Why you should care
Because the medium is the message.
The Finnish journalist didn’t immediately register what had happened. He knew the question he’d asked during a routine press conference in Moscow — about the savage treatment of gays in Chechnya, a southern Russian region — would provoke a rebuke from Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s hard-nosed spokesperson. But he wasn’t fully prepared for what followed.
After dismissing his inquiry and demonstratively taking down his particulars — “Erkka … Mikkonen … ” — the stylish blonde looked into the camera and addressed Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, famous for his alleged human rights abuses: “Could you organize a fact-finding trip to the Chechen Republic for this particular journalist, where he’ll be able to find the answers to all his questions?” Several minutes of bickering ensued, primarily over whether Mikkonen would take up the offer. Later, as she was wrapping up the presser, she glanced once more at the flummoxed Finn and fixed him with her eyes: “You’re not afraid, are you?”
Welcome to the new face of Russian diplomacy. Elegant yet fierce, tech-savvy and formidable, the 41-year-old information warrior has gained a reputation for her fiery approach and colorful personality. As Russia boldly asserts itself on the world stage, outspoken officials like Zakharova help convey the sort of brazen defiance the Kremlin is keen to project under President Vladimir Putin, both at home and toward its Western adversaries.
State television, key to crafting a narrative casting Russia as a resurgent global power, is a brilliant vehicle for doing so. Zakharova often appears on primetime talk shows, picking apart Western diplomacy or generally lambasting the United States and its dubious global agenda. “You’re destined to keep stepping on the same rake,” she told an incensed Newsweek correspondent earlier this year, “just like you did in Iraq and other regions in the world.”
If you want to know what’s going to happen in America, who do you have to talk to? You have to talk to the Jews, naturally.
Glamorous and confident, Zakharova delivers her message effectively and with rhetorical flourish, often leveraging her experience working for the Russian mission at the UN to showcase her presumed inside knowledge of U.S. affairs. At press conferences, that’s matched with an intensity designed to make opponents shudder. “Only when I watched the video afterward did I see how mean she was,” Mikkonen tells OZY, recalling his interaction with Zakharova last May.
But however convincing she may seem, her positions aren’t always sound. In a recent appearance, Zakharova drew attention to a photograph circulated on Russian social media depicting Osama Bin Laden with Hillary Clinton, supposedly taken at the White House. Meant to lend support to her statement on questionable U.S. lobbying practices, it didn’t quite pan out: Bin Laden’s face had clearly been photoshopped over that of an Indian musician who met Clinton at a 2004 event. Another time, Zakharova went low by suggesting a conspiracy had led to Donald Trump’s election last year: “If you want to know what’s going to happen in America, who do you have to talk to?” she asked. “You have to talk to the Jews, naturally.”
Still, her tenacity and, presumably, unshakeable faith in the system make her an extremely useful bureaucrat. So does the other part of her persona: On social media, Zakharova posts striking selfies and red carpet appearances, in addition to her engaging Facebook posts describing diplomatic life on the road. It’s a far cry from the dreary, Soviet-style dissemination of talking points and press releases that once characterized the ministry’s media efforts. In other news, she grabbed headlines last year after performing a traditional Russian dance — wearing a short dress and stilettos — for journalists in Sochi. Taken together, she cuts the image of a dynamic, modern professional. And that’s exactly what officials had in mind when they appointed Zakharova spokesperson in 2015.
With tensions between Russia and the West simmering at Cold War levels, the Kremlin has been focused on matching or outdoing its global rivals, says Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. Whether through sleek media, such as RT, its foreign propaganda network, or more traditional methods, such as picking well-groomed representatives to update its Soviet image, Russia is challenging the West at its own game — and Zakharova is a central player.
Born into a diplomatic family, Zakharova spent her early years in China, graduated from an elite Russian university in 1998 and entered the workforce just as Putin began remaking Russia. Back then, the country was reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left Russia crippled and broke. Relying on high oil prices and an authoritarian hand, the ex-KGB agent “lifted the country from its knees,” his supporters like to say, creating a middle class with disposable income but ruled by a sprawling, venal bureaucracy fueled by graft and shielded by propaganda.
Make no mistake: Propaganda has gone far in consolidating support for the ruling regime. Putin, for one, continues to enjoy soaring approval ratings. And yet, while he’s hailed for making Russia great again, the country’s stinging realities are hidden in plain sight — scourges such as severe wealth inequality, a population decline and an AIDS epidemic — all products, critics contend, of a leadership more focused on self-preservation than on public service.
Konstantin von Eggert, a political commentator for TV Rain, Russia’s only independent network, says the emergence of young professionals like Zakharova betrays an ultimately false belief among the elite. “And that is: If you have enough English-speakers who know the business jargon, who have been abroad, and who know how to wear suits, you automatically modernize,” he says. For now, Zakharova may have captured Russian hearts and minds — but how long before slick phrases and stilettos just won’t cut it?