In the days before and after Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, the Russian press provided extensive coverage of the American transition of power (see Table below). Based on a reading of all articles on Donald Trump that were published in eight leading Russian newspapers in the period from January 18-25, 2017, this post assesses the image of the new American president and administration in the Russian press. Five major conclusions emerge from this assessment.
First, in comparison with Russia’s broadcast media, which are, with very few exceptions, tightly controlled by the Kremlin, newspapers offer a far more complete and nuanced picture of world affairs.[i] In fact, during the week under review, many Russian newspapers published stories relating to the American transition of power that cast the Russian government and even President Vladimir Putin in an unfavorable light. An article on the Women’s March on Washington on January 21 informed readers of a button on sale with the slogan: “Trump, Putin: Make Tyranny Great Again.”[ii] Other versions of anti-Trump signs on display in Washington that were mentioned in the Russian press contained messages such as: “Putin’s Puppet,” “Kremlin Employee of the Month,” and “Welcome to the New Russia.”[iii]
Russian newspapers in this period also provided detailed accusations of Russian government attempts to undermine the integrity of American elections. To be sure, the more sycophantic newspapers prefaced or followed such accusations with dismissive comments, and all publications tended to bury the lead on these stories. However, a discerning reader of the Russian press had plenty of evidence to develop a sophisticated understanding of the claims being made about Russian involvement in American elections as well as the unusual affinity of Donald Trump toward Russia and the Russian President.
One of the most widely-covered stories during Inauguration week concerned the seemingly offhand comments made by President Putin at a news conference in the Kremlin with the visiting president of Moldova. Seeking to squelch rumors that Trump’s infatuation with Putin and Russia was due to kompromat [compromising material] that the Russian government had on the new American president, Putin claimed–somewhat improbably–that because Trump was not a political figure when he stayed in Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013, it would not have occurred to the security organs to have entrapped him. Feigning outrage, Putin then noted that persons who would make such accusations were worse than prostitutes. As if to establish his own bona fides as a nationalist politician who had little time for political correctness, he quickly added that he could, of course, see how someone could be tempted by Russian prostitutes, given that they are the best in the world.[iv]
Second, the Russian press framed the deeply polarized nature of current American politics in terms borrowed from the post-communist experience. It was a classic example of mirror imaging–the tendency to read one’s own experience into the affairs of others. With the streets of the American capital filling with demonstrators on the day after Trump’s inauguration, numerous articles raised the specter of an American Maidan, a reference to the post-election uprising in Kiev that led to the overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich.[v] Others compared the Women’s March to the massive protests that occurred on the streets of Moscow in December 2011, in the wake of Russia’s controversial parliamentary elections.[vi]
The specter of the traditional American Establishment rising up against the arrival of an unwelcome populist, and possibly removing him from office, was a central theme in Russian press coverage during Inauguration week.[vii] Some articles relied on fake news from American sources to support this assertion, including accepting at face value hoax ads that offered to pay demonstrators from $50 to $2500 to join protests against President Trump.[viii] Such accusations would have resonated with Russian readers, who had been subjected to similar claims about rent-a-crowds participating in color revolutions in post-communist states.
Third, if the Russian press during Inauguration week was united in its criticism of Barack Obama,[ix] it revealed a deep ambivalence about the future of US-Russian relations and about Donald Trump as the new American leader. On the one hand, Russian newspapers published American polling data and man-on-the-street interviews from Washington that revealed favorable opinions toward Russia.[x] At the same time, many newspapers cautioned their readers against assuming that Trump’s pro-Russian rhetoric would easily translate into a resolution of issues that divided the two powers, from Ukraine to sanctions and Syria to nuclear arms. Alongside references to Trump as a pragmatist or “our man”–#Trumpnash, meaning “Trump is Ours,” was a Twitter handle mentioned in one story–there were efforts to lower expectations by preparing the Russian population for a long struggle for pre-eminence among different factions in the American political establishment and even within the Trump White House itself.[xi]
Fourth, where there was considerable uncertainty in the Russian press about the prospects for a Trump presidency, there was a clear consensus among Russian commentators that the world was entering a new, turbulent, and potentially dangerous era. For one, Trump’s harsh comments on China threatened to upend Russia’s own fledgling partnership with its populous neighbor.[xii] This undercurrent of discomfort, if not alarm, in stories about developments outside of Russia is something of a paradox. For years, Putin had been seeking to replace the American-dominated international order with a multi-polar world. Now that this more pluralistic and dynamic order appears to be on the horizon, the Russian press is warning the population to fasten its seat belts.
