Who are you?
I’m an American living in Moscow. I first visited Russia in 1999, then moved back in 2006. I’ve been in here since then. My interest in Russia and the Soviet Union goes back to early childhood. I have been studying Russian, Soviet, and Eastern European history, among many other historical subjects, for roughly 15 years. I have been published in The Guardian, The Moscow Times, Open Democracy, RUSSIA!, Voice of America, Cracked.com and have been a guest on Sky News and France 24.
Why did you make this blog?
Over the years I and many friends noticed a strong disconnect between the reality of life in Russia and the way Russia is covered in the media, both by the foreign press and the Russian press for foreign audiences. At times this could be infuriating, because you’d read something knowing that the author’s audience would have little choice but to accept whatever they told them at face value. I came to realize that despite the end of the Cold War and the USSR, Russia still is a very closed country, albeit for different reasons.
1. The first reason is accessibility. An American citizen could land in Portugal and then travel all the way to the border between Ukraine and Russia without having to obtain a single visa. That’s where you stop, because visiting Russia even as a tourist requires not only a visa, but an invitation to obtain the visa. Obviously the expenses of traveling to Russia make this trip impossible for many people as well.
2. There’s a massive language barrier for many people. Understanding Russia requires a firm understanding of the Russian language. I would go even further and say it also requires at least several years of living and traveling within Russia as well, and obviously the language is a key part of that. As a rule of thumb you can typically discount any writer who has not actually lived in Russia for at least more than one year and who can’t understand Russian.
The net effect of these two factors is that pretty much anyone who can go to Russia can come here, weave whatever bullshit story they want, and then make a successful career based on that. They don’t even need to know the language or spend a significant amount of time here. All they have to do is get over that border, then they can bet on the likelihood that most people in their audience will never be able to check their story.
There is another factor which makes it difficult for people to get a realistic understanding of Russia. The history of Russia, the USSR, and Eastern Europe are all extremely complex, and yet these topics are also severely distorted by decades of nationalism, Cold War propaganda, obscurity, or a combination of all three. Cold War and other outdated narratives tend to severely reduce historical and political issues down to ridiculously simplistic explanations, ignoring contrary evidence or analogies. Put simply, understanding Russian politics or history requires time and effort that aren’t necessarily required to be competent on other topics. Unfortunately, the demands of our modern press don’t leave any room for long, drawn-out analysis no matter how necessary it is for this topic. I on the other hand try to keep my posts at a manageable length and make them entertaining, but if I need to launch into a deep dialectical analysis on any specific issue I am not so limited as a professional journalist would be.
Other than my desire to give readers another point of view on the topic of Russia and Russian politics, I also wish to dispel stereotypes, both negative and positive, as well as shatter any romantic, unrealistic notions about Russia. Obviously I am not the only voice of truth reporting on Russia; when I see journalists and pundits who get it right, I promote their work here. Honest, realistic reporting on Russia has always existed, and I want to introduce that work to my audience.
Apart from coverage of Russian and Eastern European issues, I also discuss other topics, including American politics and pop culture.
Is media coverage on Russia biased?
Yes, very much so, but not the way most people mean when they make this accusation, and not for the reasons that many people think. Bias on Russian news, at least from outside of Russia, is usually fueled by things like the language barrier, lack of access, shoestring budgets for news agencies, and the drive for profits which leads to sensationalism.
What side are YOU on? Are you pro-Russian?
This is a tricky but necessary question. These days on the internet and in the press “pro-Russian” is unfortunately taken to mean “pro-Kremlin” or “pro-Putin.” I am neither. My politics are internationalist, but I would say that I am more pro-Russian than most people who claim to be so. My reasoning is quite simple in this regard. I support that which would objectively improve the lives of most people in the Russian Federation, regardless of nationality, religion, language, sex, etc. That which does not serve this purpose or worse, contradicts it, I reject. Measures or ideologies of the latter type, even if they are put forth supposedly for the sake of “the people” or “patriotism”, I see as inherently anti-Russian. Same goes for being pro-American or an American patriot. Both Russia and the US have a surplus of self-proclaimed “patriots” who tend to be the ones putting forth the most detrimental policies for the vast majority of the population. These people “love their country” in the sense that they love the abstract idea of “their country,” not the actual, concrete thing that makes up their country, i.e. living breathing people.
Let me point out one more relevant point- Do not assume for a moment that my being located in Russia means that I take the side of Russia’s government. If there are times when they have a point, I’ll say so. Essentially I treat them like any other government.
Lastly, the reader should note that as much as possible, I try to differentiate between Russia the country, and the Kremlin, i.e. its government. Same thing goes when talking about Putin. Putin is not Russia, Russia is not Putin, period.
But why don’t you write about the West?
This question is just for those Russophiles out there who assume that anyone who writes critically about the Russian government must “love the West” and think that it’s perfect. When it comes to America, I’m very intimately acquainted with our social problems and I do write about them on this blog from time to time. That being said, I don’t feel the need to balance out criticisms of Russia with an equal amount of criticism of the US or West, anymore than I expect articles critical of the latter to contain references to Russia. I live in Russia, not the US, and I have spent most of my adult life here. This is the society I live in and when I see the government ruining it I will say so.
What are you then? Some kind of middle of the road moderate? I need to label you!
I don’t see any virtue in being a “moderate” or a “centrist.” I don’t seek balance solely for the sake of balance. I observe things and I call them as I see them. I don’t maintain that all viewpoints are equally valid, but even busted clocks are right twice a day.
What makes you think you can be so objective? You don’t have a side then?
I have a side, but I did not intend this blog to be a platform for my political views. Obviously they leak out from time to time and I think anyone who reads enough of my work and is politically literate can make an educated guess as to my beliefs.
The reason I feel I tend to be more objective in these discussions is not because I have no side at all or because I try to boil everything down to pure formal logic. The simple reality is that I don’t have a stake in the game, hence I am able to criticize as well as acknowledge valid points on both sides. In case this still isn’t clear, I don’t have any stake in the claims of the Kremlin, the opposition, the US, Ukraine, or any other major party to the kinds of conflicts we see when it comes to Russian politics. That means that I can easily debunk claims from one side one day, while criticizing their opponents the next.
What kinds of sources do you rely on?
All sorts. I follow the Western and Russian press, including Russia’s English-language press like RT. Of course I also read a lot of non-fiction, including scholarly literature, academic papers, and occasionally primary sources both translated and in the original Russian. Admittedly, personal experience and anecdotal evidence from other Russians or other foreigners who have lived in Russia plays a large role as well. There are some who think that one should rely strictly on statistics or documentary evidence, and I lean toward this position myself. However, to totally discard experience and reality on the ground is folly. Real life does not always conform to records, polls, or statistics. I would recommend skepticism towards anyone who claims they can tell you the truth about Russia without actually living here.
I took Russian studies and something you wrote is at odds with what I learned in college!
I give formal education its due, and I always accept the possibility that I could be wrong about something. On the other hand, if what your professor said contradicts what I can see with my own eyes or the evidence I’ve seen thus far, and you can’t provide any new evidence, then I frankly don’t give a shit.
Should I move to Russia?
This blog isn’t very pretty.
Guilty as charged. I’m not a graphic designer. I don’t have the time or money to hire one. This is about content, not packaging.
How can I contact you?
My email address is: email@example.com
If you need me as a guest commentator: https://paydesk.co/journalist/jim.kovpak