On Monday, February 29, an unspeakable tragedy took place in Moscow. A thirty-nine-year-old woman from Uzbekistan, Gulchekhra Bobokulova, was detained at Oktyabrskoye Pole metro station while shouting Islamist slogans and waving the severed head of a four-year-old child. According to Russia Today, passers-by heard the woman screaming, “I hate democracy. I’m a terrorist. I’m your suicide bomber.”
Within minutes of taking place, news of the incident appeared in a variety of independent online Russian outlets and on social media. According to journalist, Oleg Kashin, however, only a few pro-Kremlin sites reported on the event. Major state-run Russian news channels completely ignored the story, a decision some believe was endorsed by the Kremlin.
Bloggers and independent journalists expressed their bewilderment and concern about the story’s absence from state TV. These channels reach about 98% of the country’s population and are often the only source of domestic and international news for those living in Russia’s remote areas.
To justify the state media blackout, Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said broadcasting the story could spark hatred toward migrants from the Central Asia region. Bobokulova came to Russia from Uzbekistan and had worked illegally as a nanny for several years.
It would be naïve, however, to believe the decision not to air this horrifying story was driven solely by altruism. No matter how terrible the incident, Russian state media has historically shown itself to be more than willing to broadcast news that vilifies Russia’s enemies.
On July 12, 2014, Russia’s main state TV channel, Channel One, interviewed a woman who said she had witnessed the public execution of a three-year-old boy, who was crucified in a crowded square in Slovyansk, a town in Eastern Ukraine. The details of the story were shocking. Ukrainian soldiers allegedly nailed the boy to a board, in front of his mother. According to the witness, the soldiers then grabbed the boy’s mother, tied her to a tank, and dragged her three times around the city.
Within days of airing on state TV, however, the story was proven to be false. As reported by Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova, there was no evidence about the child’s crucifixion in Slovyansk. An investigation by Yevgeny Feldman, a reporter from the independent Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, confirmed the story’s fabrication.
But the story was a valuable one for the government, and part of its massive propaganda campaign to portray Ukrainian citizens and soldiers as “fascists” who were persecuting ethnic Russians.
On January 16, 2016, Russian state channels broadcast yet another misleading story, this time about the alleged rape of a Russian-German girl by Muslim immigrants in Germany. According to coverage run by Russian channels, the thirteen-year-old girl, who is from a Russian immigrant family in Berlin, was kidnapped by a group of Muslim men and raped for thirty hours. As The Washington Post reported, “On the Russian-speaking Internet, news of the outrage soon spread, and the case was taken as a sign that a tolerant attitude to refugees and migrants had created a public safety problem in Germany.”
As it turned out, the young girl had fabricated the story; in reality, she had decided to run away because of problems at school, and had stayed with a nineteen-year-old male acquaintance during her absence.
Again, however, this story was a useful tool for the Russian government to vilify an enemy, this time, Germany.
Unlike these false stories so eagerly published by Russian television stations, the story about the horrifying murder in Moscow is, in fact, true. Because of its potential negative affects on Russia’s image, however, state media outlets chose not to air it. As Russian blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny suggested on his blog, Echo of Moscow, “if these horrific circumstances happened in Europe, we would be hearing about it for weeks and months in talk-shows with so-called ‘international experts and political scientists’ that will be telling us about degradation and decline of the West.”
According to police, there are several potential reasons for Gulchekhra Bobokulova’s actions. These include a possible schizophrenia diagnosis, as well as the influence of her radical partner, who was from Tajikistan, and contacts with a yet-to-be-identified radical Islamist group.
According to Bobokulova herself, she decided to murder the child in order to avenge Muslims killed in Russia’s air campaign in Syria. For this reason, this story could have raised questions among the Russian public about the airstrikes, and caused them to begin worrying about the consequences of those airstrikes on their daily lives.
While state-run media apologists say they are trying to avoid sparking hatred and violence, they have willingly run stories that help the Kremlin marginalize and demonize groups it opposes for political or ideological reasons. In this case, the decision not to run a story that could hurt the government has come at the cost of much needed conversations about an unspeakable murder and its implications for Russia, its people, and foreign policies.