One generation ago, I reached the level in Russian language studies at Yale University where the next course looming in my face was: "Soviet Newspapers."
Faced with spending winter afternoons in a windowless basement classroom with CIA wannabes as we parsed Pravda and Izvestia, I ran away to Rio (literally).
For today’s junior Kremlinologists, there is a much more fun way to read between Russia’s lines: the website of RT, the government-owned English language TV station previously known as Russia Today.
The key to RT is that it’s funded by the Russian Government. There may be a secret hotline, but there are layers of deniability between the Kremlin and the RT newsroom.
RT says what some Russian officials think — but can’t say in public.
Here the Kremlin follows the teachings of that influential, late 20th century American philosopher, Bart Simpson. One of Mr. Simpson’s most famous quotations: "It wasn’t me. No one saw me do it. You can’t prove it."
After an afternoon of content analysis, here is the world, according to RT:
TURKEY BAD – SYRIA GOOD
Everyone knows about the Russian bear’s soft spot for the Assad regime in Syria. (Just type Syria into the RT search engine)
But there is a new subtext circulating in Moscow these days. Just the other day, a Near East analyst in a fur hat was ranting to me in the snow about Turkey’s "neo-Ottoman foreign policy."
For two generations, NATO has kept the peace between Istanbul and Moscow. But something eternal is stamped in the DNA of whoever occupies the Kremlin: watch our southern flank. Don’t forget that Czarist Russia fought 13 wars with Turkey – and won almost all of them.
So I was not surprised last week when I saw this RT report: "U.S. heavily presses Turkey into ganging up on Syria."
William Engdahl, an analyst popular with RT (52 citations on the site) told RT that CIA director David Petraeus is almost weekly in Turkey on a visit, warning darkly: "We can imagine he is not talking about the quality of Turkish tea."
SHALE GAS BAD — GAZPROM GOOD
Europe is Russia’s number one customer for Russia’s number one export – natural gas.
Taking its market share for granted, Moscow in the recent years has been happy to bully its captive customers, to cut off supplies and to block Central Asian gas from reaching Europe.
Then along came a game changer: hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ a technology that releases gas from shale rock.
Thanks to shale gas, North America, in only seven years, has achieved energy independence in natural gas — and has seen gas prices drop by 90 percent: to $2 per million British thermal units today.
By contrast, gas prices in Europe are five times as high — $10 per million BTUs.
Consequently, some of Russia’s biggest customers, notably Poland and Ukraine, are investing heavily in shale exploration.
Not so fast, warns RT.
Take this story aired Tuesday: "Fracking hell: UK government set to green light risky gas drilling."
From a long list of RT stories warning on the dangers of shale gas technology, here are a few:
"Pennsylvania law endangers public health to promote fracking"
"Americans protest fracking as Obama cheers for it"
"France may ban fracking, cites US disasters"
The last story came true.
France and Bulgaria banned fracking technology out of fear that it could poison drinking water or cause earthquakes. Defenders of shale gas extraction allege that Gazprom has secretly funded anti-fracking films, reports and movements. Gazprom denies these charges.
But, last week, in a speech to Russia’s Duma, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned about shale gas, saying: "Our country’s energy companies absolutely have to be ready right now to meet this challenge."
USA BAD — USSR GOOD
Much of RT’s reports have that back to the future feel.
I feel it is the spring of 1975, and I am trapped in that windowless basement classroom, deciphering a report by an Izvestia reporter who took the A train to Harlem for a story: "Race Relations in the United States."
