In the final days of 1999, Konstantin Ernst prepared to film the Russian President’s annual New Year’s address, just as he had every December for several years. Ernst, who was thirty-eight, with floppy brown hair and a look of perpetual bemusement, had recently become the head of Channel One, the state television network with the largest reach, a post he retains today. The position makes him one of the most powerful men in Russia, with the ability to set the visual style for the country’s political life—at least the part its rulers wish to transmit to the public.
The ritual of the New Year’s address began in the seventies, under Leonid Brezhnev, who sat stolidly atop the Soviet hierarchy for two decades, and continued in the eighties under Mikhail Gorbachev, the architect of perestroika. After the Soviet collapse, Boris Yeltsin, the first President of independent Russia, kept the tradition alive. Yeltsin began his term as a charismatic advocate of democratic reform, but, by the late nineties, he seemed aged and defeated. Russia was only a year removed from a devastating financial crash that led the government to default on its debt, and its troops were fighting their second costly war in a decade in Chechnya, a would-be breakaway republic in the Caucasus. Yeltsin seemed primarily concerned with leaving office in a way that would keep him and his family immune from prosecution. On December 29th, Ernst and a crew from Channel One made their way to the Kremlin to film his address.
Ernst watched as Yeltsin sat in front of a tinsel-covered fir tree in a reception hall and held forth on the opportunities of the New Year, which included, in the spring, a Presidential election that would determine his successor. As the Channel One staff was packing up, Yeltsin told Ernst that he wasn’t satisfied—he was hoarse, and didn’t like the way his words had come out—and asked if they might record a new version in the coming days. Ernst agreed to go back on New Year’s Eve at five in the morning.
When he returned, he was handed a copy of the new address, and tried to contain his shock: Yeltsin was about to resign, voluntarily giving up power before his term was over, an unprecedented gesture in Russian history. His chosen successor was Vladimir Putin, a politician whom most Russians were just getting to know: Putin had risen from bureaucratic obscurity to become the head of the F.S.B., the post-Soviet successor to the K.G.B., and had been named Yeltsin’s Prime Minister only four months earlier. Ernst had a production assistant enter the text of the speech into the teleprompter without letting the rest of the crew in on the news. It would come as a surprise to everyone.
Yeltsin spoke with the labored cadence of a tired man. “I said that we would leap from the gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, prosperous, and civilized future,” he said. “I believed that we would cover the distance in one leap. We didn’t.” He went on, “I am leaving now. I have done everything I could.” He rubbed a tear from his eye. Someone from Channel One started to clap, and soon they were all giving him a standing ovation. A woman cried, “Boris Nikolayevich, how can it be?” Yeltsin and the journalists drank champagne, and marvelled at the scene they had shared.
Soon after, Channel One filmed a New Year’s address from Putin, which would air after Yeltsin’s. “The powers of the head of state have been turned over to me today,” Putin said, his tone calming and businesslike. “I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute.”
Ernst got into a waiting car with recordings of Yeltsin’s and Putin’s speeches and, with a police escort, sped through the capital to Ostankino, a sprawling complex of television studios. At noon, as night fell in Russia’s Far East, he gave the order to broadcast Yeltsin’s address. Yeltsin was hosting a luncheon with his ministers and generals in the Presidential quarters at the time. “The chandeliers, the crystal, the windows—everything glittered with a New Year’s glow,” Yeltsin recalled later, in his memoirs. A television was brought in, and his guests watched the announcement in silence. Putin’s wife at the time, Lyudmila, was at home, and didn’t see the broadcast, so she was confused when a friend called to congratulate her; she assumed that the friend was offering a standard New Year’s greeting. Later in the day, a news segment showed Yeltsin and Putin standing side by side in the Presidential office. “Take care of Russia,” Yeltsin told Putin as they left the room.
