Call him “useful idiot” and Michael Wasiura is partly right. That he was useful “is certain,” says the American. But ‘idiot’ implies that he was ignorant of his role in the ‘circus’, which he was not. “Of course I understand how propaganda works on Russian TV.”
Wasiura (39), who taught English in Moscow for a long time, was on a well-watched afternoon political talk show on Russia’s First Channel until a month ago. As one of the ‘Americans on duty’, he represented the West, only to be verbally torn apart by Putin minded talk show hosts and a battalion of ‘patriotic’ Russians. Since April 2018, he has joined “hundreds of times” in Vremya Pokazjet (‘Time will tell’). With his reddish beard and bald skull, he said he became a celebrity of the C category. “I’m trying to maintain my dignity while conspiracy theorists yell at me in Russian on TV,” his LinkedIn profile reports.
Last month, just before the invasion of Ukraine began on the orders of Vladimir Putin, he and his family fled. A few hours before the Russian president started the war, he received another app from the producer: whether he could be on the broadcast the next day. “I responded that it was physically impossible.” He was already in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.
Wasiura has no illusions: nothing he has said on Russian TV in four years has come across. Entirely according to format, he was barked at by the propagandists opposite him. On rare occasions, he would receive a Facebook thank you from a viewer who appreciated what he was doing, he says. “But ninety percent of the responses were rubbish.” The propaganda machine “works phenomenally well,” he says in a video call. “A nuclear superpower has brainwashed itself.”
What was the use of your presence?
“I wondered that too at first. You would say, why would they want someone to talk about topics that are dangerous to the Kremlin, if a critical mass of the public becomes convinced. But that’s the crux: that was absolutely impossible in this setting.
“My theory is that I was used as a vaccine. A controlled dose of ‘West’ to which the antibodies in the studio responded immediately. In this way, the immune response was initiated in the viewer’s home, as it were, in case they come into contact with information on the internet or via a son-in-law that does not correspond to the Kremlin line.”
In that reasoning, you contributed to the immunization of the Russian viewer.
“They were vaccinated anyway, I would say. Someone else would have filled that role, of course I wasn’t the only one. I found others, if I may say so, less strong in contradicting the most idiotic lies. I have no remorse because I could learn from the inside and understand how it works. I wanted to talk about that, about writing. It is important to protect Western democracies from media that use the same tactics as the Russians. They have succeeded in completely distorting the information provision in their public space.”
Was contributing to this justified?
“Like anyone who did anything in Russia, I also have a responsibility. And taken collectively, what has been done in the country has been insufficient to avert what we are seeing now. And that is nothing short of the worst a nation-state has done since 1939.
“But if I could go back to 2018, I don’t know what I would have done differently. From a moral point of view it was simple: I could criticize the regime on its own ground, tell the truth on Russian TV, albeit in this defined form and in a format in which I had no chance in advance. But it wasn’t enough.”
Wasiura went to Ukraine after his studies and married a Russian woman, with whom he has a son. He taught English in Moscow, wrote pieces on poorly read blogs and rolled into talk shows through a radio panel. First on a smaller channel, where he noticed how little of his contributions remained after the editing. Then the First Channel was on the phone. The political talk show ‘Time will tell’ is live, he knew. “Maybe I can reach someone there after all, I thought.”
With his heart pounding in his throat, he says, on his debut he managed to shout something about the poison attacks on Russian dissidents in London and the downing of MH17 by a Russian Buffer missile, “system number 332”. NRC couldn’t verify this, but what he says is consistent with Wasiura’s personal notes from 2018 which he shares upon request.
While he was being brought home – was he being taken home? — he looked at his phone to see what he had caused with his statements online. “Nothing.” As he got out of the car, just outside his apartment, the producer called. If he could come again the next day. Since then, he has lived on the $2,500 a month that his performances earn, more than twice the average in Moscow.
It is important to protect Western democracies from media that operate in the same way.
Do they consciously choose someone who is disadvantaged due to accent and origin?
“Certainly, there are more Americans doing this. They will never go for an opposition figure who can effectively communicate his message, but there are more or less critical, liberal Russians. You see with them that they look for points where they agree with the hardliners facing them, that’s human.
“You don’t assume that someone is telling lies 90 percent of the time, but it does. And they mean it, outside the camera it’s not suddenly a different story. I spoke to enough people in the second and third tiers of power to be convinced that they are convinced of what they are saying.”
Have you ever felt like you achieved anything?
“There were moments, small victories. That’s how it felt. But when I looked back at that, there was little left in the context. I once said to a politician: you are poisoning Alexej Navalny [de inmiddels opgesloten anti-corruptieactivist] because he exposed how you steal from the viewers of this program. Then you think: great point. But with fifteen minutes of screaming before and ten minutes of twisting afterward, there is little left. That was the typical experience.”
Last year Wasiura returned to the US. He claims that he approached thirty literary agents with his manuscript for a book about how censorship works in a modern autocracy, “from the inside out”. Nobody was interested. A job in an Amazon distribution center for twenty dollars an hour and a secluded life in Michigan—he was ready. “Life in Russia became frustrating. If my Russian wife had been able to get her papers, I think we would have stayed in the US,” he says from his accommodation in Tbilisi. “It is still not settled. But we will not go back to Moscow until Putinism is eradicated.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 28, 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of March 28, 2022