Talking about Russia

At a recent discussion about Edward Lucas, a friend from the world of journalism provided a very accurate, yet disturbing insight. He pointed out that people like Lucas and Luke Harding have to deliberately talk up Russia as a threat, because that’s the only way to get people who don’t have some specific interest to buy books about Russia.  The reality is that the vast majority of Westerners, especially Americans, simply do not care about Russia. As another friend points out constantly, the average Russian will think about the United States several times a day, while the average American will only think about Russia when they happen to catch a headline or play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Russians know about the state of Kentucky, he said, but how many Americans would know about Volgograd, Saratov, or Nizhniy Novgorod? Of course Russians take this as a sign of American stupidity, but in fact their ignorance is rooted in apathy. They don’t know because they don’t care, and they simply do not have to know.

There are two ways to get people in that vast demographic to pay attention to content about Russia. One way is amusement, Buzzfeed or Youtube style. I’m talking about those “wacky Russia” compilations based largely on dashcam videos, for example. In the past, this has been criticized as being patronizing toward Russians, and I was inclined to agree at the time. What is clear, however, is that it attracts attention and probably makes money for content producers. The other way to attract attention, of course, is to do what Lucas does- scare the shit out of people. It’s easy to show people Russian military personnel figures and the technical specs of the latest designs in Russian weaponry so as to convince them that Russia truly is a reborn superpower. That this kind of behavior only serves the Kremlin and provides grist for its propaganda mill is irrelevant so long as you get paid.

I think I  was mistaken in attempting what I thought was a viable third approach- the idea of presenting interesting facts about Russia in a light-hearted, humorous way. The fact is that most people just do not care. Those that do will be sorely disappointed if they ever actually go to Russia. In spite of all their reading on Russian culture and life, they will find that everyone here assumes they must be utterly ignorant about every aspect of Russia. The sad truth is that Russia is probably the most unappreciative culture towards people who take an interest in it. I’ve got free food and beer from Serbs on different occasions, simply for speaking a bit of the language and making casual conversation about Serbian history and politics.  In Russia they assume you can’t possibly know or they don’t understand why you would care to learn. And before some readers get angry, yes I’m fully aware that not all Russians are like this, but this kind of unusual disdain for foreigners who take an interest in the culture is, as they say these days, “a thing.”

What about the in depth analysis of political movements such as Euromaidan and the ideological roots behind Russia’s current policies? Well as I said, that appeals to the small demographic that has a specific interest in Russia. Sadly, much of that demographic seems to consist of closet Russophiles. I don’t think there are many people who consciously think, “I am very interested in an in-depth, cultural and ideological analysis of Russia and its politics, but I also want to come at this from a completely objective angle.”  I suspect many of these people take an interest in Russia because they find something appealing about its populist politics, or they buy into the myth of Russia being some kind of bulwark against “hegemony.” So when you’re offering that in-depth analysis you might easily attract them, but once they find out you’re negating everything they want to believe about strongman Putin and the rising Russian bear, they will turn against you.

Personally I think the absolute worst thing you can do is try to make something entertaining while working Russia into it somehow. This is a problem I see again and again in the podcast and the videos I’ve been making(I’m talking about ones I haven’t released yet). There’s a lot of material the audience never hears which is incredibly funny, yet it always gets ruined by the attempt to tie everything in with Russia. Maybe this is just a side effect of what’s going on politically, but I just think Russia is comedy death. This does not signal the death of the Russian Tuesday podcast or future videos. It’s just that I’ve decided to make Russia peripheral to the core subject matter. I think the listeners will appreciate it.


1 thought on “Talking about Russia

  1. Estragon

    I think I’ve mentioned this, but interest in Russia abroad is mainly a high-culture thing, so it attracts only a minority. Not that many Americans are willing to engage with the likes of Dostoevsky or Stravinsky on a serious level. As for the extensive Russian pop culture, I know precisely 1 American who is interested in it, and he has lived in Russia for years.

    Another group which shows interest in Russia: serious Orthodox believers. But this is again a small minority in the USA.


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