Contradictions in Russian media’s rush to demonise Baltic States

Denisenko, who researched a sample of Russian periodicals between 1991 and 2009, concludes that the Baltic States appears in the Russian media quite regularly and the predominantly negative tone of that reporting has not changed very much due to geopolitical developments.

While there were hints in the early 1990s that the fledgling democratic voices in Russia sympathised with the Baltic striving for freedom, it is Lithuania’s, Latvia’s and Estonia’s total rejection of the Soviet period that most offend the Russians.

DELFI speaks to Denisenko about his research.

What is the dominant image of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the Russian press?

In general, it is negative. Negative messages dominate, but they are not all there is. In my research, I discovered positive elements, although they are too scarce to outweigh the negatives.

You say in your dissertation that Russia looks down on the Baltic States. Does Russia see itself as a big power and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as inconsequential dwarves?

Indeed, especially when they are covered in the negative light. Judging from my research, views on the Baltic states in Russia do not even depend on geopolitical developments, they are more deep-rooted. It dates back to the Soviet times: other research shows that the Baltics were always looked upon as different among the Soviet republics.

On the one hand, they were more Western, an image of the West within the Soviet Union. On the other hand, they were sites of post-war resistance, therefore the Baltic countries were seen as hostile and unreliable territories.

When it comes to the period between 2000 and 2009, the Russian press is full of stories about the “bad” Baltic countries choosing another way, betraying Russia which had built all industry in the Soviet years. The narrative is basically this: the Baltic States destroyed everything and defected to the West. Hence, they are fickle, unreliable and opportunistic.

In 2008, when the global downturn hit Lithuania and Latvia, the reactions were noticeably gleeful: now they’ll see how bad capitalism actually is. They had it coming – that was the general mood.

Russians particularly resent the fact that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia reject the Soviet period and are very critical about it. Is it seen as anti-Russian sentiment?

Yes, it is a very interesting aspect. Let me start from a little further back. In 1991, we had the January 13 events, January 20 in Riga, the Medininkai checkpoint massacre in Lithuania – in that year, the conflict between the Baltic States and Moscow, as the centre of the Soviet Union, was greater than ever.

But at the same time, the Russian Federation, as one of the Soviet republics, was also considering its own sovereignty and, essentially, was on the same side as the Baltics. Young Russian democrats, like Boris Yeltsin, supported Baltic aspirations.

My research focused on three newspapers: Argumenty i Fakty, Izvestiye, and Komsomolskaya Pravda. These cannot be said to have been free publications, but they were free enough in the 1990s. So here views about the Baltic States were not unambiguously negative: sometimes there’s a sense of Russia also trying to lose the communist yoke. So in 1991, the image of the Baltic States was not all black.

Later on, however, the Russian Federation takes over the Soviet Union’s place and this affects views on the Baltic States.

In general, Russia had never been a democratic country and in 1991 it made the first attempt to build a modern democratic Russia. Prior to 1917, there was the Russian Empire, and afterwards, Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union, which in a way reconstructed the outlines of the former empire. It had a different ideology and didn’t call itself an empire, but maintained similar relations between the centre and periphery.

In 1991, Russia tried a different path, but experience showed that it needed to come to grips with its history. This is true for all post-Soviet countries, including the Baltics.

It is easier for us, we treat the Soviet period as occupation and identify with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the 1918 republic. In Russia’s case, things are more complicated. The Bolsheviks in 1917 rejected the Russian empire, but the Soviet Union under Stalin re-appropriated part of the imperial history, especially Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great narratives. In part, it was a way of coming to terms with history.

In 1991, Russia once again had to confront its history. If it rejected the Soviet period completely, it would mean taking out 70 years of its history. It was almost natural to treat the Soviet history as part of Russian history, to see it in a positive light.

So in 1991, you could see attempts to balance the acceptance of the Soviet period and condemnation of Stalin’s repressions. The Russian press in 1996 had stories where you could find acknowledgement of the Baltic occupation.

Today’s Russia has completely embraced the old Soviet narrative, which maintains that the Baltic States joined the USSR voluntarily and were not occupied. That’s the only view in Russia’s public discourse these days.

This partly explains the negative attitudes in Russia towards the Baltic States: they reject the Soviet period, which is part of Russia’s history.

Russia is also trying to reconstruct the narrative of the USSR as a strong and powerful state, one that the world listened to. The Baltic States are associated with the myth that they were the ones that destroyed the USSR.

This myth is still alive?

It still exists and is occasionally revived. But if you say that the Baltic States destroyed the USSR, that makes them powerful players. And in Russia, treating the Baltic nations as powerful is very unpopular. The more popular view is that they are a collapsing province of the European Union and NATO. Still, both these hardly compatible myths exist side by side.

Sometimes you can read in the Russian media, with much glee: look, those same Baltic States that destroyed the USSR will now derail the EU.

It seems that the Baltics are relatively important for Russia, if they get so much attention?

I was surprised, too, when I started researching. I had imagined that periodicals in Russia only report on the Baltics when there are some geopolitical tensions. One cannot say that there is exceptional interest, but news from the Baltics come with some regularity. It’s not abundant, but regular.

In part, it can be out of habit. For instance, out of the three periodicals I researched, only one, Arguymenty i Fakty, did not have a reporter in the Baltic republics. In 1991, both Komsomolskaya Pravda and Iszvestiye had one in each of the Baltic countries.

Did attitudes towards the Baltics in Russia change after Vladimir Putin came to power?

My general observation is that geopolitical developments have had no substantive impact on attitudes towards the Baltic States, which has been and remains negative. If you count positive and negative stories, you see that in 1996, when Russia was still trying to build democracy, the Russian media reported on the Baltic countries more negatively than in 2000, when Putin established his power.

True, Putin in 2000 was not seen as a potential dictator. It was around then that George W. Bush said he saw Putin’s soul in his eyes. It was a signal that everything was fine with Russia. Moscow supported the US war against terror. Even in 2003-2004, when the Baltics joined NATO, there was not perceptible negative hype. Judging by the media, Russia took it pretty well.

Sure, there were voices saying that Moscow should have prevented the Baltics from joining NATO, that it was a strategic defeat – but even these voices were not all that vociferous.

A surge in negative reporting is perceptible in 2008-2009. It was related to the Bronze soldier story in Estonia as well as the Baltic support to Georgia [in the 2008 Georgian-Russian war]. Russia did take note of the Baltic backing of Georgia.

You will recall that Baltic and Polish leaders went to Tbilisi while the war was still going on. There were even talks that the presence of leaders of four NATO countries could have stopped Russians from marching to Tbilisi and overthrowing President Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime.

On the other hand, the Baltic States were mocked by the Russian media: they were referred to as the Baltic dwarves or inconsequential independent states.

Do the Russian media have most and least favourite politicians in Lithuania?

Lithuanian politicians were more often interviewed in the period between 1991 and 2000. Vytautas Landsbergis is among the most vilified politicians. However, there are both very negative and rather positive publications about him in 1991.

Landsbergis is usually demonized, called nationalist. In Russia, “nationalist”, “Nazi” and “fascist” is used almost interchangeably.

President Algirdas Brazauskas was treated quite neutrally by the Russian press. [Prime Minister] Kazimiera Prunksienė was seen rather positively and interviewed often.

Valdas Adamkus was more often than not treated negatively, he would be called Russophone.

Reactions to Dalia Grybauskaitė are quite interesting. When she was elected (in 2009), there were some positive takes, since she graduated from the same school as Dmitry Medvedev, she studied in Russia. She was said not to be a Russophobe, a practical person who did not engage in politicizing. Things changed dramatically later on.

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