Shestopalova on Rollberg and Laruelle, 'Mass Media in the Post-Soviet World: Market Forces, State Actors, and Political Manipulation in the Informational Environment after Communism'

Peter Rollberg, Marlene Laruelle, eds.
Alona Shestopalova

Peter Rollberg, Marlene Laruelle, eds. Mass Media in the Post-Soviet World: Market Forces, State Actors, and Political Manipulation in the Informational Environment after Communism. Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society Series. Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2018. 410 pp. $50.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8382-1116-9

Reviewed by Alona Shestopalova (University of Hamburg) Published on H-Russia (December, 2021) Commissioned by Oleksa Drachewych (Western University)

Printable Version:

Peter Rollberg and Marlene Laruelle's collection, Mass Media in the Post-Soviet World, is an interdisciplinary work addressing roots, the current status, and potential future developments of media environments in post-Soviet states. The volume, published as part of the series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, is a collection of seventeen essays written by more than twenty authors and divided into three parts according to topics. In the introduction, the editors declare that the aim of the book is to grasp major regional trends, and each of the individual essays does contribute to the accomplishment of this aim. Still, most of the contributions focus on a particular state and address one or another aspect of its respective national media system. As a result, those who expect the book to be a holistic product providing the reader with an integral picture of the region should keep in mind the dramatic diversity of the fifteen states once coexisting under the rule of the Soviet regime. The absence of homogeneity in the region inevitably leads to academics mostly working on individual post-Soviet states and paying less attention to their common features.

The present book is unique in that it moves beyond the typical coverage the states discussed usually get in books on these topics. For instance, while typically media environments of Central Asian states receive no more than sporadic scholarly attention, in this volume, media in most of these states is addressed in detail. Another fact that makes the book a remarkable contribution to the literature is that, as the editors point out, media of post-Soviet states is of greatest interest for Western scholars in the context of elections; in contrast, the current book goes beyond this traditional focus of media use by incorporating identity formation, mentality, nation-building, and public debates. The conceptualization of overall regional traits and trends, however, remains somewhat missing in the book. This should not necessarily be seen as a weakness of the volume but rather as a feature of the region encompassing diverse states of the Soviet past.

The rare examples of Baltic states are given in the book predominately to underline that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania moved quite far from what is considered to be "typical" for the region. The cases of Georgia and Ukraine are more detailed and illustrate challenging and not always linear movement toward democratization and media freedom; simultaneously, the cases of Russia and Central Asian autocracies, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are examples of the movement toward higher state control over mass media compared to the "glasnost" period and the early 1990s. In light of such diversity, it is understandable that the editors of the volume, as well as the authors of particular essays, mostly avoid regional generalizations. Among few exceptions is Russian information influence, which the editors acknowledge as "a sore point of all post-Soviet media environments" (p. 11). After reading the book one might come to another logical generalization: in the early 1990s, none of the post-Soviet states had an established democratic political system, which largely determined the similarity of their unfavorable starting positions in the sphere of media freedom. This volume illustrates significant differences in what each of those states built on the ruins of totalitarianism.

The book consists of three parts: "National Trends," "Television," and "Social Media." The first part presents some key features of the analyzed national media environments. Insights from this part are largely based on the political developments of the last three decades. The second part focuses on TV, an important source of politically relevant information for citizens of post-Soviet states, as well as the medium widely used for entertainment. The third part, in its turn, is based in the present but directed to the future: the dramatic growth of the Internet in the recent past has turned social media into a factor of influence in politics or at least into a platform for public debates in most of the analyzed states.

Going into more detail, "National Trends" is the longest section, consisting of seven essays: one chapter discussing the nature and politics of international media rankings, and six focused on one or a couple of states from the region—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and Georgia. Authors of most of the essays touch on concepts of democratization and authoritarianism and examine how the political system of a state influences its media system. This part of the book would benefit from a general discussion of the main findings of the individual essays, as even a superficial look at them shows some theoretically meaningful similarities. For example, some authors deal with the implications of growing media freedom in states lacking a strong democratic consensus over core political issues. Thus, in their comparative essay about media consumption, Barbara Junisbai, Azamat Junisbai, and Nicola Ying Fry underline that the higher level of media freedom (for example, Kyrgyzstan) does not necessarily cause a higher trust in national media among locals compared to the trust in national media in a state with a lower level of media freedom (for example, Kazakhstan). Similar nuances are raised at the end of Tudor Vlad, Lee B. Becker, and Jack Snyder's contribution on media rankings. They question whether an increase in media freedom affects media quality or whether media freedom contributes to sociopolitical unity or to polarization.

The second part, "Television," includes five chapters, most focusing on a particular national TV product in order to grasp how it constructs respective national identities or disseminates politically relevant information in the form of entertainment. A huge segment of scientific literature in the field of political communication was written about the influence of news, in contrast to this quite popular and widespread approach, essays in this part of the book are about mini-series, documentaries, or cultural programming and their political relevance for nation-building.

The third part, "Social Media," includes five essays, describing instances of restrictions of the Internet, state hegemony over Internet infrastructure, politically motivated trolling in social media, and other cases when authorities of post-Soviet states try to limit the political influence of new technologies or even to make use of it for governmental communication goals. Even though there is no overall empirical or theoretical discussion in this part of the book, the reader gets an impression of dynamic exchange of knowledge: as if one author would deepen thoughts of the other(s) or work with their concerns about the political potential of social media. For instance, while Sarah Oates and Navbahor Imamova point to the pluralizing effect of social media, other contributors, such as Luca Anceschi, warn that autocrats might turn social media into a tool of targeted state propaganda.

The general time frame covered is from the collapse of the USSR until approximately 2014. Therefore, references to major events happening in and after 2014, as well as implications of those events for media environments in the analyzed states, are mostly absent. On the one hand, this time frame makes the book slightly outdated; on the other hand, it reveals the authors’ in-depth knowledge of the analyzed cases illustrated by the high predictive power of their essays concerning, for example, the growing symbolic role of Nursultan Nazarbayev (as articulated by Peter Rollberg) that was strengthened even more by renaming Astana into Nur-Sultan in 2019; distrust in the Belarus state media (discussed in the piece by Oleg Manaev) that was one of the triggers for the political uprising after the falsified elections in Belarus in August 2020 and thereafter; or politically motivated blocking of Aleksey Navalny’s page on LiveJournal in 2014 (mentioned by Maria Lipman) followed by more severe cases of pressure or even the recent assassination attempt against him.

Furthermore, some authors actively incorporate media-relevant knowledge from the last years of the USSR (Sarah Oates); show how a combination of national historical and spiritual fundaments might strengthen national identity (Marlene Laruelle); or remind the reader of particular media products from the period of Joseph Stalin’s rule, and analyze how and why nowadays autocracies try to make use of a mini-series about Peter the Great (Peter Rollberg). Such an approach helps to incorporate the knowledge on the wider historical context and to address the issue of recontextualization of historical events that became a notable strategy of political communication in post-Soviet states.

The core readership of this edited volume will include scholars from the domains of journalism and communication and political science who will find the volume insightful and useful. Additional segments of the readership, such as historians, culturologists, and public relations specialists, could also find the book interesting and valuable for deepening their professional knowledge on the states of the former USSR.

Citation: Alona Shestopalova. Review of Rollberg, Peter; Laruelle, Marlene, eds., Mass Media in the Post-Soviet World: Market Forces, State Actors, and Political Manipulation in the Informational Environment after Communism. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL:

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