Review: Arkady Ostrovsky’s ‘The Invention of Russia’


This new history tells a compelling, if normative, story of how Russia’s journalists and entrepreneurs threw off their former shackles, only to put them back on again.


Maxim Edwards
3 February 2016

“Newspapers did not have to write about shortages,” writes Arkady Ostrovsky of the fading years of the Soviet Union, “they were literally visible in the poor quality of their paper and fading colour of the print.” Ostrovsky’s latest book The Invention of Russia traces a history of Russia through the story of its beleaguered media. As a veteran correspondent for both the Economist and Financial Times, Ostrovsky has reported from Russia for over 15 years, bringing professional insight into the characters and stories behind the emergence of post-Soviet Russia.

Recent months have cast a shadow on Russia’s already bleak media landscape. The axe has fallen on Tomsk’s TV2, and the entire editorial staff of popular lifestyle magazine Afisha were fired in early December. Legal wrangling over broadsheets dragged on last year over new prohibitions on foreign ownership, hitting the business daily Vedomosti. The Moscow Times, following the resignation of editor Nabi Abdullaev, is now to be published weekly, with a decidedly less political focus. The leading English-language newspaper joins the venerable Vedomosti as one of businessman Demyan Kudraytsev’s new acquisitions.

As Russia faces further economic woes and a parliamentary election this year, the newly-installed barbed wire at the large state-run Ostankino television centre is a grim omen. There is scant cause for optimism. As Ostrovsky notes, the ultimate paradox of critical and independent media in Russia has been its dependence on a sympathetic occupant in the Kremlin for its defence. A brief and turbulent experiment with media pluralism taught Russiaʼs journalists to become some of the worldʼs most courageous — and newly wary leaders to respond in kind.

The ultimate paradox of critical and independent media in Russia has been its dependence on a sympathetic occupant in the Kremlin for its defence

The Invention of Russia is a brilliant and very readable historical account of ‘TV’s version of Russia’. This is a story of a Manichean struggle of truth against lies, which informs the attempt to examine the twilight years of the Soviet Union through a media lens.

The approach at times appears forced, and results in some hyperbole. “In the days of the disintegrating empire,” Ostrovsky writes “images and symbols had far greater power than any legal papers or even guns [emphasis added].” At the end, ‘TV’s version of Russia’ is redeemed by its relevance to the ongoing ‘information war’ between Russia and Ukraine. 

The media tranquiliser 

The role of both print and broadcast media during the Soviet period, writes Ostrovsky, was to preserve the façade of the state rather than to transmit information.

His account of how Russian media was built begins in 1968, the year of the Prague Spring. Ostrovsky cites correspondence between Dubček and Brezhnev to prove that Brezhnev’s ire was raised more at Dubček’s liberalisation of the media than Czechoslovakia’s consumer-focused economic reforms. After ‘socialism with a human face’ was crushed, the cultural thaw initiated by Khrushchev froze once again (at least in public), along with the questions it had raised about Soviet society.

In the following years, a handful of literary journals kept free thought alive — if emphatically not kicking. The Soviet Union’s famous liberal journals, such as Novyi mir, used the language of Marxism to fight the regime on its own terms, but to little avail. The ‘stagnation era’ set in, and as living standards slowly increased, so did the frustrations of a middle-class Soviet intelligentsia. In a parting letter before his expulsion in 1974, Solzhenitsyn urged Soviet society to “live not by lies”.


1980s Moscow, a home to stayers and strayers alike. CC Ceri C / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Instead, the regime’s sole purpose became its own perpetuation, and what drove dissidents was not the discomfort of their lives (which Ostrovsky claims was minimal), but the futility of their work. Ostrovsky compares them to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, who rebels against his professor after copying out his meaningless articles for years on end. 

In their zeal to reform the system, these figures would come to embody Perestroika. In 1986, reformist figures would call the country back to the spirit of 1968 — or even further, to the spirit of Bukharin or the New Economic Policy. Ostrovsky’s focus on the stayers, rather than the strayers, among dissident circles is an unusual and welcome approach. These ‘Children of the 20th Party Congress’, which hosted Khrushchev’s famous de-Stalinisation speech, were driven by a desire to redeem the system that had crushed their parents’ generation.

Fathers and sons

The Invention of Russia is a story of intergenerational conflict, told masterfully through the figure of journalist Yegor Yakovlev. A correspondent for Izvestiya during the Prague Spring, Yakovlev experienced a gradual disenchantment with the system, albeit one articulated through the tenets of state ideology.

