I hope everyone enjoyed the parable in the first part of this two-part series. In case the point wasn’t driven home hard enough, I’d like to chat seriously about what is wrong with writing about Russia. I was inspired to write this by Natalia Antonova’s article about being a journalist. Obviously I am not a professional journalist, and the piece also deals with particulars of being a female journalist as well, but certain things in the article really resonated with me nonetheless. This is by no means the first time I’ve written about these problems when it comes to covering Russia, but after having recently made a modest foray into the arena of Russian journalism I feel it necessary to reiterate for the sake of newer readers.
Put simply, it works like this. When you write about Russia, everything is political. Moreover, if your words fail to conform to the preconceived notions and worldview of a particular reader, you will be viciously attacked by that reader. You need to choose a side and then maintain that line 100%. Fail in this, and you will hear about it from either side.
What’s that? You criticized the Maidan movement for the involvement of nationalist? Why that sounds just like something a Kremlin hack would say! Madison, the 22-year-old liberal arts student from Topeka, Kansas knows better than to listen to this bullshit propaganda. Surely the guy who wrote this must be one of those right-wing expats who moves to Russia because he hates diversity and gay people. He must dream of the destruction of America and Western Europe, and no doubt his real reason for moving to Russia was to marry some submissive woman, whom he hits if she dares to question him. Madison knows that Maidan is a diverse movement of progressive liberal people who just want to be free of Russia and Putin, who of course is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union. She read all about it from articles in her Facebook news feed. Euromaidan was no different from Occupy Wall Street. Madison leaves a comment about how the writer is clearly a stooge for the Russian government, and his attempt at “providing context” and his “criticism” of the Maidan movement amount to nothing more than Russian propaganda. Afterward she ponders whether she should write up her assessment of this author she doesn’t know, and submit the result to Jezebel.
No more than a day later, you write a scathing article of Russia’s actions regarding the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Big fucking mistake. That’s when our old friend Larry, an IT worker, shows up. Larry is outraged to see an article criticizing Russia which doesn’t also contain a lengthy section pairing up each separate criticism with an equivalent criticism of American foreign policy. Because the article doesn’t mention the Iraq War, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Panama, Iran Contra, Teapot Dome, or Wall Street, this must mean that the author is pro-American and supports the American government! How could it be otherwise. And yet Larry’s system is inconsistent. When reading an article criticizing the American policies which led to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he doesn’t get upset should the article not contain equal criticism of totally unrelated Russian foreign policy. Only articles about Russia need to be twice the size, so that any critique of the annexation of Crimea can be matched with a paragraph condemning the Iraq War. Larry angrily comments and demands to know why the writer didn’t include any mention of Iraq in this article.
Of course shortly before the Iraq War and thereafter, you most likely wouldn’t have found Larry on the streets. No, just as he does now, Larry fought his battles from the comfort of home, on the internet. By contrast, your author attended three anti-war marches in his home town. That’s right- before I attended opposition protests in Russia as early as 2007, I had been a demonstrator in America. My first anti-war march was before the Iraq War, and at the third, I met with Cindy Sheehan. I was also involved in counter-recruitment, explaining to young people the realities of military life. I fucking moved to Russia on a more-or-less permanent basis. It must be because I love the American government so much! Larry knows better than me!
Both Larry and Madison, comfortable back in the US under their parents’ roof or in a dorm room, know far more about Russia than me. Madison had to attend some lectures about Russian history in her European history course. Larry watches RT and reads Tim Kirby. Madison knows that Russia is a dystopian nightmare where people live in fear of criticizing the president, everyone is sexually repressed, and Putin’s model for leadership is Josef Stalin. Any country or movement which has a beef with Russia is automatically in the right, and above any criticism. Said criticism is a surefire sign of a Kremlin propagandist. Madison knows.
Larry also knows Russia better than me, despite having never been there, if he’s ever been outside the US at all. He’s seen a lot of Youtube videos about Russia. He’s had a few attempts, albeit thus far unsuccessful, at trying to woo Russian ladies on various dating sites. For some reason they act confuse when he expounds his views about Russia. Specifically I refer to his belief that Russia is a preserver of traditional values and a bastion against the degenerate, liberal West, due to collapse any given year. Those lovely women, so unspoiled by Western feminism, don’t seem to get it when he lectures them about how much Putin has done for Russia, or when he tells them how terrible things are in America in spite of the fact that he hopes to lure one into marriage before the American apocalypse begins. Larry knows Russia better than them, just as he knows more about Russia than me. Larry knows that Russia must be his salvation from Obama’s America, the Federal Reserve banksters, and his lonely life. Sure, he’d love to move to Russia, but for some unknown reason he prefers to stay in the horrible tyranny on the point of collapse which is the USA.