The following morning on Channel One, after a kitschy variety show, the network cut to breaking news from Chechnya. Putin had gone on a surprise trip to visit Russian troop positions, where he wore a fur-trimmed parka and handed out hunting knives. He told the soldiers that the war they were fighting was “not just about defending the honor and dignity of the country” but also “about putting an end to the disintegration of Russia.” Ernst worried that the separatism in Chechnya could spread, and believed that Russia’s institutions of power were atrophied and vulnerable to collapse. “In moments when everything has gone to hell, a person shows up, who might not have known ofhis mission ahead of time, but who grabs the architecture of the state and holds it together,” he told me recently. He thought that this person was Putin.
In the lead-up to the election, Channel One, under Ernst, portrayed Putin as Yeltsin’s inevitable successor, and relentlessly attacked his rivals, presenting them as infirm, corrupt, even murderous. Putin’s poll numbers began rising by four or five points in a week, and he quickly went from an unknown entity to the most popular politician in the country. Channel One had backed politicians before, but this was something new: the invention of a candidate from thin air, a television phenomenon from the start. Putin won handily and, afterward, Ernst began to craft a visual language for his Presidency. He suggested that the inauguration be moved from the State Kremlin Palace, a modernist concrete box, to St. Andrew’s Hall, an ornate tsarist throne room that would provide an imperial spectacle. He felt that the old era, for both Russia and Channel One, was giving way to another. As Ernst put it, “We would find a new intonation together.”
Ernst was born in 1961, the son of a well-known Soviet scientist. He was bright and ambitious and, by the time he was in his twenties, bristled at the restrictions imposed on citizens by the country’s decaying gerontocracy. From a young age, Ernst was obsessed with film. In 1986, when he was twenty-five, he left a senior post at a state genetics laboratory and, inspired by the convulsions of perestroika, drifted among Moscow’s quasi-underground directors and filmmakers. He shot several music videos, including a concert by Aquarium, the godfathers of Russian rock, who, in 1988, performed in Leningrad with Dave Stewart from the British pop band Eurythmics.
I met with Ernst in the summer of 2018, in a voluminous conference room at Channel One. He described his early days with vibrating enthusiasm. A central part of his self-image is clearly still grounded in that period, when he was not an all-powerful television demigod but a scrappy outsider. “I felt like a person who was deceiving everyone,” he told me. “The Soviet Union was still in full force—and yet there I was, with no formal education as a director, filming some Western musicians, not to mention my rocker friends, who themselves had been banned only two or three years before.”
In 1988, he became a director at “Viewpoint,” a news-magazine program that gained a devoted following for its earnest discussion of topics that weren’t covered elsewhere: corruption in the Communist Party, the failing Soviet war in Afghanistan, the fledgling class of millionaires. Viewers in the late Soviet era had become accustomed to a heavy lexicon of bureaucratese and boosterism that verged on the absurd. In his book on the paradoxes of the time, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More,” Alexei Yurchak, a Russian-American anthropologist, describes how, for decades, during the televised funeral of a Soviet dignitary, announcers would note that the official was “buried on Red Square by the Kremlin wall.” Eventually, space on the square became scarce, and high-ranking functionaries were instead cremated and their ashes placed inside the wall itself. Viewers could see that the action on their television did not match the voice-over, and state linguists petitioned the Central Committee to update the text. Amazingly, the appeal was rejected. “Since nothing about the representation of the world was verifiably true or false, the whole of reality became ungrounded,” Yurchak writes.
“Viewpoint,” by contrast, spoke honestly and clearly, pushing the country to “verbalize things that were impossible to say before,” Ernst told me with pride. In August, 1991, when a cabal of Communist hard-liners in the security services mounted a coup to put an end to Gorbachev’s perestroika, the crew of “Viewpoint” hid equipment in their apartments and went on the air with emergency programming. The coup failed, and, soon after, the Soviet Union fell apart. That December, cameras filmed the Soviet flag being lowered at the Kremlin for the last time.
Ernst once told an interviewer that, compared with “Viewpoint,” perhaps “only Boris Yeltsin himself played a larger role in bringing down the Soviet state.” But, when we spoke at Channel One, Ernst emphasized that the “Viewpoint” team members didn’t see themselves as revolutionaries, even if history pushed them in that direction. “When you’re taking part in a big historical process, you don’t always understand how it will develop down the line,” he told me.
