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Why Russians watch TV news they don't trust

Woman dusts TVs in shop, with Putin on screen Image copyright Getty Images

Many Russians entirely disbelieve what television news tells them - but keep watching anyway. Why?

It was dark by the time I arrived at Svetlana Bogdanova's flat on the first floor of a Soviet-era building in the centre of St Petersburg. The communal entrance hallway smelled the way I remembered Russian blocks smelling in my student days - of warm dust and cat fur.

The apartment was cramped - a corridor leading to a narrow living room with an old television set in the middle and an upright piano at the far end.

Svetlana fetched a little wooden box from a glass-fronted bookcase. Inside was a small hunk of bread.

"My grandfather saved this in 1942," She told me. "He passed it on to my father, who passed it on to us."

She lifted the bread out of the box and placed it carefully in my hand, one day's ration from the dark days of the Siege of Leningrad, when hundreds of thousands of people died, many from cold and hunger.

I sniffed it. It didn't smell of bread at all - more like the pages of an antique book, or perhaps the inside of an Orthodox church, suffused with centuries of candle wax and incense.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption The authorities in St Petersburg have raised the possibility of a return to bread rationing

The reason Svetlana was showing me her family heirloom was because recently the authorities in St Petersburg have ordered plans for bread rationing to be drawn up in case of a national emergency.

This has been accompanied by ever more alarmist reports on television suggesting that Russia is under threat from America. During recent nationwide exercises, citizens were told to locate their nearest nuclear bomb shelter.

"I don't watch TV any more," Svetlana told me, giving a disdainful nod to the 1990s-model set in the middle of the room. "With our memories, they think we're easily scared," she said. "I think they want to remind us how bad life once was, how bad it could be again, so that we think: 'Hmm, perhaps things are pretty good the way they are.'"


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Television is a powerful tool here. During his 16 years in power, Vladimir Putin has consolidated his control over the networks.

In a recent survey, 88% of Russians said that TV news was one of their main sources of information. But here's a funny thing - at the same time 31% of respondents said they thought they were being completely misled by the information provided.

That means that about one in five Russians choose to watch the news on TV, while at the same time believing that news to be a lie. How to account for that?

Image copyright Courtesy of Alexander Dugin
Image caption Tsargrad TV editor-in-chief Alexander Dugin promotes a Russian Orthodox view of the world around the country and beyond

I found one answer in the old Soviet Telegraph headquarters on Tverskaya street in Moscow. I remember that building from my student days, too - waiting for a suspicion-looking clerk to place a foreign telephone call through the central desk to a little wood-panelled booth. Today it houses the studios of Tsargrad TV, a religious network that broadcasts its Russian Orthodox view of the world around the country and beyond.

I met its editor-in-chief, Alexander Dugin - long grey beard, corduroy suit, fluent in English and French, and in the concepts of Western philosophical movements from the Enlightenment to postmodernism.

"Everything is relative," he told me. "We in Russia could use postmodernity in order to explain to the West that if any truth is relative, then we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept."

Mr Dugin's contorted Orwellian logic is influential in Kremlin circles, though not necessarily among the masses.

Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist, gave me a different interpretation.

"People are not looking for news as such," she said. "They are looking to decipher a system of signals - who is on air today and who was yesterday, what is the intonation, the choice of words. It is important to understand all this, because it helps you survive if you are dependent on the state."

Image copyright Getty Images

And so, Russians are hyper-attuned to what the state is thinking. Even children.

I went to see some old friends - a couple living in a modern Moscow apartment, albeit in another old Soviet block. Instead of the smell of warm dust and cat fur, I was greeted by the aroma of the Texas Barbecue Burgers they'd got from a nearby takeaway.

As we sat around the kitchen table eating our dinner, we got talking about how the annexation of Crimea had divided families. Then they mentioned something their nine-year-old son had said to his mother the other day: "Papa's not right you know, when he says bad things about Putin."

Where had he got that from? Not from school, they thought. It wasn't that kind of place. And they're careful about what they let their kids watch on TV. So where? They couldn't quite figure it out. The Kremlin, it seems, is in the ether, and its influence filters down in unfathomable ways.

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