Vladimir Putin visits the new Russia Today (RT) broadcasting center, 2012. CREDIT: <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RT_(TV_network)#/media/File:Vladimir_Putin_-_Visit_to_Russia_Today_television_channel_2.jpg">Kremlin.ru</a> (<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/">CC</a>)
Vladimir Putin visits the new Russia Today (RT) broadcasting center, 2012. CREDIT: Kremlin.ru (CC)

Russian Media and Politics from Soviet Times to Putin, with Jonathan Sanders

Sep 22, 2017

Jonathan Sanders lived in Russia for a total of roughly 20 years, both as an academic researcher and as a journalist for CBS News, and has an insider's perspective on Russia and its people. He discusses the contradictions of Russian media under Putin--the "mass, crass" state-controlled media and the dissident material and rambunctious memes on RuTube--and shares personal stories of his connections with Yeltsin, Putin, and more.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Hello. I'm Randall Pinkston. This is Ethics Matter, sponsored by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

One hundred years ago, a group of radicals overthrew the government of Russia and founded what became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Our guest today has devoted his career to the study of the history, politics, and culture of the former Soviet Union and Russia. He is Jonathan Sanders, who lived in Russia as an academic researcher and as a journalist for CBS News. He covered wars in the Caucasus, urban insurrection in Moscow, the tragic Beslan School siege, as well as the political operations and machinations of the Politburo and its leaders. He introduced America to Boris Yeltsin and followed the career of a former KGB officer who became the leader of Russia. Sanders is now a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University in New York.

Sanders earned a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. He was a Fulbright Scholar in the Soviet Union and in Finland. He taught at Columbia and Barnard. He was the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, the founding assistant director of the Harriman Institute. He is also an award-winning filmmaker and the author of numerous articles and books about Russia, including Russia 1917: The Unpublished Revolution, and Comrade X was Wrong: Soviet TV Coverage of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.

There are some other cites we could give, but we'll stop because we want to hear from you. We could spend the rest of the program talking about your bona fides.

Your area of expertise includes telecommunications innovation, visual culture in photography and television, and media. What I would like to know, Dr. Sanders, is what, in your opinion, is the current state of information dissemination in Russia today?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Randall, Russia has become a schizophrenic country again. The people who are interested in the world can tune into the world. The Internet is ubiquitous. Russia has, especially in its big cities, a very high penetration of high-speed connectivity to the rest of the world. I have students in Moscow, as well as out on Long Island at Stony Brook University. My students in Russia read The New York Times more assiduously than people out at Stony Brook read The New York Times. They do not believe their own media.

The Russian big media, if we use the words "mass media," it's really mass, it's really crass, it's grand, it's concrete. The big television stations, the national networks, are all controlled by the Politburo. They are under the big, coarse thumb of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. They do not give much good information. They follow the Party line. Every week, usually on Thursdays, there's a gathering of the news executives from these big networks, and the Kremlin basically tells them what to cover.

But on the Internet, on Rutube, on YouTube, there is dissidence, and there are all kinds of things going on. For instance, not too long ago, asked if he was disappointed in his relationship with President Trump, Putin says, "I'm not the groom, and he's not the bride, and so there's no disappointment. It's not like a marriage." All of a sudden, all across the Russian Internet there were all these memes of the two of them as bride and groom, of them as horse and master. Some of them were kinky, some of them were scurrilous. Most of them would have trouble getting on network television here because they had such a sexy edge to them. But there is a great deal of nonconformity in the Russian media.

We should not think that the Great Firewall of China is replicated in Russia. Yes, some things get shut down; yes, they have a total stranglehold on anything that is homophobic in the eyes of the Kremlin. Homosexuality is a really taboo subject there. But in large ways it's very different from the Soviet Union, and that's on purpose. They do not want to replicate the power that dissidents got in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s in the Soviet Union, so they allow a small group of people to have more or less free expression, as long as it does not rise to the level of major media or mass media or big media. Small is good.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Tell me this: In the old days, there was Pravda, there was Izvestia, I don't know the others, but state-owned and state-controlled, correct?


RANDALL PINKSTON: They are still in existence.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Pravda is still in existence. Izvestia is still in existence. Pravda is a shadow of its former self. It used to have 12 million subscribers because you had to be reading the Party newspaper to see what the Party was saying. Now if it has 100,000, it's a lot. The real information powerhouse is the national television networks where 70 to 85 percent of the country gets their information.

But what has happened is there is this generational split. The people over 35 watch television and hear the Party line; the people under 35, they've got their mobile devices just like we have our mobile devices, and, yes, a lot of them are just watching rock groups on TV, a lot of them can tell you about what's going on in the Paris catwalk or whatever they're interested in abroad, but some of them are watching news about people who are in opposition to Putin and his regime, who say that he is a crook. There is a man named Alexei Navalny who wants to run against him as president who says that he is in charge of a party of thieves and crooks, and they watch him. He is a YouTube star.

RANDALL PINKSTON: They say this openly without fear of being arrested?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Well, as much fear as I have in talking to you. Yes, Navalny has been arrested a whole bunch of times, but not for this, for being out in the street and protesting.

The daughter of the man who gave Putin his break as a politician after the fall of the Soviet Union is about to run against him for president. She's sexy, she's smart, she's salacious, she has been thrown off a few national shows because she has attacked the president so much. It is as if Rachel Maddow was running for president against Donald Trump today. She's not going to win.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You're giving me this picture of a free-speech Russia.

JONATHAN SANDERS: It's free speech for a minority of people who care about it, who do it online. It's not in public, it's on people's phones. You don't go and see billboards for opposition candidates. But it's there. They have the ability if they want it.

The clue is, most people don't want this. Most people don't want the discomfort, the upset, the tumult of that thing we call democracy. Having been through the 1990s, they want solidity. They want something that they can put their feet down on. They don't want a quicksand society.