Checking the Documentary section of RT site, I find their April offerings:
Murder, spies & voting lies: After the 2008 election, Americans and the world must wonder, why did we endure eight long years of George Bush? As the curtain gets pulled back on W’s dark legacy, election fraud can be seen as the precursor to all the other Bush crimes. Hijacking votes and putting the wrong man in the White House may have been ignored by the media, but the blogosphere decried it and independent filmmakers, etc., etc.,
Drugs and Death at Bagram: The mystery surrounding the death of a young US soldier which begins under a fog of foul play and drug abuse ultimately reveals a growing controversy around the use of the anti-malaria drug Lariam in this complex and eye-opening documentary. On July 12, 2004 Army Specialist John Torres was found dead in a latrine at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. His death was ruled a suicide, but members of his…, etc., …etc.,
The Thomas Miller-El affair: Thomas Miller was 34 when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. After escaping 10 times the death corridor, he is today 61 and has spent almost half his life behind bars. In 2005, after analyzing new facts, the Supreme Court of the USA cancels the death sentence. But the State of Texas does not want to accept its failure. Either Thomas Miller goes back to court and will, no doubt…, etc., … etc.
Wow – pretty depressing stuff!
But no worries, RT readers, there is a special place in the world:
Soviet files: star squad: The documentary marks the Cosmonautics day when on April 12, 1961 the first manned space flight took place! Everyone knows his name. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. But there were 19 people more – the members of the first cosmonauts squad. What did they have to endure before the first human being flew into space? What happened to them afterwards? Find out the secrets of the Soviet space…, etc.
Leaders and Healers: They say that there was a magic pill that could cure any illness and prolong life. But only the Soviet leaders had an access to it. Get inside the Kremlin walls and learn what the heads of USSR used to eat and drink, how they protected themselves from illnesses and what their main phobias were. Meet the doctors, chefs and close relatives of people who ruled the state and find out all…
RT seems to wish we were back in the USSR.
Behind the scenes, there is growing, selective admiration among many Russian for the Soviet Union.
But wait, RT has more for us.
USA – RUSSIA RESET? NEVER HEARD OF IT!
For the last three years, Moscow and Washington have tried to follow the "reset" policy of finding areas of common ground.
Skipping around the RT website, it’s hard to find a trace of that policy. This is rather strange for a channel that is supposed to be Russia’s calling card to the English-speaking world.
RT site visitors can download free cartoons by Vladimir Kremlev. His strong anti-American themes indicate that he aspires to follow in the footsteps of Boris Yefimov, whose 90-year career spanned American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. Yefimov’s depictions of American presidents as cowboys with dollar signs on their 10-gallon hats were icons of the Cold War.
RT visitors also can enjoy anti-American diatribes by non-Russians.
For example, Juha Molari, a suspended Finnish Lutheran pastor, writes in his RT blog, under the headline: ‘Who Does NATO bring security to?"
He wrote: "Walking to the subway station in I Itäkeskus, Helsinki, I could see that the eastern expansion of NATO did not brought security to all: a Roma beggar from Romania knelt cap in hand, asking for money…"
Or, there is Thom Hartmann, billed by RT as "America’s #1 progressive radio show host." Last week, his "Big Picture" talk show on RT included these programs:
"Shoot first, prosecute later: Thom looks at why it’s easier to kill on the streets of Florida than on the streets of Baghdad. Also… Thom looks at the latest from the 1 percent’s war against the middle-class."
"Trickle-down austerity: Thom looks at how the Republicans have been working tirelessly to destroy our economy…and in tonight’s "Daily Take," Thom looks at how America has gone insane and the rest of the world knows it."
Meanwhile, back in the world of public diplomacy, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wrote a soothing note in a key foreign policy essay in late February, just before he won Russia’s presidential election. Titled "Russia and the Changing World," Mr. Putin wrote: "In general, we are prepared to make great strides in our relations with the United States, to achieve a qualitative breakthrough, but on the condition that the Americans are guided by the principles of equal and mutually respectful partnership."
Once again, the great thing about Kremlin-funded RT is the deniability.
Kremlin interference in the RT newsroom would violate freedom of press in Russia.
This summer, I can imagine Kremlin guys and gals boogying late into the night to the bad boy lyrics of Shaggy, the Jamaican-American reggae rapper world famous for his 2000 hit single: "It Wasn’t Me, It Wasn’t Me."
James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.