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Russian television

Russian citizens today have access to hundreds of TV channels, but still largely choose to follow only the largest state channel. Editor of Vedomosti, Maxim Trudolyubov, wonders why.


Most Russians live in an information universe that is highly distinctive: Russia's state television channels exert a tremendous power over citizens' minds – and most Russians seem to like this. The TV channels would never have had their position unless the Russians wanted it themselves.

Many years have passed since we only had access to three or four TV channels. Today we have hundreds – if not thousands – of alternatives, but still choose the well-established way of acquiring knowledge of the world. This is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from recent polls conducted by the independent pollster Levada: 72 percent of those polled say that Channel 1 (the successor to the Soviet state channel) is their main source of news. Although television enjoys less and less confidence as the years go by, it remains the most important source of information in Russia. This is true even among the younger ones: 54 percent of the age group 18 to 24 years has Channel 1 as its main source.

Information Bubble

Worldwide, the trend is turning to social media for news: According to a study conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2017 was the year when social media displaced television as the main source of news for young people. In the 18 to 24 age group, 28 percent cited social media as their main source, while 24 percent turned to the TV channels. Does this mean that Russia is somehow immune to global processes? Or that Russian TV channels and their curators in the Kremlin are exceptionally good at keeping their audience?

People are not attracted to the facts.

The answer to the first question is no. Russia is not immune to anything – it's just a little slower. The trend exists in Russia as well: According to VTSIOM, Russia's state-owned poll, 65 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 say that they search for news on the Internet, but that the Internet is not their only source. Yes, television is the main source of news, but the popularity of the media is on the rise, while the popularity of the Internet is increasing.

The answer to the second question is yes. Russia's state-owned television channels are eye-catching to attract audiences. They are also good at creating and maintaining specific points of view. You can switch channels as often as you like, you can turn to other sources of information, but for most Russians, the likelihood that they will break away from the "information domain" is small. An information bubble has been forming in Russia since the early 2000s, when the Kremlin made its aggressive entry into the television industry and ended up owning or controlling most of it.


The Kremlin's policy towards Ukraine is as popular in informed Moscow as it is in poorly informed regions. When so many Russians choose to cling to prevailing opinion, it is not due to the lack of alternatives. Being better informed does not mean being more critical. While only 66 percent of those who do not seek independent news sources support the efforts of Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he enjoys the trust of 80 percent of those who use three or more independent sources of information, according to Levada's sociologists Denis Volkov and Stepan Goncharov.

In other words, a very large proportion of people who express an interest in learning more about the country's politics and economy are in line with the majority opinion. Only among those using at least three or more independent information channels do we find significant deviations from conformist views. Around 10 percent of the Russian population uses 3 or more news sources, and in Moscow the figure is up to 30 percent. These are Russia's best informed citizens and the only ones who support the views that deviate from the majority.

The TV channels play on people's nationalist sentiments.

Every single country lives in a bubble. Perhaps the only difference between them is the different strength of the respective domestic universes' traction. In Russia, it takes considerable effort to disassociate from the majority's position. The domestic political bubble is powerful – not because the Kremlin's message is particularly strong, but because all other messages are relatively weak. "By discrediting Western politics, undermining democratic procedures and attacking independent media stations, Russian authorities have raised their throats under a form of general cynicism that says: Everyone is corrupt, all media is lying, claims Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, in a commentary on Vedomosti.

General cynicism

People are not attracted to the facts, but to the emotional overdose that Russian television channels deliver to daily. This is why alternative news sources do not have much credibility among large groups of the Russian population. Television channels divide the world into belligerent factions and play on people's nationalist sentiments; they reveal fascism in Ukraine and atrocious crimes everywhere; they scare their audience with uncanny mysticism and soothe it with strange esotericism. Yes, Russian TV channels present the world with the smallest common denominator as a starting point, but they also know how to make the content addictive.

Video blogging is a growing, independent media segment.

That being said: All does not watch TV, and everyone is not influenced by the general cynicism that permeates Russian society. A growing, independent segment of the Russian media sphere is video blogging. The media audience is exactly the same age group mentioned initially: 18 to 24 year olds. They have their own heroes and celebrities who are completely unknown to the rest of the population. There are bloggers with millions of subscribers, the majority of whom express non-conformist views. The phenomenon is not universal, but it is robust and growing. "While we can only talk about the future of Russia with a dreamy smile, the television of the future already exists," wrote sociologist Stepan Goncharov recently.

First published in English in IWM Post 120.
Copyright © Maxim Trudolyubov / IWM Post / Eurozine.

Trudolyubov is chief editor of Russia's most influential independent financial newspaper Vedomosti, columnist for The International New York Times and senior fellow at the Kennan Institute.

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