“Trump is Ours!” My interview with Russian state TV expert Julia Davis
It matters when Russian state TV calls Putin ‘our Vozhd’
By Michael McCord
If you wonder how grotesque Fox News/Trump TV might be as American state television, Russian state TV offers the template. Julia Davis keeps a close eye on Russian state TV and since last year I’ve followed her voluminous Twitter communiques (via @JuliaDavisNews) about an almost indecipherable subject to most Americans. She is a Russian TV whisperer for American ears — or as she says on twitter “I watch #Russia state TV so you don’t have to.”
The Los Angeles-based Davis knows the terrain. An American who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union republic of Ukraine, she is fluent in Russian and Ukrainian with a Masters in Engineering from the National Technical University of Ukraine in Kyiv (Kiev). Her resume is equally diverse: an independent journalist and film industry professional who owns her own production company and is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. She also served in the Department of Homeland Security as a customs and border-protection officer in California, where she and her family later prevailed in a government whistle-blowing case.
Since the 2014 annex of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine by Russia, Davis has made it her mission to highlight the constant flow of Russian state TV mendacity (she runs a web site called RussiaLies.) Davis told me on busy news cycle days, she watches 4 to 6 hours and 1 to 2 hours on slow news days. She has annoyed Russian state media because, in her assessment, Russian media really doesn’t want the West to pay attention to propaganda intended for domestic consumption. She has an undetermined number of Russian trolls keeping track of her. “It comes with the turf,” she said. (A 2014 attack on Davis was included in a Digital Forensic Research Institute story on bot attacks posted in Medium last year.)
Though she’s no stranger to media coverage and commentary, I asked her recently if mainstream media outlets reached out to her for her perspective on Russian state TV in the era of the Trump-Putin bromance. “Not often enough,” she replied. I was curious to find out more about what Russian state TV tells us about Putin’s dictatorship, the recent election, its geopolitical insecurities and its bizarre, quasi S/M relationship with Donald Trump. This piece is the result of multiple emails exchanged during the past week.
MM: What’s your initial take on the recent Russian election?
Julia Davis: Russia is predictably jubilant over (Vladimir) Putin’s so-called “election victory,” which in reality was a foregone conclusion. Noteworthy commentary was made by Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief: “Putin used to be just our president and could be replaced. Now he is our Vozhd. And we won’t let him be replaced.”
“Vozhd” is an outdated word, usually reserved for Communist leaders (Stalin, Lenin) and chieftains of aboriginal tribes. It could also be equated to “Fuhrer” or “Il Duce” and it signifies Putin’s message which he sent via the head of the Kremlin’s bullhorn — that he intends to remain in power indefinitely.
How has Russian media reacted to the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal and Great Britain’s blunt response?
The Russian media is reacting to the Skripal poisoning in the same way it usually does to conceal Russia’s complicity. The coverage in the Skripal case is similar to the way they’ve been covering Crimea, Ukraine in general and the MH17* incident. Their defense mechanisms include concocting and disseminating a myriad of conflicting conspiracy theories, to muddy the waters of public opinion. There are at least 15 conspiracy theories (as of March 16) about the Skripal case, currently circulated by the Russian state media. I’ve been collecting them on my Twitter thread. Where there is smoke, there is fire — and behind the smoke of the Kremlin’s stories there is quite a fire indeed.
(* Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014 killing 298 passengers and crew.)
What does it tell you when Russian commentators say ‘Trump is Ours!’?
“Trump is ours” is a popular expression in Russia. It could be interpreted as “he is on our side” or “we own him.” The Russians firmly believed that once Trump came to power, he would withdraw the sanctions and give Russia a free reign in Eastern Europe and Syria. They weren’t wrong in the sense that he would do it, if he could. They’re still making excuses for Trump and waiting for him to act in their favor. I’ve heard “Trump is ours” many times on Russian state TV. I would refer to that as sinister trolling and braggadocio. I would compare it to the murderer sending letters to the newspapers. Do they want to be caught? No. They just want us to know they’re getting away with it. The excuse of “just kidding” doesn’t cut it when a crime has been committed and the joker is the prime suspect.
How is Trump portrayed on Russian TV?
On Russian TV, Trump is being portrayed as a weak, inexperienced, clownish individual, under siege by the U.S. Congress and “the deep state.” The Russians ridicule Trump, but nonetheless continue to support him. They aren’t giving up hope that someday, Trump will deliver whatever they desire. The fact that meaningful sanctions have yet to be imposed by this administration isn’t lost on them either. Many Russians continue to believe that Trump is on their side…(he) is not seen as one of Russia’s opponents, while the U.S. is openly considered a foe. He is perceived as an ally in the enemy’s camp and is portrayed accordingly.
How does Russian media cover the Mueller investigation?
