Russia Today’s coverage has closely mirrored this shift. It has become more international and less anti-American (there are fewer stories about America’s social ills, for instance). It even abruptly changed its logo from Russia Today to the less binding “RT,” and built a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom in Washington, D.C. From there it beams original content about American politics and society under its new, more journalistic “Question More” banner. Most significantly, coverage of big Russian-American issues hews closely to the Kremlin’s new tone. This was evident in the treatment of the recent spy scandal. “We focused on why it is such a big media campaign, we brought on experts to talk about why and how spying happens,” says Gachechiladze, the news director. “We talked about the invisible ink. There are a lot of very colorful details. It was a classic spy story.” No outrage at the arrest and deportation of Russian citizens, no incredulity at the accusations that Russia was spying on the U.S., just the colorful details, as if the biggest spy swap since the cold war was nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster. Which, of course, is exactly how Moscow and Washington wanted it.
Simonyan, however, insists that nothing’s changed: “Our goal is still to provide unbiased information about Russia to the rest of the world, to report about our country.”
But something has changed, and it is explained not only by the Russo-American détente, but also by the fact that RT’s ambitions have grown. It now boasts a staff of 2,000, wider distribution than ever, and channels in Arabic and Spanish. It has learned to pitch the Kremlin’s line in a more subtle way. RT is also evincing a certain confidence these days. It has shed much of its foreign staff, and newsroom meetings are now conducted in Russian. There are hints of a broader, if uneven, move toward seriousness and professionalism.
Clearly, the Russia-U.S. “reset” is a game-changer for Russia Today, a fact that was aptly expressed in Alyona Minkovski’s diatribe against Glenn Beck. The mission of broadcasting Russia’s line to the world was always reminiscent of the old Brezhnev-era foreign policy, when the Soviet Union projected influence either in places America had overlooked, or where America was hated. In other words, it often wasn’t about the Soviet Union at all, just as this new effort to project influence isn’t necessarily about Russia. Both were about using a common enemy to deflect attention from Russia’s own problems, and to gain leverage abroad. This can be effective, until you talk your way into a corner. Now that America is no longer necessarily the enemy, this is exactly what has happened.
For Russia Today—for RT—it raises a pressing question: is there even a point anymore? Increasingly, it is hard to watch RT and not get the sense that the people making the decisions are wrestling with that very question. Even though Russia’s relationship with the U.S. will surely have its ups and downs in the coming years, it’s unlikely there will be a need for the kind of shrill propaganda outlet that RT has been. So, then, who is RT’s target audience? Unlike the Chinese international networks that are tapping into the burgeoning business interest in China, as well as into a large Chinese diaspora, or Al Jazeera, which broadcasts to a broader Islamic universe, Russia can claim neither of these footholds. On the contrary, Russia is still desperately trying to fend off stereotypes of itself—the endemic corruption, the whimsical autocracy of the state—that have kept much foreign capital, and many Russian émigrés, from returning.
But here is the most fundamental problem with Russia’s clever attempt to flex its soft power: the Soviet period excepted, Russia has traditionally been a country that has made itself a player on the world stage by insisting on its own importance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no ideology to propagate. There is no Islam, no Chinese Communism, no beacon of democracy, no Coca-Cola or MTV to smooth the way for political influence. And in terms of cultural influence, Russia has a mixed bag. Despite its rich and broad cultural contribution (Nabokov, the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky), Russia balks at, and actively fights, other key aspects of its culture: the vodka, the winter, the women. When there’s nothing for the propaganda channel to propagate, RT’s message becomes a slightly schizophrenic, ad hoc effort to push back against what comes out of the West. And if there’s nothing to push back against, other than the ghosts of a bygone era, then what, really, is left to say that others aren’t already saying, and saying better?