It is hard to imagine that your home, where you have literally spent half your life, can be destroyed at the snap of a finger. I came to the independent radio station Echo of Moscow when I had just turned 19. It was a time of hope in Russia, when journalists were playing a huge role in keeping checks and balances on the system. Meanwhile, politicians, even pro-government ones, treated the media with respect and dignity. It wasn’t the golden age of the Russian press, though: some regulations existed, showing that despite its length there was still a leash – but at least our mouths were not gagged.
Over time, the situation changed drastically. The number of “free” or “independent” outlets fell dramatically for both economic and political reasons; journalists abandoned the profession in favour of safer and more remunerative jobs, taking positions in PR or government relations (aka lobbying), but Echo survived. Part of the media empire of the state-owned energy corporation Gazprom, Echo was the most listened-to radio station in Moscow and other large cities. This raised some tricky questions: why did a radio station that was a harsh critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime enjoy much more freedom than the rest of the Russian media spectrum?
We thought we were just a mannequin in Vladimir Putin’s shop window; so that he could show us off to world leaders as proof that press freedom existed in Russia. There were no lists of banned topics: we were completely free to choose what we thought should be discussed, and who should be invited to comment on crucial matters. I don’t remember any time when someone from the government or Gazprom asked me not to cover something particular. We were free.
However, we were more than just a mannequin. It is clear that we played a crucial role in the dynamics of the regime, allowing Putin to look like a “new type of autocrat”, wearing a civilian suit while sitting on political institutions made of papier-mâché.
Putin’s regime once needed a working feedback mechanism that would allow the system to keep running. Information is one of the most precious commodities for the survival of an autocrat. They need to know what is happening on the ground, since regular tools, such as a functioning parliament or street protests, do not work well in authoritarian states. Moreover, local authorities prefer either to hide or obscure the real picture in order to escape a possible reprimand from the Kremlin. We did not care about that and continued working. By informing our listeners, we also provided Putin with an idea of how things were going.
Control over setting the agenda is one of the most important tools for the sustainability of the regime. The agenda is not about how to think but what to think about. It is so clever to have only one independent radio station that is popular in opposition circles, rather than a larger bunch of like-minded media outlets. That way, you know what will be on the day’s agenda for political activists and even opposition MPs, and what are their main concerns.
Finally, autocrats need gizmos to control and maintain dynamic processes inside their inner circles. Incumbents must keep throwing firewood into the flames of battles within the elite, making them almost eternal. Unless they do this, authoritarian leaders risk being ousted from the spider’s web by their fellow arachnids, who are otherwise too busy to look up and pose any threat to the queen. Putin learned these lessons brilliantly and put them into practice in a clever and inventive manner; so that we would feed our listeners with the new data about his henchmen’s misbehaviour or corruption scandals, fuelling a new equilibrium for his inner circle. Exactly as Putin anticipated.
Everything works in theory but the reality is harsh and unjust. Political science describes processes and pretends to explain them. However, real life is much more complicated because of its high level of unpredictability. Some would say that Echo had a pact with Putin’s regime. At some point he decided that we no longer posed a threat to him and he had only one option: to tear up the contract, drop us with it into the toilet bowl and flush.
Others would argue that we played with fire or dared to make a deal with the devil and now should face the consequences of our actions. On the contrary, we believe our journalists did their job well. Echo’s existence was beneficial, not only for the regime but also for the people and Russian civil society. It grew with the radio station and the journalists who came and went. It sowed the seeds of liberty and ideas of humanity into listeners’ minds. There is at least a chance they will grow, if not today, then tomorrow.