Smith College hosts Russian media lecture

By Kathrine Esten

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

Vasily Gatov discussed Russia’s “main adversary,” interference and median efforts at Smith College during a lecture entitled “Russian Mass Media and Intelligence: Did They Do It to US?” on Tuesday night.

The Russian, Eastern European & Eurasian Studies department at Smith College invited Gatov, a visiting fellow of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, to speak during their “The Making of Putin’s Russia” lecture series.

Gatov is a Russian media researcher and author based in Boston. Gatov has more than 28 years of professional experience in domestic and international media. Gatov is currently working on a book tentatively titled, “Life, Censored,” about the re-emergence of totalitarian censorship of the Russian media. He is a regular contributor to industrial and general publications, both in Russia and globally.

Sergey Glebov, an associate professor in history, specializing in the Russian Empire and Russian, Eastern European & Eurasian Studies at Smith College and Amherst College, introduced Gatov at the start of the lecture.

“If you want to know anything about Russian media in the last 25 years” Glebov said, “[Professor Gatov] is the expert you have to speak to.”

The lecture characterized Vladimir Putin, the current president of the Russian Federation, as intensely focused on reactive foreign policy. As a result, domestic policy has been largely characterized by counter-intelligence mechanisms.

“Counter-intelligence states are the natural mutation of any government that hands too much power to an unhinged security apparatus,” Gatov said, “under the circumstances of an imaginary threat.”

The threat Gatov discussed was what he called Russia’s “main adversary:” the United States, and, by extension, the West. Gatov claimed that Putin, and his government, are entrenched in the 1980s thinking of “the main adversary,” and are fixated on the United States then-obsessed with the defeat of the USSR, and, now-obsession with Russia.

While acknowledging a motive for Russia to create a security apparatus countering the United States, Gatov said it was unlikely that the alleged Russian interference had as large of an effect as some are stipulating.

“If this was a Russian operation,” Gatov said, “it was more likely opportunistic and experimental than strategic planning.”

However, Gatov noted the importance of continuing to bring attention to Russian media efforts. Based on his research and personal experience, Gatov identified the elements that make up the essentially state-controlled Russian mass media: State media, spy network and State corporations. By supplying funding for all three, the Russian government is effectively able to control the country through propaganda and economic dominance.
“[The State media] is pretty phony, imitating journalism,” Gatov said, “The Russian government relies on the media to self-censor.”
A majority of the Russian press is state-owned, according to Gatov’s research. Two out of the 11 national television channels, and two out of the 31 national newspapers are independently operated; the rest receive state-funding. Gatov stipulated that the media in Russia, while not formally censored, serves government in order to preserve their funding.

Similarly, Gatov characterized Russian espionage operations as “needing constant approval,” and “inventing enemies [and] threats, domestically and internationally.” State corporations, facing international sanctions, also benefit from government funding, and allow domestic control of the economy.

“The system is becoming more Putinesque,” Gatov said, “creating consequences beyond Russian borders.”

Vera Shevzov, a professor of religion and director of Russian, Eastern European & Eurasian Studies at Smith College, commented that there is a need in the United States for more students to study Russian policy.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union, it created a sense of calm in the US.” Shevzov said. “But students should continue to study the history and language of this region.”

Tom Roberts, an assistant professor of Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies at Smith College, agreed, stating that Russian studies are still very relevant in the world today.

“One hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution,” Roberts said, “Russia is still very active in global politics.”

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected]