Shortly after the sun set on the first day of 2018, Russia was declared “the ‘evil empire’ again” by USA Today’s editorial board. Citing the country’s military actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, as well as its possible interference in the 2016 presidential election, USA Today argued that aggressive countermeasures like sanctions and the sale of U.S. arms to its neighbors are the appropriate course of action to deal with an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin.
Jingoism is nothing new for American media—especially these days when the topic of conversation is Russia. Journalists have notoriously short memories and tend to echo the prevailing wisdom of the political intelligentsia. However, as we edge closer to a new Cold (or hot) War, it’s important to note how we got here given how much responsibility western media bears for Putin’s rise.
The Soviet Union’s collapse left Russia in disarray, but key figures in the administration of President Boris Yeltsin—namely deputy prime minister Yegor Gaidar and privatization chief Anatoly Chubais—had plans to transform the country’s failing economy into a robust free market. This presented a unique business opportunity for western capitalists. The Clinton administration needed no convincing, eagerly sending economists from the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) under the direction of professor Andrei Shleifer to advise the Russian government in its transition. What ensued was “shock therapy”—rapid deregulation, easing price controls, and privatization of state assets including social services, occurring in two waves: a voucher program and later the notorious “loans-for-shares.”
In the end, the effort failed. Shleifer, his wife, Nancy Zimmerman, and his colleague Jonathan Hay were embroiled in a scandal for using their position to personally enrich themselves, and had to settle with the U.S. government. Russia was left in ruins. The attempted transformation had left a small class of oligarchs (including Chubais) enriched, and had plunged the country into a deep depression that lasted from 1991 until the millennium (although its impact lasted well into the ‘00s). Large amounts of wealth exited the former Soviet Union, the ruble hyperinflated, pensions became worthless, job security disappeared, and GDP plummeted by orders of magnitude—by some estimates as much as 40 percent between ‘91 and ‘98. Organized crime was rampant, fueled by oligarchs, and street violence became commonplace. Adult mortality rose at a rate one study described as “unprecedented in a modern industrialised country in peacetime.” By 2009, roughly 7 million Russians had died.
Meanwhile, the groundwork had been laid for the return of autocracy. In October of 1993, the Yeltsin government—with the full support of the U.S.—had used the military to end a constitutional struggle with the parliament after it tried to resist his economic agenda. Tanks shelled the government White House and soldiers arrested opposition leaders. In the wake of the violence, Yeltsin got a new constitution passed which imbued his office with sweeping powers.
“Under Yeltsin there is the reassertion of power of the presidency, in particular, and a reassertion of an executive that is too strong to not be suspect,” Tarik Cyril Amar, associate professor of history at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, told Paste.
Also under Yeltsin—despite the lack of preemptive censorship—the murder of journalists became a common practice. Reporter Dmitry Kholodov, for example, who had investigated corruption surrounding Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, was killed by an exploding briefcase in a train station on his way to deliver testimony about his findings. Yeltsin subsequently issued a public statement in defense of Grachev.
While all of this was going on, western journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, and other publications, were enamoured with the narrative of capitalism overcoming Communism. The economic reformers—Yeltsin and his administration—were “good,” as Financial Times reporter John Lloyd put it in a retrospective blog post, and their efforts generally successful. This lasted right up until Russia’s ‘98 economic collapse, when their reporting would undergo a major shift in tone.
“For me, the clearest moment was the shelling of parliament in ‘93,” recalled Moscow journalist Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor. Weir’s reporting is some of the most clear-eyed in hindsight, often depicting the downside of the capitalist transition, and pulling no punches in his criticisms of Yeltsin.
“Most of my colleagues sympathized with Yeltsin,” Weir continued. “They took a cheerleading role, following the verdict of the Clinton administration. Secretary of State Warren Christopher came over here and gave a speech at Moscow University in which he said—and these aren’t the exact words—the US doesn’t usually support the overthrow of elected governments, but in this case it was the last battle against Communism. Media depicted these parliamentarians as Communist hardliners. I totally disagreed with that.”
Christopher’s exact words were, “[t]he United States does not easily support the suspension of parliaments. But these are extraordinary times.”
