 10 or 15 different versions that - you know, it could have been western, you know, Ukrainians targeting Putin's plane, it could be American plot. So the reader or the consumer of the news just gets completely lost and comes out with a sense, well, there are no facts. In that sense, Putin is not unlike Donald Trump, being incredibly liberal with facts and actually suggesting there are no facts, there is no truth.

KELLY: Now, if I am Mr. Average Russian, Joe Schmoe sitting in Moscow - what's the Russian equivalent of Joe Schmoe, by the way?

OSTROVSKY: I don't know, Ivan Ivanov?

KELLY: (Laughter) OK. If I'm Ivan Ivanov sitting in Moscow and I want a counter-narrative, I want to challenge the official version that's being fed to me on the nightly news, can I get that? Where would I go?

OSTROVSKY: You can go on social websites. You can go and read - I don't know - Russian Service of the BBC or Voice of America - any of the foreign media outlets. I mean, they're all out there on Internet. Now, this is the clever thing - that is if you want to find an alternative narrative. And that is a huge if because when we were - and I grew up in the Soviet Union - when we were bombarded with Soviet propaganda on Soviet television about how successful Soviet economy was and how, you know, we're going to overtake America in - whatever - 20 years' time, you walked out of your door. You went to the shop. You saw empty shelves. That was a very good reality check. You knew they were lying. Now, the awful thing about modern Russian propaganda is that people want to believe it. They are deceived because they want to be deceived. You know, the euphoria that the annexation of Crimea created by appealing to the - all the complexes, vulnerabilities, humiliation, which was very much also created by the state media - people wanted to believe what they were told because the modern Russia propaganda excels in telling people what they want to hear. And that's the scariest thing about it.

KELLY: I do want people to know that you come at this from a couple of vantage points - as a journalist chronicling the events, but you've also taken part in some of them. You took part in the street protests that brought Boris Yeltsin to power back in 1991.

OSTROVSKY: Yes, it was...

KELLY: How old were you then?

OSTROVSKY: I was a student. I enrolled in University 1988. So yes, I was out there on the streets with my friends and my professors in the late '80s and early '90s. It was a time of extraordinary excitement, hope, embracing the world when you see it opening before your eyes, when you're allow it to travel, when you're allowed to meet people of your age from different countries, when you can't yet speak kind of quite the same language, but you're trying to build bridges. And the - sort of the hunger and the hope that those years brought are completely unforgettable, which is why I partly started writing this book because I wanted to understand, first of all, for myself. How did we get there? How did we come from those amazing years of the late '80s, of the country opening up, of Russia being looked at with admiration and hope by people who were liberated from communism? How did we come to today, where Russia is seen as an aggressor and a threat and legitimately so?

KELLY: And did you arrive at an answer that question?

OSTROVSKY: Well, there was no one single event. There was no - if you think about those two points, if you think about 1991, when Gorbachev resigned, and you think about 2016, 25 years later - this year - there was no one event where you could say, OK, this is where it all turned; this is where it all went wrong. It wasn't the economy. It wasn't the politics. It's certainly not those by themselves. It was the power of ideas and half-lies and best intentions and sometimes wrong executions that brought us to today.

KELLY: Arkady Ostrovsky - he is Russia editor for The Economist. And his new book is "The Invention Of Russia." Thanks very much.

OSTROVSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.