Most people in Russia actually like what Putin's doing most of the time because he has restored stability. He has brought some kind of economic prosperity. People don't have to worry about how they're going to be able to pay for their grandmother's funeral. That was a problem. In his harsh, crass, cruel, corrupt, exploitative way, he has put some stability back into the Russian populace, and that's popular, so people don't want to pay attention to these dissidents.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You are in a way describing the Russian mindset from the czarist days when the czar was looked at as a supreme person who was then replaced by Lenin, who was then replaced by Stalin, who was then replaced by Khrushchev. The Soviet people have this innate desire of a strong man to keep order and tell them what to do. Am I oversimplifying that?

JONATHAN SANDERS: There are some people in America who want a strong, different president with hair of a certain kind. My friends don't want that. My friends want to live like we do here. My friends want to live a modern, democratic, integrated-into-the-world life for the most part, unless my friends are the widows of journalists who have been killed by Putin, who might want something else.

But there are a lot of people who would like a strong figure, either a Stalin—you have to remember that the last czar, Nicholas II, was a wimp, was weak-willed, was indecisive, didn't know what was going on, allowed democracy to come a little bit, and then when it challenged things he crushed it out. He was an anti-Semite, he was a racist, he got the country into a war it didn't need, which helped lead to a revolution. So it's not that last czar they want. If they want a czar, they'll go back to 1698, when Peter the Great became czar. He ruled from then until 1725. They want a great man, they want a strong man, they want a wise individual.

Here's the thing that's paradoxical, and we're somewhat responsible for: They think democracy is a bad thing and a dirty word.



RANDALL PINKSTON: After the collapse of the Soviet Union

JONATHAN SANDERS: —after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when we promised to do so much and introduce democracy—

RANDALL PINKSTON: When the United States promised to do so much.

JONATHAN SANDERS: We promised for years in our propaganda that we'd help them become modern and democratic. We even put our thumb on the scale in the 1996 election to make sure that the communists didn't come back to power by sending people and interfering in the Russian election. You may have heard of this.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Excuse me? The United States interfered in an election in another country?

JONATHAN SANDERS: It may not have made the difference, but there were three Republican advisors from Peter Wilson, the ex-governor of California, who were living in the hotel where the Russian "Committee to Reelect the President"—ever heard that term? That's what the Russians who were around Mr. Yeltsin called the committee. They had all studied American history, and they liked Richard Nixon. They named it CREEP—the Committee to Reelect. There were Americans there giving advice. Did their advice make a difference? I don't think so, but, yes, America was deeply involved in the 1996 Russian election.

But for the majority of Russians, if we were to say—remember Archie Bunker?—for the Archie Bunkers of Russia, democracy meant they didn't have a stable paycheck, they didn't know where their next meal was coming from. If something was in rare supply, they had to go to the sharpies who were gobbling up supplies of food or beer or vodka, and the world as they knew it had fallen apart for no reason that was discernible to them. Everything was for sale. People were coming in and buying up their resources. There were things going on that they might have liked. They might have liked to go to McDonald's, but they couldn't afford it. So for them, the word "democracy" means cheating, rampant capitalism, cruelty, the inability to pay for basic necessities like medicine or to bury your grandmother.

They like the stability Mr. Putin has gotten because his elections are kind of sham elections. It's one party all the time, and the party's name changes, but everyone knows it's the Putin party.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Tell me something: How did you first develop your interest—you grew up in Connecticut?

JONATHAN SANDERS: I grew up in Connecticut.

RANDALL PINKSTON: How did you develop an interest in Russia?

JONATHAN SANDERS: I started reading about Russia in the mid-1960s. I read things like William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and I was taken with the role that the Red Army played in its destruction. I was reading novels like War and Peace. I was even reading Ayn Rand, the great anti-totalitarian. I wanted to see what she was against.

When I went to college, I thought, Gee, in school I really liked American history. Maybe I should try a different thing, a different country. And I like big things. Why have something little? Why have one scoop of ice cream when you can have five? So I thought I'd study a big country. I was going between Russia and China. The woman who was teaching Chinese history was on leave, so I started studying Russian history with an amazing man who had graduated from Morehouse College in the 1950s and who was fluent in Russian and in French. This was at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

These agents, these secret agents—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Pushkin—got me addicted to this Russian culture. I came into it from the literature and the culture, and then got very interested in the history and the politics.

Then I discovered a very good magic trick. I could go to graduate school, study more of this, study revolution, and because it was the middle of the Cold War, the U.S. government wanted me. You know "We Want You"? It wanted me.

RANDALL PINKSTON: And they would pay—

JONATHAN SANDERS: They would pay for me to go to graduate school.


JONATHAN SANDERS: What a good deal.

RANDALL PINKSTON: There was no family, no ancestry, no connectedness?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Some of my family is from Spain, some of my family is from Latvia, some of my family is from Greece. I had a grandfather who fled from the border of Lithuania and Poland in 1913, didn't like it here, wanted to go back, but the First World War had broken out by the time he wanted to go back, so he couldn't, and so he stayed. A lot of Russianists are either Poles or people who have come over from Russia. In my case, I was the exception.

RANDALL PINKSTON: When did you learn how to speak Russian? Was that also government-financed?

JONATHAN SANDERS: It was government-financed. I went to the Russian School at Middlebury College. Where I really learned to speak Russian was sitting in a beer hall on a big street in Moscow with my Russian friends and getting drunker and drunker and having to learn how to argue with them about the world. I was a bad Russian student. I studied Russian for about nine years before I got good at it.

RANDALL PINKSTON: How many years did you live in Russia total, would you say?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Of the last 40 years, maybe 20.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Twenty years living and working in Russia?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Mostly in Moscow, some time in St. Petersburg, some time in the Caucasus in Vladikavkas, the big city near Beslan and near the Chechen Republic.

RANDALL PINKSTON: How much of that time was devoted to journalism as opposed to academic research?

JONATHAN SANDERS: About half and half.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I'm curious about your first news assignment in Russia during the era of the Soviet Union. In totalitarian nations, as most of our audience knows, if you are a journalist, there is probably going to be a minder, someone who goes with you everywhere, who is taking notes about who you are talking to and what they're saying to you. Tell me about your experience.

JONATHAN SANDERS: First let me tell you about my minder, and then let me tell you about my first experience.

