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Head of Russia Today: "I dream of us being like China" in information control

Just last week, Vladimir Putin declared that Russian doesn’t “intend to be isolated,” in response to questions from Russian cosmonauts about the economic sanctions. “It is impossible to severely isolate anyone in the modern world – especially such a vast country as Russia.”

That doesn’t mean that Putin’s propaganda machine won’t try. Appearing on state-owned Russia 1 TV, Russia Today editor in chief Margarita Simonyan says she has dreamt of the day when Russia would cut off all outside sources of news and force Russians into total isolation. “We should not allow the rollback to the approach of ‘let all flowers grow’,” Simonyan insists, and the return of the “naiveté” since the fall of the Soviet Union.

If they can’t get the Soviet Union back, maybe they can just be China Jr, Simonyan says:

They would tell me “what do you mean? Do you want us to be like China?” Yes, I very much want to be like China! I dream about us being like China!

Er … dream big, baby.

This raises a handful of key points, both at home and in Russia. For one, this settles the whole question of RT America’s purpose, no? Most of us understood that RT America was nothing more than Putin’s propaganda franchise here in the US, but some people in the US not only followed Simonyan’s narratives but got jobs promoting them. That all came to an end six weeks ago when Putin’s invasion made the contradictions too obvious to sustain. The declaration by Simonyan, who has run RT since 2005, that she’s been dreaming of China-like information control and propaganda makes it clear what RT’s purpose has been all along.

Simonyan’s potshot at YouTube is especially laughable, though. RT and RT America had its propaganda all over YouTube for years. That may not have been Simonyan’s main strategy for penetrating American audiences — I believe some cable and satellite systems carried their programming live — but YouTube made RT/RT America practically ubiquitous. Her complaint appears to be that she wanted everyone but Russians to access YouTube in order to get presented with her version of the truth. Now, this could be just some sour grapes aimed at YouTube in particular after the platform stripped all RT/RT America content from its archives. However, given her long-held desire to isolate Russians from any outside content, Simonyan couldn’t have expected her YouTube strategy to remain in place forever anyway.

The biggest issue that raises, though, is what happens in Russia now that the masks have fallen on Putin’s propaganda machine. Until the invasion of Ukraine, Russians got big doses of state-platform propaganda and many may have preferred it. Now that Simonyan and others are declaring their intention to completely isolate Russia and go back to the days of the Soviet stranglehold on information, will Russians simply agree and comply? It’s one thing to prefer state propaganda, but it’s quite another to cheer your own information imprisonment after thirty years of “let[ting] all the flowers grow.” The former is a choice, while Simonyan’s ambition means removing all choice entirely.

Simonyan’s prescription won’t succeed anyway. Even in the pre-Internet days of the Soviet Union, the party bosses never did completely control access to true information. The West’s radio programs made sure of that, and later fax machines made it easier to avoid censors. Russians will remain connected to the Internet at some level for their own external propaganda and espionage efforts, and they don’t have the expertise than China does in setting up an isolated-reality environment within it. And these days, even Beijing is having trouble controlling narratives, especially in the Shanghai crisis.

The very declaration that Putin needs that kind of isolation from the world in order to succeed at home will likely push destabilization further along. If and when Putin goes, Simonyan should be worried about a lot more than just getting a pink slip from her propaganda platform.