In 1991, he launched an arts-review show called “Matador” (he simply liked the sound of the word), which was unlike anything previously seen on Russian television. Ernst appeared with long hair and a motorcycle jacket, and narrated segments on such topics as the avant-garde filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. The show, which aired at a time of mass bewilderment, was a captivating distillation of Ernst’s idiosyncrasies. “As always, during any great rupture, cracks and openings appear in the system, which allow just about anyone to enter,” he told me.
Four years into Yeltsin’s Presidency, with the country still reeling from the Soviet collapse, Ernst produced dozens of public-service advertisements called “The Russian Project,” which used sentimental scenes to teach basic lessons: cherish your loved ones, take pride in your work. In one, an elderly man hears buskers on the metro playing an old military marchand recalls a wartime love affair. As the music swells, the tagline appears: “We remember.” “People felt lost, as though they had been discarded,” Ernst told me. “It was important to let them know that not everything in the past was bad, that we still held something in common.”
His most popular project from the nineties was “Old Songs About Important Things,” a faux-retro musical set on a Soviet collective farm, in which actors crooned tunes from the Soviet songbook. Leonid Parfyonov, who collaborated with him on the program, told an interviewer at the time, “It’s about admitting that there were things that were good, that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and that we don’t have any other history.”
In 1995, Vladislav Listyev, a beloved television host from “Viewpoint,” was made the director of Channel One and put Ernst in charge of drawing up a plan for new programming. But, just five weeks after Listyev took over, he was killed in the stairwell of his apartment building. His murder, never solved, was rumored to be connected to his decision to change the way the company bought ads, potentially cutting out gray-market middlemen. Channel One’s main shareholder, Boris Berezovsky, a rapacious oligarch with interests in everything from oil to automobiles, proposed that Ernst take over. At first, Ernst resisted—he found Berezovsky distasteful and untrustworthy—but eventually he agreed to become the channel’s chief producer.
During the 1996 Presidential race, Channel One joined other outlets in openly supporting Yeltsin’s campaign and disparaging his revanchist Communist opponent. On the eve of the election, the channel aired an ominous spot that ended with a timer counting down to voting day. Anna Kachkaeva, a television critic, saw Ernst a few days afterward and asked him about it. “From the brainwashers, hoping for your understanding,” she recalled him saying, smiling mischievously. Kachkaeva told me that, even as Ernst “retained a sense of hooliganism,” he came “to understand what kind of instrument he held in his hands, that he is a person of the state.”
In October, 1999, Ernst agreed to take on the role of general director at Channel One. His relations with Berezovsky, for whom the network served as a personal plaything, were tense, but Berezovsky thought of Ernst as a “very sensible, well-educated person” with great potential. “That all turned out to be true,” Berezovsky told the weekly magazine ofKommersant, a Russian newspaper, in 2005. “But, as subsequent events showed, he has no real political position. That would be well and good in a stable democracy, but is absolutely dangerous in a transition to a totalitarian regime.”
Berezovsky backed Putin’s candidacy in 2000, and even claimed credit for engineering his ascent. But after Putin gained office the system that he began to construct had little tolerance for cocky and unruly power brokers, and Berezovsky’s ego didn’t allow him to bend to the new rules. Things came to a head eight months into Putin’s Presidency, when a torpedo exploded in the bow of the Kursk, a nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, killing a majority of the hundred and eighteen men aboard. Twenty-three survived, and waited for rescue. Russia’s attempts to reach them were unsuccessful, and it initially refused foreign help. Nine days later, after Putin relented, Norwegian deep-sea divers opened the hatch and found everyone dead.
Berezovsky unleashed his network, which hammered away at the Kremlin’s incompetence and compared its handling of the Kursk disaster to the government’s fumbling response to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in 1986. Channel One’s flagship news program broadcast scenes of anguished relatives subjecting government officials to scathing criticism. Putin was livid. He and his advisers claimed that the more inflammatory clips were manufactured, or at least grossly manipulated, as part of an information war carried out by Berezovsky. When Putin finally visited the bereaved relatives, he lashed out at the media: “Television? They’re lying! Lying! Lying!”