I had a minder. You had to have somebody with you from Gosteleradio, and they would facilitate—

RANDALL PINKSTON: Gosteleradio? That's the radio—

JONATHAN SANDERS: The state television and radio of the Soviet Union.

This nice woman was there to say no to me and to get in the way. She would help me with stories and not help me with stories. I wanted to do all kinds of different stories. I'd do a story about the racetrack inside of Moscow to show where people felt free to yell and jump up and down and cheer and drink and bet. I liked doing those unexpected sides of Moscow.

But when the Soviet Union fell, guess what she got a job doing, Randall? She became an information officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. In this latest reduction of people, when the United States just fired a bunch of people, I think she finally lost her job. So she went from being on one side of propaganda to the other side of propaganda.

The problem I had with minders is (1) we had a common language. A lot of them were there because they either were on assignment for the KGB or they wanted to practice their English or they had to do this for a couple of years; and (2) I spoke their language. We were of the same generation.

I had done a lot of research in Soviet television, about Soviet television. I was kind of in and hep with the people who were doing that cutting-edge Soviet TV. If I wanted to do something about this dissident rock guy, my other friends would arrange for it to happen when they were asleep. So that would happen.

One of my first assignments when I was full-time as a journalist was to cover a group of Jews who were protesting to get out of the country. They would have a demonstration in front of the place where they would get their visas.

We would go out, and we would call up the other networks. We always wanted to make sure that everyone was there. We didn't care about anti-collusion rules. We wanted to make sure if we got beaten up, somebody was there to shoot the picture of it.

RANDALL PINKSTON: This is when you were working for CBS?

JONATHAN SANDERS: This was working for CBS in like 1984, 1985.

These old grandmothers—they were as round as they were high, and they were wearing grandma dresses—would come up. The cameras at that time were these Viewmatics, where the recorder was separate from the camera. They would suddenly, out of their bags, have scissors, and they would cut the cables. These were grandmothers earning money for the KGB to mess with the American correspondents. They'd start hitting us and yelling at us, "Dirty capitalists!" These were trolls, these were KGB trolls. Have we come a long way, baby? Do we have trolls now? They're not grandmothers, but they're their grandchildren. That was one of my first experiences.

Another early experience was when I was working with this amazing group of people at a part of CBS News called "Special Events." They wanted to do three hours in prime time about changes going on in Russia. They said, "Hey, Jonathan. Can you get us an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the new general secretary of the Soviet Union?"

I said, "Well, we have some mutual friends, and, yes, I could probably arrange it. But let me tell you about what it's like to interview Gorbachev. You ask him one question, and he'll talk for an hour, and he'll say just what he wants to say in his Gorbachev way, and he'll talk about him." I said, "There's a more interesting guy. You may not have heard of him, but I think this guy is a real firecracker. I've been reading his speeches. His name is Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin."

They said, "Who?"

I said, "Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin."

Mind you, Yeltsin had not done a national Russian TV interview, let alone an international TV interview, and they were really suspicious, and the Central Committee was suspicious.

I went with this wonderful producer Susan Zirinsky and she and I followed him around for a while. Susan whipped out a picture of Diane Sawyer and said, "This lovely young woman is going to interview you." And they agreed to do it. It was a big hit, and it got Boris into a lot of trouble with Gorbachev. They said he was building a cult of personality. I then had a friend for life in Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.

When he got pushed out of power by Gorbachev, I continued to go to see him. I even brought my friend Dan Rather to go to see him. Yeltsin didn't know who Dan Rather was, but he knew he was a powerful man in America. The fact that when he was down and out—had been pushed out of power—I continued to pay him courtesies, that I would go and talk to him, that counted for a great deal in Yeltsin's mentality because in the whole Soviet history people were pushed out of power and never came back into power. Frankly, I didn't think Yeltsin was going to come back into power, I just liked the guy and found him fascinating.

But when he did come back, guess who had access?

RANDALL PINKSTON: Yes. Tell me about Yeltsin's ethics of governance, Yeltsin's relationship with what you and I would generally call "truth, democracy"?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Yeltsin was pretty good about truth. He wasn't very good about corruption. You might say Boris was "a great destroyer." He knew what he was up against. He knew that the Communist Party had been lying to people, had been keeping them in a class system with a very few people on the top living well, that manipulated people's hopes and fears, and treated them terribly, and had shot them. He knew what he was against. He little knew what he was for.

What he was for in the greatest sense was—I helped arrange for one of his first trips to America, and I made sure that my friends from the Esalen Institute out in California took him to a supermarket with this huge selection of 25 kinds of Pop Tarts, all of which had artificial chemicals and things that are bad for you and make you and I fat, but leave that aside. He liked this choice, this affluence, this abundance, and he knew that he wanted to change the empty shelves in Russia. He knew that the Communist Party was oppressive and capricious and corrupt, and he wanted to change that. He didn't know how. He knew what he was against.

When individual republics started demonstrating, like Lithuania, for greater freedom, Gorbachev had a blind eye and a tin ear for listening to nationalism. Yeltsin got it: "Take as much liberty as you want. Lithuanians, I'm for your freedom."

RANDALL PINKSTON: And Belarus and Latvia?


What he also had was a remarkably thick skin. He would take criticism that people were doing this, he would deal with journalists. It's a contrast between him and Putin. Putin's got very a thin skin for criticism.

Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia exhibited, let's say from the end of 1991 through 1997, maybe through when he resigned on the eve of 1999 to 2000, some of the freest press in the world. The criticism that people at NTV—this independent television network that was started and was then shut off by Putin—lobbed at the Kremlin about their war in Chechnya in 1994, 1995, and 1996 was stronger than anything that Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or David Halberstam or anyone ever lobbed at the U.S. government. It was pointed, it was inflamed, it was incensed, it was infuriating. And he let it go on. That was the good side of him.

The bad side was in undoing this monolithic past. He counted on a lot of young people, young men—almost entirely men; many of them were friends of mine and had gone to Moscow State University with me—who were largely the students of one or two men, the economist Shatalin and some other wizards, academics—Arbatov, at the Institute of USA and Canada—and had ideas about changing things.

