Lunch with the FT: Kremlin media star Margarita Simonyan

The Kremlin media star on the world according to Russia

Margarita Simonyan, editor of the Kremlin-funded 24-hour news network RT and a cheerleader for Russia’s propaganda efforts in the west, has come prepared. When I enter Zharko!, the restaurant her family runs on the outskirts of Sochi, she is waiting for me armed with a beer, a tape recorder and her family for support.

“Behind that wall is the house where my mother was born,” Simonyan tells me. “She’s sitting over there.” Her mother and her aunt nod shyly from the next table. At 3pm on a Friday, the restaurant is otherwise empty.

We turn on our voice recorders simultaneously. “Everything you say will be used against you,” she half-jokes in Russian, which she has insisted on speaking during our interview despite her excellent English. Simonyan, 36, has mischievous eyes, a sharply upturned nose and is dressed casually in a rugby shirt.

Trust and truth are central to any discussion of RT, whose mission is to hold up a crooked mirror to what it sneeringly calls the “mainstream media” in the west. As the Ukraine crisis simmered in 2014, RT (originally Russia Today) busily reported stories from a seemingly parallel universe where evidence of Russian involvement was part of an anti-Russian conspiracy. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, called the network a “propaganda bullhorn [that] has been deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground.”

Where Russia’s domestic TV wildly twists the news, RT draws instead on an old Soviet device known as “what­aboutism” — as in, Russia is not so bad, you see, because western countries have committed misdeeds too, so why aren’t we talking about those? RT is also known for drawing heavily on guests from the extremes of the right and the left in the west who back up those suppositions. In our age of anti-establishment revolt, it now seems almost prophetic. Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn all regularly appear. Michael Flynn, the former US military intelligence chief who advises Donald Trump, sat two places away from Vladimir Putin at RT’s 10th anniversary party last year.

For those wreaking havoc on the post-cold war political structure, RT is a useful soapbox. For Simonyan, it is a way to strike back. “We are far less critical of western policy than western media are critical of Russia. When was the last time you read anything good about Russia? Anywhere? Name me one publication,” she says. “That’s why this cliché that Russia Today is an anti-western channel brings a smile to my face.”

Simonyan wants to see western distinctions between marginal and mainstream crumble. “I don’t see why you have the nerve to think that you know better than anyone how to run the world, and who’s marginal in the world and who isn’t. You’ve made so many mistakes, you’ve started so many wars in the last few years, destroyed so many lives, killed so many people, created so many problems.”

Simonyan’s partner, Russian-Armenian film director Tigran Keosayan, moves to our table and begins to roll a cigarette. Then Simonyan’s cousin Valeria arrives with a notepad to take our orders: “Do you want to see the menu, or do you trust me?”

I opt for the latter — but not without trepidation, given Simonyan’s taste for the exotic. In 2012, she announced on social media what she would be eating for dinner: “All told, I’m going to boil the beaver’s head with onion, carrots and bay leaves for the broth.” Russian social media mocked her mercilessly.

Television has always been central to Putin’s Russia: one of his first significant acts as president was to take TV news under near-total state control. Once that was done, Mikhail Lesin, the powerful adviser who masterminded the crackdown, devised RT to counter what the Kremlin perceived as biased western coverage. “The initial idea was to make a channel only about Russia,” Simonyan explains of the network’s inception in 2005. “It became clear very quickly that this idea was doomed to failure.” Viewership in RT’s early days was miserably low. Al Jazeera and France 24 hired away all the best staff.

A year in, Simonyan claims, she had a Damascene moment in her office, staring at the TV screens on the walls playing global news channels nonstop. “I noticed that mainstream western TV channels, especially CNN and ABC, show the same thing,” she says.

“It really ate me up inside. I realised that there are quite a lot of people in the world who don’t think that’s how it should be, so it probably makes sense to make something for them. Obviously if our audience is [only] Kremlinologists and Russia watchers, then that’s very few people.”

