MOSCOW — At around noon on Monday, the thousands of journalists, editors, photographers and designers who make up RIA-Novosti, a leading state-run news conglomerate, found out they no longer exist.
The news came in true Russian fashion — via a decree posted on the Kremlin's website announcing that RIA-Novosti had been unceremoniously "liquidated."
"It's like breaking up on Facebook," one editor said, still in shock hours after the decision had been announced. Even the conglomerate's editor-in-chief, Svetlana Mironyuk, wasn't warned.
The lack of press freedom in Russia is regularly denounced, and the dominance of the state in everything from television to news agencies highlighted. But the reality on the ground is often much more nuanced — RIA, in particular, had managed to carve out a place for real reporting. Its English-language news wire, recently revamped, had become a trusted source.
Certain topics were always off-limits — as the chief media sponsor for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, criticism of the Games was a no-go. Last week, its English wire came under pressure from the Kremlin for running a story citing a new poll that showed Vladimir Putin's approval ratings reaching near historic lows. Those instances shocked journalists working at RIA, particularly because they felt relatively free in what else they could report. As Russian state television alternately mocked and played down the spiraling protests in Kiev, RIA was all over them. Their court reporting service, RAPSI, regularly live-blogged controversial court hearings, including the entire Pussy Riot trial.
Now they are no more. The news agency is due to be shut down within three months, replaced by something called "Russia Today," not to be confused with the Kremlin's English-language TV channel of the same name. Under a second decree, the Kremlin named as its head Dmitry Kiselyov, perhaps the most propagandistic, anti-Western, pro-Putin "journalist" currently operating in Russia. (His only close competition for that distinction comes from Arkady Mamontov, who creates "documentaries" for state-run TV with the sole purpose of denouncing Putin's perceived enemies.) Once a believer in objective journalism, Kiselev decided after experiencing Ukraine's Orange Revolution firsthand that it was "absolutely uncalled for" in the post-Soviet space, and that Russian journalists' job was to "create values." He has led the state media's campaign to downplay events in Kiev and has become the most public media figure calling for tougher anti-gay laws in Russia. "I think banning gay people from distributing propaganda to children is not enough," Kiselyov said on TV last year. "I think they should be banned from donating blood or sperm, and if they die in a car crash, their hearts should be burnt or buried in the ground as unsuitable for the continuation of life."
On Monday, Kiselyov said on Russian state TV that his task was "the revival of just relations between Russia, as an important country in the world [which has] good intentions." No one quite knows what that means. The RIA editor said he simply expected "rabid gay-bashing and whataboutism."
The space for free media in Russia has been steadily shrinking since Putin returned to the presidency last year and launched a crackdown to rein in unprecedented opposition to him, evincing an ever-growing paranoia. Kommersant, once a leading newspaper, last month removed a story from its website highlighting the fancy homes owned by government officials. Gazeta.ru, once a leading website, is now little more than yet another propaganda outfit. The strike against RIA is the most dramatic — Kiselyov's appointment ensures it will become nothing short of rabid propaganda.
Some opposition-minded Russians welcomed the move — saying it's easier to battle your enemy when he stands clearly in front of you (they had faulted those Russians who work at RIA for collaborating with the Kremlin). But Yury Saprykin, a respected editor and commentator, wrote on Facebook: "Yes, of course, 'it's become clearer' (as if it wasn't before), and 'this way is more honest' and 'systemic liberals' now can't build socialism with a human face with their back to the GULAG — but the only result of this clarity will be that it will significantly increase the amount of evil that kills our nerves and steals time from our lives, and we have but one life."
It's also likely not only Russians who will have to suffer — expect the anti-Americanism that has become a hallmark of the Kremlin in the past two years to only grow under Kiselyov.