Last night I was having a discussion about a topic that causes me significant irritation. I’ve written in the past about the very widespread belief in a sort of national determinism in Russia, whereby people are expected to be representatives of their nation and therefore government, and whatever opinions they might have supposedly derive from that nationality as well. To be fair I’ve also encountered the same from some Ukrainians (Some!), who upon reading my comments suspect me of being Polish. Take a guess why this happens (Click for hint!).
This other thing that grates on my eyes and ears is a similar behavior, where someone assumes that your opinions or views can be determined by the country that you live in. As you might have guessed, I’ve had numerous accusations about being pro-Moscow because I live in, you guessed it, Moscow. Usually this happens on Twitter, where people can quickly pull up my info that shows my location, but rarely take the time to read dozens of tweets that they’d most likely agree with. I suspect that fewer still actually follow the link to this blog and read any of it.
Speaking briefly for myself, yes, I’ve been living in Moscow and the Moscow oblast since 2006. However, there were several occasions when I had considered jobs in Ukraine, and once in Belarus. When I say “considered” I don’t mean simply “thought about.” I’d had interviews and invitations in several of these cases. I have been formulating plans to leave Russia since late 2013, around the time this blog was started, in fact. In the end of 2014 I nearly made it out, and I pursued that same option through about half of 2015. I’m still technically pursuing the option now, but it’s unfortunately a job with very few openings. I have also tried applying for jobs in Ukraine since last November. So while I can say that I definitely don’t hate Russia or Moscow, which has definitely improved in some key areas in recent years, I’m not exactly here by deliberate choice alone. Far more important is that this is by no means an endorsement of the Kremlin’s political line. Besides, when I moved here in 2006, it was a very different country.
Now that I’ve given my own abridged explanation, I’m going to deal with the article that prompted me to write this post. As if by coincidence, I saw it maybe a few hours after that Twitter exchange on the same topic.
The article is by Paul Niland with Kyiv Post, and let me first state that it’s not nearly as bad as the kind of people on Twitter who accuse you of being pro-Moscow simply for living there. In fact he’s not really saying that at all. His thesis, that living in Moscow can lead to bias in favor of pro-Kremlin narratives is a good one. My only problem is it’s a bit oversimplified, one-sided, and doesn’t account for some important exceptions.
Before I tackle some of his specific arguments I should recap part of last night’s Twitter conversation, where I was explaining why so many of these correspondents from major publications are based in Moscow. I know from personal experience that these media companies don’t seem to want their people in Kyiv. The truth is that without the war, having your Eastern Europe correspondent in Kyiv would be like having them in Bucharest or Bratislava. Many Westerners know very little about Ukraine and frankly don’t care. What is more, if your correspondent is in Moscow and something happens in Kyiv or say, Riga, they can hop on a plane and get there with no need for a visa in most cases. The opposite is not true. Like it or not, Russia is a major player in world affairs and while most Westerners, particularly Americans, care about Russia far less than Russians would like, news from Moscow is far more likely to attract their attention than news from Ukraine or any other former Soviet Republic or ex-East Bloc country. Believe me, I have tried to use a correspondent position as a ticket out of Russia, with Kyiv being the destination. I’d spend weeks at a time in Avdiivka or some other front-line location if need be. The problem is they just aren’t buying.
So now that I’ve explained what I think is the most likely reason why there are so many correspondents in Moscow, let me get into the meet of Niland’s article and rebut some of his arguments.
“It’s unfortunate that much of the international writing about Ukraine is done by people based in Moscow. I have noted elsewhere that this peculiarity can lead to Ukraine not being given fair representation because whether they like it or not the international correspondents resident there are all exposed to the constant drip, drip, drip of disinformation stories hitting them from various sides.”
This is certainly a valid concern, but there are a couple comments I could make on this. First, my experience is that the further one is from Russia and Ukraine, the more susceptible they are to Russian propaganda. If you exclude those who have sweet careers with the Russian state media or similar organs, the most rabid anti-Ukrainian, Sputnik-meme spitting Kremlin dupes are typically Americans and Brits.
A lot of correspondents who live in Russia are far more informed about what goes on here, ergo they’re much less susceptible to bullshit from the state media and pretty much anything the Kremlin says. This is why it’s no surprise to see that some of the rabid pro-Kremlin cheerleaders who do work for the Russian media usually either had no background in journalism, or knew nothing about Russia before they came here for a few years and started living the lovely expat life.
“Whether it is at the Dacha BBQ with uncle Vanya, or whether it is listening to opinions from local friends and colleagues which are more formed by the full on information assault, Ukrainian affairs can get painted in all sorts of weird ways.”
Alright a few problems with this. The first is that when we talk about Russian narratives on Ukraine, the kind of pro-Kremlin attitudes and memes you’d hear from those friends and colleagues today are relatively new. In late 2013-2014 I noticed this bizarre “reversal,” where people who would laugh at “patriotic” propaganda and Putin’s image suddenly started spouting pro-regime talking points. It was really bizarre how they’d do it to; when they espoused anti-government views, their points and opinions were varied and diverse. Then they’d just start regurgitating the same talking points word for word until it seemed like you could predict what they would say at any given time.
Next, just as I mentioned that the people most susceptible to Russian propaganda often live far from Russia and have little to no experience in the country. Well sometimes you can have a similar but opposite situation. In my case, I admittedly had a very anti-Maidan attitude, due in large part to poor coverage from the Western media (who made it all about “joining Europe”), but mainly because I had been deceived by a Ukrainian “leftist” group which I first encountered in 2012. Given my experience with “left” groups in Russia, I was naturally suspicious about Russian chauvinism and I was reassured by members again and again that this group was anti-Putin. I was initially concerned about the success of the Svoboda party when I heard about them in 2013, prior to Maidan, so when they made their presence very noticeable during the movement I was justifiably concerned. And not to digress too much on this point, but part of me fears that had I actually moved to Ukraine back in 2007, I might have been duped completely into taking the wrong side. As it turns out, living in Russia the whole time helped me build up an immunity to bullshit, so that it took Ukrainians to put one past me.
Lastly on this point, I think the author seems to be unaware that the same process he describes here, that is personal contacts with friends, family, and colleagues influencing a journalist’s views, can happen just as easily to a foreigner in Ukraine as in Moscow. In fact, many of the assumptions he makes here, including that very statement about “Uncle Vanya,” friends, and colleagues, demonstrate this quite well. There’s already an assumption that someone in Moscow must be surrounded by vatniks regurgitating Kremlin talking points. I’ll be the first to admit that you will here at least some of those talking points from people who really ought to know better, usually getting them second or third hand from people they know, but this doesn’t mean that those of us who do know better just sit there and absorb this without saying anything.
The truth is that foreigners in Ukraine can be just as susceptible to false narratives and talking points for the exact same reasons, colleagues, friends, family members, and so on. Idealistic American goes to Kyiv because he was “inspired” by Maidan. He meets some nationalists, who explain that they’re just “patriots” and not racist or anything like that. They explain to him that Stepan Bandera, a name our American expat friend first heard in 2014 or 2015, was really just a liberal democratic patriot who only wanted to free Ukraine. Anything bad you hear about him is nothing but Soviet propaganda. Oh…Polish propaganda too. Poles and Russians have been engaged in a decades long conspiracy to frame this innocent nationalist leader.
What do you think happens when our hypothetical Kyiv expat sees me write something negative about Bandera from my Moscow-based account? “Hey maybe you should stop reading Russian propaganda! Or are you a paid Kremlin troll!” Little does he know that I started reading on the topic of Bandera and Ukrainian (and many other including Russian) collaborators since 2002, starting with sources that were unapologetically pro-Bandera/nationalist.
I don’t bring up that last bit just flaunt my Bandera cred, but to demonstrate an important point. When it comes to being susceptible to certain narratives, one really important factor is how much a person knows about a country prior to moving there. A lot of times you get these people that come to Russia or Ukraine with no prior interest or study, and then they’re an empty vessel ready to be filled with bullshit. In Russia they have an advantage in the form of a more unified, focused propaganda machine. In Ukraine the nationalist con-men and their apologists take advantage of the extreme obscurity of certain topics.
There are a few more points where Niland shows a close affinity for his surroundings which seem to have induced a bit of bias, but I’ll save that for later. For now let’s move on to his case study, an article by Shaun Walker of The Guardian.
“I most admire is Shaun Walker of The Guardian.
I often find myself agreeing with his analysis, I find his observations to be generally accurate and often the way that he puts them across can be quite funny, I disagree with him from time to time but have found him open to being reasonably challenged. In my last exchange with him he tweeted photos of Azov Regiment fighters inside Boryspil Airport, apparently placed there by non-other than Interior Minister Arsen Avakov himself, to arrest non-other than super-oligarch Dmytro Firtash.
My simple response to that tweet was; “Bullshit!”
At the end of that exchange, I offered to buy Shaun a beer next time he’s in Kyiv, because as it turned out he was largely correct.You see, from my perspective, there were a few things wrong with the proposed scenario. Number one was just the mention of the name Azov.”
Niland goes on to explain the reason he went off at the name Azov is that it has been a got-to bad guy for Russian propaganda stories. I sympathize with this feeling because we all seem to get “triggered” by the mention of certain phrases, names, or words, but come on- Shaun Walker? The Guardian? You’re not reading Sputnik here, and we’re not talking about someone who would read something from Sputnik or RT and seriously submit it for publishing. Besides, Azov and similar groups are a problem and if Western journalists ignore or downplay this they’re only going to leave an orchard of low-hanging fruit for the Russian propaganda machine.
