Joera Mulders
May 24, 2012
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‘Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it is true.’ These words were written in 1926 by US aviator, world traveller and Hollywood actor Will Rogers. Rogers had heard much about Russia, from the foreign policy community in the United States, from the emigres he had met in Paris, in short Russia’s image in the world in 1930’s. Still, none of the stories he heard and articles he had read before his trip came close to describing that what he saw with his own eyes, flying a small plane into Russia.

85 years later these words help me to remain calm when confronted with views on the situation in Russia other than those of my own. Sometimes those other views are those of people who I doubt have spent much time in Russia. On other occasions its people who spent much more time in Russia than I do. That’s not the issue here.  In the kaleidoscope that is vast Russia there is proof to be found for many conflicting arguments and opinions. It’s folly to deny that there are vodka and bears in Russia. Media censorship, corruption, telephone justice undoubtedly do occur. On the other hand one would have to be blind not to see the rise in living standards over the past decade. The proof for the merit of Putinism is there, along with its negatives. Hundreds of critical articles are written in the Russian press each day and yet there is also a shadow of censorship. Whatever you seek in Russia, you will be able to find it.

All these observations being true however doesn’t tell us that much about the actual spread of these phenomena or their role within local culture. Are these cases of corruption and censorship incidents? Or phenomena of such pervasiveness that we can see them as archetypical characteristics of Russian culture? A frequently returning reference among Moscow correspondents is Marquis de Custine who in his travel writings documented the corruption and authoritarianism under Tsar’s Nicholas I. His observations let the Marquis conclude that  ‘Nations have always good reasons for being what they are, and the best of all is that they cannot be otherwise.’ . Referencing de Custine implies that Russia will not and cannot change, that corruption and bad infrastructure are endemic problems, part of a Russian DNA. There is no hope. For de Custine’s contemporary followers even cautious optimism is a token of naiveté.

But what about the facts? One example: Transparency International has two ways of measuring the level of corruption in a country. The Global Corruption Barometer asks local respondents whether over the past year  they have paid a bribe. 26% of Russian respondents answers affirmatively, ranking Russia around the global median. According to this survey the level of corruption is higher in amongst others Romania, Mexico, Turkey, Ghana and India. The TI Corruption Perceptions Index, on the other hand, asks international experts about their perception of the level of corruption in a country.  This survey places Russia deep in the cesspit of corruption, ranked 154 out of 178 countries, way below the aforementioned set of countries.

How is it possible that these numbers differ so greatly? Does state repression in Russia run so deep that citizens not dare speak of corruption?  Or is the expert community caught by a conspiracy trying to discredit Russia’s business climate and image in the world? Neither the one, nor the other. Open a Russian newspaper and you’ll find the one article about corruption after the other. State officials may not have found the cure to the disease, but they do underwrite the diagnosis. Like the other nations in the survey, Russian citizens have no reason to deny their involvement in corruption, apart perhaps for shame of their own complicity.  And what about the conspiracy theory? True, there are several people with a deep grudge against Russia or its leadership, who do get a lot of uncritical media exposure in the West, but are their activities part of a grand plot concocted by the CIA or some secret One World Government? No, not really.

It is a lot simpler than that. We live in a world of opinion, emotion and newsworthy soundbites. Who would want to read that in a global perspective the level of corruption in Russia is rather mundane?

We as media consumers and the media as providers of our daily dose love the extremes, the uppers and downers. In this regard it’s good to remember that Russia is not an exception. Russia is not the only country that gets bad press.

Russia may not be the exception, but Russia is exceptional. Vast, diverse and kaleidoscopic Russia has an arsenal of extremes on offer. From minus 71.2 to plus 45.4 degrees Celsius, from the riches of the oligarchs to the poverty of forgotten pensioners, from freedom bordering on anarchy to an arbitrary state apparatus with a tendency to repression, Russia is God’s gift to journalists, documentary makers, novelists, readers and viewers.

But Russia is more than a collection of interesting facts. It is also a prominent place in our imagination: the location of the great 19th century literature, the enemy in a war that divided the world, and now a country supposedly ‘lost’ in the transition (to a democracy). We want, we expect Russia to fuel our imagination, for Russia to be a country where bears roam the streets, where an average western businessmen can make a fortune or get killed over one, and a place where heroic dissidents fight a repressive regime. We love to tell ourselves that ‘You wouldn’t understand Russia just using the intellect. You can only believe in her’ as Fyodor Tyutchev’s wrote. In other words, when it comes to Russia facts and ratio don’t matter. Blind faith, opinions and emotions do.

