‘My Moscow’ in Spiegel and Russian propagandists in Die Welt: why German media are still unsuccessfully trying to understand Russians

Marina Ovsyannikova, a former Russian state TV journalist who quit after making an on-air protest of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, sits in a court room prior to a hearing in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, July 28, 2022. Ovsyannikova on Thursday was fined 50,000 rubles ($860) for discrediting the military. Marina Ovsyannikova was charged under a law enacted after the invasion that penalizes statements against the military; those convicted can face up to 15 years in prison. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

After almost nine months of terrorising Ukraine, foreign media are still desperately trying to find excuses for ‘ordinary Russians.’ For those who repeat Kremlin narratives about ‘neo-Nazis’ like a mantra and selflessly obey Putin’s commands to kill and destroy.

Thus, in the sixth month of the war in Ukraine, in August 2022, an article by correspondent Christian Esch appeared in the German publication Der Spiegel under the title ‘How Putin’s War Changed My Moscow.’ The author of a German magazine writes about ‘his Moscow.’ Let’s figure it out further. In the article, Esch talks about how he returned home to Russia, where he has lived for the past 14 years, after visiting Bucha, which the occupiers destroyed. Esch calls to mind how the Russian secret services tried to check him out and how strange he felt around those ‘unusual Russians.’ Esch recalls how the Russian special services tried to check him and how strange he thought in the circle of these ‘now unusual Russians.’

Christian Esch talks about the ‘crimes committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians’ and the Kremlin’s statements that ‘it’s all a staged event by the Western media.’ ‘That is, ones like me,’ Esch says.

At first glance, everything seems normal. The author calls the war a ‘war’ and refers to Russian soldiers as ‘criminals.’ However, the question arises: why do a German authoritative magazine relay the Kremlin’s narratives and the internal dirt of the Russians?

Source: AP

Esch says: ‘If you didn’t know Russia was at war with Ukraine, you wouldn’t notice it in Moscow.’ He says the letters ‘Z’ and ‘V’ are almost non-existent there, neither on buildings nor cars, and there is no mention of the war itself. Does this mean that Putin and his supporters are the only ones who support these crimes? It seems as if the author tries to promote the stereotype of ‘Putin’s war.’

Source: AP

Analyst and media expert Nataliia Steblyna supports this opinion. She pointed out that in his article, Esch primarily refers to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as ‘Putin’s war’ or ‘Putin’s aggression.’ ‘As if only Putin is interested in war. Most Russians support the war,’ the expert emphasises.

In the article, Christian Esch writes that it used to be only ‘two hours by plane’ to Russia, but now ‘Moscow has become a distant place.’ Der Spiegel’s correspondent says that Russian (read: ‘Putin’s’) media is now full of propaganda. He realised this when, as usual, he turned on the radio at home, tuned to ‘Echo of Moscow.’ ‘It was the soundtrack of my daily life in Moscow,’ Esch writes.

Indeed, there is a perception among Europeans that there are Russian opposition media in the world, but in reality, they are only trying to appear to be so. For example, in his article, Esch calls ‘Echo of Moscow’ ‘a forum for liberal, opposition-minded Moscow,’ but media expert Nataliia Steblyna disagrees.

Source: RBC Russia

‘They (‘Echo of Moscow’ — ed.) constantly featured the most ardent propagandists on their airwaves and website. The same Zakharova (official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry — ed.). Gleb Pavlovsky (a former Kremlin political strategist and Putin’s adviser who later allegedly joined the opposition — ed.) also used to broadcast messages just before the full-scale invasion that the West had offended Russia and that it had the right to invade. So ‘Echo of Moscow’ also provided pro-Kremlin propaganda content, only for a more liberal audience. And the fact that it was presented alongside higher quality content only enhanced the effect,’ Steblyna says.

The analyst is convinced that Esch and most Europeans do not understand that there can be nothing independent of Russia’s state, including the media. That is why, says Steblyna, Russian journalists are also responsible for the war in Ukraine and accomplices in this crime.

The media expert also highlights the partial selection of Esch’s characters, who are supposed to illustrate the intellectual elite of modern Russia.

‘Venediktov (the head of the ‘Echo of Moscow’ radio station) is one example of being turned into a hero. In reality, he is not an independent journalist, and ‘Echo of Moscow’ is not a model of journalism,’ Steblyna emphasises.

Source: AP

The German media correspondent talks about the head of the radio station, Alexei Venediktov. Esch writes that Venediktov ‘drank wine with Putin, knew ministers, befriended Putin’s press secretary (Dmitry Peskov — ed.) and the head of the RT propaganda channel (Margarita Simonyan — ed.).’ So what can we expect from an opposition media figure who amicably calls the Kremlin’s most ardent propagandist ‘Margo’?