Later on Niland posts some very legitimate complaints, which is why I recommend reading them, particularly those regarding the characterization of people’s motivations for coming out to the Maidan and the politics surrounding it. For example, I like that he helps debunk the notion that Yanukovych was not only rejecting the “European path” but also choosing a “Russian” one, that is toward the Custom’s Union and perhaps the Eurasian Economic Union. But again, to be fair to Walker there are some die-hard Maidan supporters not based in Moscow who have helped popularize that impression.
What better example than this famous article from Timothy Snyder, certainly not and as far as I know never Moscow-based, describing the story of Maidan. Not only is there a clear implication that this was a choice between going with the EU or Russia, in this article that is supposed to cut through the “haze of propaganda,” the chronology of events is idiotically butchered and tons of red herrings are inserted in a condescending, horribly unsubtle way. If you want to understand Maidan better, this is not the article for you. Oh and by the way…It was published in the Kyiv Post as well. This goes the same for the idea of US sponsorship of the revolution. Of course it wasn’t spurred by American puppet masters, but with folks like John McCain shaking hands with Maidan leaders including Tyahnybok, would it be entirely unreasonable for an observer to surmise that the US was strongly backing one side? Nuland and McCain very stupidly created an image which was a boon to pro-Russian propagandists.
Getting back to the subject of biases one acquires living in a certain place, I took some issue with this line, which is rephrased in other ways throughout the article:
“The Ukrainian people have proven several times that they will dictate their own destiny. Their future is not decided for them, but by them.”
Again I sympathize with the author here, because if he’s like me he’s probably sick of Ukrainians, or more specifically those who were involved in Maidan, being stripped of their agency, particularly by people who espouse pro-Russia viewpoints. Chomsky, Ames, Cohen, and a whole host of others, often with radically different views, all treat Ukrainians as pawns who could either side with Russia or be dupes of the US. In reality many people had their own personal motives for going out to Maidan, some noble, some terrible, some possibly mundane. What matters is that they made personal choices and they can take responsibility for them, whether the results were good or bad.
Now that being the case, this sentence is extremely romantic and a bit patronizing. Maybe if it were coming from an actual Ukrainian it wouldn’t come off that way. But I have a problem with Westerners, especially those with no hereditary connections to a country, speaking on behalf of the entire people. I mean suppose I move to say, Namibia, I fall in love with the place, I have lots of friends there, and then I presume to write about what the Namibian people does and who decides their future. I think in that case the problem ought to be clear. It may be in Ukraine and the skin color is the same, but this really, truly smacks of the so-called “Mighty Whitey” trope we see in movies from The Last Samurai to Avatar. I seriously hope I’m not being unfair to Mr. Niland here, but let me just say that these kind of statements sound a lot better when you’ve got a nice noticeable Slavic surname (if not Ukrainian or Russian) to go with it. That, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Shaun Walker making statements on behalf of “the Russian people.”
The other problem with this claim is that it ignores the fact that “the Ukrainian people” is rather abstract, considering the fact that, whether we agree with them or not, there were plenty of Ukrainians who either opposed Maidan in some way or at least expressed disdain for it. Now if you’re about to say that they’re all traitors and they don’t count, well then you’re going against the opinion of the first post-Maidan government, which went to great lengths to make it possible for citizens in Russian-occupied territories to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014. Clearly they thought that large segment of Ukrainian society deserved a voice, however much they disagreed with them.
Lastly, the Zradamania that has taken place since the election of Poroshenko, which one day led to a bomb being thrown at the Rada and the death of several national guardsmen, tells us that even on one side we have deep political visions and different ideas as to what Ukraine should become, enough to justify toning down the romantic talk about the will of the “Ukrainian people.”
The idea here isn’t to beat up on Niland, but simply to show that one shouldn’t be so quick to assume that the city where one lives is going to automatically influence their work to such an extent. And to the extent which it can, it can go both ways, whether you’re in Moscow or Kyiv. It’s good to call out these narratives that strip Ukrainians of their agency or which explicitly or implicitly support Kremlin talking points, but looking at all the information out there and where it comes from, it’s simply not evident that living in Moscow or Russia is necessary to come under the influence of said talking points.
In the polarized discourse surrounding Russia and Ukraine, we will probably never eliminate these snap judgments whereby we suspect people of being propagandists or dupes of propagandists based on illogical reasons. But we need to work harder to avoid escalating this kind of behavior; in fact we should work to minimize it. One way to do that is to stop judging people’s positions or opinions based on their nationality, and especially the city they live in.