A Russian Radioactive Journalist and Cloud

Specifically, a literal radioactive cloud was just detected, containing Ruthenium-106, a heavy concentration of which was released in Russia and has drifted into Europe.


Last month, French and German radiation safety officials identified the southern Ural Mountain region, home of Mayak, as the likely source of a cloud of a radioactive isotope, ruthenium 106, that they detected wafting over Europe. The plant at Mayak reprocesses spent fuel and produces isotopes.

Ruthenium 106, which is obtained from spent fuel, is used mostly in medicine. It is considered not particularly dangerous because of its short half-life, 373 days, and harmless at the low concentrations that have turned up in Europe.

What makes this newsworthy is that we wouldn’t have known about it had not scientists in Europe discovered the unusual radiation levels and traced them back to Chelyabinsk Oblast, about 1,000 miles due east of Moscow. Russians denied that anything amiss occurred, then slowed conceded. The problem is that something happened and it was covered up until it could no longer be covered up.

Stepan Kalmykov, a chemistry professor at Moscow State University, told N+1, an online news portal, that while posing no health hazard, the leak clearly raised other worries in Russia and beyond. “Somewhere, apparently, the process broke down,” he said, “and nobody can guarantee that at the same place a more serious and more dangerous accident will not happen.”

The ruthenium cloud is not an indication of a reactor meltdown, which would spew a bouquet of many different isotopes, not just the one, said Vitaly G. Fedchenko, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The release would have to come from a container or a place where already separated ruthenium isotope is stored,” he said.

This one didn’t kill anybody, as far as we know. Unfortunately, for future events–and there will be future events–we won’t know about nuclear accidents in PutinLand until non-Russian scientists detect radioactivity or until Russian civilians start keeling over.

The radioactive journalist–no, this one wasn’t injected with polonium…yet–is Dimitri Skorobutov (try saying that name on your second glass of Thanksgiving port).

Aside from Fox News, no network worked as hard as Rossiya, as Russian state TV is called, to boost Donald Trump and denigrate Hillary Clinton. Skorobutov, who was fired from his job after a dispute with a colleague that ended in a physical altercation, went public with his story of how Russian state media works, in June, talking to the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Radio Liberty. The organizers of the Maastricht conference learned of his story and invited him to speak. He flipped through his pages and pointed to the coverage guide for August 9, 2016, when Clinton stumbled while climbing some steps. The Kremlin wanted to play the story up big.

Skorobutov started working in Russian state media companies when he was seventeen years old, and has worked in print, radio, and TV. During the 2016 campaign, he was an editor for “Vesti,” a daily news program. Skorobutov described it as a mid-level position, with four layers of bureaucrats separating him and the Kremlin. His supervisor was a news director who, he said, got his job after making a laudatory documentary about Putin. Before joining “Vesti,” Skorobutov worked as the press secretary of the Russian Geographical Society, a pet project of Putin, which made headlines last year when Putin declared at a Society event that Russian borders “do not end anywhere.”

In his speech at the journalism conference, Skorobutov explained that as a young journalist he believed that working for the state media was not necessarily corrupting. “When I came to TV, in 2000,” he said, in his prepared remarks, “there was another Russia: with independent media, so-called freedom of speech, with a hope for a better life associated with the new President Vladimir Putin. I was convinced that everything we do on TV is for the better life to come soon. But the life was getting worse and worse.”

In his telling, it was the 2011-2012 protests in Moscow that changed everything. Those protests, which Putin blamed on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spooked the Russian President, according to Skorobutov. “People were imprisoned. Media were taken under control of the State. Censorship introduced,” he said. “It was a point of reflection for me. The state was against its people. Human freedoms, including freedom of speech, were gradually eliminated.” (Others would note that this is a self-serving chronology, as Putin’s dismantling of democracy began long before 2011, and that Skorobutov remained at state TV through the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, when Russian media propaganda was especially noxious.)

After the suppression of the 2012 protests, Skorobutov said, he became increasingly disturbed by his role in “helping the state to create this new and unpleasant reality,” resigned his job as the press secretary at the Russian Geographical Society, and began looking for a new job, but without any luck.

As is often the case with state censorship, the workings of Kremlin-controlled media, as Skorobutov described them, were far more subtle than is popularly imagined. He described a system that depended on a news staff that knew what issues to avoid and what issues to highlight rather than one that had every decision dictated to it. “We knew what is allowed or forbidden to broadcast,” he explained. Any event that included Putin or the Russian Prime Minister “must be broadcast,” while events such as “terroristic attacks, airplane crashes, arrests of politicians and officials” had to be approved by the news director or his deputy. He offered a list of embargoed subjects: “critique of the State, coming from inside or outside of Russia; all kinds of social protests, strikes, discontent of people and so on; political protests and opposition leaders, especially Alexey Navalny,” an anti-corruption figure despised by the Kremlin. Skorobutov said that he overcame censorship rules and convinced his network to cover stories only twice: for a story about a protest against the construction of a Siberian chemical plant and for one about the food poisoning of children at a kindergarten.

During the 2016 election, the directions from the Kremlin were less subtle than usual. “Me and my colleagues, we were given a clear instruction: to show Donald Trump in a positive way, and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in a negative way,” he said in his speech. In a later interview, he explained to me how the instructions were relayed. “Sometimes it was a phone call. Sometimes it was a conversation,” he told me. “If Donald Trump has a successful press conference, we broadcast it for sure. And if something goes wrong with Clinton, we underline it.”

Skorobutov said in his speech that the pro-Trump perspective extended from Kremlin-controlled media to the Moscow élite.

This only confirms what was reported in the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment. However, Mr. Skorobutov said that Putin’s efforts came up short.

In Skorobutov’s opinion, Putin’s effort to make Trump a reliable ally ultimately failed. He said that Trump’s airstrike in Syria in April ended the romance for Russian élites. “Russian authorities failed with their hopes that financial and media support will make Trump really Russian,” he said. “They were wrong as they didn’t take into consideration the U.S. political system and mentality. Russian authorities hoped—literally—to buy Donald Trump, using bribes and tricks. But they failed.”

This also makes sense. Trump’s actual less-than-pro-Putin acts as president haven’t matched his more pro-Putin words, which is a good thing. Nevertheless, it doesn’t negate my belief that we should be critical of Trump’s friendliness with a dictator who has been consistently hostile to our interests in multiple locales.



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