Russian observers cited approvingly Trump’s rejection of the role of “world’s policeman” for the United States, as well as his apparent willingness to consider dividing the world into spheres of interest.[xiii] However, several articles suggested that the old ruling class would not fade easily into history. One article noted that Obama-era threats against Russia were part of the “agony of an Anglo-Saxon elite that for 200 years had been setting the tone for democracy and serving as the main arbiter of morals.”[xiv] Another compared the hapless position of American liberals to that of the Russian bourgeoisie on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution.[xv]
Some commentators used the occasion of the change of American administrations to remind readers of Russia’s position as a defender of Christianity and traditional values at a time when the West was moving rapidly toward a post-Christian future.[xvi] Thus, to nationalists as well as religious conservatives in Europe and the United States, Russia was offering itself as a bulwark against globalism and atheism, while for Christian minorities in the Middle East, Russia held itself out as the Protector of the Faithful, a role reprised from tsarist times.[xvii] Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s insistence on January 18 that Russia was “very concerned about the departure of Christians” from the Middle East was followed several days later by a similar statement from Donald Trump in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.[xviii]
Fifth, and finally, the Russian press revealed its preoccupation during Inauguration week with the symbols and rituals of American power. Newspaper articles offered detailed descriptions of everything from the desk in the Oval Office to the two Bibles on which President Trump swore the oath of office.[xix] Although these articles may have satisfied the curiosity of readers about ceremonial niceties, they also–perhaps unwittingly–pointed out the contrasts with the succession process in Russia itself. Descriptions in the Russian press of President Obama voluntarily transferring power to an adversary, Donald Trump, and then departing the ceremony in Marine One, the presidential helicopter, would have reminded some Russian readers of the gap between their own political traditions and those in the West. In short, both supporters and critics of the Russian president would have found evidence in the Russian coverage of American Inauguration week to sustain their points of view, an illustration of the limits of Putin’s control over his country’s “information space.”
[i] For a sophisticated essay on the collapse of the American dream, see Anna Krotkina, “Svoi paren’, khotia i milliarder,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 15.
[ii] Elena Chinkova, “‘Svobodu Malenii!’–protiv Trampa vyshli ‘pussi-shapki’,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 4.
[iii] Aleksandr Panov, “Ves’ Tramp–narodu!” Novaia gazeta, January 23, 2017, pp. 12-13. This publication is the most prominent opposition paper in Russia.
[iv] Andrei Kolesnikov, “Voskhozhdenie po Trampu,” Kommersant Daily, January 18, 2017, p. 1.
[v] Putin himself raised the specter of an American Maidan in comments to the Russian press. Kira Latukhina, “VVS, ser!” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 19, 2017, p. 2. See also “Zhdet li Trampa svoi Maidan?” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 3; Aleksei Zabrodin, “Demokraty opasaiutsia sdelki po Ukraine,” Izvestiia, January 20, 2017, p. 3; and Dmitrii Egorchenkov, “Nezhno-rozovyi Maidan,” Izvestiia, January 24, 2017, p. 6.
[vi] One prominent Russian politician compared America in recent years to the period of “stagnation” experienced by the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Igor’ Ivanov, “Tramp i Rossiia,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 8.
[vii] See, for example, Eduard Lozannskii, “Nastali budni,” Izvestiia, January 23, 2017, p. 6.
