What Russians Think of Tucker Carlson’s Kiss-up Sitdown with Putin
State-controlled media loved it. Dissidents have found plenty to mock.
TUCKER CARLSON’S TRIP TO RUSSIA for an interview with Vladimir Putin was the subject of extraordinary hype in Moscow, treated by the official media almost like a visit from a head of state. State-controlled news outlets breathlessly chronicled his comings and goings: the visit to the fast-food joint Vkusno i Tochka, rebranded from McDonald’s after the latter pulled out of Russian markets; the trip to the Bolshoi for Spartacus, the iconic Soviet-era revolutionary ballet; the metro ride; and, finally, the departure.
Carlson, in a tweet, expressed pride in his accomplishment in having sat down for a state-managed lecture by one of the world’s great monsters. Putin, on the other hand, insulted Carlson throughout the interview. At first watch, it wasn’t clear if either side got exactly what it wanted. Among Russian observers, theories and explanations abound.
“We continue to follow this story,” Rossiya-1 host and propagandist extraordinaire Olga Skabeyeva intoned dramatically to footage of Carlson at Sheremetyevo Airport. “Tucker Carlson, in accordance with his last name, has flown away.” (Jokey references to the Swedish children’s book series Karlsson-on-the-Roof by Astrid Lindgren, which has been hugely popular in Russia since Soviet times, surfaced in nearly every Russian commentary, official or not.) “He hasn’t promised to return to Russia, but we understand that this depends largely on how Tucker will be received at home. . . . Before boarding the flight, he revealed when he would publish his interview with Putin, which has already become both scandalous and famous.”
For dissident (mostly expatriate) Russian commentators such as Russian-American journalist Michael Nacke and political strategist Stanislav Belkovsky, the fawning reception accorded Carlson in Moscow—a “parade of servility,” in the words of opposition activist Liubov Sobol—became an occasion for scathing mockery before the interview had even aired. Nacke, who compared the official Russian media to the stereotypes of deferential natives bowing before a visiting colonial overlord, noted that even some pro-Kremlin “milbloggers” were put off by the undignified display. Dignity aside, Nacke and others pointed out a fundamental paradox of the Putin regime’s anti-Western and anti-American stance: While the West and especially the United States are routinely portrayed as the epitome of evil and moral corruption, any sign of positive attention and approval from a Westerner is treated as a great honor.
Since Russian and Ukrainian pundits have varying degrees of acquaintance with Carlson’s career, they had a wide range of reactions to Carlson himself. Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsimbalyuk expressed surprise that someone with such a shallow and scrambled understanding of what is happening in Russia and Ukraine could have been a top-level host at Fox News for so many years. (Oh, you sweet summer child.) Political scientist and former Kremlin strategist Abbas Galyamov was certain that Carlson must have received a hefty payoff from the Kremlin for the Putin interview. Otherwise, he asserted, there’s no way the American journalist would have risked his reputation by participating in such a shameful spectacle. (Risked his what?) Galyamov cited an “experienced” friend back in Russia who speculated that the fee must have been at least five million—rubles or dollars, he didn’t clarify—and then upped it to ten million after watching the interview, perhaps because the ordeal of listening to Professor Putin’s Russian history course was worth at least that much.
Meanwhile, for Andrei Kozyrev, the Yeltsin-era Russian foreign minister, the fact that Putin was reduced to choosing a Fox News reject and dishonest propagandist like Carlson for his vehicle was a sign of how low the Kremlin had sunk in international estimation. Kozyrev speculated that no respectable journalist, even a right-wing one, would have touched such an assignment with a ten-foot pole because “everyone understands what Putin is.” (Not quite; it’s more that Carlson was the one journalist the Kremlin perceived as friendly enough to be trusted with such a chat.) Kozyrev memorably characterized the Carlson/Putin conversation as a “meeting of outcasts.”
