This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Media Battle Continues

Picture: Afhgan "War Carpet"
It hardly takes a genius to realise that there is little love lost between Russia's piarchiks (PR management) and most Western journalists: 'Putin: the brutal despot who is dragging the West into a new Cold War', the Daily Mail was heard to scream back in 2008. Hardly balanced journalism, and not an isolated incident either - rather just one (admittedly rather extreme) example of the British media's tendency to label any Russian activity not corresponding with British desires as anti-Western. Similarly, Russian media outlets (particularly TV news shows) rarely do the West any favours. I have lost count of the amount of times bewildered Russians have asked me why the Brits (and especially Alistair Darling) hate Russia so. Surely a product of over-hyped media representation of political manoeuvres?

Both Western and Russian journalists are guilty of, at best, selective editing and at worst, down right factual distortion, when reporting on the sensitive relationship between the West and newly-resurgent Russia. This tension was never clearer than during the so-called 'information war' which took place at the height of last year's Russian-Georgian war. Both Russian and Georgian officials criticised Western media for biased coverage of events. “We lost the information war in the first few days”, lamented Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Andrei Klyuchnikov, while on the other side of the border, Malkhaz Gulashvili, President of The Georgian Times Media Holding opined how: "Georgia has lost the information war since, unfortunately, foreign agencies frequently relied on Russian news sources controlled by the Kremlin. These would spread inaccurate news which foreign media had to reject later." Meanwhile, western commentators had their own suspicions about domestic portrayal of events accusing both Moscow and Tbilisi of being involved in a game of 'mythmaking.'

In September last year, Vlast’, (Kommersant’s weekly magazine) published an article detailing a series of ‘falsifications’ in the Russian media’s coverage of the Georgian war. Particularly interesting was their focus on the rehashing of a program first aired on the American TV channel Fox News, in which an Ossetian girl living in San Francisco was interviewed about the war. The girl, an American citizen, had been visiting relatives in Ossetia when bombs started to fall. She managed to escape back to the US via Moscow and had been invited to speak on the news program as an eyewitness to the events. During the broadcast she thanked the Russian troops, who, she said, had invaded South Ossetia to defend the people living there from Georgian aggression. Her aunt, who was also present, added that she believed Mr Saakashvili was entirely to blame for the war and for the deaths of many innocent people. Both the Russian version and the original American version have been subject to much criticism regarding honest portrayal of the facts. In the original version, the visibly ruffled American news anchor responded to the girl’s comments by quickly switching to an ad break, whilst promising the aunt that he “would never cut her off.” She was then given just 30 seconds to wrap up. His actions caused a furore about freedom of speech in America and criticism of attempts to distort events to fit a political agenda. Meanwhile, back in Russia, the clip was aired as evidence of American bias. In the Russian version, however, the clip was edited to make the anchorman appear ruder. Moreover, his final words, which were in response to the aunt’s assertion that Mr Saakashvili must be punished, “that’s what Russians want. There are many grey areas in war time” were edited to: “that’s what Russians want to hear.” A clear case of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black in terms of accusations of media bias?

Nearly a year on, Vlast' is revisiting the information war. In an article entitled "A Jubilee of Falsification", the publication addresses a more recent battle in this alleged 'information war.' This time the focus of media attention was a photograph of a heavily wounded young soldier allegedly taken by American journalist and war photographer, David Axe. On 8th August, Pervyi Kanal (Channel One) featured the picture in a documentary entitled "Live" War which purported to expose how Western news agencies falsify photographs taken from war zones in order to try and discredit the Russian army. Axe's photograph, which Pervyi Kanal alleged had been part of a series of photos depicting the Georgian war, was shown on the program alongside a voice recording of Axe, stating: “I took this photograph in Iraq.” Proof of Western duplicity, Pervyi Kanal exulted smugly.

But the plot thickens. Two days later, Arkady Babchenko, a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta wrote a blog entry, laying claim to the photograph stating that he had shot it himself. Elsewhere across the blogosphere pictures appeared showing an un-cropped version of the photograph in which the orthodox cross and emblem of the Russian army were visible on the 'Iraqi' soldier. Bloggers were even able to get hold of Axe via email and received the following response: “I never claimed to have taken this photo. I just said that it was an example of a picture that clearly hadn't been faked.”

And so the media war continues, as a variety of different news agencies vie for the hearts, minds and loyalties of a wide spectrum of readers and watchers. It would be interesting to know how many people reading and watching these articles believe a word of what they're learning, in both Russia and the West. I hope that if even a small proportion of Russians feel even half the contempt for Russian news channels that a large proportion of Brits feel for The Daily Mail then the realm of media distortion can never take total control.

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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Lady-killer in a Kimono

As I was saying yesterday, Putin’s been knocking around right at the top for the past decade. Kommersant took a look back at what journalists in Russia and abroad were writing about the mysterious judo enthusiast just after he was first appointed Prime Minister in August 1999.

“Quiet, like a shrew” – the view from Russia

“He is considered to be very cautious. One of Putin’s constant expressions is: “But is it legal?” (News report on TV channel RTR, 9th August 1999)

“Putin’s appearance – that of a man as quiet as a shrew – right in the centre of the Russian catastrophe will go unnoticed.”
(Zavtra newspaper, 10th August, 1999)

“Appointing the chief of the security services - Vladimir Putin – as the official successor to the presidency can be called nothing other than yet another crazy whim of the President. Putin is a man who is almost unknown in the country and although he seems to be intelligent, he is a military man through and through and devoid not only of charisma, but also of any experience of managing state affairs,”
(Parliamentary Newspaper, 11th August, 1999)

“No other civil servant has ever created so many problems for journalists than Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. VV, as they used to call him in Petersburg, is one of those people about whom nothing is known except for the things that he wants to tell you.”
(Komsomolskaya Pravda, 13th August, 1999)

“A retired colonel, an essentially non-military man with the reputation as a playboy no worse than Yury Skuratov [ed: then-Prosecutor General, who had recently been discredited after apparently being shown on a secret tape participating in an orgy with prostitutes]... he is only capable of scaring (although he wouldn’t like to admit it) a dissident with memories of repression 30 years back.
(Kompaniya, 16th August, 1999)

“It is well known that Boris Yeltsin has always preferred his politicians big and strong, with fists, wide shoulders and booming voices. Vladimir Putin breaks down the boundaries of the President’s pets. He’s short, balding and generally somewhat unnoticeable.”
(Argumenty i Fakty, 18th August, 1999)

“Women have always liked him: blue eyes, sporty (they say he often used to stay late at work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sit in the office in a kimono to relax). The blue eyes obviously had a hypnotizing effect on women – despite his bald patch, they still call him blond. When Sobchak lost the elections and Putin bade farewell to the collective, women cried (actually cried, this is not an exaggeration or a metaphor – they actually sobbed en masse).”
(Profil, 30th August, 1999)

“A man with the face of a rat and mousy-coloured hair” – the Western media have their say
“Always obliging, but not exactly hospitable… he has an unrivalled ability to say everything by saying nothing. He has not one charismatic character trait, not even a negative one.
(La Stampa, Italy, 10th August)

“Vladimir Putin – is rather surprisingly faceless bureaucrat with a background in the security services and who dreams of their rebirth. His most remarkable character trait is his complete interchangeability with his predecessor.”
(The Times, UK, 10th August).

“Before resigning Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin returned from the conflict (in Chechnya) and declared that Russia could potentially lose the region of Dagestan… It is precisely for this reason that Yeltsin summoned a “grey cardinal” and “imperialist” to sort out the situation.”
(The Baltimore Sun, USA, 10th August)

“Putin is a supporter of taking a hard line and his devotion to the President will without a doubt be ruthless. The question is – how far can he go?”
(Japan Times, Japan, 11th August)

“Putin remained in the shadows for 17 long years serving the security services. A man with the face of a rat and mousy-coloured hair, he has a dull, grey outward appearance of a real spy.”
(The Jerusalem Post, Israel, 11th August)

“The 46-year old newly appointed Prime Minister is a little man with a downcast gaze, who cannot stand being in the press and remains unbeknown to the majority of people.”
(Le Monde, France, 11th August)

“The world has been confronted with two, entirely different perceptions of a man who will shape Russia’s 21st century agenda – a spy, planning on trampling freedom of speech, or a valiant pro-democracy, pro-reform warrior.”
(Los Angeles Times, USA, 11th August)

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A Collection of Rare Freaks

Vladimir Putin

Ten years ago, on the 9
th August 1999, a young, little-known ex-KGB major was appointed Prime Minister by the ailing Boris Yeltsin. Who could have foreseen what was in store for that “short, balding and generally unnoticeable” spy from Leningrad and the country that once in his grip, would never be let go.

