The media environment in Russia is not good right now. Readers of RuNet Echo are already familiar with the high-profile attacks on TV Rain, Russia’s only independent television channel, as well as legal threats against Echo of Moscow, the country’s most popular radio station, and Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most famous political blogger. All of these cases involved some utterance published online that politicians and conservative media figures deemed offensively unpatriotic. TV Rain ran a poll asking viewers to assess abandoning Leningrad to the Nazis in World War II; Echo of Moscow published an article by Victor Shenderovich, comparing aspects of the Sochi Olympics with the 1936 Berlin Games; and Navalny made a cryptic joke about an assassinated judge in Ukraine, quipping that the same might await Russian judges.
While Russians can debate how offensive they find TV Rain, Shenderovich, or Navalny, beyond dispute is the prominence of the TV station and these two men in Russian politics. In that regard, for all the senselessness of modern Russia’s witch-hunt against supposed “traitors,” a certain logic guided the process of targeting persons and institutions.
Last week, the logic seemed to break down, when popular Russian TV and radio journalist Vladimir Solovyov dedicated an entire radio show [ru] to dissecting and denouncing the Maidan-supportive tweets of a handful of students from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. (See Sultan Suleimanov’s detailed report on this scandal, in Russian.) Yulia Arkhipova suffered the brunt of Solovyov’s attacks, villified (in absentia) for being a homosexual-loving Ukrainian citizen.
Solovyov appears to have learned of Arkhipova thanks to Vitalii Milonov, the St. Petersburg city councilman infamous for launching Russia’s original legal crackdown on “gay propaganda” in 2011. Milonov engaged Arkhipova a day before Solovyov’s radio show, mocking her concerns about wounded protesters in Kiev [ru] and holding up her ‘misplaced’ worry as an example of Russian higher education’s failings. When Arkhipova later taunted Solovyov, writing [ru] on Twitter that “specially for him” she had donned traditional Ukrainian clothes and cradled her Russian passport in her pocket, Solovyov responded by saying [ru] that her “soul remains rotten,” despite the wardrobe change.
Why did Solovyov hound a group of unknown university students over a few Ukraine-related tweets? Arkhipova herself theorized that Dmitri Kiselyov—a recently promoted, pro-Kremlin journalist who regularly shocks liberal society with assaults on the Russian opposition—has raised the bar for loyalty in the Russian mediasphere. Solovyov has long been a Putin-supportive polemicist, but his regular antics pale in comparison to Kiselyov’s, who made Milonov look like Harvey Milk, when (in 2012 on national TV) Kiselyov angrily championed burning the hearts of gay car accident victims. Popular journalism and public debate in the era of Kiselyov have become wildly sensitive to the two main tropes of Russian liberalism: criticism of the Kremlin and praise for the West.
While Solovyov may have been upping the ante by taking the good fight to twenty-somethings on Twitter, the larger objective was of course the Higher School of Economics, which Milonov has condemned [ru] as a “nest of liberalism.” In other words, the logic guiding Russian reactionaries may not have disappeared after all.
In the meantime, “Vyshka” (as the university is known colloquially) has done its best to remain above the fray in this controversy. On February 21, 2014, the school’s Facebook page published a note [ru] calling Solovyov’s behavior a “provocation.” The post also included a photograph of Mark Twain, with the quotation: “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”