Joseph Barker is History editor at Sonder. He is a final year History undergraduate at The University of Manchester, where he is also Head of Marketing for the Manchester Historian.
Nation, Ethnicity and Race in Russian Television: An Interview with Vera Tolz
“We will pursue [the terrorists] everywhere, wherever they may hide. We will find them in any spot on the planet and we will punish them.”
– Vladimir Putin, 2015
Russia’s intervention against Islamic State, in response to a terrorist attack which downed a Russian passenger jet on the 31st of October last year, killing 224 people, typifies the increasingly militaristic foreign policy pursued by the Putin administration in the post-Millennial era. Whilst Russian conflict against ISIS is justified as acting within the global ‘War on Terror’ political framework, it is Russian understandings of nationality, ethnicity and race have underpinned the previous conflicts initiated by Putin. The Russian state has justified its recent military interventions, which resulted in the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea territory in 2014, as facilitating separatist desires to be integrated within the Russian nation. As Putin’s Russia continues to present a growing threat to the geo-political stability of Eastern Europe, academic research investigating the portrayal of nation, ethnicity and race in modern Russian media has become an incredibly significant and influential field. To investigate this subject in greater detail, I interviewed Vera Tolz, Sir William Mather Professor of Russian at the University of Manchester, about her latest book, Nation, Ethnicity and Race in Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference, which places her at the forefront of this scholarship.
Tolz, herself a Russian national, initially studied Classics and Russian Studies at Leningrad State University in order to pursue her career ambition of becoming an academic.Her own dramatic experience of the Communist regime, she eloquently explains, molded her career: after marrying a dissident, the Soviet regime gave her 3 days notice to leave her home country permanently. Undeterred from pursuing her academic passion, she completed her Ph.D at Birmingham University, before becoming a Russian Studies Professor at the University of Manchester, via several academic posts in the United States and the UK. As an academic, Tolz explains, you have to “try to identify a gap in the knowledge“. In collaboration with Professor Stephen Hutchings, who co-authored Nation, Ethnicity and Race, she realised there was a distinct lack of scholarship addressing how television has been specifically used by Putin’s government to frame popular perception of the Russian national community. In general, Western studies of modern Russia have followed the ‘democratization theory’, which asserts that post-Communist Russia is ultimately working towards becoming a democratic state. This approach, Tolz argues, has produced a ‘flawed understanding’ of the Russian sense of nationhood. More specifically, the existing studies of Russian identity have assessed the impact of the elites within Russian society, whilst neglecting an analysis of popular perceptions among ordinary Russians. Therefore, Nation, Ethnicity and Race aims to breach this gap by analysing the Russian media coverage of specific events, in order to “illuminate wider themes” of modern Russian identity.
Nation, Ethnicity and Race begins with an assessment into how broadcasters strive to manage issues “arising from ethno-cultural difference” within national news reports, which reflect the interpretation of Russian identity forwarded by the Putin administration. The second part of the book focuses upon how these ideas are played out in the periphery of the Russian cultural sphere, before Hutchings and Tolz examine the changing attitudes to Russian national identity during Putin’s controversial third term as president in the text’s third and final section. Of the variety of case studies explored in this work, Tolz described her research examining media coverage of the Manezhnaia and Pussy riots, which occurred in 2010 and 2012 respectively, as providing the best illustrations of how the Putin government could “produce coverage which is very effective in manipulating public opinion”.
