Russia's military has unveiled its newest weapon — and it's aimed squarely at the nation's television viewers.
Zvezda, or "Star" Television, a TV channel owned and run by Russia's Ministry of Defense, will start broadcasting shows Sunday designed specifically to encourage patriotism.
"The ideology of the channel is simple," station chief Sergei Savushkin told a press conference at the Defense Ministry last week. "In order to defend, one has to love.”
He added, “We are not seeking a monopoly on patriotic programming. But we think there should be more."
Pitched battle against moronization
There is already no lack of patriotism on Russia's airwaves, as the state already owns or controls the country's three national television networks.
Smaller independent stations have also been replaced in the past few years with state-owned sports and cultural channels. Political talk shows, political satire and independent news programs have all but disappeared.
The few talk shows that remain choose their topics and guests carefully. Russians who used to turn on their TV for independent news or commentary now must depend on the Internet.
Russian TV relies heavily on Latin soap operas and Hollywood B-movies, leading many to complain about the amount of imported sex and violence on their screens.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov publicly criticized Russian TV’s general fare, telling the cabinet late last year that "the moronization of the people must be stopped."
Ivanov personally requested that the government rush to approve a broadcasting license for his ministry, according to a Russian newspaper that published a copy of Ivanov's letter last week.
The station will feature documentary programs about the army, rousing old Soviet films, and children's shows, according to Savushkin.
“I want to create a warm, positive station that the Russian people will see as their own,” said Savushkin. He added that all programs and commercials on Zvezda must be made in Russia.
Movement for independent channel
But creating a channel run by a government ministry is not the answer to Russian TV’s woes, according to Boris Reznik, the deputy chairman of parliament's committee on information policy. Reznik has introduced a bill to the parliament, or Duma, creating a public television network that would offer educational programs without commercial advertising, much like PBS or the BBC.
"I'm in favor of having patriotic programs, and having programs about the army. But not programs that the army creates about itself, in which they brag about themselves, but programs created by a normal, independent television channel that would objectively evaluate what is happening in the army. And what is going on now is not good news,” Reznik said.
Improving the army's image among young Russians was one of the reasons Ivanov pushed so hard to establish Zvezda.
Draft-age males, who fear cruel hazing rituals, poor living conditions and the likelihood of being sent to fight in Chechnya, go to incredible lengths to avoid the two years of obligatory military service in Russia.
"I think it's a senseless waste of money, of the state budget,” Reznik complained.
“We should encourage patriotism, not like that, but by improving the conditions in the army. So that young men want to serve in the army. So that we could have well-fed, well-clothed soldiers. And well-paid officers. And modern equipment. Now that would encourage respect for the army. But to create some shows to do this, about the military, that is a fruitless task," he said.
For the many who already compare current Russian television to Soviet-like propaganda, Zvezda is a worrisome precedent.
"In the so-called democratic states, we are the only one where the Minister of Defense is opening his own ideological channel," said Aleksei Simonov, president of the Defense of Glasnost Foundation.
"It is the most vivid confirmation of the militaristic ideology which is growing in Russia, and which has the government's protection and the government's initiative."