Author: mappingmediafreedom

Media in Post Soviet Russia: An introductory lesson by Professor Elena Vartanova

Written by Moritz Schweiger


What defines the media system in Post-Soviet Russia? During our excursion to participate in the International Moscow Readings conference at Lomonossow University, we were privileged to get this question answered by dean Professor Elena Vartanova. In a 60 minute introductory lesson, she outlined the characteristics of the present Russian media system and its development during Post-Soviet-era.

The present Russian media system has been shaped by its transition from an all-embracing state suppression during Soviet times to unregulated liberalism during the 90ies. On December 26th 1991, the Soviet press law was readapted to a Russian press law, encompassing press freedom and the legalization of private ownership. Despite this first approach to Westernized systems, the Post-Soviet media, its directors and journalists, struggled in adapting a genuine Western media system due to several attacking questions. First of all, what is the typical Western media model? Is the PBS-focussed Nordic model more characteristic than the liberalized US model? Second, was adapting another established media system really the only way to go? According to Professor Vartanova, the political and media elites’ dull orientation on Westernizing the Russian media system masked a poor understanding of the complexity and dissimilarities of the post-Soviet society, which hindered a duplication of a Western model. What followed in the 90ies was a mixture of top-down imposed Western model characteristics (like liberalization, a press freedom widely respected by authorities and pluralism of opinions) on the one side and a lack of understanding and valuation for these principles among the Russian people/journalists on the other. The result that we see today is a media system, which eludes traditional classifications like Western or Eastern model, but rather symbolizes a particular Russian path: It is both centralized (e.g. on the level of national TV) and de-centralized (e.g. in the newspaper market), highly commercialized (with no PBS-balance to private media) and highly politicized (with media being divided into System Opposition and Government Media).


Besides general characteristics of the current Russian media system, Professor Vartanova also outlined four universal and Russian specific forces that drove the change of its media system: politics, the economy (market shifts and the globalization of media), digitalization and a distinctive Russian culture (determined by state paternalism and a general obedience to authorities). The result of this change was an extensive transformation of the Russian media: First, the transformation of media structures from vertical to horizontal concentration, from print to electronic media and from analogue to digital (with the Russian government postponing the switch from analogue to digital TV for already three years). Second, the transformation of media content from mainly positive news during USSR and a focus on negativity as a central news value (conflict, problems) during the 90ies back to a call for positive news since the 2000s. And third, the transformation of news practices like ethical values and an understanding of responsibility, which is still lacking among part of the Russian journalists.


What remained after an intense 60 minute overview was the impression that the modern Russian media system has always followed its own distinctive path and eludes existing classifications. It is in a mode of constant transformation, triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, shaped by premature liberalizations and adoptions of Western models and finally on a turning point to a Neo-Authoritarian model since the reign of president Wladimir Putin.


Moritz Schweiger: Media in Post-Soviet Russia: An introductory lesson by Professor Elena Vartanova. In: Michael Meyen (ed.): Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich 2016. (access date).