The Times’ report, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Serge Schmemann, did not mention the economic conditions which precipitated the showdown. It did characterize the conflict as a “rebellion” by an obstructionist parliament—the last vestige of the communist Soviet Union—without including opposition viewpoints.
“Mr. Yeltsin was finally the undisputed victor in the tense showdown with Parliament, which had obstructed his programs for two years,” it read. “It began on Sept. 21, when Mr. Yeltsin disbanded the Parliament and was deposed in return, and came to a head Sunday when supporters of the legislature, led by militant Communists and nationalists, took up arms in an effort to seize power.”
Schmemann went on to compare arrested parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov with “the Communists who led the abortive putsch in 1991,” referring to the failed ‘91 Soviet uprising against Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Post, offered up a similar account by Margaret Shapiro, also leaving out any mention of the county’s economic conditions and characterizing the episode as a popular president struggling to preserve democracy in the face of a Soviet uprising akin to the ‘91 coup:
“Aides and supporters of Yeltsin said his measures against the press and opposition political groups and leaders did not signal a move toward authoritarian rule, but were necessary to restore Russia to democratic health after what they characterized as a communist-led uprising,” Shapiro wrote. “There was strong sentiment among pro-Yeltsin politicians today to go after the last remnants of the Soviet system that persisted even after the collapse of the hard-line 1991 coup and the collapse of the Soviet Union four months later. Yeltsin has repeatedly expressed frustration in the past few months at not having acted more decisively after the 1991 coup to wipe out all the old Soviet structures, which have regrouped over the past year and resisted him and his reforms with increasing aggressiveness.”
“The foreign correspondent’s job was highly politicized,” explained Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, who, during the Yeltsin years, had co-headed the Moscow-based satire and news magazine The eXile, which frequently targeted biased western journalists and their work. “They had a compound [Sadovo Samotechnaya Ulitsa, or “Sad Sam”] where many of these reporters worked. Many weren’t there on permanent visas, didn’t speak the language, and relied heavily on translators. Bureau chiefs would tell some supplemental kid to find the emerging middle class in some Russian town, and send him out.”
Taibbi noted how western outlets would turn to a select group of Russian officials, think-tank personnel, and academics from HIID who were involved in the economic transformation for their insights. Recurring characters included members of “The Chubais Clan,” the Moscow Carnegie Center’s Michael McFaul, The Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund, and Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs as well as Shleifer and Hay.
“McFaul would sit in a room and journalists would call him all day,” Taibbi told Paste, betraying his disappointment. “He’d tell them everything was great. They would have a token Russian from one of those think-tanks whose job would be to sit there and tell reporters the packaged line.”
Former Times Moscow co-bureau chief Michael Specter, whose tenure began in 1994, challenged this analysis, telling Paste that he and his colleagues had spent a full year learning the language before heading abroad, and pointing out that on any topic, anywhere, “the universe of experts” is always limited.
“If it was like, eight o’clock at night and I was on deadline and I needed a comment or an insight, would I have gravitated towards people like McFaul or seven other people? Sure,” he explained. “They would answer their phone, they would be intelligent, they would have the view that was comprehensible. That’s like a weakness of journalism. I wish that it wasn’t, but I don’t think it’s a weakness of Moscow journalism in the 90’s; I think that’s a weakness of the way the press works, period.”
Specter did concede, however, that perhaps the broader point about bias was accurate, explaining that many of the Russian journalists he and his colleagues had worked with grew up under an oppressive communist system and were dead set on preventing its return.
“There was a tremendous worldwide view that for worse or very worse things were changing for good and things were changing in a great way,” Specter told Paste. “And I think I and other journalists there probably were as guilty of feeling that way as everyone else in the liberal intelligentsia.”
He also conceded that the press was likely naive and too credulous when it came to accepting the analyses of U.S. government officials on the state of of Russia’s economy. He did caution, however, that Russian economic policy was something only a small number of people understood.
“Those guys believed in something they wanted to happen,” he said. “We kind of figured ‘yeah, it kind of makes sense.’”
Specter’s candid acknowledgements help explain how the author of a thorough report on the rising mortality rate could later romanticize Moscow as a city brimming with “possibility,” where dire inequality was seemingly offset by the reemergence of religion and the near-Dickensian pluck of its inhabitants.
