“On-air Propaganda”: How Russia Weaponizes TV Shows

June 7, 2024
Russian TV shows have become a platform for anti-Western propaganda and militaristic narratives.

Propaganda of values of the so-called «Russian world» is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that goes beyond news programs or political talk shows. Many examples of propagandistic narratives can be found in Russian entertaining TV programs ー comedy and reality shows.

They influence public opinion in Russia through "politically correct" people`s stories, humour, statements made by the TV presenter or even general conditions illustrated in the program. As a result, spectators internalise propagandistic messages through entertaining content that appears, at first glance, unrelated to politics. 

"Russia is the sole keeper of traditional values"

Russian propaganda employs the topic of so-called traditional values as a tool to pit Russia against the West. According to this, Russia advocates for creating "normal families" and increased birth rates, whereas people in the West are too egocentric and undermine "family values" by promoting gender equality and defending LGBTIQ+ rights. TV shows also do not support or promote this narrative among the Russians.

The first example is a Russian TV show called "Mom in 16". Though similar shows have been broadcast in other countries and are problematic according to its topic, in Russia the show was renamed "Mom in 16", which de-facto normalises teenage pregnancies.

Though the show demonstrates vulnerable teenagers who often face poverty, domestic violence, toxic relationships or have family members with an alcohol addiction, there are even no mentions of gender-based violence prevention, the possibility for women to achieve self-realisation outside of the family, contraception, or abortion. In turn, these programs create a discourse in which teenage girls can become "mothers" and wives. 

In contrast, the show "Mom in 45" claims that it "breaks stereotypes about women after 45". However, this is also far from women's empowerment, as the show also demonstrates women whose real "life mission" is to be a good wife and mothers. This show also constructs a specific gender order that binds women to so-called traditional gender roles and disseminates the idea that women must aspire to nothing more than to remain patient at home even in spite of conflicts and economic hardships. 

The explanation for such a narrative is simple. Russia has officially declared 2024 as "The Year of Family". On 9 November 9, 2022, Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed a decree titled «On Establishment of Policy Frameworks on Keeping and Strengthening of Traditional Russian Moral Values».

According to it, the "activities that promote refusal from the natural continuation of life, strong family, marriage, having many children and destruction of the traditional family through the propaganda of unconventional sexual relations" are defined as "propaganda of alien and destructive ideas for Russian people".

It also defines the activity of human rights NGOs and mass media affiliated with Western countries, in particular the USA, as a threat to Russia. Another crucial aspect here is that trust in the government and serving the state are equal to so-called traditional Russian values.

Therefore, it can be seen how Russia creates an opposition with the West through the construct of values and promotes it through mass culture and entertaining programs. Though previously mentioned TV shows don`t directly disseminate anti-Western narratives, they are a part of the ideology of the so-called "Russian world" that presumes people stick to rigid gender norms and comply with the rules of the government. 

"We have to fight with the malign Western influence on the youth"

Another example of Russian anti-Western narratives in reality shows focused on "re-educating" young people who face various personal problems. In Russia, these shows disseminate ideologically correct messages and make teenagers taking part in such shows internalise them. 

Such an approach can be seen in the TV-show "College". Its concept is that «problematic» teenagers are taken to a special re-education program that will help them find understanding in their families and develop personal potential. However, in Russia, it is done in a specific manner ー children are taken to a Soviet school with all its attributes: interior, identical school uniform, isolation from the Internet, and gender-segregated classes. 

In its turn, the TV host reiterates the message that their parents, who lived in the USSR, were happier and held different values than those brought up in the West. Another crucial aspect here is that children are put under pressure, aiming at the unification of their identities.

According to the TV shows, "problematic teenagers" are not only those who have addictions or have been involved in criminal activities, but also those who dress casually, deviating from the "traditional gender roles", or prefer to live a "Western lifestyle". In this way, the show not only plays on the nostalgic feelings of some spectators but also indirectly disseminates the narrative that Soviet times were better due to their isolation from the West.

"Russia has its own way"

TV-shows that play with the narrative about "the special Russian way" through humour are not a new phenomenon in Russian mass culture. Long before 2022, various Russian comics pitted Russia against the West or mocked the West for its "weakness" or liberal values. However, as the Russian full-scale invasion began, the jokes became more militarized and, in some cases, turned into threats to the Western world.

For example, the New Year's edition of the sketch show "Once in Russia" not only mocked US politicians but also reinforced the narrative that Western sanctions are menial to Russia. In addition to this, it appealed to the idea that the world can't be safe if Russia doesn't live normally. Therefore, the TV-show indirectly repeats statements made by Russian politicians and propagandists threatening the world with the war, but does this in an entertaining format that makes it more accessible.

"Everyone can join the army"

The final example of the weaponisation of the Russian mass culture illustrates the general militarization occurring in Russian society. Propagandists systematically constructed a narrative that Russia is "surrounded by enemies" and, thus, has no other choice but to protect itself, even if that means launching an expansive war against neighbouring countries. Therefore, propagandists encourage Russians to join the Russian army using different approaches and entertainment is not an exception.

The TV show "Female Soldiers" illustrates this. However, Russian propaganda systematically discredits Ukrainian women in the AFU and claims that women cannot be good soldiers. One of the Russian channels produced a TV show in which young women volunteer to serve in the Russian army. The show was filmed with the support of Russia's Ministry of Defense in Crimea, which has remained under Russian occupation since 2014 and had been turned into a military base for further attacks on Ukraine. 

There are different examples of normalisation of violence and expansionist actions ー participants joke that they are going to Syria, and the general tone of communication is humiliating in nature. However, all these things are normalised with the words that anyone can "honour the motherland". Upon analysing this show, it is worth mentioning that it is not so much about encouraging women to serve in the Russian army, but about aiming to recruit more men in an attempt to humiliate those who have yet to sign up, showing them that if even "weak" women can be soldiers, why haven't they. 

To conclude, Russia systematically uses mass culture to persuade broader audiences to consume its ideological narratives. Though entertaining content seems harmless, in Russia, it has been converted into a platform that promotes militarism and anti-Western propaganda.

Dzvenyslava Shcherba
Journalist and Analyst at Internews Ukraine