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The Kremlin’s Salesman

The smoothest purveyor of Russian propaganda puts on a show at Yale University.

by Peter Rutland 10 October 2018

Veteran Russian broadcaster Vladimir Pozner gave a talk at Yale University on 27 September, provocatively entitled “How the United States Created Vladimir Putin.” (The whole event is online here.) Pozner has been a fixture on Russian TV screens since the Gorbachev era. Eloquent, charismatic, and fluent in English, he is the most acceptable face of Russian propaganda.


Pozner portrayed himself as an “independent” journalist, just laying out “the facts” so that his audience could come to their own judgement. More than once he referred to himself as French – and throughout he often referred to Russians as “they” – an interesting rhetorical ploy that presumably encourages the audience to see him as a neutral observer.


Born in Paris in 1934, Pozner moved with his parents to New York City in 1940, then to the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1948 and Moscow in 1952. In the 1960s he was the editor of Soviet, English-language propaganda magazines, and worked for Radio Moscow. In the 1980s, during the heady days of glasnost, he was a frequent guest on Ted Koeppel’s “Nightline” program and in the 1990s he ran a “telebridge” broadcast with NBC’s Phil Donahue, a show simultaneously broadcast in Russia and the U.S. Since 2010 he has hosted a weekly chat show on Channel One, the main state-controlled channel.


In his Yale talk, Pozner was willing to agree with some criticisms of Russia’s domestic politics – though without criticizing Vladimir Putin directly. He conceded, for example, that it is an authoritarian regime, dominated by people who were brought up in the Soviet Union and still have a Soviet outlook. He said it will be one generation or more before democracy would arrive in Russia (though he seemed confident that it would). He accepted that there is no real choice in Russian elections.


Pozner has not always been that accommodating. Back in February 2018, he walked out of a panel on the satellite TV channel Al Jazeera in which he was set to discuss the upcoming Russian presidential election with two opposition figures. He claimed “I am not a debater, I am a journalist. I am not opposition … I am not a big fan of Putin’s, but I like to try to be objective.”


At Yale, Pozner repeatedly returned to the theme that censorship and biased information sources are just as much a problem in the West as in Russia. He said there was not one single positive story about life in Russia in The New York Times in 2015-17. I agree that there is too much negative coverage of Russia in the Times, but it is not true that there was not a single positive story. It only took me five minutes to find some positive stories on opera singer Anna Netrebko, the circus, and the Bolshoi theater – just from the last six months of 2017 alone.


In contrast to his apparent openness on domestic issues, at Yale Pozner tightly hewed to the party line in foreign policy, which was the main focus of his talk. He laid out the main argument of the Kremlin: that Russia has always been ready to partner with the United States, but in the 1990s, instead of a Marshall Plan to help Russia’s economic recovery, the country got shut out of Western institutions like NATO and the European Union. NATO extended its reach right up to Russia’s borders by accepting East European countries such as Poland and Estonia as members – in violation, Pozner claimed, of assurances given to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in 1990, at the time of German unification. (Historians are still debating these issues.)


Pozner claimed that Russia “had not done one thing – nothing – between 1985 and 2007 to anger or irk the United States.” Apparently, the Boris Yeltsin-ordered shelling of the defiant Russian parliament in 1993, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s electoral surge, or the invasion of Chechnya in 1994 do not count – not to mention the killings of protestors in Georgia in April 1989, Baku in January 1990, or Lithuania in January 1991.


Pozner attributed great significance to the “Wolfowitz Doctrine,” a document written by Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and leaked to the press in March 1992, which lays out a strategy for preserving the U.S. as the sole superpower. Pozner did not point out that the Republicans lost the presidency that October, and the incoming Clinton administration made every effort to work with then-President Boris Yeltsin.


It was in the Q&A period that Pozner showed the limits of his impartiality. He conceded that some Russians might have tried to intervene in the U.S. elections, but suggested their impact was trivial. Russia looked favorably on Trump simply because they hoped for an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations. When asked about the Skripal affair, he suggested it was all a plot by British intelligence, and got the audience laughing about this John Le Carre plot twist. (At one hour 50 minutes in the tape.)


When asked whether it was not a tragedy that brother was killing brother in east Ukraine, Pozner said it would be naive to think that the diplomats negotiating the Minsk accords cared about that. On that occasion and several other times, Pozner intimated that there were shadowy conspiracies by small groups of elites pursuing their evil agenda. They are hidden, as it were, from public view, but accessible to people in the know such as Pozner. This accords with Russia’s proclivity to conspiracy theory, a tendency that has been actively stoked by Kremlin propagandists. 


The exchange also illustrates Pozner’s skillful use of his insider/outsider status. He presents himself as a cosmopolitan, an independent journalist, and a regular guy, while at the same time he enjoys an extraordinarily privileged status in Russia’s media firmament. His charismatic performance at Yale shows that the contemporary Russian information warfare is a seamless progression from the Soviet arts of deception – with due allowance for changes in communications technology and the global media landscape.

Peter Rutland
 is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
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