“Not all have prospered in the new Moscow, but none wish to walk away,” he wrote roughly a year ahead of the ‘98 economic collapse in an article titled, “Moscow on the Make.” “In less than a decade these five-and millions like them-have made themselves new. Once numbed by the leaden certainties of Communism, they are now propelled by change.”
His acknowledgement of an eagerly anti-Communist western press corps also sheds new light on the past work of his contemporaries like his wife and co-bureau chief at the time, Alessandra Stanley.
During the ‘96 Russian presidential election, Stanley had balked at Yeltsin’s efforts to appeal to disaffected voters by backing away from his economic agenda and Chubais in particular.
“Mr. Chubais was also almost singlehandedly responsible for stabilizing the Russian economy over the last year,” she wrote. “Without him, Government spending and inflation are almost certain to increase. The more ambitious privatization plans, the selling of state-owned industries most likely to bring much needed cash to the Government’s coffers, have become too politically sensitive to pursue before the election.”
In another article, from June of ‘96 titled, “100,000 Russians Rally in Moscow to Back Yeltsin,” Stanley wrote of a Russian people terrified of Communism without mentioning that American consultants were actively working to salvage the president’s campaign because his economic policies were so unpopular in comparison to his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.
A month later, after those consultants had publicly taken credit for the victory, Stanley wrote a piece casting doubt on the significance of their role.
Similarly, there was Shapiro’s husband, Fred Hiatt, The Post’s Moscow bureau co-chief from ‘91 to ‘95 (today, its Editorial Page editor), who also wrote from a decidedly neoliberal angle.
In a 1997 editorial titled, “Russia: A Sacking,” Hiatt lauded what he saw as the disappearance of Communists from the national debate in Russia. The country he described was torn between two factions of capitalists: neoliberal, anti-oligarch reformers and the isolationist oligarchy supporters.
“The champions of openness won a few this week,” he wrote. ”[N]ext week, or the week after, they will lose some. What matters — and it matters a lot — is that they continue to win more than they lose in the coming months and years.”
In reality there was little, if any, distinction between the two groups—an inconvenient truth Hiatt glossed over while describing Chubais’ role in Yeltsin’s ‘96 reelection. The privatization chief cut a deal with the oligarchs, culminating in the ultimate kleptocratic policy: “loans-for-shares,” a program through which the Russian government sold off state assets to insiders at dirt cheap prices.
In another editorial published months ahead of the disaster, Hiatt urged the U.S. to continue aiding Russia’s capitalist makeover, citing the emergence of what he dubbed “baby billionaires”—including oligarch Vladimir Potanin, a former KGB operative and mastermind behind “loans-for-shares”—as evidence of success.
[F]or every Russian who still dreams of dominating Latvia or Ukraine, plenty more just want to do business there. One such person is baby billionaire Vladimir Potanin, who in the space of a decade has metamorphosed from low-ranking Soviet bureaucrat into one of the world’s most influential businessmen, with interests in banking, oil, mining, newspapers and more. Like many of his generation, Potanin, 37, is just now coming up for air from the post-Soviet maelstrom and checking out the world. He is forming international alliances, including with British Petroleum and financier George Soros, and last week he came to Washington, seeking to show that not all Russian “robber barons,” as they are commonly known here, are the same.
Potanin would be named in a money laundering investigation just a year later.
But perhaps the most galling example of pro-capitalist storytelling came from The Wall Street Journal’s Steve Liesman, if for no other reason than the fact that he would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the ‘98 financial crisis he never saw coming.
“Investors are drawing confidence from the International Monetary Fund’s decision to recommend restarting a $10 billion loan to Russia that was put on hold because of poor tax collection,” the former Moscow bureau chief explained in a piece from December of 1997 titled, “Russian Debt Markets Expect To Rebound, Analysts Believe.”
“More important, however, is the realization that Russia’s problems are far different and, for the moment, less dire than those that undermined Asian economies,” he continued.
About three weeks later, Liesman wrote another piece predicting “what could be one of the decade’s major economic events: the end of Russia’s seven-year recession.”
