Then there was the television, which I never worked on, with a more sinister mission: political-psychological control. The approach could be deeply counterintuitive. NTV, for example, one of the country’s biggest networks, doesn’t try to pretend Russia is a rosy place like Soviet channels used to do—which is also how they lost credibility with viewers. Quite the opposite: It shows non-stop horror stories about how dangerous the country is, encouraging the viewer to look to the “strong hand” of the Kremlin for protection. Even supposedly “science-based” programs are used for manipulative effect. The most expensive documentary ever shown on Russian television aired in 2009 and was called Plesen (“Mold”). It argued that mold is taking over the Earth—an invisible but omnipresent enemy whose evil spores have been invading our lives, causing death and disease. When the film aired it caused a panic, with people running out to buy anti-mold machines and calling into the network from all over the country, asking for help.
There was another spate of prime-time documentaries about “psychological weapons.” One was The Call of the Void, which aired in 2009 and featured current secret service men who informed the audience about the new psychic weapons they had developed. The Russian military, the program claimed, employed “sleepers,” psychics who can go into a trance and enter the world’s collective unconscious, and from there penetrate the minds of foreign statesmen to uncover their nefarious designs. One had entered the mind of President George W. Bush, they said, and then reconfigured the intentions of one of his advisers so that whatever hideous plan the United States had hatched failed to come off. The message was clear: If the secret service can see into the U.S. president’s mind, they can definitely see into yours; the state is everywhere, watching your every thought.