Russia. Big bad scary Russian. Corrupt Putin. Poisoning and disappearing of dissidents. These are the tropes that play out in western media as Russia remains an important facet of building American and western identity and values. Western media fuels the dichotomy between Russia and “the West” by emphasizing the ills of the country within social, economic, and political structures. Westerners actively internalize the media they consume about Russia, reinforcing this idea of western superiority and backwardness of the Russian Federation. This media attack is nothing new for the Russian Federation, as propaganda precedes the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the media capitalizing on the Cold War and villainization of communism. The Red Terror is still relevant within our daily lives, as western society demonizes communism and states they perceive as communist.
It is integral to American identity and their position as a unipolar power to ensure that the media coverage of Russia in the west depicts Russia through a negative and damaging lens. This is not to say that what the west reports on Russia is fully wrong, but it omits and misconstrues the realities of the Russian political and economic institutions, in addition to the perceptions of the peoples. Russia has become the boogey man within western media, both news and popular media. Movies, TV shows, and national/international news stations ensure that the coverage of Russia reminds the consumer that Russia is inherently different and corrupt; therefore, their actions at all levels cannot be trusted.
The disparity in the coverage and the omissions made by the western and international media are evident in regard to the Ukraine crisis, with half-truths and one-sided coverage developing the position of western audiences (Russia also pushed their own narratives). Russian perspectives are localized to the post-Soviet sphere, and international statements by Putin are dismissed as self-interest and corrupt, as Putin’s international image is one of a strongman who refuses to give up power or adhere to democratic ideals. Western media’s consistent portrayal of Russia and Putin has allowed the rampant oversight of important facets of the conversation to maintain their power structures and images to their audiences.
Navalny is the most prominent example of this oversight, as he is hailed a hero to the west for challenging the corruption and anti-democratic nature of Putin’s Russia. His bravery is touted by western media as they valorize him as the challenger to the corruption of Putin and his anti-democratic values. Putin is cast as the villain who only maintains power through the murder and disappearing of political opponent; his opponents are lauded as righteous in the face of evil. While Putin is not perfect and certainly engages in political suppression through violent means, the valorization of Navalny undermines the inherently violent nature of his perspectives. Navalny’s history of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-immigration, and racist sentiments have been long documented, yet a majority of western media and leaders refuse to incorporate this into their analyses. Having not denounced these perspectives, the assumption is that Navalny still holds them, yet he is lauded as a courageous and righteous man pushing for democracy and what is right against a corrupt system in Russia.
Navalny represents an important figure for western politicians, as it creates the conditions to undermine Russia on the world stage, thus allowing for these leaders to capitalize and attempt to dismantle Russia’s power. Western media serves as a tool to not just report on the wrongdoings of Russia but create momentum and international outrage to validate oppression and undermine the legitimacy of the government. Navalny’s past and perspectives outside of challenging Putin remain unimportant to the broader purpose of valorizing and uplifting him. Omissions and the misconstruing of his character are essential to creating a narrative that makes Navalny a hero and Putin the bad guy. I’m not saying that poisoning and disappearing political dissidents isn’t wrong; I’m saying that deifying anti-Putin politicians as inherently on the side of morality is just an evolution of anti-Russian/Soviet propaganda and a means of maintaining a system in which Russia is suppressed.