Once a bear, always a bear?

A survey conducted on behalf of the Russian government in 2003 revealed the once grand empire’s lacklustre reputation at the dawn of the second millennium. The survey asked respondents to name ten things they associated with Russia. Topping the list were communism, the KGB, snow and the mafia. The association exercise also fell short of hopes for Russian brands, molotov (cocktails) and kalachnikov (rifles) being the only ones that could immediately be recalled by most. Flush with oil money, Russia has made a concerted campaign to change this once and for all… and break the Anglo-Saxon media’s stranglehold on news.

The Kremlin has funnelled millions into a war chest of new public diplomacy tools, including foundations to promote Russian language and culture and conferences to charm Western opinion-makers. The signature initiative of this new PR push, however, was the launching of the English-language television station RT in December 2005, which has since been followed by RT America, as well as Spanish and Arabic language services.

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Led by the 33 year-old former Kremlin pool reporter Margarita Simonyan, the network’s success has astonished sceptics. According to RT statistics, the channel is now carried by 22 satellites and over 230 operators, which allows some 630 million people to watch the channel in more than 100 countries. The channel also claims over seven million viewers across Europe, including around two and a half million in the UK. In the United States, it is reportedly the most-watched foreign TV channel in five key U.S. urban markets, competing with state-television heavyweights such as Al Jazeera.

Known as Russia Today before its reimaging in 2009, RT sells itself as an autonomous, non-profit organization providing a unique Russian perspective on world affairs, but its 300 million dollar budget is funded by the federal budget of Russia through the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications. Simonyan, however, dismisses this criticism, pointing out that many countries have state-financed television geared towards foreign audiences, even in the West (BBC, France 24, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America…).

From the outset, critics expected RT to be nothing more than a revamped mouthpiece for Kremlin propaganda, but the station has ingeniously garnered a faithful following in the West with its “Question More” campaign, which sells it as a sort of counter-hegemonic outlet rejecting the truisms propagated by mainstream Western media. For others, however, RT is a crudely-disguised weapon in Putin’s diplomatic arsenal.

RT has bolstered its viewership by signing big names, such as Julian Assange of Wikileaks and former CNN talk show host Larry King, and securing exclusive interviews with reclusive political leaders such as Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An aggressive online presence has also made the name increasingly ubiquitous. RT boasts that it is the first TV news channel in history to reach 1 billion views on YouTube and has amassed over 1 million followers on Facebook.

Despite claims of systematic bias, RT maintains that its editorial line is independent of the Kremlin and that the outfit covers hard-hitting domestic issues. Indeed, coverage of domestic issues often features unique angles. This summer, as Russia launched a trade war against its neighbour Ukraine and threatened the country with bankruptcy, an RT story featured a senior MP in Russia’s Duma de-masking the EU’s pseudo-colonial machinations for the country. In the wake of Russia’s anti-gay law, the network ran a story on the thriving gay community in Russia. The journalist ended the piece with a uniquely personal touch, saying: “Don't understand? Then come visit... Russia is not always what the Western media depicts. If it was, this gay 34-year-old journalist from Liverpool wouldn't happily live here."

It’s not yet clear if Russia’s rebranding efforts have made much of a dent in Western perceptions of Russia. For the moment, however, the Russians seem to be convinced that money spent on RT is money well invested.

Holmund is a management consultant and freelance writer currently based in New York.