The Russian media portrays it as a witch-hunt with no factual basis. The way the Russian media presents the Mueller investigation is not dissimilar from the way Trump and his attorneys talk about it.
How did Russian state TV become the focus of your career?
Until 2014, my primary focus was on filmmaking, investigative reporting about crimes, government, corruption and civil rights. However, when Putin invaded Ukraine, I was dismayed to discover the lack of reporting on that topic in the U.S., which meant that a lot of news coverage was coming through the Russian English-speaking channel, RT, right here in the United States.
RT previously claimed to be an alternative media outlet that reported about fringe politics, global issues and government corruption, but everything changed after Russia annexed the Crimea. In one of her interviews, Simonyan admitted that RT was created as an instrument to be used by the Kremlin for its info-wars against the West. (Link to Russian language story)
She explained that it would be too late to start making weapons once the war has already started. Thus, RT was apparently crafted in advance and was masquerading as a legitimate media outlet, to be used as needed. Simonyan explained: “When Russia is at war, we [RT] are on Russia’s side.”
This became very apparent in 2014. In short order, the Kremlin’s bullhorn was weaponized, spewing out blatant propaganda and outright fakes. The dangerous malarkey that was being spread by the Russian state media about Ukraine and the West in general was simply stunning. Nothing was being done in the U.S. to counteract the stream of shameless fakery, prompting me to create the “Russia Lies” series. To avoid boring the reader with mindless minutiae of daily Russian fakes, I would hand-select only the most notable examples and debunk them — 20 at a time, for a current tally of 280.
However, this isn’t a numbers game. The main point was to expose the fact that the Russian state media cannot be trusted. As an American society, we’ve made big strides towards making that common knowledge.
How dominant is state media in Russia?
In Russia, the state media permeates all aspects of life. There are very few independent media outlets left in Russia and even that small number is steadily shrinking. Russian state media praises Putin and despises the West…the spin always benefits Putin’s Russia and makes it look stronger, smarter, better than any of its opponents. To create an appearance of objectivity, guests with opposing views are invited on some of the shows — only to be heckled, ridiculed and mocked. Even those dissidents allowed to disagree (without passing judgment on their sincerity) never dare to criticize Putin.
Fox News is steadily declining towards that uncharted territory, but they do have Shepard Smith — that kind of difference of opinions would not exist in the Russian state media, so there is still hope for us, Americans.
What stood out to you about Russian media coverage of the 2016 election & aftermath? Was it similar to Brexit or 2017 Dutch, French, & German elections?
Russian media coverage of the 2016 election concentrated on opposing Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. In that sense, you could draw the parallels between Russian coverage of elections in other Western countries, as well as Russian coverage of Brexit. In all instances, the Russian media rejects the mainstream and promotes the fringe (left or right). The initial coverage of the U.S elections made it apparent that the Russians expected Trump and Sanders to lose, preparing to exploit that to their advantage by fomenting conflict, organizing protests, etc. The coverage repeatedly complained about the unfairness and futility of the U.S. voting system. Towards the conclusion of the race, the Russian media firmly latched on to Trump and after he was elected, they were ecstatic.
What programs do you keep an eye on and why?
I concentrate on the most popular news programs on the Russian state media: daily news programs on “Vesti,” a weekly program “Vesti Nedeli” with Dmitry Kiselyov, “Evening With Vladimir Solovyov” and “60 Minutes” with Olga Skabeeva and Evgeny Popov, which airs 2 times a day, 5 times a week. I think “60 Minutes” is giving Kiselyov and Solovyov a run for their money, because the hosts are young and even more brazen than garden-variety Kremlin propagandists.
Watching Russian state media in its native habitat is quite different than the Kremlin’s English-language outlets. Growing up in the USSR, we used to see our parents whispering about the politics in the kitchen, near to a boiling kettle, where no one else would hear. Likewise, the Russian state media doesn’t necessarily want the West to be aware of what they say at home. Solovyov was notably irritated by my reporting, complaining during one of his shows that their comments were “for internal consumption.” I think my reporting is waking up those Americans who might have thought at some point in time that Putin’s Russia is our friend or has the potential to be an ally. Nothing could be further from the truth.
What did you think about Megyn Kelley’s recent interview with Putin?
I thought it was unnecessary. What is the point of giving Putin a platform within our own media? There is no chance he’ll suddenly start telling the truth. Putin merely used it as an opportunity to promote his own worldview and engage in “whataboutism.” This interview was actively promoted by the Kremlin. I think that speaks for itself.
What’s the likelihood & extent of Trump/Russia collusion?
I’ll let Mueller do the talking. In my opinion, the odds are in his favor.
Michael McCord is the author of the Real America political satires The Execution Channel: A Political Fable and the forthcoming sequel End Times: More Great Adventures in Real America. @mmgolfer & michaelmccordauthor.com