The economy took a turn in June, and by July was in full collapse.
There is no telling what would have happened had western journalists been less eager to sell the narrative that capitalism was superior Communism—had they not, as Taibbi put it, “worked backwards.” In hindsight, it is easy to draw a line from the misery largely ignored by the press, to the rise of former KGB operative Vladimir Putin.
“The simple [popular] dichotomy of the democratic, if economically disrupted ‘90s versus authoritarian 2000s and on from there, is not intelligent at all,” Amar explained. “You can only get to Putin through the ‘90s…There are a number of political developments, and economic policies, and economic developments that prepared the advent of this consolidated authoritarian regime.”
However, the Columbia professor did caution that much of what happened in Russia was due to the political culture and internal problems of the former Soviet Union as opposed to the west’s interference.
Still, there was undeniable resentment generated towards the west during this period—resentment Putin used to solidify his hold on the country.
Once in office, the new Russian head of state ousted the oligarchs from politics; he diminished the role of western-friendly officials in his government; he consolidated state control over the media; he cracked down on street crime; he re-nationalized parts of Russia’s oil industry, and used some of the revenue to raise state wages and pensions (though most of the money benefited him personally and his allies). In taking these and other actions (like resisting NATO and EU expansion and making it even more difficult for multinational companies to do business in Russia), Putin lost the support of the west.
He did not lose the support of his people.
According to Russian history professor Yanni Kotsonis of New York University, most Russians were willing accept Putin’s autocratic rule because “liberal democracy had done nothing for them” and his economic policies “actually had a tangible effect” on their lives.
“Putin became the symbol of stability and a little bit of hope and security,” he explained.
Weir remarked that Putin was a “more or less competent steward” who “brought Russia back from the brink,” adding, “it probably had more to do with the resiliency of the people than their president.”
We continue to hear echoes of western media’s failure nearly two decades later as inaccurate portrayals of Russia fill our airwaves and column space. To hear the pundits and their favorite experts tell it, Putin is an unparalleled force of destruction and Russia is the greatest threat to American democracy in the world.
And in fairness, Putin does play up poor relations with the west to silence dissent within his own country, and maintain control. In 2011, for example, he claimed that the U.S. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were fomenting protests against his administration, and that foreign governments were pouring money into Russia to influence the country’s elections.
But Amar told Paste he doesn’t take the Russian threat narratives very seriously.
“Most of our problems are homemade,” he said, citing the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, growing economic inequality, right-wing populism, and hyperpartisanship. “If you just add up the geopolitical pieces [military spending and global alliances], the United States is much stronger than Russia. It’s not even a contest.”
That’s because in many ways, Russia is a failed state. Its economy has hardly diversified in decades, and is based largely on oil and gas. Even within that industry the country has been resistant to modern trends. The salient point, though, is that Russia is largely unprepared for the green future.
Meanwhile, Kotsonis pointed out that Putin’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as his focus on issues like homosexuality and women’s rights, are signs of weakness—efforts to distract his people from the fact that the economy is in peril. The country has been implementing austerity measures to cope with budgetary shortfalls tied to oil prices.
Drawing a parallel to how media downplayed the underlying economic problems facing working people in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential election, Kotsonis accused western journalists of consistently being agenda-driven and out of touch with regard to Russia.
“You get the image that this is a country cowering under the force of an anti-civil rights government,” he told Paste. “Most people don’t even think about it this way in Russia. It’s not what’s on their minds.”
There is much to be learned from the rise of Putin and the role the west played in it. Perhaps the most important lesson is that journalists, like everyone else, suffer from human fallibility. As Specter said, ”[i]n every country, in every era, the press fucks up, and it’s really easy to see how they did that and call them ‘stupid,’ but it’s usually not quite that simple.”
That said, the Russia saga also contains a clear lesson for journalists: We cannot continue to ignore human suffering in the service of larger narratives.
Fred Hiatt, Alessandra Stanley, Kathy Lally, Margaret Shapiro, Serge Schmemann, and John Lloyd did not respond to requests for comment. Despite being contacted by a representative from CNBC regarding Steve Liesman, who had previously declined to comment, Paste has not heard back.