So RT began to show a strange cocktail of guests from the US left, European right and conspiracy theorists of every imaginable stripe. The move was, I suggest, a response to the prevalence in the western media of liberal Russian opposition figures with little popular support at home.

“It worries me that western journalists, especially British ones, call everyone they don’t like marginal,” she says. “When I read the western press I see: ‘Russia has to’, ‘Putin has to’, ‘They must’. This really irritates people in Russia because we don’t see your moral grounds to lecture everyone.”

If that’s true, I say, aren’t her channel’s efforts making the problem worse? “That’s total nonsense. Before there was any Russia Today, Putin got it on all fronts just as much and relations weren’t that much better.”

Valeria brings over the first appetisers: stewed vegetables, tomatoes and cucumbers with a dollop of sour cream, and some pugr, pickled and fried burdock stalks. “This is an absolutely local specialty,” Simonyan says in English.

Continuing in Russian, she tells me how the west’s hypocrisy is compounded by its leaders’ and experts’ failure to understand Russia. “Lots of them can’t tell the difference between borsch and shashlik.” Which, she explains, has rendered them unable to deal with Putin: “They’ve achieved the exact opposite of what they wanted. They don’t understand the mentality. And if they don’t understand it, they’re not able to predict the reaction.”

Still, the opprobrium has been a triumph for Simonyan: Putin awarded her a medal “for objectivity” after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Unlike Russia’s domestic state channels, RT is theoretically independent (though Simonyan does have a direct line to the Kremlin on her desk), a testament to the high regard in which she is held. She is young, female and ethnically Armenian, all rare qualities in Russian officials. She is also editor-in-chief of state news agency Rossiya Segodnya.

The dishes keep on coming. Valeria brings us dolma (minced meat wrapped in vine and cabbage leaves), chicken kebabs, Armenian flatbread stuffed with greens, khachapuri, a gooey Georgian cheesebread, stewed rabbit and grilled lamb ribs.

Simonyan opened the restaurant in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics as a high-end steak joint for the Russian elite, and sourced all the ingredients herself, testing the recipes out at home in Moscow. After the Olympics ended and the flow of visitors to Sochi petered out, the restaurant changed its menu in favour of cheaper, homely Caucasian fare. “We can’t let it close in the off season,” Simonyan explains, her tone softening. “My whole family works here. What, are they just going to eat potatoes from autumn through spring?”

Simonyan spent part of her childhood in America on a student exchange programme (annulled by Russia in 2014 as relations with the US hit their nadir). In her mid-teens, she lived for a year in Bristol, New Hampshire, a world away from Krasnodar, the regional capital where she grew up selling odds and ends at the open-air market after school.

“We had rats this big in our house,” she says. “We didn’t have heat or running water . . . The only toilet was outside, just a hole in the ground that the whole building used.”

In America the high school curriculum was so much easier than at Simonyan’s school in Krasnodar that teachers moved her up two grades. “In the 1990s children in Russia grew up very quickly. All the teachers told me, ‘You’re so mature, we can’t believe you’re 15’.” Simonyan’s parents — her father fixed refrigerators; her mother stayed at home — were convinced she would live a better life in the US and tried to have her host family adopt her. In typically bullish style, Simonyan refused: “They thought I’d stay there, bring them over eventually, and our family would leave this horror, chaos and poverty. I was offended. I said no and came back.”

In any case the experience had shattered TV-fostered illusions about the American way of life and its superiority to Russia’s economic turbulence. “That was probably the first time that I started thinking about how information, media and movies affect people’s opinions about things. For some reason, we in Russia think an entire country is different from what it’s really like. I basically started to feel that we’d been lied to.”

There’s an irony in Simonyan’s disappointment at discovering the gap between media portrayals of America and reality, I point out, given that this space is precisely what RT is so good at exploiting. How did someone so disappointed by TV end up working in it? “By accident,” she says. “In 1998 there was total chaos, hell, no money, and I’d just put a poetry book out.” Simonyan wangled a job at a local TV channel that paid her an unheard-of $20 a month.