According to reports in the Russian press, Ernst, in private discussions with Putin, encouraged one of the more noxious conspiracy theories floating around the Kremlin: that a number of the grieving women shown on television were actors. Ernst adamantly denies that he said any such thing. But, while Kremlin officials ordered Berezovsky to unload his shares in the channel, they held Ernst in great esteem. “He is a very talented journalist,” Alexander Voloshin, Putin’s former chief of staff, said, in 2011. “All we had to do was free him from Berezovsky’s influence.” When I spoke to Ernst, he echoed this version of events. Under Berezovsky, the channel’s news staff was “waging some kind of political battle rather than doing reporting work,” he said. At the height of the fallout over the Kursk disaster, Ernst—whether acting on his own initiative or with instruction from above—fired a number of staffers close to Berezovsky.
Under duress, Berezovsky fled to England, where he hardened into a strident, although not always reliable, critic of Putin. (He died, apparently by suicide, at a manor house outside London, in 2013.) However, he never managed to develop a real hatred of Ernst. “Ernst could not exist without relying on the state,” he toldKommersant, from exile. “He made a choice not so much against me personally but for Putin. It was a choice in favor of power.”
Put in charge of the largest platform in the country, Ernst set about realizing his creative vision, which skillfullycombined a certain cosmopolitan savviness with ultimate subservience to the state. Ernst considers himself agosudarstvennik—a statist—a term many in Russia’s ruling class, including Putin, use to describe their belief in the inherent virtue of the state. “It would be strange if a channel that belonged to the state were to express an anti-government point of view,” Ernst told me.
Under Ernst, Putin’s subsequent inaugurations became ever more ambitious productions, involving several hundred cameramen as well as cameras mounted on helicopters and overhead tracking cranes. Ernst also reimagined the annual Victory Day parade, a celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany, putting cameras in the cockpits of bomber planes, to create shots reminiscent of “Top Gun.” According to Arina Borodina, a journalist and media critic in Moscow, Ernst has no equal in creating the spectacles that the country’s rulers covet. “Who else is going to make their illusions, their myths, their beauty?” she said.
“For Ernst, a sense of immense visual scale was always important,” Andrei Boltenko, a producer and director who worked at Channel One in the early two-thousands, said. Russia was emerging from the confusion and deprivation of the nineties, and the mood was hopeful. Viewers wanted a story of resurgence. Boltenko told me, “The scale of the television form matched the scale of belief in the state.”
In December, 2001, Channel One aired its first call-in show with Putin. Ernst told me that, when he introduced the idea to Putin, “he listened and said, ‘That’s interesting.’ ” The live broadcast—in which Putin fields questions from citizens, often for more than four hours—has appeared nearly every year since. At one moment, he might promise a new children’s playground; in the next, he might conjure up months of withheld salaries for laborers building a cosmodrome. Ernst described the show as a particularly Russian phenomenon: “The Russian mentality stipulates that the leader of the country, no matter what this person is called—President or tsar, Prime Minister or General Secretary of the Communist Party—is seen to answer for everything, that there is one person who symbolizes the entire state.”
Under Ernst, the network took pains to avoid the sins of the Berezovsky era, as the Kremlin understood them. In September, 2004, Chechen terrorists seized a school in the town of Beslan, in the North Caucasus, and government officials claimed that there were just three hundred and fifty-four hostages when, in fact, there were more than a thousand. Channel One cited the lower number. On the third day of the standoff, when a frenzy of shooting left more than three hundred people dead, foreign media covered the events live, but Channel One aired just a few minutes on the crisis before returning to the Brazilian telenovela “Women in Love.” Ernst defended his coverage. “Today, the main task of the television is to mobilize the country,” he told theFinancial Times, in 2004. “Our task No. 2 is to inform the country about what is going on.”
