Last week, Moscow was shaken by a murder attempt on a journalist at the independent, liberal radio station Echo of Moscow. Tatiana Felgengauer, 32, miraculously survived after a man walked into the station’s Moscow studio and stabbed her in the neck.
Vladimir Putin spoke up about the assault yesterday, describing it as the unfortunate but aberrant act of a madman. In truth, though, the attack did not come out of the blue. It is the direct consequence of an environment that Putin has been nurturing for years: a climate of hatred, bigotry, and suspicion that has been consistently fostered by the Kremlin and its allies against enemies of the regime. Peering into the sordid circumstances surrounding the stabbing, and the wider media climate it emerged from, offers a reminder of just how cynical Putin’s propaganda apparatus really is.
There has been much talk of late in the United States about sanctioning propaganda outlets like RT, and countering the effects of Russia’s disinformation. For Western officials who are serious about the threat, the incident at Echo of Moscow should be a wake-up call—and a reminder that we could be doing much more to punish Putin’s loyal propagandists.
The attack on the journalist took place two weeks after two remarkable TV shows aired on major state-owned channels. The first was a news report on TV Channel Rossiya 24 that accused Tatiana Felgengauer, Echo’s vice chief editor and a prominent radio host, of “working for the West.”
At the same time, Channel One premiered the TV series The Sleepers. This is a story that takes place in present-day Moscow, where undercover CIA agents—the titular sleepers—have infiltrated the highest levels of the Russian government in order to stage a revolution within Russia. Predictably enough, the CIA agents are confronted by brave and decent FSB agents. The author of the screenplay did not hesitate to use very recognizable prototypes. Thus, there is an anti-corruption fighter explicitly modelled on Alexey Navalny, and another character clearly based on the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. Most ominously, there is a female liberal journalist who is murdered—by having her throat cut, no less.
The real-life assailant, Boris Gritz, a 49-year-old Israeli citizen of Russian descent, was taken into custody immediately. He pled insanity, claiming that he had a telepathic connection to Felgengauer and that she was stalking him. His LiveJournal page described such contacts in posts dating back to last year. There is just one anomaly: all the posts had been edited on the day of the assault.
For all his claims to mental illness, Gritz clearly acted with premeditation. He had a carefully drawn plan of Echo’s office, and when he passed the security checkpoint at the building where Echo is located, he acted as a well-prepared sane person rather than a psychopath (as security camera footage has shown).
Yulia Latynina, another prominent Echo journalist who fled Russia a month ago after several unsolved assaults, has cast doubt on Gritz being insane. She pointed out that security services often use mentally unstable people as their foot soldiers, for two main reasons: such people are more susceptible to control, and it’s always easy to blame whatever crime they commit on their illnesses.
Meanwhile, Echo of Moscow’s chief editor, Alexey Venediktov, blamed Rossiya 24’s news report for the assault. He demanded that the police interrogate the channel’s journalists as they investigate the case.
State-owned propaganda channels, though, have had no doubts as to the attacker’s mental health. And Putin himself was unequivocal in pushing the line: “Well, a mentally ill man did this. What has it to do with freedom of speech?”
In one sense, Putin is right: the attack has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It does, however, have quite a lot to do with state-sponsored propaganda. TV shows in Russia, whether political talk shows or fictional series, are full of hatred, xenophobia, bigotry and bias. Whether or not Boris Gritz had a mental disorder, the hateful atmosphere channeled through state-run television has become all-pervasive.
The paradox is that the people churning out this garbage are exactly the kind of globe-trotting world citizens that the propaganda is meant to demonize. The executive producer of Channel One, Konstantin Ernst, is no isolationist, nor he is an adherent of the Russkiy Mir ideology. He is a man who enjoys all the benefits of the West: he travels to Europe and the United States, he shops there, and he visits major cultural events in Western countries. He can afford all this due to his well-remunerated job, which entails spreading fake news dripping with hatred, greenlighting bigoted TV series, and generally sowing mistrust and suspicions among people. Readers may recall an infamous report of a boy supposedly crucified by the Ukrainian army in Slavyansk. That falsified report, which consisted of an interview with a woman testifying to the horrors of the Ukrainian army, first aired on the prime-time news show on Channel One. It was a famously effective instance of Russian disinformation, inspiring many Russian volunteers go to Donbas to fight “fascist Ukrainians,” as some of them later admitted in interviews. This is only one example of the malicious, cynical falsehoods spread by Ernst’s channel on a daily basis.
Ernst’s cynicism and hypocrisy are matched by Sergey Minaev, a famous writer and a TV anchor. While Minaev enjoys spending his time in Miami, he also enjoys writing shows like The Sleepers that paint the United States in the darkest, most nefarious light.
The CEO of Rossiya Holdings, Oleg Dobrodeev, is no different from his colleagues. He does not believe for a second what his TV channels say; he simply makes money from them. The same pattern holds for two other prominent faces of Russia’s mendacious propaganda machine: Dmitry Kiselev and Vladimir Soloviev. Kiselev notably thundered about “turning the U.S. into nuclear dust” and advocated “burning the hearts of gay people.” His passionate homophobia doesn’t prevent Kiselev from spending time in so fallen a place as the Netherlands. As for Vladimir Soloviev, he prefers to own real estate in places other than Russia—for example, on Lake Como in Italy, as a recent investigation by Alexey Navalny has revealed. In May of this year Soloviev was spotted and photographed strolling in New York’s Central Park. He said that he had a meeting “with very serious citizens” over there, and that he was traveling for work.
Or consider Ashot Gabrelyanov, the head of News Media Holding, another company notorious for its propaganda output. Two years ago, he left Russia and came to New York, where he was issued an O-1 visa, “for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” By today, Ahot Gagrelyanov may already have a green card; in four more years, he could well become a U.S. citizen.
Kiselev is the CEO of the state-owned Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) news agency, which is legally distinct from RT but shares the same editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.* And Channel One, where Konstantin Ersnt is executive producer, partly belongs to Kirill Kovalchuk, the nephew of Vladimir Putin’s sanctioned friend Yury Kovalchuk. Despite such clear ties to Kremlin elites, though, Moscow’s propagandists have largely skirted the sanctions that the United States has applied to others in Putin’s circle. Of all these Russian propagandists, only Kiselev and Kovalchuk have been sanctioned (by the EU). The rest travel across the globe unhindered, enjoying the cosmopolitan life they so assiduously scorn at their “day job.”
Sanctioning the foot soldiers in Putin’s propaganda army is not about protecting Russian citizens. Attacks like the one on Felgengauer, though distressingly common these days, cannot be prevented through foreign legislation.
But sanctioning Russian officials would send a clear moral signal—and it might help protect Americans from the evil the Russian state spreads all over the world. A year and a half ago, Americans could hardly believe Russia leveraged an army of its trolls to incite hostility and hatred among American citizens. Now we know that Russia has availed itself of stirring up passions about any number of deeply divisive issues.
If the United States is serious about standing up to Russian disinformation, it should not allow Putin’s top propagandists free rein to hypocritically enjoy the Western lifestyles that they decry at home. Imposing sanctions on the likes of Ernst and Minaev would not just send a strong signal at a time when their propaganda is causing grave harm around the world. It would also put a lie to their own messaging, exposing the hypocrisy and cynicism at the core of the cause they serve.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that RT was legally part of the news agency MIA Rossiya Segodnya (translated as Russia Today), whose CEO is Dmitry Kiselev. The two are separate legal entities and RT has no formal affiliation with Kiselev.