To commemorate the final closure of the Da Russophile blog and its permanent transfer and redirection to this site, here is a reprint of an excellent article by Nils van der Vegte (with a little editing from myself) that appeared in Jon Hellevig’s and Alexandre Latsa’s 2012 anthology on Putin’s New Russia (PDF download).
Truly Will Rogers’ observation in 1926 that “anything is true if it’s about Russia” remains as prescient as ever.
A Short Guide to Lazy Russia Journalism
Nils van der Vegte
So you’re a Westerner who wants to become a Russia journalist? Once you get past the self-serving bluster, it’s really a very safe, well-paid, and rewarding job – but only on condition that you follow a set of guidelines. Inspired by a post at the blog Kosmopolito on lazy EU journalism, I decided to provide a similar service for work ethic-challenged Russia journalists. Enjoy!
1. Mastering and parroting a limited set of tropes is probably the most important part of your work as a journalist in Russia. Never forget to mention that Putin used to work for the KGB. Readers should always be reminded of this: The “former KGB spy”, the “former KGB agent”, etc. Other examples include (but are not limited to) “Putin destroyed democracy”, “The Russian economy is dependent on oil”, “There is no media freedom”, “Russia is more corrupt than Zimbabwe”, “Khodorkovsky is a political prisoner and Russia’s next Sakharov”, “Russia is really weak” (but also a dire threat!), “Russia is a Potemkin village” and “a dying bear” that is ruled by “a kleptocratic mafia.” You get the drift…
2. Not sure who is doing what? Not sure how Russia works? Just make a sentence with the word “Kremlin”. Examples include “this will create problems for the Kremlin”, “the Kremlin is insecure”, “the Kremlin’s support of anti-Western dictators”, etc.
3. This “Kremlin” is always wrong, and its motives are always nefarious. If it requires many signatures to register a party – that is authoritarianism, meant to repress liberal voices. If it requires only a few signatures to register a party – that is also authoritarianism, a dastardly plot to drown out the “genuine opposition” amidst a flood of Kremlin-created fake opposition parties.
4. If visitors to your blog or website criticize you for your one-sided coverage, don’t try to argue with them (or explain your reasoning). This will only hurt your professionalism. If one comes a-knocking, call him or her a “KGB agent”, “FSB agent” (names of security services always work well), “fellow traveller”, “Stalinist”, “useful idiot”, “Kremlin troll”, “Kremlin bot”, “Putin’s pilot fish”, or “Surkov propagandist”. If they persist, start deleting their comments and banning them.
5. Your job as a journalist isn’t to be objective. Instead, personal grievances against the Russian authorities should always be prioritized. Remember, Putin is the Stalin of our age. If the Russian police are trying to arrest someone because he violated the law, it is perfectly acceptable to try to physically prevent the police from arresting him. In no way will this impinge on your professionalism.
6. Hyping anti-government demonstrations is of the utmost importance. A demonstration in downtown Moscow of 500 people at which your fellow journalists outnumber the protesters? Revolution tomorrow!
7. An important rule is that reporting on Russia means NOT researching important issues or looking past the rhetoric. To partially invert what C. P. Scott once said, “Comment is free, and facts aren’t sacred.” If various anonymous “experts” say that corruption in Russia is worse than in Zimbabwe, but the Russians themselves only report paying bribes as frequently as Hungarians, it is clear which line you should copy and paste. “Russia is dying out” is another good trope to raise at any opportunity, even if (obviously Putin-controlled) statistics agencies are saying that the Russian population is now growing.
8. You must also learn to suppress any cognitive dissonance you might get from arguing that Russia is really weak and in a state of seemingly perpetual collapse (“dying bear”, “rusting tanks”, “mafia state”, etc), but at the same time a dire threat to Western security and civilization itself.
9. Every non-systemic opposition member is a potential ally. Don’t cover any negative sides of these people, as this will only complicate things for your reader. Though it may be true that the leftwing activist Sergey Udaltsov is known for his Stalin admiration, that the anti-corruption blogger Navalny is prone to frequent racist remarks, that liberal journalist Latynina doesn’t want poor people voting, and that Khodorkovsky is a mega-crook even according to the European Court of Human Rights, these are all unimportant details that detract from the overall goal of overthrowing the bloody regime and true democratization.