Tyutchev, however, was not a western correspondent, but one of Russia’s greatest romantic poets and this is important because it is not just westerners that aggrandize whatever rumors they hear about Russia, it is in the first place Russia itself that desires to be exceptional. Russia’s image in the world is neither a true representation, nor an invention of romantic westerners ‘on an adventure’, it is the result of real interaction between Russians and foreign correspondents.

Russians themselves love to discuss the depths of their Russian Soul, a concept (forgive me that I approach it with ratio and not simply ‘believe in it’) functions to explain the extremes in Russian character, that we so love to discuss. Russians love to pity themselves for being among the most corrupt countries in the world, accepting the assessment of the foreign expert community as a strange token of pride. At the same time they also love to castigate that same foreign expert community for misunderstanding their country completely. In other words, they also pride themselves with being the most misunderstood country in the world.

In this sense Russia’s often negative image in western media is very much an amplification of the criticism and cynicism that exists within Russia.

True, there certainly is a bias in western media in favor of certain liberal opposition figures who have rather limited electoral support in Russian society itself. Public opinion in ‘democratized’ countries tends to be very suspicious of official or ‘pro-government’ views in ‘democratizing’ countries, while being generally supportive of critical opinions from opposition groups and civil society. This support for the ‘weak’ is most often rooted in the best of intentions, although at times of heightened tensions it may not seem so to all. Still these ‘darlings of the western press’ are no inventions of foreign media or the US state department, they are products of Russian society and politics in their own right. In our desire for extremes and heroics that make good stories, we may amplify certain opinions and discard others, but we do not make them up.

Paradoxically it is the relative freedom of press and expression in Russia that generates the continuous reports of censorship and authoritarianism. As Russians are free to express their indignation of cases of censorship, authoritarian treats of their government and corruption within the bureaucracy, the quality and frequency of critical expressions is much larger than in many other countries with a developing democracy. Criticism of countries leadership or the state of democracy in general can be easily found in Russia’s own newspapers. Todays opposition leaders and civil activists aren’t dissidents. They are media figures vying for your attention.

But while writing resounding headlines about Russia isn’t so difficult, providing the context to help understand these flashy news-bytes is. How does a western reader understand that for each beaten journalist there are tens of thousands media professionals who do their work more or less freely, not much different from their western colleagues. How does the western reader learn that such beatings or murders, when they do occur, aren’t because of one’s political views, –  newspapers are full of criticism of the countries leaders and their policies – but because the work of that particular journalist threatens the financial interests of a particular(ly) ruthless business group. That context is most often not provided. It is easier and much saver to suggest that Putin ordered the hit, than to investigate the real perpetrators.

The same can be said about the provocative tactics employed by the street opposition. When reports of arrests keep poring in, it is very hard for a western reader to understand the rather ritualistic character of these arrests. 99.9% of such cases do not result in a prison sentence, but in a few hours often detention rewarded with praise and admiration from your friends. A current joke is the demand that police vans install free wifi so the detained protesters can send their victory shots to their friends free of charge. For us western readers Russia is still very much the Soviet Union. An arrest in Russia is to disappear in the GULAG, not an action very much like those of for example environmental activists in our own societies. Often a conscious choice and a play with the media.

But again it is not just cold war imagery that makes us overstate the impact of these arrests. There is also the’ close distance’ context provided by the Russian media, who for example bestow these activists with the honorary title of opposition leader even though in a western society most of them would be considered civic activists, for the simple reason that they do not aspire to become a member of a political party or create one.  But with all these ‘opposition’ leaders on the streets and so few on the ballot the western reader cannot but conclude that these people are obstructed from partaking in politics.

This is another complication with the context of news from Russia. Not only are we westerners unfamiliar with the meaning of words in the Russian context. Very often Russians have but a textbook understanding of what certain words imply our western societies. With only 30% of Russians ever having been abroad, let alone spent enough time in a western society to understand its true workings, there remains a very high level of idealism or even utopianism in their desires for democracy and freedom of press. On the one hand this utopianism is one of the reasons that I love Russia. Here we can find people who still believe in a better world. On the other hand it must be noted that much of the outrage over constraints on press freedom are in fact defenses of practices that would be considered breaches of journalistic ethics in many western countries.

