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Russia's Powerful Media Bubble

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Watching Russian media has been a sobering experience lately.

Over the past month, a tidal wave of patriotic enthusiasm for the aggressive assertion of Russian power in Ukraine has saturated nearly all print, Internet and television in Russia. Alternative and oppositional news sources have been blocked by state order or purged of independent-minded journalists. The only Russian television chan­nel not under state control, the tiny TV Rain, has been cut off from cable distribution and will soon shut its doors for lack of advertising revenue.

Consequently, the great majority of Russians are hearing a single story about events in Ukraine: a "staged" uprising in Kiev, engineered by the agents and finances of Western states, has brought extremists, nationalists, Russophobes and anti-Semites to power, with Russia stepping in to protect not only Russians living in Ukraine, but the entire world from the forces of chaos, greed and extremism.

The Russian leadership and public appear to be largely united in this view of the world, which is supported by a media-bubble of massive proportions and durability. Russians, it seems, now inhabit a parallel universe that is very far from the reality in which Americans and Western Europeans live.

But focusing just on what Russians in Russia receive from their media gets at only part of the problem. Just as worrisome as this is the fact that this Russian media-bubble extends far beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, deep into Ukraine and the Baltic states, encompassing the Russian speaking population of all the former Soviet states that, in Russia, are referred to as the "Near Abroad." These communities, their psyches, their attitudes, and their actions will be of key importance in the months ahead.

In the past weeks, Vladimir Putin's Address to the Federal Assembly of 2005 (something like the American State of the Union Address), has been quoted quite a bit, in particular the pronouncement that "the destruction of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Putin's following words (which have received much less attention) dealt with the "Near Abroad" -- in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine and elsewhere: "For the Russian people this was a true drama. Tens of millions of our compatriots and fellow citizens found themselves beyond the borders of Russian territory." It is that trauma, real or not, that will spark continued friction and potential conflict in this region.

In Putin's view, all of the Soviet Union's former citizens -- at least all ethnically or culturally Russian ones -- remain as members of the Russian political community. They are "compatriots" of present Russians, even though the patria in question no longer exists. Putin repeated this idea in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea on Tuesday: when the USSR collapsed, "millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up in another, as national minorities."

Putin's term "compatriot" is in fact legally defined in Russia, thanks to legislation that since the late 1990s has granted "compatriots abroad" special rights with regard to immigration, work, and other privileges in Russia and has obligated the Russian state to protect the interests and rights of these populations in significant ways.

Who qualifies as a compatriot? The Soviet Union was a multiethnic state, and the Russian Federation remains one. Russian lawmakers struggled with this question themselves in multiple revisions to the law, and finally decided that pretty much anyone can be a Russian compatriot abroad, as long as they "act Russian and love Russia." According to the most recent redaction of the law, "compatriots abroad" are people living in other states deriving from some ethnicity that has historically resided in Russia, and who have additionally "made a free choice to be spiritually, culturally and legally linked to the Russian Federation." This choice can be demonstrated by "an act of self-identification, reinforced by social or profession­al activity for the preservation of Russian language, the native lan­guages of the peoples of the Russian Federation, the development of Russian culture abroad, etc."

In light of events of recent days, Russian lawmakers may soon add another way of demonstrating one's status as a compatriot: by means of a hurried and legally contested referendum.

The law on compatriots abroad is only one part of a larger political, diplomatic and public relations campaign that the Russian state has consistently conducted over the course of the past decade and a half. This has included membership organizations and congresses of compatriots abroad; Moscow think-tanks publishing books that delegitimize the historical visions and collective identities of neighboring states as ethnocidal, neonationalist and even fascist; diplomatic sparring over education, language and cultural policy in those states; prizes and grants promoting Russian-language literature; glossy magazines and websites promoting Russian culture abroad, and much more.

Of course, the unity of Russian media space and identity is in part simply a result of the demographics of the region -- it is completely unsurprising that Russian-speaking residents of, say, Estonia, will read Moscow newspapers, just as English-speaking Parisians will read the International New York Times or the Guardian. But in part, this unity has been engineered and supported by intentional programs. As a result, the "compatriots abroad" constitute a world unto themselves, one that participates in Russian media space and is closely linked to the movements of public opinion and discourse in the Russian Federation. In this way -- and it will surely be so asserted -- many Russian-speakers in the region "have made a free choice of spiritual and cultural linkage with the Russian Federation."

This brings us back to Ukraine, to Crimea, and to the significant challenges of the present moment. A great many Russian-speaking people across the region, in and outside of Ukraine, are part of the audience Putin addressed on Tuesday when he announced the annexation of Crimea. To a greater or lesser degree, many Russian-speakers in the region share in the vision of the world Putin articulated. From this vantage point, the Crimea is a part of Russia that wound up in Ukraine only through accident of fate and capricious political will.

Further, as Putin noted, basing his claims on the shifting international borders of the volatile post-Revolutionary period a century ago, much of the south-east Ukraine may also be considered "historically Russian lands." In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union rendered Russia unjustly "divided," in a manner comparable to the division of Germany during the Cold War. And Russia, in this vision of the world, is justified in protecting the interests of the Russian people, wherever they may be.

Polling data from Ukraine show clearly that before the events of recent months, only a minority of Ukrainians of any region desired integration with Russia. Yet narratives of national consolidation and conflict are powerful tools, and it is nearly certain that there has been a rapid rise of pro-Russian sentiment and identification with the Russian view of the world. In Crimea, many, perhaps the majority, have already demonstrated their affiliation with that view. Long before Tuesday's annexation, Crimean society was already part of the Russian media-produced alternate universe.

One of the greatest challenges facing Ukraine, therefore, is to rebuild the authority of its own media space and to articulate a shared understanding of politics, history and geography -- one that can overcome the enormous divide between the two realities that Ukrainians now inhabit. This task will be made all the more difficult by the continuing operations of the Russian media-bubble. Increasing­ly strident presentations of the Russian vision of "compatriots abroad" as an endangered and oppressed minority that requires aid and defense from Moscow, will fuel equally strident reactions from more extreme Ukrainian nationalist voices. Reconciliation and reconstruction of a space of shared political discourse, in these circumstances, will be extraordinarily difficult.

Furthermore, this challenge is not Ukraine's alone. Russian "compatriots abroad" live in all of the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe. In the comments section below a Latvian news report from March 19 on a speech by former Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, in which she called Putin "power hungry," one reader's mostly unprintable remarks concluded with "today Russians are celebrating reunification." A majority of other reader comments expressed similar views. The Latvian Security Police have recently advised that Russian media "are dividing Latvian society." Across the region, Russian-speakers are now living simultaneously in two realities. Maintaining the coherence and political viability of societies from Ukraine to the Baltic depends on somehow stitching these realities back together again.

This post has been modified since its original publication.