Over time, Ernst and Parfyonov, his former collaborator, began to diverge professionally, even as they remained friends. Parfyonov prized his independence, which left him with fewer opportunities on federal airwaves; Ernst took the other route. “Kostya wanted to be both an artist and a creative director,” Parfyonov told me. “But it would prove impossible to be a creative director without serving the state in one way or another.”
Yet, even as Channel One transmits the official narrative, it does so with a measure of taste and restraint, at least compared with its two main competitors: Rossiya, which is wholly owned by the state, and NTV, now owned by a holding company with ties to Putin. Rossiya is home to Dmitry Kiselev, the most sulfurous personality on Russian television, who holds forth on topics including the arms race (Russia is the only country that can turn the United States into “radioactive dust”) and gays and lesbians (“They should be banned from donating blood or sperm, and if they die in a car crash, their hearts should be burned or buried in the ground as unsuitable for the continuation of life”). NTV is known for pseudo-documentaries that disparage opposition figures and hint at all manner of foreign conspiracies.
Such offerings rarely appear on Channel One—not because of Ernst’s deep ideological opposition but because they do not correspond to his vision of what is beautiful and worthy. Yulia Pankratova, a news anchor on Channel One from 2006 to 2013, told me that, during her tenure, the network’s employees prided themselves on the sense that “you can do propaganda, but you can’t let yourself fall below a certain level.”
Ernst has directed most of his energies toward entertainment programming. “The news is momentary and ephemeral,” he told me. “But the artistic realm, this is something deeper. It can stay in people’s minds forever.” It is also the sphere in which he has the most freedom. Ernst told me that, while his interlocutors in the Kremlin pay close attention to Channel One’s news coverage, they let him make creative series and films with virtually no oversight. He has championed shows far edgier than otherwise appear on state airwaves. In 2012, Ernst aired “Anton’s Right Here,” a documentary about an autistic teen-ager living in a cramped apartment with his ailing mother. Autism is given little attention in Russian society, and the film treats the young man with a rare degree of dignity,which earned it praise from many liberals who are generally wary of Channel One. In 2013, Ernst broadcast “Thaw,” a dramatic series set in the nineteen-sixties, during a brief period of relaxed control over culture and politics. During one episode, viewers learn that a likable main character is gay. The show came at an acute moment of conservative revanchism in Russia’s politics, when the parliament had just passed a bill outlawing so-called “homosexual propaganda.” Ernst continues to indulge his art-house tastes, even as he’s keenly aware of the lines that can’t be crossed. In 2017, he aired the American series “Fargo,” dubbed into Russian, but a few disparaging lines about Putin were altered to refer to the leaders of North Korea.
Ernst has managed to retain the affection of many liberal cultural figures, who praise the artistry and integrity of some of Channel One’s programming. He is no less at ease among the country’s political class. “He knows how to seem one of the gang everywhere,” said Nikolay Kartozia, a producer who has known Ernst for years. “You can spend three hours talking to him, and you’ll see you have so much in common you’ll be sure you’re from the same circle. I have the sense it works quite the same in the Kremlin.”
Putin’s administration hosts weekly planning meetings for media bosses which are the subject of much speculation. Kachkaeva, the television critic, told me that Ernst “hints at such conversations, but he never gives details, never talks about what is asked of him.” Among the producers at Channel One, the Kremlin meetings are known as “going behind the ramparts”—a reference to the crenellated fortress walls. When we spoke, Ernst downplayed the meetings as largely administrative. “They might tell us: ‘Here is the President’s schedule,’ or some other upcoming events, or maybe the government is planning to impose a new tax, or raise the pension age.” But it is evident to the channel’s staff that Ernst and other top television bosses are given some guidance, though perhaps only as vague hints and shrugs. “Nobody comes back from those meetings and says, ‘Now we have to do this,’ ” Pankratova, the former news anchor, told me. “Maybe later that afternoon you see the top editor for a particular show call over one of the hosts to say something, to give some instructions. Or maybe you notice that a certain Russian region suddenly gets more coverage.”