Russian media get regularly obsessed over surveys that show that around 30% of young people or well educated workers wants to leave the country. Critics of the government associate these numbers with the desire the emigrate from the Soviet Union, once a permanent decision. What these Russians do not realize is that in most developed countries the percentage of people who dream to spend some time living and or working abroad is equally high and that such statistics are perceived as a token of freedom and opportunity.  I can understand that for a Russian, who lives in a society that is only getting used to open borders,  30% is a very large number. But when a western journalist cites that same 30% as an alarmist token of a dying Russia, we are obviously lost in translation.

The lexicon and tactics used by Russian opposition and media have a much greater influence on Russia’s image in the world than many of them will suspect. But it’s not only a matter of lexicon. The lexicon used by critics of the government is rooted in the deep tradition of feelings of powerlessness before the state and the resulting cynicism, which Russian society has inherited from the Soviet period and which is prolonged by the arbitrary cronyism of certain power groups within the Russian state.

At times the tactics employed by the street opposition seem contradictory or even self defeatist in nature. The hand extended by then president Medvedev in the form of access to local politics was largely ignored, while the street opposition in turn persevered in their own unrealistic demands such as the cancellation of election results and a list of political prisoners, few if which were actually sentenced for expressing their political views.  It sometimes seems if this opposition prefers to remain on the sides of real politics, for it fears to loose the power the streets provide them with, would they actually partake in elections and political compromise. This context of the juvenility and self inflicted victimhood of Russia’s opposition forces and civic activists very rarely makes it into the western press.

The strategy 31 protest movement for example sought an utopian right to assembly, by organizing demonstrations at locations and times the local authorities refuse to give a permit for. They deliberately sought a confrontation with the authorities over the right to assembly, but refused to work on a compromise that would make the right to assembly a reality. While this winter tens of thousand of people gathered at sanctioned demonstrations, it was Strategy 31 leader Limonov who organized his own small rally and arrest at an unsanctioned location, just to prove that freedom of assembly does not exist in Russia.

But this winter something happened that could signal a change in the way Russia understands itself and thereby the image it transcends into the world. Thanks to the influence the civic organizers exerted on their political co-organizers and the compromise they forged with the local authorities tens of thousands of protesters did make the right to assembly a part of their reality and the reality as displayed by the international photographers and camera crew’s present. Limonov was the exception, an echo of the past. Unfortunately that past returned with a vengeance when protest leader Udaltsov destroyed much of the trust and optimism that had been accomplished by provoking the riot police into action on the night after the presidential elections. All progress has its ups and downs.

Russian society seems to enter a phase that resembles the Sixties in western countries, a period with a very visible counterculture. Russia’s cultural revolution is foremost about self expression, about breaking the taboos of the conservative consolidation of Russian society, characteristic of the first two Putin presidencies. Exemplary are the provocative performances of art group Voina (the giant phallus on an erecting bridge opposite to the St. Petersburg FSB headquarters) and the all girls punk band Pussy Riot, who tried to enact a ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s largest cathedral.

On the one hand this movement will evoke counter-reactions both from the authorities as well as  the more conservative elements in society and thereby ensure a continuation of negative news to be picked up by western newspapers. On the other hand however a generation of hipsters imbued with new sense of positivity and confidence will gradually replace the disappointed utopians of the perestroika and early nineties as the opinion leaders making Russia’s image. While over the past decades Moscow correspondents and these cynical pro-western liberals were naturally drawn to each other in a harsh and often unwelcome megapolis that was Moscow,  new foreign correspondents will find an up and bustling Moscow with a new hip community of creatives to engage with. Their story is different. For this new generation – and I paraphrase Ekho Moskvy editor Venediktov –  living in a free society comes natural, while for older generations who spent part of their adult life in the Soviet Union freedom will always remain something that one has to fight for, something that must be won and can be taken away.

Of course, it’s not just a generation gap. Nor is there a physical rubicon to be crossed. Change comes slowly. But there is a new social reality emerging, enjoyed by a group that is gradually increasing in size whose members are employed in the private sector which is less hierarchical and paternalistic than the state sector. Thanks to their work environment, these people have more confidence in their own ability to influence their private lives and public space in which they live. They’re ready to take responsibility in their own hands and are less inclined to blame the authorities for all their misfortunes. The lexicon of victimhood is gradually replaced by a language of empowerment and that new language will transcend into the way western correspondents write about Russia.

Russia will always remain ‘a country that no matter what you say about it, it is true’, but that what we write about Russia will change, because Russia is changing.