But no one had ever dismantled a great socialist economic engine while it was still going. Imagine repairing a jetliner while it's flying, being out on the wings. You're going to drop parts, you're going to do some things wrong, there are tremendous forces, and a lot of corruption happened.

By this time, "Dyadya Boriya"—Uncle Boris—he had other things on his mind. He was constantly in a lot of pain because he had been in a plane crash in Spain. He took steroids for the pain in his back, and how did he take steroids? I'm not sure I introduced him to scotch, but he sure liked it.

Corruption just went everywhere, and people bought factories for 20 shoebox lids.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Let me go at this a different way. We hear and read about business ethics in America. Give me the comparison: Business ethics the way American businesspeople operate with respect to their ethical conduct, with respect to their customers, their employees versus—

JONATHAN SANDERS: In Russia there are formal business practices and laws. Some of the Russian Constitution is based directly on the American Constitution. That's on paper.

In reality, everything is for sale, everyone is for sale. Everyone wants a taste of something. The business ethics that you see in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather—the first two movies, at least—is very much like the business ethics there.

Nobody really understood early on, how do you start a private business? Who gets shares in this factory? If they're taking apart the Red October Chocolate Factory and they give every single person who works there a voucher, and you can turn the voucher in for a share in the company, a lot of young guys—friends, not friends, guys on the make, guys who had started their careers hustling blue jeans—started buying up the coupons. They would give some old man a bottle of vodka for his certificates. They'd give someone else a bag of candy for their certificates. Sooner or later, they controlled the whole company because the people who got these didn't understand.

Imagine changing the American system of roads from driving with the wheel on the left to driving on the right, like in Great Britain, all at once. It would be chaos, and that's what happened there.

There was a great deal of corruption. There were American advisors who said, "Allow inflation to go up." Jeffrey Sachs—this person who teaches at Columbia in the economics and Earth science departments, and probably should have to spend 10 years in Siberia—allowed inflation to go up. The women who were the brides of men who served in World War II who never came home because they were defeating the Nazis, and saved their whole lives in savings banks lost their entire savings based on the advice of Jeffrey Sachs. They had nothing to eat. They were eating potatoes and grass. And if somebody died—

RANDALL PINKSTON: These are war widows.

JONATHAN SANDERS: War widows. The Soviets lost 27 million people in the Second World War. About a million women were in the Soviet Army, but 27 million didn't die. They were mostly men. They came home, made lives for themselves in the Levittowns of Russia, high-rise buildings. They scrimped and saved their whole lives. Their money was in the bank for their old age, and policies that we supported as ways of economic reform raised inflation so high that their savings accounts were worth nothing, their last years were miserable, and they didn't even leave their kids enough money to bury them. That scene is part of the change, America's influence.

Now there is a great funeral industry in Russia. But in the middle of 1990s, everything seemed to be falling apart, and we had a hand in that. The Russians ultimately made their own fate, but we contributed to it, we guided it, and a lot of this was under Boris Yeltsin.

A lot of it was under people who were friends of mine, some of whom became millionaires, some of whom were shot. We had wars and bankers. My wife, who is from Long Island—didn't exactly grow up in a gangster-ridden neighborhood—in our apartment in Moscow, we'd be having dinner, and she'd say: "That sounds like a Kalashnikov. That sounds like a Makarov. They must be shooting someone," out behind where we lived. There were wars going on all the time.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Gunfire in the streets.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Well, gunfire in the park behind where we lived, at least, because it was a good place to execute people.

RANDALL PINKSTON: You must have been concerned about your physical safety when you walked out the door, certainly your wife, God rest her soul.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Yes. We came close a bunch of times to destruction.


JONATHAN SANDERS: My wife went to cover the tank shootout at the television center near where we lived. She was just there out of curiosity and to send me some information. I was covering it live on CBS. Frankie Clines from The New York Times saw her out there and said, "Mary, go back home. This is too dangerous." There were tanks out there.

I was with the woman who is the senior producer now down in Washington, DC for CBS News, We were out covering a shoot-out at the mayor's office in downtown Moscow, and she kept pulling me. She said, "Get down. You're too tall. You're going to get shot."

I went to do a stand-up one day outside the CBS News bureau, and my cameraman was one of our Polish cameramen who had been in Solidarity and covered that. He said to me in Polish, "One take, comrade."

I said, "Why one take?"

He said, "Because the guy standing behind you is clicking his Kalashnikov and pointing it at your head."


JONATHAN SANDERS: I'll tell you one more. This one I like a lot.

I had a cameraman from Texas, Victor Cooper, and we were covering the siege in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. We're in a car. We've wrapped up our shoot, so to speak, and Victor wanted to stop and get something for dinner because we had skipped lunch. I said, "Victor, we've got to get across this line and out of this republic by seven o'clock because there's a curfew."

He said, "I got to have something to eat."

So we stopped, and, of course, 10 minutes later [imitates bullets flying] there are bullets shooting off the side mirrors on our Jeep. There was a Russian checkpoint. They said, "Do you guys know that it's past curfew and you're not supposed to be out here?"

I had been sitting next to the right-hand mirror, and my mirror had just gone flying. They said, "Well, it's going to cost you 50,000 rubles to get through here," because everyone's up for sale.

I said to them: "I don't have 50,000 rubles, but I've got this wonderful thing. It's called a cellphone"—it was one of those big satellite phones—"How long has it been since you called your mother or your girlfriend? Here. Use CBS's dime and call home."

They started using the thing, ran up the bill for Mr. Tisch and CBS, which was fine with me, and in the meantime I sat with one of the snipers and got lessons on how to use a Dragunov sniper rifle, and I could give you lessons. If you want to go hunting with me, we'd be great snipers together.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I need some basic weapons training there, thank you, Professor Sanders.

Let's talk about propaganda for a minute, if you don't mind. I know you were part of the PBS RED FILES project. One of the papers in their project describes Russia as the world's "first modern propaganda state," that Lenin and other Bolsheviks whipped up political resistance with slogans, songs, speeches, and leaflets.

Two questions for you: First, what is your definition of propaganda? And to what extent are Russian people still receiving information tainted with propaganda?

JONATHAN SANDERS: In Bolshevik thinking, there is propaganda and agitation. Agitation is oral communication of basic ideas to groups of people who may not have much specific education or knowledge. Propaganda is the weaponization of truths to spread an idea and an ideology. Ultimately the idea and ideology is that the working class in Bolshevism is the way of the future and that adherence to the doctrine of class struggle will bring, dear comrades, a better world.

These days there has been a transformation of this almost religious notion. The class struggle, the Bolshevism, has been replaced with Mother Russia, with loyalty to the land of ours that has suffered so much at the hands of those Westerners and Easterners—America and militant Islam—who have been out to get us. The Russian are masters at propaganda.

Here's a way of thinking about things. Americans and Russians have very different approaches to the world and pushing their ideas on one another. We believe in hardware; they believe in software, the software between people's ears. In spying, for instance, our spying is by satellites and by listening devices, and by pieces of code that might intercept Russian messages. Their spying is people.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Human intelligence.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Human intelligence. Stalin said at one point in the 1930s that there were two approaches to things: Kadry reshayut vse, "Cadres"—groups of people—"decide everything"; Tekhnologiya reshayut vse, "Technology decides everything." America is for technology, and Russians are for cadres.

Think about that series, The Americans, about the deeply buried spies. Think about how Soviet spymasters so well understand the weaknesses in human nature that they could find Aldrich Ames or they could find another Pentagon guy, whether it was sex, whether it was money, whether it was vanity, and play on those things. We are not very successful at doing that. The Russians have been involved in a series of propaganda exercises for a very long time.

Carl Sandburg, the man who wrote "Chicago" and the Lincoln biography, he is the man who actually physically carried the first money from the Kremlin to undermine an American election in 1920. He was in Moscow. They wanted to give money to the Communist Party here to undermine the election in 1920.

So here's the way to think about it: Russian involvement in propaganda and undermining American elections is as old as radio coverage of American presidential politics.

RANDALL PINKSTON: All of this recent attention that the American public and politicians are paying to Russian hacking of the American election in 2016 for the benefit of a certain candidate, allegedly—

JONATHAN SANDERS: Or the detriment of another. I think that's how it started.


JONATHAN SANDERS: What's new is that we've had a digital revolution.

RANDALL PINKSTON: To the best of your knowledge, has Russia ever taken sides before?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Absolutely, every year. The sides before were lame. Do you really think that America is going to elect the candidate of the Communist Party USA? That's who they were backing. Or the Socialist candidate? That's kind of lame. The chances of a communist winning in America—yes, we might have had a communist from a New York district once, but no.

Since the downfall of communism there has been a continuation, and instead of using propaganda for Sister Angela Davis or Gus Hall, they are now using that same impetus in a much cleverer, much more integrated way, to go against somebody they really dislike who they think is at the heart of the Second Cold War—and they may be right—the Clinton couple, or the Clinton clique. So, yes, I think that's what it is.

Is it possible that Donald J. Trump is the "Manchurian candidate" who was suddenly brainwashed by the Russians years ago, and we don't know it? If they were brainwashing him, the washing part worked, but the brain didn't.

Oh, now I've done it. I've gotten a serious journalist laughing. Oh, my dear friend.

RANDALL PINKSTON: I've been stifling it the entire time.

JONATHAN SANDERS: The serious part of this is that once they rid themselves of this ideological straitjacket that they had been in for so long, they could start looking at the world in different ways. And we gave them a taste that this was okay. We were involved in various ways in giving advice as to how you have elections—not 1991 when Boris Yeltsin was elected; that was too quick, although there were some people there.

I'm guilty of this. I plead guilty, Your Honor. I gave my friends who were working the Committee to Reelect the President in 1996 a videotaped copy of that thing—I think it was called The War Room with James Carville. The people who were working to reelect Boris Yeltsin were friends of mine, they had been students of America. I was a student of Russia; they were in the Institute of USA and Canada; I was at the Russian Institute, now the Harriman Institute. All of a sudden, I realized, Oh my god, I may have put my finger on the scales.

I got more copies, and I gave the tape to every other candidate. There was a doctor running who was a friend of mine, Glazunov, who invented eye surgery that corrected cataracts and gave you better vision; he did it by a machine thing. There was a crazy, extreme-left communist who I also knew and liked. I knew him from Nicaragua. I gave him a copy.

The only one who wouldn't take the tape was the candidate Gennady Zyuganov of the real established Communist Party because he didn't wanted to be tainted with any of this bourgeois American stuff.

But I wasn't the only one. They looked at American commercials. Think of the various things. They called their committee the "Committee to Reelect the President." We'd been involved in Russian things.

RANDALL PINKSTON: When you heard the talk of Russian involvement in the American election, what did you think?

JONATHAN SANDERS: What goes around comes around. I'm still not entirely convinced about the proof of all the hacking into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for a variety of reasons. We rely on just one report. You know that the FBI was never given access to the DNC servers. There is a strong, strong wind in Washington of anti-Russianism, and this is feeding into this. So the proof is a question.

The conception that they would interfere? Yes, makes perfect sense to me. The latest things we're hearing are much more pro-Trump, that they wanted to get Trump elected. My initial reaction was, Well, of course, they hate Hillary. Of course, they want to reduce her power.

For the Russians, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and their Russia expert, Strobe Talbott, represent the original sin in the new Cold War, that is to say, we're in a new Cold War with the Russians. It has taken me a long time to believe this, but we definitely are. Our relations are as bad as they've been. Each side blames the other for almost everything that can go wrong. We're in a zero-sum game. We're doing little cooperation.

The origins of this were the betrayal of the promise that President Bush

RANDALL PINKSTON: George Herbert Walker Bush, 41.

JONATHAN SANDERS: —old man Bush, that with the absorption of East Germany into West that NATO would not go beyond the borders of Germany.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Was this a written promise?

JONATHAN SANDERS: No, of course not. They spoke about it, there was some language about it, but it was an understanding.

RANDALL PINKSTON: This is Bush to Gorbachev.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Bush to Gorbachev. Even if you want to be on the most technical side, was there a signed document saying this? No. Was it a framework of understanding? Did it form the mental set of people? Absolutely, in dealing with Russia. Because in the Cold War there was the West versus the East, the NATO bloc versus the Warsaw Pact bloc. The Warsaw Pact just disappears.

So here's NATO. Are the Russians still interested when they're at their weakest, when they have the least army? Are they still fearful of this pact that is still together here? Were they reassured: "Don't worry. Take care. Rebuild your country. Become democratic, become capitalistic, become like us"?

Suddenly, for domestic reasons, for their own reasons—if you read Bill Clinton's memoir, which is a not-very-good memoir, they don't really explain how he made the decision. But the decision involved just a small handful of people. Hillary was involved. Expand NATO, right up into—you live in New Jersey. Would you like me to have the Warsaw Pact move in from all the way over in Europe and go into the middle of the Hudson River? Wouldn't it be a threat to you? This is how they perceive it, a betrayal of a promise, a threat on our doorstep.

Strobe Talbott called himself "the Russia hand" in his memoir. He's Bill Clinton's buddy from graduate school at Oxford. His chief of staff is a woman named Victoria Nuland. She becomes, in the administration of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, the point person on Ukraine. She is the one who is encouraging Ukraine to throw off their president, who is pro-Russian—but not greatly pro-Russian; they had a lot of trouble with him. She goes down into the demonstrations against the established government in Kiev and hands out bags of cookies. She is heard on a telephone intercept—you will remember this because it's one of the few times you hear an American diplomat talking on the phone in a phone conversation that is released saying, "F the United Nations."

RANDALL PINKSTON: I remember that.

JONATHAN SANDERS: "F the European Council. I want So-and-So to be the prime minister." She names the man in Ukraine she wants to be named the prime minister.

This is seen as a person in the Clinton clique who is engineering a revolution in Ukraine along with American Ukrainians and lots of Ukrainians.

RANDALL PINKSTON: An anti-Putin revolution.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Let's put it as an anti-Russian revolution. Even if it's neutral, changing their government, regime change.

Most of it is done by the Ukrainians themselves, but there are Ukrainian Americans involved. There is the Open Society Foundations, the Soros foundation—God bless the Soros foundation, by the way; they saved lots of Russian scientists when things were going really badly. Both sides—both the Putin regime and the Trump regime—hate the Soros people. That's an interesting sidelight we don't need to talk about.

But from the Russian perspective, who on their border, in what they used to see as part of their country, is messing and doing things that are dangerous? What if the Russians started trying to get a communist government in Canada to come and get us? How would we feel about it? That's their perception. And they hate her, they just despise her.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Is it accurate to blame Hillary for that effort?

JONATHAN SANDERS: I'm not sure if it's accurate or not. I don't think we have all the documents in. But certainly, if you're conspiratorial-minded, if you want someone to blame—they didn't like Obama to start with, but she was the point person. Obama really was not that interested in foreign policy in general. Obama's great gift to foreign policy was not doing things, not getting involved in Syria, not attacking the North Koreans.

RANDALL PINKSTON: He worked out the deal with Iran.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Yes. That was enough.

By the way, you might have noticed this: she's a woman. Putin's relationship with women is much more traditional. He's a Russian man. They haven't been through what you and I have been through in the 1960s with second-wave feminism. Their sensitivities are different. We can't expect all cultures to be like ours. He kind of puts her down.

Compared to Angela Merkel, who he's got a little bit of respect for, but when Angela Merkel is known for being afraid of dogs—he has this wonderful series of Labradors—he made sure when Angela Merkel came to see him that he brought one of his Labradors into the meeting.


JONATHAN SANDERS: He's a Machiavellian player of a high league.

RANDALL PINKSTON: They were both in East Germany at the same time. Were they conversing?

JONATHAN SANDERS: I doubt that. She was the daughter of a clergyman, and he was a KGB operative in Dresden. But they literally speak the same language. Unlike Americans, Europeans actually learn languages. She speaks very nice Russian; he speaks, to my ear, pretty good German. He speaks good enough German that when the Germans threatened the KGB station in Dresden when East Germany was falling apart, he was good enough to bluff them into not shooting him and not raiding the station. His German is pretty convincing.

RANDALL PINKSTON: What about his English?

JONATHAN SANDERS: He speaks a little English. First of all, like a lot of Europeans, he's taken with rock and roll, and so he knows the words to lots of songs. You could have a good night of karaoke with him. He knows more English than he lets on. He has been studying it since he became president. He's a good student. When he was invited down to visit baby Bush—younger Bush—in Texas—he took horseback riding lessons so they could go horseback riding together, only young Bush told him that he wasn't that kind of Texan; he didn't ride horses.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Sorry. That's the second laugh. Forgive me.

JONATHAN SANDERS: If you didn't laugh, you'd want to cry.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Let's talk a little bit more about propaganda. "Comrade X Was Wrong," was that an example of the modern-day use of propaganda about the Chernobyl tragedy?

JONATHAN SANDERS: It was actually a critique somewhat of—

RANDALL PINKSTON: Chernobyl was the malfunction of a nuclear power station—

JONATHAN SANDERS: In the Soviet Union, right in the north part of Ukraine on the Pripyat River, very close to Belarus. They were doing an experiment, and it went out of control.

The reference there was to a Clark Gable movie where it said: "Comrade X is wrong. There is no news in Russia." There was, of course, news in Russia.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, who so enticed the West with his policy of glasnost, "openness," and perestroika, "restructuring," and demokratizatsiya, "democratization," there was a notion that the Soviet Union was opening up and that its mass media was telling the truth more. But in this first early test of truth-telling in 1986, the Soviet media lied to the people about the danger. It took them hours to say there had been an accident. They exposed people in Kiev to a great deal of radiation, they underplayed the danger, they didn't warn the West of what had happened, and Gorbachev was not a truth-teller in a crucial test under pressure.