The murder of Spartak football fan Egor Svridov during a late-night altercation with a group of men from the North Caucus’ on 6th December 2010 rapidly spiraled into a series of ethnically motivated riots across several Russian cities, the most prominent of which occurred in Manezhnaia Square Moscow. Television coverage of these riots provides great insight into the operation of state-controlled media in Putin’s Russia because they were entirely unanticipated by the government. As a result, Tolz says, “Russian state television didn’t have a blueprint” to follow in their reporting. The contradictory framework that subsequently emerged across Russian media is exemplified by Russia’s main TV channel, Channel 1, which initially claimed the riots were in no way racially motivated. Following the emergence of YouTube clips showing attackers beating people with darker skin, Channel 1 proceeded to contradict their original stance by “depicting young Caucasians behaving aggressively and in a highly asocial manner on Moscow streets”, in order to shift blame to the Caucasian population. NTV and RenTV similarly stereotyped minority communities “according to the ‘ethnic criminality’ lense”, which encouraged further violence among different Russian ethnicities. Following government condemnation and down-playing of the riots, Russian state-media followed suit. Incredibly, Tolz says, despite reporting these events with live footage just months previously, by the end of 2011 Russia’s two main TV channels completely denied the riots had even occurred. The unexpected Manezhnaia riots therefore created a crisis within the Russian media, as Putin’s government had not clarified its political stance regarding these national events. Tolz concludes that the subsequent contradictions among television coverage, exposed by channels attempting to simply “sweep the problems under the rug”, exposes how the Russian media is extensively managed by the state in order to pursue the Putin administrations’ current political agenda.
By comparison, Russian television coverage of the Pussy Riot demonstrated what Tolz calls “the enormous power of state-controlled television if they have time to plan”. On the 21st of February 2012, 5 members of the Russian feminist punk rock group ‘Pussy Riot’ entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, before staging a protest performance against President Putin and his increasing links to the Russian Orthodox Church. Although several previous protests by the group had been ignored, Russian state-media deliberately used this particular event, insists Tolz, as a “political tool” to promote Russian national cohesion against the ‘Other’ in society. The media firstly went to incredible lengths to promote the Church as a supremely sacred place, which consequently depicted Pussy Riot as the “ultimate act of desecration” and its participants as individuals located, as Tolz says, “beyond the bounds of normal, mainstream, Orthodox society”. The persistent animal imagery used to describe the rioters in television coverage similarly served to associate the event with groups alien to the Russian people, despite members of Pussy Riot being ethnically Russian. Moreover, despite international condemnation of the arrest of the rioters and their subsequent jail sentences, Putin validated the Russian media’s interpretation by claiming the band had “undermined the moral foundations” of the nation and “got what they asked for”. These actions collectively served to validate conflict with ‘Otherness’ in Russian society, which could easily be politically applied to issues of nationality, ethnicity and race. By contrasting the Manezhnaia and Pussy Riots, Tolz illustrates how state-controlled television is used in Putin’s Russia to manipulate public perceptions Russian identity. The internal influence of television, in putting race and nation at the forefront of the media, has subsequently enabled the Putin administration to justify its aggressive foreign policy against Ukraine and Georgia in national, racial and ethnic terms.
Overall, Tolz’s valuable insight illustrates how historical knowledge of the portrayal of nationality, ethnicity and race within the modern Russian media is hugely significant. For anyone with an interest, academic or otherwise, in today’s Russia, Nation, Ethnicity and Race in Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference provides both the specific details and broader themes which are fundamental to understanding the future politics and foreign policy of Putin’s Russia.
 Kathrin Hille, ‘How Putin managed Russians’ grief over Isis jet bombing’, Financial Times Online Article, (November 19th, 2015).
 Lawrence Whitehead, Democratization: Theory and Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 18.
 Stephen Hutchings & Vera Tolz, Nation, Ethnicity and Race in Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference (Oxford: Routledge, 2015), p. 18.
 Tolz, Interview.
 Hutchings & Tolz, Nation, Ethnicity and Race, p. 98.
 Hutchings & Tolz, Nation, Ethnicity and Race, p. 104.
 Tolz, Interview.
 Michael Weiss, ‘Pussy Riot’s Prison Break’, Newsweek, (20th December, 2013).
 Hutchings & Tolz, Nation, Ethnicity and Race, p. 215.
Hille, Kathrin, ‘How Putin managed Russians’ grief over Isis jet bombing’, Financial Times Online Article, (November 19th, 2015).
Hutchings, Stephen & Tolz, Vera, Nation, Ethnicity and Race in Russian Television: Mediating Post-Soviet Difference (Oxford: Routledge, 2015).
Tolz, Vera, Interview with Joseph Barker, (2nd December, 2015).
Weiss, Michael, ‘Pussy Riot’s Prison Break’, Newsweek, (20th December, 2013).
Whitehead, Lawrence, Democratization: Theory and Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).