To many Russians, Putin’s annual news conference and wildly popular question-and-answer program are “circus,” a mix of entertainment and politics. This month, Putin added another tool to his repertoire: a weekly prime time series following his daily activities. The hour-long “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin” program treats viewers to a week in the life of Vladimir Putin — on holiday in Siberia, visiting hospitals and speaking with teenagers.
It turns out Putin isn’t the first world leader to have his own television show: Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez hosted a popular talk show, as did Bolivian President Evo Morales and former Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa.
But what is the purpose of these programs, and why do we care?
By disguising politics as entertainment, the Kremlin is seeking to boost Putin’s image and popularity even as protesters take to the streets en masse — and to do so in a way that encourages Russians to actively tune in and listen to the regime’s message.
Politics as entertainment is important to Putin
All governments struggle with the task of keeping their populace engaged in politics. This is particularly true for nondemocratic regimes — such as present-day Russia — where the state controls the vast majority of the media landscape. When the news media are unable to offer a variety of perspectives, viewers are less likely to tune in and to buy into the government’s message. Thus governments face a dilemma: how to persuade people to pay attention to the government’s message without sacrificing control of the political conversation.
The solution? Make politics entertaining. This means continuing to advocate the government’s narrative but with the addition of big-budget productions, famous figures and an air of spontaneity. The Kremlin has been particularly successful at using this strategy. “The Direct Line,” Putin’s annual call-in broadcast, consistently boasts more than 40 percent viewership among adults in Russia, despite taking place during the middle of a workday. By contrast, the more politically conventional President’s Address to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s equivalent of the State of the Union address, typically has a viewership of less than 20 percent, according to Levada Center estimates.
Putin’s new television aims for even higher viewer numbers. It airs during prime time and opens with a dramatic sequence that promises original, “never-before-seen footage,” giving an “exclusive” look at the country’s most popular figure.
Keeping citizens engaged with the government’s message is particularly important during times of uncertainty or opposition. The timing of this show is interesting: The first episode aired the evening after thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest an unpopular pension reform plan, with 89 percent of Russians taking an unfavorable view of the plan. More than half, 53 percent of Russians, were ready to protest the proposed reforms in August, according to the Levada Center.
Putin had been riding on a wave of extraordinarily high approval since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, in the two weeks after the reforms were announced, his approval ratings fell by 14 points — from 78 percent to 64 percent — according to state-owned pollster VTsIOM. As a result, Putin is facing some of his lowest approval ratings since nationwide protests in 2011 and 2012.
Will “Moscow. Kremlin. Putin” succeed as a step to boost Putin’s failing image? The opening episode portrayed as a strong, virile leader “in great shape” — and someone who makes bears wary. And he comes across as the only one willing to “take responsibility” to enact necessary reforms for the country.
The show’s host, Vladimir Solovyov, interviews people close to Putin to assess their opinion of the president. In one segment, Pavel Zarubin, a journalist who accompanied Putin on a recent trip to Sochi, marveled at Putin’s stamina: “I do not understand how he maintains such a schedule, such a marathon. … It is physically very difficult.” In another segment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called Putin a “humane person” and praised the fact that “Putin doesn’t only love children, he loves people in general.”
But does entertainment politics work?
Messages such as these are meant to reinforce the idea that Putin is a strong, empathetic leader who cares for his people — and the only person capable of running the country. But do these messages prove effective in stirring public opinion?
My ongoing research suggests the answer may be “yes” … to a point. Preliminary data from multiple nationally representative survey experiments indicate that his support may increase among individuals who are already willing and ready to buy into the president’s message.
In other words, these strategies are most effective among supporters — but not so much for Putin’s critics. Indeed, such tactics may be counterproductive for critics of the regime. Being primed to think about propaganda efforts causes critics to double-down on their negative views of the government and decreases approval among these individuals. In short, propaganda has the potential to backfire against the regime.
Here’s why this may be problematic for Putin. If Putin’s ratings drop too low, such tactics could hurt the regime more than help by decreasing support among regime skeptics. While this scenario is still far beyond the Kremlin’s current situation — Putin’s approval ratings still hover around 70 percent according to the most recent Levada Center poll — it may give the Kremlin pause.
Too much propaganda can be self-defeating and backfire against the government. The big question now is at what point does even more attention to the president in a media environment already consumed with wall-to-wall coverage become too much?
Hannah S. Chapman is an assistant professor of political science and faculty associate in the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University.