With Navalny’s Death, Russia Scatters Last Ashes of a Press That Putin Destroyed

Russian print publications and broadcasters report with glee on bananas and Ecuadorian shrimp in grocery stores, but leave the country’s dark reality unmentioned.

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Young women lay flowers to pay the last respect to Alexei Navalny at the monument, a large boulder from the Solovetsky islands, where the first camp of the Gulag political prison system was established at Moscow. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

If the fact that the venerable Moscow Times is no longer published in Moscow wasn’t enough of a sign that the press in Russia is now an Orwellian disaster, the tragic omission of the death of dissident Alexei Navalny from most of what’s left of the Russian press surely is. This is bad news for what Western journalists remain posted to Moscow and portends nothing good for a population that the Kremlin wants kept in the dark. 

The most egregious gap in Russian reality came on Friday when on the country’s most watched broadcast — the evening news on Rossiya-1 — an anchor read a terse statement from the Russian Penitentiary Department.  There was glaringly no mention made of Mr. Navalny’s name in that 28-second announcement. On Sunday, the station’s preeminent presenter, Dmitry Kiselyov, made no mention at all of Navalny nor of the international furor.

To its credit — sort of — the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, published a photo of the American ambassador to Russia,  Lynne Tracy, placing a bouquet of flowers at the foot of the monument to the victims of Soviet repression, at Moscow’s Lubyanka Square. The site became an unofficial place of remembrance of Russia’s best-known dissident. The newspaper, though, gave no reason for Ms. Tracey’s presence there.

The top national tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, kept the focus over the weekend on crops. That bananas are back in grocery stores is big news for Russians. Newly available too are Ecuadorian shrimp. The cornucopia is likely linked to Quito’s backtracking on furnishing Ukraine with weapons, but that is another story.  The story about Navalny was relegated to page 12 and referred to the late opposition leader only as a “well-known blogger.”

A review of Russian press coverage by this correspondent found only one bona fide news story about Navalny, and what a find it was: in Moskovskij Komsomolets, a columnist named Mikhail Rostovsky sniped, perhaps with the Kremlin’s blessing, that “the real impact that Navalny’s death will have on the Russian political process is close to zero.”

According to some European press reports, the Kremlin had issued a directive to deputies of the State Duma to the effect that they are not to comment in any way on the “Navalny affair.” None of this should come as a surprise in a country where calling Russia’s war on Ukraine anything other than a “special military operation” will land the offender, whether journalist or uppity babushka, in hot water at a minimum but more likely in jail. 

In recent days most Russian news websites have devoted lots of space to the army’s capture  of the small Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, while characteristically obscuring the high cost in Russian lives. There was also plenty of invective about the “aggressive Russophobia” purportedly on display at the recent international security parley at Munich. 

Correspondents for British broadcasters Sky News and the BBC have not exactly tiptoed around the news of Navalny’s death, but the reporting has been fairly restrained compared to the firestorm of coverage generated outside Russian borders. 

Which brings me back to the Moscow Times — the Russian edition of which the Kremlin has blocked since April. On Tuesday its English-language edition (now based at Amsterdam) reported that jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich will remain in pre-trial detention until March 30, 2024.

Russian press  coverage of Mr. Gershkovich’s increasingly lengthy ordeal— he has now  been detained for ten months  — has been minimal to nonexistent. Ambassador Tracy, incidentally, was at the Moscow court hearing where that was decided on Tuesday. She stated afterward that “The charges against Evan are baseless. The Russian government has locked Evan up simply for reporting news.”

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