By the early 1980s, Yakovlev had come to believe that mass information was more important than the means of production in altering a society, a belief that would lead him to help engineer the policy of glasnost, or openness. Indeed, Yakovlev’s tenure as editor of Moskovskie novosti saw its transformation into a more critical publication, becoming a close confidant of Gorbachev.


28 August 1991. Yegor Yakovlev sits for an emergency session of the Supreme Soviet a few days after a failed coup. Image via Dmitry Donskoy / Yeltsin Center.In 1989, most Soviet citizens preferred some vague formulation of ‘socialism with a human face’, but by December 1991, many had come to associate state socialism with bread queues and repression. Ostrovsky clearly relishes the brief primacy of the Soviet liberal intelligentsia under Gorbachev’s final years — Andrei Sakharov, he writes, was ‘the closest thing to a saint Russia could produce’.

From mid-1989, party congress meetings were televised, allowing an unbecoming scuffle between Gorbachev and Sakharov for the mic to be beamed live into living rooms across the union. Ostrovsky may laud Sakharov, yet The Invention of Russia is not entirely a binary history of dissidents versus the machinery of state. The focus on the reformist ‘stayers’ — whose faith in the ideals of the revolution (and the Soviet state that came after it) endured — rather than dissident strayers is one of the book’s great strengths.

As early as 1988, economist and later prime minister Yegor Gaidar wrote that the priority was simply to ‘avoid a social explosion’ rather than engineer a finer-tuned economic model

Yet while Gorbachev liberalised both economic and political control, the world in which Yakovlev and his colleagues thrived was changing irreversibly. As early as 1988, economist and later prime minister Yegor Gaidar wrote that the priority was simply to ‘avoid a social explosion’ rather than engineer a finer-tuned economic model.

Many of the names who are now the most powerful in Russia were not discussing the finer points of state socialism in Moskovskie novosti, though they may bought advertisement space from time to time. Towards the end of the 1980s, capitalists arose before capitalism as administrators and bureaucrats realised that ownership of state assets was far more profitable than the meagre rewards given for managing it. The party corps was making its millions — most notoriously Viktor Chernomyrdin, former minister of the Soviet gas ministry and founder of Gazprom — while the intellectuals were pontificating. 

The image is everything

By November 1990, Gorbachev had cracked down on press freedom and smothered glasnost. The union had begun to unravel, and Moskovskie novosti and opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy were between a rock and a hard place. In January 1991, pro-independence protests broke out in Vilnius. The authorities responded to Vilnius with brute force, and the KGB dispatched Alexander Nevzorov to whip up a frenzy of pro-security services coverage on state television.

For Ostrovsky, January 1991 is the origin of Russia’s ‘media warfare’ tactics. In the midst of shameless falsehood, Ekho Moskvy became the main, reliable source of information on the events in Vilnius after the rest had fallen into line. 

After 36 years as a member of the communist party, Yakovlev resigned, his faith in socialism with a human face lost.Poignantly, Yegor Yakovlev poignantly signed off his last issue of Moskovskie novosti by interviewing his own son Vladimir Yakovlev, who became founding editor of Kommersant.

This business-focused broadsheet aimed to appeal to the new capitalist elite, to ‘give Russian capitalism the biography it lacked’. Kommersant was richly steeped in styob, the cynical, sarcastic humour of the late Soviet period — a reaction to the civic pathos and idealism of the 1960s idealists. ‘This newspaper was established in 1909,’ ran its masthead, ‘and was not issued between 1917 and 1990 for reasons beyond editorial control.’


December 1990: Mikhail Gorbachev bows his head as foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze resigns. (c) AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko. All rights reserved.The fashion of styob also reflected the nature of the Soviet collapse, which for many shattered a thirst for utopia. If, as Ostrovsky writes, Yegor’s generation had lived with Hamlet’s complex — to redeem their fathers’ sins — then Vladimir’s had no such pathos.

This generation’s fathers were still alive, but morally, politically, and sometimes literally bankrupt. Armed with a smug pretence at post-ideological practicality, the Kommersant generation set about making money. The far-right, represented here by the journals Den and Nash sovremennik, silently rose on the margins, as did the threat of communist revanchism.

Surkovian rhythms

Fast forward to 1993, and Russia’s constitutional crisis. This moment affirmed Yeltsin’s primacy, in no short measure due to the role of broadcast media. What followed was in Gaidar's words a ‘time of lost opportunities’ for Russian politics.