Neither Larry, nor Madison speak a word of Russian or Ukrainian. They can’t read Russian or Ukrainian press. They can’t observe arguments between Russians or Ukrainians and understand what they are discussing. They don’t have VK accounts where they can see what kinds of memes are passed around in the Russosphere or what discussions are taking place there. They’ve never lived and worked in Russia. In spite of that, however, they know it better than me, the guy who’s been living here for nearly a decade, who can do all those aforementioned things and who regularly does, and who has been studying Russia and Eastern European topics since his teenage years, simply because he fucking loved it. Sometimes I wish that instead of looking out my window to check the thermometer or the cloud cover, I could just call up Madison or Larry and ask them what the weather is like in Moscow. I can’t trust my own fucking eyes, apparently. I’d like them to tell me the local news of the day instead of reading the headlines on Yandex. When I walk past decrepit buildings in Moscow which look as though they should be a set for a movie about the battle of Stalingrad, I want Larry to explain to me how this is totally meaningless because…DETROIT! When I’m woken up in the night by drunken youth who are basically saying “Fuck you” to the entire neighborhood, I want Larry to explain to me that this is really just a charming, quaint Russian tradition and that it’s just fine because sometimes that happens in the US too. Of course I’d consult Madison as well. If I’m having a lovely day walking in the park with my wife, I’ll ring up Madison to make sure that my senses aren’t fooling me, causing me to mistake a prison camp for a public park. Madison can also inform me that my wife of four years is probably with me only because she wants to escape the dystopian nightmare that is Russia, and she figured I was less likely to beat her. Madison heard something about that on Vice media once.
Yes folks, that’s what it’s like when you write about Russia. How could anyone possible criticize the Ukrainian government when they’re being invaded by Russia? You obviously work for the Kremlin! You must love Putin and hate democracy! That’s why you live in Russia! How dare you criticize what Russia’s doing in Ukraine and not even mention Iraq! You must be an apologist for neo-liberal capitalism! You probably voted for Obama and supported an attack on Syria! You’re probably a CIA disinfo agent. That’s why you live in Russia!
Naturally some people might ask why I don’t just write about something else? Well as you can see in the off-topic category, I often do. But I also need to pay the rent, and hopefully find a way out of here so I can raise a family and not be a wage slave for the rest of my life. Let’s see, what else can I write about? What are my other areas of expertise? Well there’s Marxist political economy,for one, but that’s not exactly a booming market in spite of all capitalism’s current failures. There’s a market for Great Patriotic War-related material, but unless you write like Anthony Beevor or Catherine Merridale you’ll be accused of being a propagandist. “Why didn’t the author say anything about the Katyn forest massacre in this book about the battle of Stalingrad? I’m outraged!” Plus I’m pretty much sick of the Great Patriotic War and WWII in general. A true history buff knows that the Second World War is basically the kiddie pool. You’ve got to go at least medieval, if not 17th century. You don’t fuck around with the 17th century.
I guess I could write about pop culture, especially since I tend to have some contrary views about some popular films, bands, shows, or video games. Oh wait, shit, there are literally thousands of people out there doing the same thing. What makes me any different? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not deliberately selling myself short. I’m just saying that at the moment there is very little to make me stick out in a sea that vast. What do I have? What is unique about me, and connected with my own expertise? Oh right, the fact that I moved to Russia with about $50 bucks to my name and made it for eight years and counting now. That’s my hook, and I’ve got to run with it.
The non-artist thinks that it’s all about following your heart. Don’t be concerned about money, profitability, just do what you want. That’s the freedom of being an artist whether you are a non-fiction writer, filmmaker, or musician. It always looks easy from the outside, doesn’t it? In reality, artists and writers are people who have responsibilities and bills to pay. Nobody is going to pay you to simply do what you want, without any regard for the conventions of your medium or your audience. On this blog I can and have written long, deep analysis of Russian and Ukrainian history and the interaction between the two, detailing both the dangerous aspects of Ukrainian nationalism as well as the Russian neo-imperialist chauvinism which has fueled its recent resurgence. But I guarantee you no publication would re-print such an article and if one did they probably wouldn’t pay for it. So you end up writing articles which are more concise, more likely to be shared if not published by some outlet, and in the process they are more focused. That focus, however, attracts the ire of Madison and Larry. The former doesn’t know that maybe you actually wanted to include a couple paragraphs showing how Russian actions actually contributed to the rise of Ukrainian nationalism and the Maidan movement. The latter doesn’t know that you actually did want to include material explaining how John Kerry was being hypocritical in his statements about Russia, and the US hasn’t really set a good example for Russia to follow over the past decade.
Years ago I learned the awful truth, that our entire lives are subject to the whim of capital and the profit motive. It’s not what I prefer; it’s actually the reason for my political affiliation, which happens to not align with either the Washington consensus or the Kremlin. Yet just because I oppose this system does not mean I pretend it does not exist, nor am I unable to cope within it. I’d love to go back to writing long polemics on theory and deep, yet practical analysis for Ukraine’s revolutionary prospects, but to do so is neglecting my responsibilities, and in fact neglecting reality. Even if you hate the game you’ve got to play it, and insofar as I must play this game, I intend to win it. If I am broke or at the mercy of low-paying wage slavery, my usefulness to any cause would drop to zero. So yeah, I keep writing about Russia, no matter how boring or infuriating it gets. I write about it in spite of Madison or Larry’s ignorant comments.
So yeah, writing about Russia sucks, but I still do it. Still wouldn’t want to be a journalist though.