Vlast’ magazine claims to have somewhat foreseen the whole process. In spring of 1999, the magazine ordered an opinion poll to find out what Russian citizens thought an ideal president should be like. With most of the population lacking in real-life examples, the poll instead asked Russians which film characters they would vote for - if they had the chance - in the presidential elections. The results were somewhat unexpected at the time, but, according to Vlast', rather telling for what was soon to come.

Based on “Ten Years under Putin” by Dmitri Kamyshev in this week’s “Vlast'” magazine.

The film characters that proved the most popular choice for president shared one common trait – they were all authoritarian strongmen with a penchant for violence. Peter the Great as played by Nikolai Simonov came in first, closely followed by three members of the security services: Marshal Zhukov, celebrated Red Army officer; Gleb Zheglov – the ruthless “bad cop” in a 1979 detective series known for his disrespect to the law and belief in the ends justifying the means; and Shtirlitz, the ideal NKVD (Stalinist secret police, later to become the KGB) officer in a televised series. Although one could suppose that the actors in these roles may have influenced their popularity (Vladimir Vysotsky played Gleb Zheglov, for example), as a choice for president it is fairly clear that they are all rather lacking in democratic management skills.

Opinion poll analysts concluded that Russians wanted an aggressive, rather than attentive president, and that they believed that only such a leader would be able to restore order in the country. This is fairly interesting, though far from astounding in retrospect. What is more curious is that according to
Vlast’, one day after they published these results, Boris Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov and, contrary to all expectations, three months later appointed Vladimir Putin to his post. Whether or not the opinion poll played any roll in this is anyone’s guess, but, again according to Vlast’, an advisor in the presidential administration earlier this year claimed that at the time such a poll had indeed been discussed within the government.

Two weeks before Putin’s surefooted victory in the subsequent presidential elections,
Vlast’ magazine returned to the results of the opinion poll. It noted that from the outset Putin’s KGB roots allowed parallels to be drawn with NKVD officer Shtirlitz. What’s more, he had begun to take on qualities of the other characters named at the top of the poll. Marshal Zhukov’s military victories were mirrored in Putin’s (apparently) successful war in Chechnya. His similarities with Zheglov were clear by his legendary declaration “if we catch them in the toilet, we’ll flush them down the toilet” [referring to terrorists in the Caucasus], which sounded particularly like Zheglov: “a thief should sit behind bars”. His recognition of the necessity of Russian cooperation with NATO harked back to Peter the Great’s “window to the West”.

Continuing the Peter the Great line,
Vlast’magazine ended with a prognosis of Putin’s path in the future: “Peter the Great also forced the people to love everything German, created a Navy and the city of St. Petersburg, cut the beards off the boyars and the heads off the riflemen, undertook successful (against Sweden) and not-so-successful (the Persian campaign) wars and started a collection of rare freaks.”

Ten years into the Putin era,
Vlast' magazine thinks that the Peter the Great parallel did indeed come true. Many famous and not so famous Russians have had firsthand experience of the second President of the Russian Federation’s love for everything German. Support for the Navy, just as for the Army as a whole, has been a main priority of the state, whilst St. Petersburg has become the authorities’ favourite city and source of cadres. Almost all boyars (regional governors and oligarchs) have had their beards cut off, whilst some lone riflemen (critics of the regime) have even lost their heads. The war in Georgia turned out to be simultaneously successful (according to the Kremlin) and unsuccessful (according to independent experts). The only thing that Putin did not acquire was a collection of rare freaks, although several experts with experience of working with the government and parliament may not necessarily agree.

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