Part of what makes Ernst so good at his job is his ability to pick up shifts in the official mood and to subtly pass them along to his staff. He occasionally gives clear directives; Vladimir Pozner, the host of a major talk show, has said that he and Ernst agreed on a blacklist of a dozen people who were not to appear on his program. But Pankratova told me that, more often, she was expected to intuit the rules rather than have them spelled out, a system that made everyone err on the side of caution. Later in her tenure, she didn’t even think to inquire whether she could mention protests organized by Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who had emerged as the country’s leading opposition politician. When I asked Ernst whether certain topics or people were off-limits, he said, “No one ever tells you, ‘Don’t show Navalny, don’t use his name.’ ” Instead, he explained, “such messages aren’t conveyed with words. After all, federal television channels are run by people who aren’t stupid.”
In 2007, Russia was chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, which would be held in Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea. Putin promised to spend billions to introduce a “new Russia” to the rest of the world. Ernst was put in charge of producing the opening ceremony. “We wanted to show that Russia is part of the global cultural village,” Andrei Boltenko, Ernst’s Channel One colleague, who became the creative director and screenwriter of the ceremony, said. As time went on, the show became more ambitious, and the main stadium had to be redesigned to accommodate its technical complexity. “In certain moments, Ernst had to convince Putin personally,” Boltenko said.
In February, 2014, Ernst watched the ceremony from a control center high above the stadium in Sochi. It opened with a troika of translucent horses lit up in white neon galloping across the night sky, gliding along invisible rails hung from the ceiling. Balloons in bright colors stood in for the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral; Peter the Great’s ships sailed across a dark and wavy ocean seemingly printed with an inky woodcut. A steam locomotive bathed in red light barrelled down, a reference to Stalin’s industrialization drive. The Second World War was represented by the rumble of approaching airplanes. The postwar years were rendered as an era of athletes, cosmonauts, students, andstilyagi—Soviet proto-hipsters who liked jazz and dressed in Western fashions.
As the show concluded and chants of “Ro-ssi-ya!” echoed through the stadium, Ernst leaped from his chair in the command center. “We’ve done it!” he yelled. The ceremony was received rapturously, even among those hostile to the Putin state. Navalny called the immediate afterglow “Nice and unifying—excellent.”
Ernst did not have long to savor the fantasy he’d brought to life. By the time the stadium in Sochi hosted the closing ceremony, which he also produced, two and a half weeks later, streetprotests in Kyiv, Ukraine, had overthrown the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, who had fled and left a power vacuum in his wake. Putin was incensed—he had long seen Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation as a proxy struggle with the West—and was intent on exacting revenge. Within days, Russian special-forces soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared in Crimea, and, within a month, Russia had annexed the territory. Western opprobrium, sanctions, and attempts at isolation followed, deepening after the outbreak of war in the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, where Russia spurred on a separatist insurgency, supplying funds, weapons, and diplomatic cover.
Back home, the Russian media adopted a hysterical and bellicose tone. The country was seizing its birthright as a superpower by standing up to the West. Channel One’s news programs were consumed with talk of a coup in Kyiv,NATO’s dark intentions, and the supposed neo-fascists who took over after Yanukovych. Ernst had imagined that the Olympics would mark a bright new era for Russia, and he was taken aback by the abrupt change in tone. Boltenko told me that the production team saw it as “a clear and ringing collapse of all of our hopes.” When I spoke to Ernst, however, he rejected the idea that the new narrative had been forced on him from above. “We—us at Channel One, as the citizens of the country—felt deeply offended, and we didn’t need any additional motivation,” he said.