Putin’s deep dive into Russian and Ukrainian history—the “30 seconds”-turned-25 minutes, complete with a folder of supporting documents translated from Old Church Slavonic—occasioned as much derision in the independent Russian media as they did in the United States. It was “very irresponsible” of Putin to start in the ninth century and not in the Mesozoic era, with the separation of continents and the descent of man, quipped journalist Maria Pevchikh. Others said Carlson’s face as Putin spoke looked like that of someone stuck on a long train trip next to a slightly looney fellow passenger who just won’t shut up. But there was also some serious discussion of the distortions in Putin’s version of history. Alexei Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, pointed out that while seventeenth-century Ukrainian Cossack warlord Bohdan Khmelnytsky really did petition the Russian tsar to take Ukraine under his protection—as per those documents in Putin’s folder—the wily Khmelnytsky conducted similar negotiations with the king of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Turkish sultan, playing them against each other for a better deal. In other words: there should have been two more folders for full context.
But most independent commentators, both Russian and Ukrainian, were more interested in a much more recent part of Putin’s trip down false memory lane: the claim that Poland started World War II by provoking Adolf Hitler into an invasion. This bizarre and victim-blaming version of history smacks unmistakably of Nazi apologetics; indeed, an opposition politician in Russia has already sent a complaint to the Russian Investigative Committee asking that Putin be charged with “rehabilitation of Nazism.” (Of course, we all know that the complainer is far more likely to be in trouble than Putin himself.) The parallel to Putin’s claim that he was left with no choice but to invade Ukraine is obvious.
“It’s one thing to do your own exposés of globalist conspiracies, and another to find yourself attending an alternative history lecture from Putin in the role of student,” noted TV-Rain host Mikhail Fishman, who knows enough about Carlson’s history to peg him as a conspiracy theorist, in his own sarcastic analysis of the interview. Fishman also mentioned a conspiracy theory about Carlson himself: namely, the rumor that he was in Moscow on a special mission for Donald Trump and had an off-camera conversation with Putin playing emissary rather than journalist. Fishman didn’t necessarily credit this story, but he suggested that Putin almost certainly sees Carlson as “the same as Trump,” or a Trump stand-in. Along the same lines, Russian journalist Igor Yakovenko, a former Duma deputy and general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, told the Ukrainian Freedom Channel that Carlson’s visit and the Putin interview was unquestionably meant to boost Trump’s electoral chances for 2024 and to sink any congressional deal that would include aid to Ukraine. Yakovenko sees Trump, Carlson, and Putin as the unholy trinity of this story—or, with Elon Musk (who assiduously promoted the interview), an unholy quadrinity.
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Yet the Kremlin clearly intended the interview for domestic consumption as well. It was released in Russia on propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s online channel. Russians, of course, are already amply familiar with Putin’s alternative history, self-serving justifications, and endless complaints about how he and Russia have been disrespected, cheated, and bamboozled by the West. But the Carlson interview was intended to demonstrate to Russians that Putin is sufficiently respected to be interviewed by a big-league American journalist—and, Galyamov has speculated, to distract people from the other major story that unfolded in Russia last week: the Central Electoral Commission’s decision to disqualify antiwar, anti-Putin candidate Boris Nadezhdin from the presidential elections in March for transparently bogus reasons. The Nadezhdin story makes Putin look scared of a little-known and vastly outgunned opponent; the Carlson interview managed to bump it from the top of the news even in the independent Russia media. So that’s at least one mission accomplished.
Will the interview help or hurt Putin? Nacke, for his part, has unironically thanked Carlson for giving Putin enough uninterrupted time to show himself as a paranoid, rambling, grievance-obsessed fascist. Yakovenko, less optimistic, believes that many viewers outside Russia will naïvely see many of Putin’s claims as at least partially valid, especially since the debunkings will have far less reach.
Whatever the outcome, independent, Russian-speaking journalists have certainly had a field day with the Carlson interview, if only for the “Karlsson-on-the-roof” memes. The famous 1968 animated movie based on Lindgren’s books was called Junior and Karlsson. The jokes practically write themselves.