Source: AP

‘To me, a crucial context is who Simonyan is. She is a war criminal! In the text, it’s just Margo, Venediktov’s girlfriend, the editor-in-chief of RT,’ the expert notes.

After that, Esch compares Ukrainians and Russians and again relays the outdated perception of Russian society about our country: ‘Every generation of Russians has its own Ukraine. For the elderly, Ukraine is just a land where people speak a funny peasant dialect and like to eat lard… For young Russians, Ukraine is a foreign country. They don’t care that this country is trying to get closer to the West. And the eight years of alienation after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 have left a stronger mark on them. It seems both young and old have a poor understanding of Ukraine.’

Further on, Christian Esch writes about Marina Litvinovich, a human rights activist and opposition politician with an exciting background. As a young woman, she worked for the Kremlin as a polytechnic doctor, then for billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Kasparov and Ksenia Sobchak, who ran against Vladimir Putin in 2018 at the Kremlin’s request to ‘liven up a boring election campaign.’

Info: ‘Ksenia Sobchak is a candidate against all’ was the slogan of Putin’s opponent. Even before the election, there were rumours that Sobchak would run with the consent of the Putin administration, but the former journalist, TV presenter, and actress rejected this theory. At the time, well-known Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned by the Russian authorities, criticised Ksenia Sobchak, calling her a ‘caricatured liberal candidate.’ She responded by accusing Navalny of splitting the opposition.

‘I am 36 years old and decided to run for president. I am against everyone who usually uses this right. I want to return the opportunity to vote against everyone… When I was 18, Putin became president of Russia. Children born that year will go to vote themselves. But it might happen that when my son goes to the polls, the list of candidates will still include Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky and Putin,’ Sobchak said at the time.

So, citing Litvinovich, Esch writes that ‘Russians’ belief in a clean war and a clean army cannot be broken,’ so ‘maybe we should just leave them to their convictions and focus on Putin and his criminal orders.’ However, Esch apparently forgot that Putin is not the only one who carries out these commands. ‘For Russia,’ ‘For the army,’ ‘For Putin’ — Ukrainians are being killed by ‘ordinary Russians.’ It is impossible to hide the fact that it is ‘ordinary Russians’ rape Ukrainian women in captured cities, kill children, pensioners and unarmed civilians at close range, and organise torture chambers and mass graves. In addition, some of the Russian militaries even receive government awards for this.

Source: AP

‘The Russian elites also benefit from this war. The Kremlin elite still cannot dare to confront Putin directly, so they are trying to adapt to the new realities and benefit from this war.

‘The author (Esch — ed.) does not understand that Russian elites also support the war and are its driving force. He writes that all the elites are trembling and afraid of Putin, which is not true. They also benefit from this war,’ the expert is convinced. And it turns out that there are authors in the German media who now cannot understand ‘their Russians’ and openly justify them.

Talk about justifications. Let’s look at the story of Marina Ovsyannikova, a Russian propagandist from the ‘First Channel,’ who caused a scandal in Russia when she ‘protested’ against the war in Ukraine on live TV.

Screenshot from video

Soon, Ovsyannikova’s attempt to become the personification of ‘good Russians’ was partially successful — she was hired as a freelance columnist for the German newspaper ‘Die Welt.’ And the ‘former’ Russian propagandist was assigned to write… about Russia’s war in Ukraine.

‘The newspaper undoubtedly bought into the image of a Russian oppositionist who challenged Putin. It’s just that most Europeans don’t understand the context of Putin’s Russia. For them, a journalist is a person who has a reputation and works according to standards. So they hired her to hear the ‘Russian voice,’ not realising that they were listening to light Kremlin narratives. She also needed this to play the oppositionist role, to form a certain image and promote pro-Russian narratives,’ Nataliia Steblyna is convinced.

Source: AP

However, the news was met with an unexpectedly sharp reaction in Berlin. Activists came to the building of the Welt media group, demanding Ovsyannikova’s dismissal. The protesters motivated this by a well-known truth: ‘There are no former propagandists.’  Instead, the head of Die Welt’s international department, Klaus Geiger, declined to say goodbye to the Russian woman, saying that ‘she is on the right side of history.’

Source: Twitter – Cityintel | @Cityintel1

Moreover, Germany even decided to reward Ovsyannikova for her unexpected change of views. This is how the German Weimer Media Group determined the winners of this year’s Media Freedom Prize and named the winners: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, former Belarusian presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and former editor of the Russian propaganda ‘First Channel’ Marina Ovsyannikova. Although, later, Weimer Media Group came to their senses and did not award the Russian woman.

