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March 21, 2014 5:24 pm
When the EU on Friday unveiled a list of Russians to be sanctioned for Moscow’s aggressive move against Ukraine, the biggest surprise was not a particular government official or politically connected oligarch but rather a prominent television journalist.
The journalist is Dmitry Kiselyov, and his belligerent rhetoric has made him an easy – if unorthodox – sanctions target for Brussels.
Only a week ago, Mr Kiselyov crowned his weekly show on state television with a diatribe against the US which went from a mocking comment that President Barack Obama had greyed so fast because he is afraid of President Vladimir Putin to an implicit threat of a nuclear bombardment of America.
“Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the US into radioactive ash,” Mr Kiselyov said on his Sunday evening programme News Weekly, gesturing against an animated map supposedly showing nuclear explosions. “Even if all of our command posts go dead silent after an enemy nuclear attack, an invulnerable system will automatically send our strategic missiles flying out of silos and submarines in the right direction.”
As host on state-owned Channel One, the journalist has long helped Mr Putin put the nation on a diet stripped of critical voices and soaked in patriotism. Since the beginning of anti-government protests in Kiev last November that eventually toppled Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovich, he has been the frontman in a propaganda campaign in Russian state television not seen since the end of the Soviet Union.
Week after week, Mr Kiselyov has demonised the demonstrators, dismissed as a western-sponsored coup what is seen in Europe as a revolution and convinced his compatriots that neighbouring Ukraine is in a state of anarchy and the lives of ethnic Russians are at risk from fascists who have grabbed power in Kiev.
“Our brother nation has been under the bombardment of Putin’s TV troops for four months now,” said Igor Yakovenko, former head of the Russian Union of Journalists.
Mr Kiselyov has also helped push Mr Putin’s agenda of aggressive conservatism, which has alienated many in Europe. He has argued, for example, that if a gay person dies in an accident, his heart should be “buried or burnt” to make sure it would not be used as a transplant organ.
The president has given implicit backing for such views by recently ordering Ria Novosti, Russia’s state news agency, to be merged into a new state news holding headed by Mr Kiselyov.
Russia has annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, raising fears of a return to the politics of the cold war
Following the TV host’s nuclear outburst, a group of liberal intellectuals filed a request to the prosecutor-general to have him investigated for extremism. One blogger posted a Photoshopped picture of Mr Kiselyov being taken away from the studio by men in white psychiatric hospital uniforms.
Former colleagues of the TV host say that in Soviet times, Mr Kiselyov was just like most other journalists. “He was a nice, polite chap,” says one reporter who remembers him from state radio in the 1980s. “Our work was propaganda, yes, but that was what you had to do in those days, and we all understood that was what we did for a living, and privately we would say quite different things.”
But after the end of Communist rule, their ways parted. Says the former colleague: “He made his choice.”
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