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13 May 2016

Watching the parade in Red Square, I saw Soviet propaganda get a slick rebirth

Between pro-Kremlin hacks recording our conversations and the circling helicopters, things in Russia were starting to echo old norms.

By John Simpson

The first time I sat in Red Square watching a parade to mark the Russian victory over Germany at the end of the Second World War (with no mention of Britain or America, of course) was in 1978. Leonid Brezhnev appeared with a bunch of other ancients, hunched at slight angles, hats jammed on heads as a precaution against the wind, peering out from the saluting base of Lenin’s tomb.

At this year’s parade, held on Monday, the missiles and tanks were very much of the 21st century. There was a phalanx of servicewomen in white uniforms, each smiling from ear to ear (you didn’t see that in 1978) as a bunch of SU-25 dive-bombers flew overhead, trailed by patriotic lines of white, blue and red vapour. With the ordinary people in the square marched one of the most popular leaders in the world – if you believe the kind of surveys that record such opinions. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin carried a picture of his dad, who was wounded in the war. Brezhnev would never have dreamed of doing such a thing.

As it happened, I had seen Putin on a television screen a few days earlier, in a rather different setting. Together with a hundred or so other journalists, a few of them from the West, I visited the incomparable Roman theatre at Palmyra, Syria. Putin greeted us over a live satellite link, and spent a great deal of time hailing Russia’s most recent military achievement: wrenching Palmyra from the bloodstained hands of Islamic State. He then introduced a distinctly surreal concert, given by the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, to celebrate the ancient city’s liberation.

The concert was over almost as soon as it began, lasting little more than 15 minutes from start to finish. The orchestra had travelled eight hours by plane from Moscow to the Russian military base near Latakia, in western Syria, followed by another seven hours by coach from there to Palmyra. The ratio of playing time to travel time must have been one of the most disproportionate in the Mariinsky’s 233-year history.

As a public relations concept it was breathtakingly risky: 30 or so of the world’s most renowned musicians, including Putin’s close personal friend Sergei Roldugin (the cellist who, if the Panama Papers are to be believed, seems to know what happened to a good slice of the money involved in the scandal). They were joined by a larger number of admittedly more expendable journalists, the whole crew escorted halfway across Syria from west to east in the middle of a civil war. Suppose something had gone wrong?

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On the way in, a group of armoured vehicles and a couple of circling helicopters bristling with guns accompanied our convoy. On the way back, the driver of our coach, a Syrian, was often on the point of falling asleep.

As for the concert itself, I’m sure the television audience across Russia, for whom the whole thing was devised and who saw it in an edited version, assumed it lasted as long as concerts normally do. But the people sitting on the hard, if time-worn, marble seats of the theatre were likely only too glad to see it end so quickly.

Apart from the journalists, Russian and not, the audience consisted of a large number of Russian soldiers, a smaller number of Syrian troops and a selection of bemused but friendly locals. None were seasoned concert-goers: just about everyone clapped between the movements in Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, the only long piece the orchestra played.

I made the point in my broadcast from the theatre that propaganda seemed to be the sole purpose of the event, regardless of the unquestioned success of the Russians and Syrians in retaking Palmyra. I knew this would annoy my hosts, and I expected to be singled out for criticism. My colleague Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s correspondent in Moscow, had warned me that there was usually a naming-and-shaming session on these Russian army embeds to Syria: the regiment of listeners, viewers and readers in Russia and around the globe that the Kremlin seems to have recruited send back their instant responses, and the journalists on the trip are gathered and informed who has annoyed the Kremlin by reporting in unacceptable ways.

It was rather a let-down when it became obvious that there wouldn’t be time on our short trip for such a Maoist-sounding criticism session.

Actually, I rather took to the officials who escorted us. At a time when things in Russia generally seem to be regressing, most of our minders were surprisingly understanding. The major general in charge of the PR operation was charming and jolly, and when I appealed to him to help us send our report by satellite he personally rang someone senior at Russian television and fixed it.

At one point, at least half an hour before we finished broadcasting, a PR captain announced that it was time to leave. I raged and he rushed away. The captain came back with the general himself, who listened to my yelling, soothed me, and promised that the whole convoy would leave Palmyra only when we were ready. No doubt the same general would have given me a dressing down about the lack of objectivity in my reporting had the timing been right – but we all have to do what we’ve got to do.

Still, it’s depressing how things in Russia are reverting to the old Soviet norms. Several times during our trip Russian TV crews tried to interview me, but each time I was warned by Western journalists based
in Moscow that nowadays these things were almost always used for anti-Western propaganda.

There were pro-Kremlin hacks from eastern Europe in our group who seemed surprisingly interested in what my colleagues and I said to each other, and sometimes they recorded our conversations.

An earlier generation of reporters would have called them stool pigeons; now, sadly, quite a lot of ideas and expressions from the old days are coming back. Like the hardware on show at Red Square on Victory Day, they’ve just been streamlined and upgraded.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor

This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump