WHEN THE Soviet people turned on their television sets on August 19th 1991, they knew there was an emergency. Every channel was playing classical music or showing “Swan Lake” on a loop. A few hours earlier Mikhail Gorbachev had been detained during an attempted coup. As the Soviet Union crumbled, the fiercest street battles unfolded over television towers. “To take the Kremlin, you must take television,” said one of Mr Gorbachev’s aides.
Vladimir Putin took note. He began his rule in 2000 by establishing a monopoly over television, the country’s main source of news. It has helped him create an illusion of stability—and whip up enthusiasm for his foreign wars. But the Kremlin’s most reliable propaganda tool is losing its power. Russian pundits have long described politics as a battle between the television and the refrigerator (that is, between propaganda and economics). Now, the internet is weighing in.
According to the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, Russians’ trust in television has fallen by 30 percentage points since 2009, to below 50%. The number of people who trust internet-based information sources has tripled to nearly a quarter of the population. Older people still get most of their news from television, but most of those aged 18-24 rely on the internet, which remains relatively free.