From there, she rapidly shot up the ranks. At 19, she made her own way to Chechnya, without military accreditation, to cover the separatist war. By 22 she was a Kremlin correspondent for state television. Three years of following Putin and his entourage around earned her enough trust to see her appointed Russia Today’s first editor at just 25.

“I’m winding up bragging all the time,” she laughs. “Well, you’re asking how it happened, and I’m telling you how it was.”

Valeria brings over tea, cheesecake, apple strudel and croissants. I pick at the cheesecake. Simonyan orders two more beers.

She says she remained fond of America until Nato forces bombed Belgrade in 1999. By contrast, she says, “When the USSR collapsed, I was 11, and unlike many people, I don’t miss it.”

She turns to the next table. “Mama, do you miss the USSR?”

“I don’t miss it, but I’m nostalgic for my youth,” her mother replies. Her aunt chimes in: “I miss it!”

“Actually,” Simonyan goes on, “I also like America in a lot of ways. I have friends and family there, the food is good, at the end of the day. I really love American culture . . . In the 1990s we looked at America like a saviour. We proudly wore American flag T-shirts and caps. I learnt the Declaration of Independence by heart.”

Putin aides such as Vladislav Surkov are also fond of American culture, she says. “Surkov knows page after page of Allen Ginsberg, who never wrote a single rhyme or rhythm, by heart. I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” she says. Mikhail Lesin, RT’s founder, spent most of the past few years of his life living in mansions in Beverly Hills, before dying from unexplained blunt force trauma in a drunken stupor in Washington last November. “He played backgammon here with my grandmother, God rest his soul,” says Simonyan.

The circumstances of Lesin’s death led to speculation that he had been murdered by US or Russian secret services, or had joined FBI witness protection — though Simonyan demurs. “You might not believe me, but I really don’t like conspiracy theories,” she says.

Doesn’t her channel work towards precisely this, I counter, by appearing to give airtime to anyone who opposes US policy? “Believe me,” she says, “I’ve categorically forbidden everyone from inviting people who says nonsense or promote some unhealthy strange theories on air. But at the same time, if we only give airtime to the same people as the mainstream media does, it means it wouldn’t at all be clear why we’re doing this.”

For years RT ran a show called The Truthseeker that claimed the Boston Marathon bombing was a “false flag” operation and accused the US of funding “genocide” in Ukraine. It raised regulatory ire and was taken off the air (RT insist it was because it violated their own editorial standards). “The host of that show [Daniel Bushell] is a fellow citizen of yours, not mine,” Simonyan says. “Nobody censored him.”

We return to Simonyan’s pride at having been an early adopter of anti-establishment politics. So why, I wonder, aren’t more people watching RT? Though it claims to reach 700m people worldwide — in English, Spanish and Arabic in over 100 countries — the network attracts only 282,000 UK viewers a day (0.48 per cent of the total audience). RT is also proud of its presence on YouTube, where it was the first news channel to crack a billion views. “Let’s be fair, we don’t have cats and Beyoncé, but politics and news stories,” she says.

We have been sitting for three hours, and drunk four beers each. Keosayan tells me Simonyan’s work takes her away from literature. She explains that she has written several TV and screenplays, most of them under a pseudonym. “I get paid a lot more for them than I do at Russia Today.” But, she continues, “I really believe in what I do. I think it’s vital and I’m thankful to God that He gave me the chance to influence something in the world.”

I finally decide to ask the question that has weighed heavily on my mind throughout our lunch: how was the beaver’s head?

“Tough. Like bear,” Keosayan says. Simonyan (who didn’t eat it) leaps at the chance to correct my western hypocrisy, deploying a final piece of whataboutism before I leave. “We’re not used to it because it seems wild. You eat lamb. Have you ever seen a live lamb? It’s a sweet little fluffy thing that runs around. And you just ate its ribs right before my eyes.”

This article was first published July 29, 2016. The author, Max Seddon, is an FT correspondent in Moscow. The illustration is by James Ferguson.

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