On April 25, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television and told his nation that the destruction of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He meant that the union’s dissolution had ushered in years of sinusoidal financial crises, but also that he mourned the passing glory of a great empire he had once served as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB. In the speech, Putin also expressed his hope that Russia would become a “free and democratic country,” but at its own pace. “Russia will decide for itself the pace, terms, and conditions of moving towards democracy,” he said, laying the foundation for a political creed that would become known as “sovereign democracy.” It is a phrase that became shorthand for what the West called Russia’s “resurgence,” and what Russia called its independence of an externally imposed Western morality.
Putin could do this because in 2005 things were going well. Oil prices were rising—they had more than doubled since he became president in 2000—and the Russian people were increasingly behind him and his brand of paternalistic nationalism. But with the return of Russia’s pride, so wounded during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s reputation suffered as Western and domestic critics attacked Putin for the steady degradation of democracy on his watch. Gubernatorial elections were eliminated, potential rivals—oligarchs like media king Vladimir Gusinsky and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—were either driven from the country or unceremoniously locked up. Unsympathetic journalists were turning up dead.
Just over a month after the speech, the Kremlin announced the solution to its image problem. It would not change its defiant rhetoric of exceptionalism. Instead, it would launch a new international television channel that explained its actions—and its terms—to the rest of the world. It would be in English and would broadcast twenty-four hours a day.
Though the project had roots in the cold war-era “Radio Moscow,” which beamed news from the Soviet Union around the world, it is better explained by Putin’s obsession with television. As a child of the post-World War II generation, Putin, like his Western counterparts, was raised on it. As president, he took tapes of the day’s news broadcasts home to watch and analyze how he was covered. To Putin, television was the only way to get his message across while retaining full control of that message. One of his first moves as president was to force out the oligarchs running the independent television stations and bring their channels under state ownership—and censorship. Soon, the heads of television stations were meeting every Friday with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political strategist, to set the agenda for the coming week. The instincts of self-censorship took care of the rest.
But even with internal critics effectively marginalized, the external enemies remained. Moreover, they were the same ones who sat in their air-conditioned Washington think tanks and applauded the series of revolutions that replaced Russia-friendly rulers in the former Soviet territories with pro-Western leaders who wanted to do things like join NATO, which Russia considers its biggest military threat to this day.
On June 7, 2005, Margarita Simonyan held a press conference in which she announced the creation of Russia Today. “It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” she told reporters. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”
The new channel would be nonprofit and run out of the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the state news agency. Despite having a large degree of autonomy, it would ultimately answer directly to its funder, the Kremlin. Simonyan, who was hired to run the news outlet, had just turned twenty-five. “Of course, I was nervous,” she wrote in response to questions from cjr. “It’s a tremendous responsibility.”
Simonyan’s story is in many ways typical of a young person in Moscow today. An ethnic Armenian born in Krasnodar, the southern Russian region abutting the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Simonyan comes from a blue-collar family. Her father was a refrigerator repairman, her mother stayed at home. “My parents have nothing to do with television,” Simonyan says. “Yet, even before I went to school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t even understand fully what the word meant.”