For the media, nothing could have been further from the truth. Ostrovsky tells the story of these turbulent years through popular television channel NTV, which was launched in 1993 by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky. NTV thrived in a crisis, reporting from both sides of the front line in the First Chechen War, showing captured Russian soldiers to an enthralled audience at home.

In effect, the government was losing the information war to a privately-owned Russian television channel. Worse than defeat, of course, was humiliation, and NTV made strides in modern Russian political satire with Viktor Shenderovich's Spitting Image-inspired show Kukly. Gusinsky, under pressure by business partners to shut down the channel, refused under advice from his media expert Igor Malashenko. 

Just as the old dissident intelligentsia had partly owed their existence to the Soviet state, so the burgeoning critical media of the Yeltsin era owe theirs to Russia’s loathed first president

Just as the old dissident intelligentsia had partly owed their existence to the Soviet state, so the burgeoning critical media of the Yeltsin era owe theirs to Russia’s loathed first president. Yeltsin saw the press as potential allies against his communist and nationalist opponents, and became ‘Russia’s only democratic institution’, as US officials described him to Malashenko. Yeltsin enlisted their support for the 1996 presidential election, which turned his dismal five percent into a winning vote, in part thanks to Kommersant and NTV.


October 1993: Russia's White House burns after being fired upon by government troops. Image via Yeltsin Center.After 1997, ownership disputes and a bankers’ scandal discredited the idea of a liberal media, and the search for a unifying ‘national idea’ began again with the support of television personalities Leonid Parfenov and Konstantin Ernst. NTV’s owner Gusinsky was to take a hefty loan from Gazprom, later sealing his fate as the state consolidated its control over the media landscape in the early 2000s.

The NTV years

The rise of Vladimir Putin similarly owed its success to the ingenuity — and audacity — of Russia’s media. The late Boris Nemtsov recalled after visiting Putin’s office that instead of a fountain pen, a television remote took pride of place on his desk. Essentially a nobody to the Russian public at the time of his political rise, Putin had to contend with opponents Yevgeny Primakov and Yury Luzhkov, a former prime minister and a mayor of Moscow. 

With NTV unwilling to support him, Putin’s aides turned to oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Channel One. Berezovsky enlisted the support of television presenter Sergey Dorenko, known as ‘the assassin’ and, true to form, Dorenko’s ‘15 silver bullets’, as he called the programmes, smeared Luzhkov and Primakov, causing the former’s rating to fall from 16 to two percent. Putin was an ideal candidate, providing continuity and contrast. He could be presented simultaneously as Yeltsin’s successor and opponent, and a symbol of a break from the oligarchic squabbles of the 1990s without substantively challenging their gains.


On a chain. Newspaper saleswoman by a kiosk in Moscow. Photo CC: Evgeniy Roginskiy / Flickr, 2014. Some rights reserved.Following Berezovsky’s flight from Russia and loss of Channel One, Putin’s government made further moves against NTV, which was shortly taken over by state-owned Gazprom. Russia’s oligarch-owned media of the 1990s and early 2000s did not offer objectivity per se, but pluralism. It was a poor second, but precious little was left to defend. The target audience of Kommersant and NTV kept their cool, exactly as they had been taught to do, ‘watching the Second Chechen War over the channel as though it were a reality show’. Many of its bravest journalists never returned to NTV. Declawed, it became a showcase for the Russian middle class, exhibiting their entrepreneurial talents and celebrating rising living standards.

While the Yeltsin era bred the oligarch, the Putin age bred the rent-seeking bureaucrat and entrepreneur. By 2011, Russia had become a ‘normal’ country, though only — in Ostrovsky’s view — in as far as Russians with the means could consume ‘normal’ western products and lifestyles. 

Eventually, the educated middle classes so enamoured with NTV’s dynamic brave new world of technocrats and entrepreneurs that they began to demand political concessions. This was a revision of the unwritten social contract by which political agency was surrendered for rising living standards. New political activists, readers of the aforementioned Afisha and Novaya gazeta, arose from the ‘Bolotnaya generation’, while Putin turned to anti-Americanism (what Ostrovsky describes as ‘the only ideological tenet to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union intact’). 

The archetypical image of today’s Putinist appeared — blue-collar, socially conservative, with reverence for the state and the ever-elusive ‘stability’ at any cost

The archetypical image of today’s Putinist appeared — blue-collar, socially conservative, with reverence for the state and the ever-elusive ‘stability’ at any cost. Ostrovsky’s history of the 2000s stresses that Putin’s power vertical also thrived on the legitimacy granted it by Russia’s nascent middle classes, the generation of styob, iPhones and ‘normal’ lives.

