Today I visited Bolghar, the ancient capital of the medieval kingdom of Greater Bulgaria. It is well worth a visit if you are ever in Kazan. The most fun way to get there is by steamer, a 2 hour trip on the Volga. It is possible to do it as a day trip though this does mean leaving Bolghar at 4pm, which is painful if you are a photographer as, in the summer at least, this is just when the light is getting good.
The medieval kingdom of Greater Bulgaria flourished between the 7th and 13th centuries. It was eventually overrun by the Mongols. At Bolghar there are a number of extant mausoleums and minarets. The main historical-architectural museum, situated on the shore of the Volga, contains a significant amount of material from the kingdom of Greater Bulgaria, as well as from the subsequent Khanate, which arose after the Mongol invasion. The museum is very well-presented, though many of the richer items seem to have been transferred to museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Anyway, well worth a visit.
While I was there, and busy photographing one of the minarets, I was accosted by a young man. He had a smartphone camera and a tripod. I’d seen him taking photographs. He asked me where I was from. England. Then he asked if he could ask me a few questions. I.e on camera. Ok. Why not I thought; my principle is to try most things and I thought it would be good practice for my Russian language skills. He set up the interview and asked me why I’d come to Bolghar, did I like it and then, what was I doing in Russia. After this he asked me about coronavirus. Wasn’t I afraid? About half way through this I started feeling unsure; something didn’t feel right. Of course; I hadn’t asked him where he was from and he hadn’t told me. (That he hadn’t told me is contrary to customary journalistic norms; the norm is to say something like “Hello, we are from the BBC can we ask you a few questions?” I suppose “Hello, we are from the CIA can we ask you a few questions?”, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it).
It turned out he was from Radio Liberty who are broadcasting (on the web) in the Tatar language.
Radio Liberty is funded by the US State Department. The project was originally started by the CIA. Radio Liberty broadcasts American propaganda into Eastern Europe and Russia in local languages. It is the direct equivalent of RT, the station funded by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which broadcasts in Europe, America and the Middle East. In fact the two stations are not identical. RT’s editorial policy is to broadcast negative stories about the West and positive stories about Russia. Radio Liberty, on the other hand, has the constant theme of trying to undermine the confidence of Russians in their own state, essentially trying to foment another Maidan. A typical story might involve an interview with a hard-pressed mother of a disabled child complaining that the government spends all the money on arms leaving none left for social payments.
This little interview with its questions about Tatar culture and whether the interview subject is ‘afraid’ of Coronavirus has 2 propagandist purposes. Firstly, there is soft propaganda. The Republic of Tatarstan has special status in the Russian Federation. After the collapse of the USSR Tatarstan considered making a bid to be an independent state but ultimately settled on a special relationship with Moscow. There is still a (very small) minority who seek independence. Broadcasting in the Tatar language about Tatar culture is a clear attempt to exploit this division. (Imagine RT launching a service in Welsh about how Westminister does not care about Welsh people). Secondly there is hard propaganda. The question about whether I am ‘afraid’ of coronavirus is perhaps designed to elicit the giving voice to some fears. Even if only some of the respondents do that is enough to sow the seeds of instability.
This wasn’t an interview. It was a very carefully crafted and completely cynical piece of propaganda.
When I got home I briefly reviewed the US government propaganda operation in the Tatar language. As I expected it is clear that a major aim is to exploit any feeling of resentment in the Republic of Tatarstan towards Moscow and try to drive a wedge between people and Moscow, fanning the (very slight) embers of independence. For example, the US State Department site claims that the Tatar language was “downgraded” in schools and claim that their offerings in the Tatar language are a response. (Moscow steals from you; we give). It is true that the number of hours of compulsory Tatar language in schools in the Republic of Tatarstan has been reduced recently (from 2 hours to one hour). I would imagine that the reason is people understand, including the elected government of Tatarstan who approved this change, that in the modern world it is more useful for young people to learn other subjects. The Tatar language remains on the curriculum; it is often spoken at home, and many signs in the city of Kazan at least are in the Tatar language. I live in the Republic of Tatarstan and I can attest that there is no campaign against Tatar culture or language. In fact the complete opposite; Tatar culture is widely celebrated at an official level. Of course there are some people in Tatarstan who feel aggrieved by this change and the State Department is simply trying to fan the flames here.
As for the question about coronavirus. One can only look on with a sense of irony as the British press publishes outraged stories about how Russia may be exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to destabilize the West. Are these journalists really able to delude themselves that the US is not doing precisely this to Russia? (One of the items on the Tatar language site is an “opinion poll” which “reveals” that “95%” of respondents don’t trust the official statistics on coronavirus). Or, are they so rabidly imperialistic and tribal that they really think that when the US does this it is ‘true’ and good, and when Russia does this it is propagandistic and evil?
One shouldn’t react to all of this. Unlike RT which practices good reportage albeit with a twisted editorial line Radio Liberty is clearly in the realms of extreme fiction. It is insulting to people in this Republic to think that they would fall for this crude propaganda.
As a second footnote we note that their “journalist” (in fact spy) can operate freely in Russia and their cynical websites can be viewed by anyone. So much for the lack of media freedoms in Russia.
[The above is an extract from my Russia diary to be published in 2022]