[viii] Igor’ Dunaevskii, “Nepyl’naia rabotenka,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 19, 2017, p. 8.
[ix] Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev insisted that Obama’s destruction of relations between Russia and the US will be remembered as his “worst foreign policy mistake.” Elena Kriviakina, “Dmitrii Medvedev: my ne bananovaia respublika! SShA etogo ne uchli,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 21, 2017, p. 2. One correspondent noted that “all that will be needed is a single meeting between Putin and Trump to bring down the wall of disinformation, moratoriums, sanctions, and lies that Obama had constructed.” Oleg Shevtsov, “Chto Tramp griadushchil nam gotovit’,” Trud, January 20, 2017, p. 1.
[x] Aleksei Zabrodin, “Izmeneniia nachnutsia priamo seichas na etoi zemle,” Izvestiia, January 23, 2017, p. 3; Georgii Asatrian, “Konservativnye i religioznye amerikantsy poliubili Rossiiu,” Izvestiia, January 23, p. 3. One journalist even noted that Russians’ newfound attachment to an American president could help them overcome their desire to be needed in the world again, a sentiment identified by Eduard Limonov, the Russian radical writer, in 2014. Dmitrii Ol’shanskii, “Pochemu nash chelovek poliubil Donal’da Fredycha,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 24, 2017, p. 4.
[xi]Mikhail Zubov, “Itogo za nedeliu,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 20, 2017, p. 2; Igor’ Dunaevskii, “Kogo slushaet Tramp,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 8. For the views of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, see Ekaterina Zabrodina, “Dozhdemsia inauguratsii Trampa,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 5. In general, Trump received very favorable press in Russia, though one interview with a handwriting expert reported that Trump’s handwriting indicated that he had an authoritarian personality. Dar’ia Zavgorodniaia, “Grafolog–o pocherke Donal’da Trampa: u takogo cheloveka stil’ pravleniia–avtoritarnyi,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 23, 2017, p. 5.
[xii] Among the many articles warning of tensions in the triangular relationship among Russia, China, and the US, see Vladimir Skosyrev, “Si Tszin’pin opasaetsia druzhby Putina s Trampom,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 13, 2017, p. 1.
[xiii] Ibid.; Pavel Tarasenko, “Pobednyi sorok piatyi,” Kommersant Daily, January 21, 2017, p. 1;
[xiv] Elena Chinkova, Abbas Dzhuma, “Eks-postpred SShA pri OON Samanta Pauer: Koshmar–vse bol’she amerikantsev doveriaiut Putinu!” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 19, 2017, p. 4; Fedor Luk’ianov, “Ochevidnoe–neveroiatnoe,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, January 20, 2017, p. 8.
[xv] Mikhail Rostovskii, “Pryzhok k neizvestnost’,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 21, 2017, p. 1.
[xvi] Iurii Paniev, “Tramp ne vyzyvaet v Moskve ni opasanii, ni vostorga,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 8.
[xvii] Foreign Minister Lavrov argued that the so-called “liberal” values of the West had led to a massive exodus of Christians from Iraq and Syria. Edvard Chesnokov, “Sergei Lavrov: blizhnevostochnyi krizis–rezul’tat ‘eksporta demokratii’,” Komsomolskaia pravda, January 18, 2017, p. 3; Andrei Kortunov, “Chem opasno ‘vechnoe vozrashchenie’,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 24, 2017, p. 9; and Mikhael’ Dorfman, “Iskupitel’naia missiia Trampa,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, January 18, 2017, p. 14.
[xviii] Liubov’ Glazunova, “Lavrov rasskazal o tufte i feikakh,” Moskovskii komsomolets, January 18, 2017, p. 3.
[xix] Edvard Chesnokov, Aleksei Osipov, “Vmeste s Trampom v Oval’nyi kabinet v’ekhal Cherchill’,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, January 25, 2017, p. 4.