In July, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot out of the sky as it passed over eastern Ukraine, and all two hundred and ninety-eight people on board were killed. The Dutch launched a years-long multinational investigation, which eventually identified Russia-backed separatists as having fired the missile and traced the anti-aircraft system used in the attack to a Russian military unit. As the inquiry proceeded, state media went into a fury, giving voice to every other possible theory: that the Malaysian airliner had been targeted by the Ukrainians in the mistaken belief that it was Putin’s plane; that it was hit accidentally as part of an air-defense training exercise gone wrong; that it was downed by the Ukrainian Air Force. In November, 2014, Channel One aired what it called “sensational” footage: a satellite image, supposedly taken by Western intelligence services and passed to Russia by an American scientist, that purported to show the plane being attacked by a Ukrainian fighter jet. “The image supports a version of events which has hardly been heard in the West,” a host said.
The picture was quickly outed as a fake. The time stamp didn’t match that of the incident, the plane had identifying markings that distinguished it from the Malaysian aircraft, and the terrain underneath was clipped from photos posted online two years before. When I asked Ernst why his channel gave voice to something so easily disproven, he said that it was a simple error: “Yes, we’re human, we made a mistake, but not on purpose.”
Baldly false stories, in the right doses, are not disastrous for Channel One; in fact, they are an integral part of the Putin system’s postmodern approach to propaganda. In the Soviet era, the state pushed a coherent, if occasionally clumsy, narrative to convince the public of the official version of events. But private media ownership and widespread Internet access have made this impossible. Today, state outlets tell viewers what they are already inclined to believe, rather than try to convince them of what they can plainly see is untrue. At the same time, they release a cacophony of theories with the aim of nudging viewers toward believing nothing at all, or of making them so overwhelmed that they simply throw up their hands. Trying to ascertain the truth becomes a matter of guessing who benefits from a given narrative.
In this case, the state’s approach seems to have worked: a year later, a poll showed that only about five per cent of Russians blamed their government or the separatists for the disaster. When I asked Ernst about the official Dutch report, he told me that our disagreement came down to a matter of belief: “You believe the Dutch report is true, and I believe the Dutch report is unprofessional.” It was as if we were arguing about religion or aesthetics rather than a set of facts.
As a young man, Ernst told me, he watched “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of Watergate for the WashingtonPost. He was enraptured by the film’s portrayal of journalism’s moral force, its critical distance and independence. Like many in his generation, he was frustrated by the stifling controls of the Soviet system, and presumed that everything was more honest in the West. But when the barriers between the two worlds collapsed Ernst began to see the blind spots of the media outlets he once worshipped. “I grew up and travelled all over, and, especially in recent years, it’s become increasingly clear to me that justice, democracy, the complete truth—they don’t exist anywhere in the world,” he said. Ernst wears his cynicism as a sign of enlightenment. It would be impossible to convince him that today’s CNN and the BBC don’t have the same partiality as Channel One, or are not also following an agenda. “People who make television are citizens of a specific country, froma certain nationality, with particular cultural codes,” Ernst told me. Channel One must play the game the way everyone else does.
In recent years, the space for freewheeling and irreverent programming on Channel One has shrunk, and the intensity of propaganda has grown. But Ernst has stuck around. The unique power of television remains seductive. “I can make an impact on the place where I was born, on the people with whom I share a language, a history, and an understanding, share the same smells and songs and movie quotes,” he told me. “I know these people and can understand them. I love them.”
In September, 2014, six months after the annexation of Crimea, a new program appeared on Channel One called “Time Will Tell,” a crass debate show covering the issues of the day, which usually revolve around how the West is keeping Russia down. When, in August, 2016, a producer called me to ask if I would appear as a guest—it’s hard to find Russian-speaking Americans in Moscow willing to get yelled at for an hour on live television—I agreed, curious about what it feels like on the factory floor of the state’s propaganda enterprise.
On the day I was set to appear, a minder met me at the entrance to the studio and led me through a vast warren of hallways. I sat in a makeup chair and endured a heavy dusting of powder. The audience numbered about a hundred people, who were given the signal to clap when the show returned from commercial break, or when one of the pro-Kremlin guests made a particularly acerbic point at the expense of one of the show’s villains—in this case, me. We discussed the Russian Olympic athletes facing bans for doping allegations and the conflict in Syria, where both Moscow and Washington had forces deployed. All of the questions were leading ones. The United States carries itself with an air of impunity, one of the show’s hosts told me—“Isn’t that disastrous?” Another posited, “Obama referred to Russia as a ‘regional power.’ Can’t we say that’s when all our problems between the two countries began?”