10. Speaking of democracy – as far as a democratic journalist like yourself is concerned, anybody who is against Putin is a democrat. No matter if the demos, the people, only favor him or her with single-digit approval ratings (and even regardless of his or her own views on democracy). To the contrary, any Russian who supports Putin is part of the “sovok” cattle herd, and his or her opinions are invalid due to their poor education or Kremlin brainwashing. Feel free to express these sentiments on Twitter, but do make an effort to cloak them in political correctness when writing at more august venues.
11. Most of the systemic opposition – i.e., those who participate in the farce known as Russian elections – are really Kremlin stooges in disguise. Even though the Communists are by far the formal biggest opposition bloc, it is non-systemic activists and sundry “dissidents” who are the “genuine Russian opposition”.
12. Everything in Russia involves around Putin. There is no one else in Russia, never was, and it is he who decides everything in the biggest country on this planet. Did it take an annoyingly long time for you to get your clothes back that one time you lost your dry cleaning ticket? Or maybe someone stole your purse in Moscow? All Putin’s fault!
13. Don’t bother learning Russian. It does not help to increase the quality of your articles. You can always rely on your fellow non-Russian journalists for some juicy rumors about Putin’s Swiss bank accounts and nubile mistresses. (In general, be bold! As Russia coverage is concerned, plagiarism isn’t really an issue – you’re more likely to be promoted than fired if uncovered). If anything, learning Russian will put your professionalism at risk by exposing you to the opinions of ordinary Russians, which may accidentally leak out in your articles.
14. If you do end up learning Russian, make sure to keep your circle of Russian acquaintances limited to other democratic journalists and leading members of the liberal opposition. Never mingle with non-opposition Russian journalists, i.e. propaganda mouthpieces of the regime.
15. Above all, you must cultivate a burning, righteous hatred for “the Kremlin’s TV channel”, RT, and anyone who works or even appears there. It is “low brow”, “full of conspiracies”, “slavishly pro-Putin”, “anti-American”, etc. Never directly compare it with Western media bias, because that is “moral relativism” and “whataboutism” (see below). It’s one thing if Kremlin propagandists broadcast in Russian, it’s quite another when they directly compete for your Anglophone audience by covering irrelevant and anti-American stuff like Occupy protests, Wikileaks, or US indefinite detention laws. Attack them like your profession’s reputation is on the line! (and it is!)
16. Whenever you study conflicts between Russia and other countries, always blame everything on Russia – regardless of objective facts, and especially when the conflict is with a staunch Western ally. So, even when Russia bans wine imports from a country one of whose own Ministers describe said wine in scatological terms, it is “economic warfare”. Ergo for cutting off gas supplies to a country that refuses to pay for them. Killing Russian soldiers is always commendable; any Russian retaliation is typically either “imperialism”, “nationalism”, “neo-Soviet revanchism”, and various combinations thereof. Never forget that Putin hates the West and dreams of rebuilding the Tsarist empire. Any expression of Russian goodwill to the West is a plot to dupe or divide the tragic, all too trusting West. Any expression of Western goodwill towards Russia is “appeasement”, and is to be condemned in no uncertain terms. Don’t forget Munich!
17. Guessing is fun! In the event you find guessing a bit too taxing on your imagination, just interview some marginal, highly unpopular Russian politician. Boris Nemtsov and Gorbachev are usually good bets. Their guesses are usually a lot more creative than what you could have come up with yourself.
18. Never try to place Russia’s problems in a broader perspective. Don’t mention that population decline is far steeper in the Baltics, that more Americans were arrested in Occupy events than Russians protesting against Putin, or that more Britons say they want to emigrate than Russians. This is called “Soviet-style whataboutism”, and only “Kremlin trolls” engage in it. Leave logic and statistics to those losers; your weapons of choice as a democratic journalist are rhetoric, personal attacks and insinuations.
19. Always remind readers that Putin kills critical reporters – brave reporters kind of like yourself, in fact! – and prove it by quoting one he has not, or by including in your examples murdered journalists who were supporters of Putin. Under no circumstance should you mention that the rate of journalist murders was much higher under Yeltsin, or that it is lower in Russia today than in “democratic” Mexico and Brazil, or that unlike Russia, Israel currently imprisons several journalists.
20. Stalin. Always remind readers that Russians like Stalin very much. Putin, even more so. Their names both have two syllables and share the last two letters, what more evidence do you need? Every time Stalin appears on a bus or in a school notebook, or is described as an “effective manager” in one of dozens of textbooks, it must be on orders from Putin himself. Do not mention any instances of historic revisionism involving glorification of SS and nationalist war criminals in the Baltics and Ukraine.
Good luck on your new career as a Russia journalist!