One of the things that this article did not go into, because it was about the media then and Soviet television, was the downwind consequences. The downwind consequences of Chernobyl were enormous because one of the peoples that suffered a great deal was in Lithuania—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

In Lithuania they saw their land being poisoned by radiation. There was a nascent ecological movement and a nascent Lithuanian nationalist movement, and they got incensed and started demonstrating because literally, Soviet science and Soviet economic might and the Kremlin were poisoning and killing their land. This really kicked off the independence movement, the irredentist movement that helped undo the Soviet Union and that Gorbachev did not understand. It was a consequence.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Was Lithuania the first to break away?

JONATHAN SANDERS: They all want to claim to be the first, of course, but Lithuania was in the foreground. They had their "Singing Revolution." I was privileged to go and cover a lot of that. There were brave people who stood up, and Gorbachev and the Politburo eventually sent in tanks and ran over a lot of young people who were protesting to be free and to be Western.

Right now they are free and quite Western. You know that one of the consequences of the Baltic republics becoming free is one of them, Estonia, freed the creative capital of their people, and we use it every day in an invention they made called Skype.

RANDALL PINKSTON: They invented Skype?

JONATHAN SANDERS: They invented Skype.

RANDALL PINKSTON: There is so much more ground to cover.

I have to talk about Crimea. As I recall, I think it was Khrushchev—historically Crimea has always been under the auspices, under the governance of Russia. It is the home port for Russia's fleet.


RANDALL PINKSTON: But for some reason, Khrushchev was feeling so great about Ukraine that he signed some papers, and then Putin decided to take it back.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Right. In modern times Crimea has been a Russian province. We know in popular culture about Crimea only from one or two things: Balaclava hats that bank robbers like to wear, and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which were both in the Crimean War in the 1850s where the British defeated the Russians. This convinced Czar Alexander II that Russia had to modernize, and one way of modernizing was he freed the serfs about the same time Lincoln was coming up with the Emancipation Proclamation.

For many years, Crimea was the key base for the Black Sea Fleet. In popular memory, it was summertime vacation land, where people would go. It's warmer, it's lush, there is a great communist summer camp called Artek, where lots of people went. They had their first love there, they discovered rock music there, they had their first experience in sex there, they went camping; the way all Americans think about a positive summer camp experience, it is connected to Artek.

On the political level, in the mid-1950s, when Khrushchev is trying to come up with a more human socialized country and de-Stalinization, he gives Ukraine—an ostensibly separate republic—control over Crimea as a present: "Here. You're celebrating your birthday. Let's give you this chunk of land."

RANDALL PINKSTON: He had the ability to do this on his own without—

JONATHAN SANDERS: Sure. There were formalities, but he did it.

Since 1991, under the Ukrainian government, Crimea—which is a little bit like San Diego. San Diego is populated, because it has a naval base, by a lot of retired navy people. It's warm, soldiers want to go there, too, to see their buddies. Very Russianized except for a small minority group. They felt they were being discriminated against, they were getting the back of the hand in all kinds of economic measures, they just were unhappy. And they didn't identify with Ukraine, they identified with Russia.

Let's say that this was the deal: There is a revolution that is happening in Kiev, throwing out the old semi-pro-Russian government, and the United States badly wants to manipulate this to get an ally on our side. I'm exaggerating a bit, but not a lot.

Putin says, "Huh. Well, I can't stop that, but the price of that is they're busy over here, I'm going to grab this." And he did.

Most of the people—

RANDALL PINKSTON: Allegedly through a referendum.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Yes. About as fair of a referendum as if we asked the director if we'd like lights here. Of course we'd like lights.

But if you were to do a popular, "Randall and I talk to 300 people who are a good representative sample," I think most of the people in Crimea would want to be with Russia. They way they did it was wrong.

RANDALL PINKSTON: But the result?

JONATHAN SANDERS: The result is, there are a lot worse things. And the worst part of our policy is if we absolutely insist that Crimea be returned to Ukraine for any return to normal relations, because let me tell you: That is not going to happen in our lifetime. Not going back.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Was the retaking of Crimea by Putin a step toward his larger goal of—I don't know the technical term for it—reestablishing a greater Russia, reestablishing control and authority over the previous republics that are now the border states?

JONATHAN SANDERS: Yes. In the sense that he wants to make—you know the saying we sometimes hear around here, "Make America great again"? Putin is making Russia great again. After these years of being said to be on the "dustbin of history," having lost the Cold War, having been dismembered, he wants people to be proud and strong.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Dismembered and disrespected.

JONATHAN SANDERS: Disrespected, yes, and they're still disrespected.

I don't think he necessarily wants to gobble up all the former territory of the Soviet Union, although if someone were to make a gift of that to him, he'd say, [speaks Russian], "thank you very much." But, yes.

This is pure Putin. All the energy is over here in Kiev. Putin's modus operandi is what saved him as a young kid. He was a young hooligan on the street, his father wasn't around a lot, he was getting into trouble. He was one of those kids who was being singled out for being a bad boy at school, and somebody in the neighborhood got him into a Russian form of martial arts, and he became a martial arts master, and now he's really good at karate. I'm not getting in the ring with him.

He knows how to use his small body—he hates being small and his little weight—he's a fit guy—and take someone else's momentum and use it to throw them. That is just what he did. Everyone was expecting the action and the muscle over here, and he did this over here in Crimea. It took all of us by surprise. I mean, nasty. Nobody wants to see land grabs or countries grabbed up, but the pure Machiavellian chutzpah of it is just amazing, and he pulled it off.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Is he still working to control Ukraine?

JONATHAN SANDERS: He would like Ukraine to be under his dominance, just like we would like Mexico and Canada to be under our—well, Canada under our economic dominance, certainly. They want them going along with the team.

RANDALL PINKSTON: It's his version of the Monroe Doctrine with respect to—

JONATHAN SANDERS: The Monroeski Doctrine, yes.

RANDALL PINKSTON: The Monroeski Doctrine.

What's the deal with Chechnya?