I returned to “Time Will Tell” every now and then over the next few months, on each occasion certain that this would be the day I would manage to say something subversive and devastatingly convincing on Russian state television. Of course, that never happened: not only was I outnumbered by half a dozen other guests but I could interject only a few words at most, and had to huff and puff and raise my voice. In the end, I came across as just another agitated talking head. Even my most forceful protests made issues of fact seem muddy and unknowable, proving that everything is a question of perspective and allegiance. The program offers viewers a crude carnival sideshow: one of its co-hosts is famous for having once brought out a bucket labelled “Shit” and daring a Ukrainian guest to eat from it. (It turned out to be chocolate.) I had a hard time imagining Ernst, the discerning auteur, being pleased with such antics; they seem to embody the ways that his channel has changed to accommodate the mood of the new era. In its loyalty to the official narrative, however, the show is in keeping with the model he has built.
“Time Will Tell,” like much of the Russian news, is obsessed by the United States, a consequence of the Russian ruling class’s simultaneous fascination with and revulsion for the American political system. This became all the more true in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election. Ernst told me, “Of course everyone here was pleased with Donald Trump. He seemed to represent a change in the American political trend.” Trump openly favored a transactional style of politics, with little appetite for values or norms. Here was a person with whom Putin could sit down and divide up the world, as Soviet and American leaders had done at Yalta, in 1945.
After Trump’s surprise victory, “Time Will Tell” reflected the Russian state media’s initial euphoria; then its hostile mockery of the notion that Russia, through hacking or trolls, might have had anything to do with that result; and, finally, a creeping sense of confusion and disappointment as Trump proved unable to single-handedly cancel sanctions and reconfigure U.S.-Russian relations. During one broadcast on which I appeared, when we were discussing an address that Trump had made to the United Nations—Channel One’s news program had called it “lengthy and rather pompous”—I asked the hosts if they felt any regret that the Russian media had favored Trump.
One of them, Anatoly Kuzichev, who had a bald head and a permanent smirk, turned the question back to me: “Imagine there are two candidates. The first says, ‘I hate Russia and will do all I can to destroy it.’ The second, however, says, ‘I will do everything possible to be friends with Russia.’ So, who would you root for in Russia’s place?” I pushed again. Did Kuzichev have any regrets? “Yes, we are sorry,” he said, his voice rising. “We’re sorry that everything was just words. Yes, we were rooting for Trump. I can confirm that. We acted like fools who naïvely believed a bunch of words.”
Channel One has embraced the line that Trump is being undermined by political élites and the so-called “deep state,” a position thatallows its presenters to explain his inability to improve relations with Russia, while also revelling in how the American government has devolved into a self-injurious political circus. This narrative has only gained strength since the beginning of the recent impeachment hearings in Congress. “Let them fight amongst themselves,” a host on “Time Will Tell” said on a recent episode. A Channel One anchorman declared, “With impeachment, Congress has guaranteed that the 2020 Presidential election will be the most beastly in American history.”
The hosts on “Time Will Tell” seem as confused as Trump is about why there would be anything wrong with linking military aid money for Ukraine to political favors. Isn’t that how American foreign policy has always operated? Watching the show, I was reminded of my conversations with Ernst, in which he seemed eager to show that he is alive to how the world really works, unlike those idealists—perhaps me included—who remain blinded by naïveté. It is a world view grounded in some truth, but it has the effect of excusing all manner of behavior as simply routine. On a recent episode, from mid-November, when a steady stream of witnesses were testifying in Congress, one of the hosts turned to an American journalist and mocked the idea that the Democrats had uncovered anything incriminating. “Where is the evidence? Why don’t they produce it?” the host asked. The American guest responded, “You just don’t show it on this channel, like they don’t show it on Fox News.” The host smiled, and pretended to act afraid: “Quick, cut to commercial break!” ♦