Lately I’ve been engaged in the process of producing a new podcast on the subject of what I call “armchair experts,” that is people with very limited if any experience in Russia, no working knowledge of Russian, who run blogs or other media with analysis on Russia. Since I’ll be talking about it in detail in that podcast, this post will be brief. There are a couple points I feel really ought to be in print, on this blog. Rather than clutter up the FAQ with these points, I figured it would be more efficient to just write an entry and then refer people back to it on an ad hoc basis should the topic arise. With that out of the way, I shall begin.
I have noticed that armchair experts get very upset when I start questioning them on their actual experience in Russia and knowledge of the language. They apparently believe that their ability to read English-language news and Wikipedia articles is sufficient to be taken seriously as a source of information on Russia. Well, not all English-language news, of course. All that bad news that contradicts their delusions about the wise and great leader Vladimir Putin can be dismissed out of hand, but I’ll get to that later.
Usually they hit back with bizarre analogies and strawman arguments, which I will outline and answer briefly.
1. Yes, it is possible to know something about Russia without spending a lot of time here and even without knowing the language. However, the quality of your opinions and information are largely dependent on those two factors. If you have no working knowledge of Russian, you are missing out on a huge wealth of information, information which can be crucial to any analysis of what’s happening in Russia. A lot of political discourse and news in Russia is never translated into English.
2. What expertise I claim to have isn’t based solely on me living here. Russian politics, history, culture were passions of mine since long before I moved here. Living here gives me easier access to a whole panorama of news and street-level information that would either not be available to me outside the country, or would require much more conscious effort to track down. The language skill helps too, because when I want to know what’s going on in Russia I just hit up Yandex or TASS and boom- I know what’s going on without having to wait for someone to translate this into English. I can also see how ordinary Russians are discussing and reacting to these stories.
By contrast, I know people who have lived here as long as if not longer than me and don’t know dick about Russia’s politics; it never interested them. My point here is that I’ve never made the claim: “I live here, ergo I’m right.” It’s more complicated than that.
3. Real life experience gives one a better frame of reference. Oftentimes the Western media did exaggerate or at least distort the nature of Russia’s opposition back in 2011-2012. Someone with experience on the ground can explain why, whereas a reader outside the country without any contact with average Russian citizens wouldn’t be able to say anything on this. On the flip side, Westerners without experience look at Putin’s approval ratings and take this at face value, not realizing that Russians will often say radically different things depending on who they think is listening or who they are talking to.
Another thing one should note is that most of these bloggers and writers are slavishly pro-Putin, and just like their favorite news outlet RT, they are entirely biased toward one narrative. While Western media outlets are indeed often biased against Russia, it’s not hard to find contrary information from time to time. If you follow this blog you know that I have made scathing criticism of Maidan and some of the politics associated with it, while simultaneously attacking Russian right-wing extremism in Ukraine. One can find similar balance by reading the work of Mark Adomanis, Natalia Antonova, Shaun Walker, and many, many more. By contrast, when have we ever seen anything from RT or its minions admitting that perhaps Maidan had some positive points, that not everyone involved in Maidan was a Nazi, or that Western liberal democracy actually has some advantages? Of course we do not see this.
Fox News provides a good analogy here. While so-called “liberal networks” often have conservative pundits or give them the occasional platform, Fox is all conservative, all the time. You’re highly unlikely to see a regular pundit on Fox praising any decision by Obama, for example. On the contrary- Everything he does or doesn’t do is proof of either malice or incompetence.
In conclusion, nobody is saying that you can’t make your own Russia analysis blog without visiting Russia or knowing the language. Just keep in mind that the value of your analysis depends on how well it matches actual material reality on the ground, and without certain prerequisites you will be denied a large portion of information on which to base your analysis. I’m sorry if this doesn’t seem fair, but that’s the way the world works.