In this sense, what can at times appear to be a liberal hagiography — particularly in relation to Soviet dissidents — offers an important and unpalatable lesson for Russia-watchers today. Namely that today’s Russian political machine came to be, in part, because the ‘creative classes’ were offered the opportunity to look away. The vatnik of liberal caricature, wittingly or not, is not the only accomplice in the construction of ‘Putinism’. 

The communists and fascists who had tried to commandeer the airwaves in the turbulent 1990s are now marginal. (Ostrovsky visits several of them.) Nevertheless, the Kremlin has been an enthusiastic student of their methods of ‘information warfare’, applying them to devastating effect in eastern Ukraine. 

This is where the Kremlin’s smoke and mirrors have the most relevance as an explanatory model. Yet to prioritise the seizure of broadcasting stations — as the separatists did in Donetsk in 2014 — is by no means a uniquely Russian or Soviet strategy in military operations. Since the war in Ukraine, much has been published on the Kremlin’s art of dis- and misinformation. They are crucial perspectives, but can be undone by their totality — when everything is a calculated media stunt, more prosaic explanations are lost. As Nelli Babayan has written, the Russian TV audience may be deeply influenced, but they are not infinitely malleable.

State media instead play on and amplify existing sentiments among Russian — or indeed Russian-speaking — society. In any case, the power of media in war, Ostrovsky concludes, is no longer metaphorical. In this he is right,— and the continuing slaughter in eastern Ukraine is a testament.

A normal country

Nobody, not least Igor Malashenko, quite knew what the ‘N’ in NTV stood for. For his part, Ostrovsky suspects it to stand for ‘normality’, and The Invention of Russia is shot through with a frustration at continued lost opportunities for Russia to become a ‘normal European country’. Russia’s apparent lack of a guiding ideology is presented both as a weakness for civic development and a strength for authoritarian governance. The preoccupation with a Surkovian world of smoke and mirrors — widely popularised through the work of Peter Pomerantsev — is entirely necessary for an account of Russia’s media, but it can obscure as much as it illuminates.

Whatever their pretensions to becoming ‘post-ideological’, Russia’s elites did have convictions — even a literal manifesto, as in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s ‘Chelovek s rublyom’ (Man with a rouble). Ostrovsky states on a number of occasions that the cut-throat demagoguery of Russia’s oligarchs of the 1990s was an indictment not of a poorly managed and hasty transition, but of their internalised mimicry of Soviet-era caricatures of capitalists.

Street trading in the winter of 1991 is presented ‘not as a sign of poverty but a liberation of forces and instincts that had been fermenting under Soviet rule’. Ostrovsky writes that the Russian oligarchs of the 1990s behaved like a western elite, but ‘lacked the most important attribute of one: a sense of responsibility for and historic consciousness for the future of one’s country’. Is his complaint that oligarchs existed, or that they were not ‘normal’ enough? 

‘Normality’ is shown to be the ideal type of west European liberal market democracy, a natural progression after the ‘unnatural’ restraint of an innate mercantile spirit during the Soviet era

Unsurprisingly from an Economist correspondent, ‘normality’ is shown to be the ideal type of west European liberal market democracy, a natural progression after the ‘unnatural’ restraint of an innate mercantile spirit during the Soviet era. There is little to no criticism of this teleology, or attempts to learn from Russia’s failure to become ‘normal’, as Ostrovsky expertly demonstrates. This understanding of Putin’s Russia repeats much the same narrative — a blinkered, revisionist autocracy attempting to postpone the inevitable, if not the natural.

In recent years, accounts of ‘where Russia went wrong’ have tried to quantify the cause in ideology, as if you could weigh the progress towards ‘normality’ in fallen, Lenin-shaped concrete. Moscow’s ultimate ill, or threat to the rest of the world, has apparently been its surfeit of or a need for ideology. Ostrovsky tends towards the latter. His Russia is, to steal a recent title, ʻa land where nothing is true and everything is possible.ʼ 

But the media lens is not omnipotent: its manufactured realities are real in as far as they somehow speak to material circumstance. With economic problems afoot and no end in sight for the conflict in Ukraine, will these ‘invented Russias’ really be as resonant in 2016?

Arkady Ostrovsky's The Invention of Russia was published by Atlantic Books in September 2015. 

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