Afterwards, Ovsyannikova decided to go further and allegedly come to Ukraine. The propagandist was even going to meet with students of the Institute of Journalism at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. However, the institute’s director rejected the proposal.

Moreover, the propagandist was going to give a ‘big press conference’ at the Ukrainian news agency Interfax-Ukraine. It was announced on the morning of May 31, but by 5 p.m., the event had already gained such resonance that Ovsyannikova’s conference had to be cancelled. Later, absolutely all the alleged organisers of this mysterious event denied that they had organised it. Among them, in particular, were the Dutch volunteer Mariam Lambert, the Ukrainian organisation ‘Stop Corruption,’ moderator Olena Revenko, and ‘Die Welt’ itself. It is not yet known who organised the conference, its true motives, or whether Ovsyannikova was even in Ukraine. However, one thing has become clear: the German media do not seem to have realised that Ukraine no longer accepts the idea of ‘good Russians.’

Screenshot from video

‘I’m tending to think it was a typical media event. If we want to attract attention but can’t come up with any real newsworthy stories, we create a media event. The same is here. I think Ovsyannikova knew that she would not be welcome in Ukraine. But she organised that conference on purpose to make a splash. And she used all possible methods to do so. After all, there are no rules for Russians. They always play without rules. That’s what happened with this conference: they did everything to attract attention,’ the media expert believes.

A month after the scandal, Ovsyannikova announced that she was leaving her job at the German edition of ‘Die Welt.’ She said that her contract with the media outlet had allegedly expired.

‘It was a unique experience working in free journalism. I am grateful to the ‘Die Welt’ team for supporting me in such a difficult time. The time passed quickly. Our three-month contract is over. I am moving on,’ the propagandist wrote on her Instagram.

Screenshot of the page

Interestingly, immediately after that, at the request of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, Roskomnadzor blocked the website of Die Welt in Russia, and Ovsyannikova was arrested in absentia for two months for ‘spreading fakes about the Russian army.’

‘Russian propaganda is like racketeering. Suppose you have a channel that has gathered a certain audience. And this audience can be useful to the Kremlin for certain reasons. Therefore, propagandists begin to ‘squeeze’ this channel in various ways. Intimidation, blackmail, money… We saw how Russians and some naive Europeans perceived Ovsyannikova. They sympathised with her; for many, she became a symbol of the fight. It was important for everyone to follow her. That is, she gathered around her the audience the Kremlin needed — oppositionists and those against the war, against Putin, etc.,’ says Steblyna.

Source: AP

The media expert says it doesn’t matter whether Ovsyannikova is an ‘FSB (Federal Security Service — ed.) special operation’ or not. She does spread narratives favourable to the Kremlin, saying that sanctions are harmful and that it is allegedly not beneficial for Europe not to cooperate with Russia.

‘Ovsyannikova said she was Ukrainian, which is another accusation of ‘fraternal peoples.’ We do not know on what terms Ovsyannikova left Russia. We also remember that she worked as a propagandist for a long time. Therefore, she is definitely a channel that disseminates important things to the Kremlin,’ Nataliia Steblyna is convinced.

A word about fakes: in July 2022, the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, together with the Ukrainian social startup LetsData and the NGO Detector Media, analysed the media landscape of Italy, Germany and France from July 1 to July 29 to determine the level of Russian propaganda influence in these countries in terms of coverage of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Remarkably, in the fifth month of the war, German media became the world’s leaders in using the so-called ‘toxic vocabulary’ about Ukraine, including calling Russia’s actions a ‘conflict.’ In addition, the media often incorrectly transliterated the names of Ukrainian cities and regions, reproducing the Russian spelling rather than the Ukrainian one. For example, ‘Kiev’ instead of ‘Kyiv,’ ‘Odessa’ instead of ‘Odesa.’

Source: Atlantic Council

At the time of the research, it also became known that the topic of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia was actively promoted in German online media. However, this was mainly due to the quoting of German politician former Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

At the same time, the German media now frequently feature stories about calls, particularly by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for more arms supplies. This is a good indicator, given that the topic of military assistance to Ukraine is not very common in the media of Western countries.

Nevertheless, the ‘evolution’ of Germany since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is becoming increasingly visible. A few months ago, Berlin refused to supply Ukraine with vital weapons. However, after German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spent his diplomatic visit to Kyiv in a bomb shelter, Germany’s position changed significantly. We hope that now the German media will make this ‘evolutionary leap’ and stop trying to understand the Russians and try to see the truth.

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