JONATHAN SANDERS: The man who is running Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is Putin's man, he's Putin's thug, he's Putin's dictator. He's the guy who went from being a rebel to seeing which side his bread was buttered on. He got bazillions of rubles and dollars to rebuild all the destruction that they—meaning the Kremlin—wasted on Grozny. It was absolutely flattened. It looked like Cologne after the war. It's been entirely rebuilt. He's a dictator, he's a thug, he runs the country like a mafia don who has his own butcher bad boys going out, and they have a real problem.

They have a real problem because what started out as a nationalist insurgency got pushed to an extreme limit while there was a kind of Islam that believed in more of a Sufi way of doing things. They now have gone back to a radical Wahhabist kind of Islam. There are between 1,500 and 5,300 guys from Grozny and Chechnya and neighboring republics of Dagestan and some other parts of Russia and former parts of the Soviet Union fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


JONATHAN SANDERS: In Syria. They were in Iraq. There was one guy who is absolutely fascinating whose name was Batirashvili, who was half-Chechnyan, half-Georgian, who had been trained by our Green Berets. His mother had died. He was in the Georgian Army. We had an arrangement with the Georgians. He was the number one, bright, gold-star pupil of the Green Berets when he was in the Georgian Army.

His mother died. He went home to his home village in the Pankisi Gorge, and he had one of these conversions back to his Chechnyan side, went to fight, had this big red beard. They tried to keep killing him. He became an ISIS commandant in Syria and Iraq. He had this ability to send nasty messages, saying: "Hey, West, haven't killed me yet. Hey, West, we're coming to get you." And finally they killed him.

Randall, here's the problem: The Russians under Putin in September 2015 introduced their navy and armed forces to protect their man in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. They are winning this war. They have turned the tide, and Assad is not going to get thrown out of power until they want to do him.

There is a contest now for who is going to have power in Syria. We need to work with Russia to control the Syrians, to keep the Iranians from taking over South Syria because South Syria in Iranian hands would threaten Israel, our ally.

But if we end the war too quickly, what's going to happen to the 1,500 to 5,300 Islamic warriors who have been fighting and getting experience in Syria? What are they going to do when they come home? Are they going to become domestic terrorists? Are they going to be fighting for Islam? It's a real problem.

RANDALL PINKSTON: It's a problem for Putin.

JONATHAN SANDERS: It's a problem for us too. Do you remember the Boston bombers?

RANDALL PINKSTON: Oh, yes, the Tsarnaev brothers.

JONATHAN SANDERS: From the same region. They could be coming to a neighborhood near us too.

The paradox is that Putin is helping end a horrific civil war that has killed more than half a million people, displaced—

RANDALL PINKSTON: And triggered a refugee crisis the likes of which we haven't seen.

JONATHAN SANDERS: —which has got consequences everyone is still dealing with. But if he ends the war too precipitously, there are going to be all these guys who are trained killers who know how to organize for radical Islam, and where are they going to go next?

RANDALL PINKSTON: What about the Russia-U.S.-Iranian triad? Obama works out this deal to freeze—allegedly, hopefully—Iran's construction of nuclear weapons. Russia was not leading that deal, but I don't suppose they opposed it, did they?

JONATHAN SANDERS: They are not opposed to it at all. Russia is a big supplier of atomic technology to Iran in the form of electric power plants. The more electric power plants that country has, the more they can export oil; the more they can export oil, the more their economy can grow.

RANDALL PINKSTON: And they export a lot of it to Russia.


Well, not so much to Russia, but to Russian allies, to other places in the world. The Russians have plenty of their own oil. In fact, I've seen one report that says there is so much shale that has been untapped in Russia that if the Russians get the fracking technology, the United States and Russia can completely undo the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). We will be the ones in the driver's seat in world energy. It hasn't happened yet. This is future-gazing. The Russians have a lot of resources.

The problem is they've got the tulip disease: If they only do tulips, if they only have a monoculture economy depending on exports of petrochemical products, how are they going to develop other things?

Russians have tremendous brainpower. They have invented all kinds of things. One of the first video games, Tetris, is a Russian game. But how many things do we really think of in the world as Russian that are exported? It's not like Sony making the Walkman or Steve Jobs making Apple or any of the inventions we deal with every day. The only thing that I can think of that is a worldwide consumer brand that's Russian is Kalashnikov, the AK-47.

Because they've had this economic struggle, their brainpower has not been able to be harnessed for doing lots of things in the commercial world. If they continue to rely on just oil, that's going to continue to be the problem, and they're not harnessing their brainpower. So what does the brainpower do, these good minds? "Oh, let's see what we can play with with computer codes. Let's see what we can hack into."

RANDALL PINKSTON: A final question: Why is it that we are not hearing more about the 100th anniversary of the Great Revolution?

JONATHAN SANDERS: A question near and dear to my heart.

Putin, although a Russian patriot, although somebody who believes that one of the worst things that happened in the 20th century was the collapse of Soviet civilization, also is not a big believer in communism. He saw it was wrong. Essentially as a military-oriented guy, he believes that the Bolsheviks undid the possibility of a Russian victory in the First World War, and that his country suffered for 70-plus years under a certain kind of regime that, although he liked the civilization that it built, Soviet civilization was wrong-headed, wrong-directed. He does believe in state-controlled capitalism, but capitalism, not central planning, not utopian knowledge. He has dictated that the celebrations will be of Russia, not of the Revolution.

On the big national holiday, the 1st of September, when people celebrate the beginning of the school year, he gave a nationally televised address sent by computers all across the country, where he went into a school, and he didn't talk about the Revolution, the anniversary.

But to loop it back to where we started, there is a guy whose TV station was forced off the air because of his frankness—it is now just on the Internet—who left being in TV, and has an underground, very popular website about Russia 1917, day-by-day pictures of what happened. So there is an unofficial culture clashing with the official culture.

RANDALL PINKSTON: Good place to stop. Thank you, Jonathan Sanders, for joining us. Professor Jonathan Sanders of Stony Brook University, an expert on all things Soviet and Russian.

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The Grey War of Our Time: Information Warfare and the Kremlin's Weaponization of Digital Russian-Language News

"I argue that from 2008 to 2014, Moscow improved its ability to capitalize on the benefits of digital news—namely the unlimited publication space of digital media—...

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