While any satirical work is going to entail some hyperbole for comic effect, satire works best when it is at least rooted in truth. For example, if you read enough “realist” articles about Russia you will notice that they talk about negotiating with Russia while largely ignoring what Russia’s supposed to give up in return. Either that, or the proposed deal is weighted in Russia’s favor. Another common feature is the implication that America’s best interests are at home while Russia is allowed to find its national interests on its neighbors’ land or as far away as the Levant.
Satire doesn’t work if all your jokes are based on strawmen, or in other words, if they’re not true. Imagine I’m writing a satire aimed at mainstream American conservatives, for example, and I keep making references to them being stoners and always trying to enforce strict environmental regulations on everyone. This is totally ineffective because in general, American conservatives either don’t use recreational drugs or at least don’t advertise the fact that they do, and we all know how they hate environmental regulations of any kind. In short, satire works when it’s based on a kernel of truth.
With that out of the way, let’s look at an example of what not to do. This popped up in one of my news feeds and at first I thought it would be entertaining. Halfway through, however, it started to turn into a passive-aggressive attack on an army of poor, defenseless strawmen. The author is anonymous, but claims to have tried to work as a journalist in Russia without success. If you read the whole thing, I think it’s pretty clear that this happened because of the evil Western media conspiracy, which makes sure that only journalists who write “anti-Russian” work have careers.
“On the bright side, while it is true that scores of journalists have been killed in Russia since the 1990s, foreign correspondents should have it slightly easier than local journalists, being allowed to work without the need to constantly put their life in danger, while posing as heroes fighting for liberty, truth, democracy, LGBT rights, Chechen independence, freedom, fair elections, and protesting against Russian propaganda.”
Here was the first red flag. The author correctly points out that yes, Russia is far less lethal for foreign correspondents (only one killed), but where are they getting this stuff about “posing as heroes” for all those things that follow it? Posing implies that you don’t actually believe in any of those things. Moreover, most of the Russia journalists I know don’t do this and aren’t interested in being seen as “heroes” for anything.
“I tried my hand at it once, many years ago, but I was very young, barely discovering my emerging skills at writing, and though I was very passionate about the cause and thought I knew a thing or two about what I was writing, I had not discovered the right formula to deliver the content I was expected to provide.”
Here it is, folks, that part where our anonymous hero was a visionary but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media couldn’t see their brilliance. Look, here’s a piece of advice. Maybe you did have a great writing style and unique insight or expertise on Russia, but then again maybe you didn’t, or maybe you were too “passionate about the cause”(what cause?), or whatever. When I say that my inbox isn’t swamped with invitations to conferences or job offers from major media outlets, I freely admit that on one hand it is due to politics, but on the other it is due to lack of academic credentials or in some cases experience. I realize that keeping my own style and point of view through most of my work is limiting, because it’s not necessarily what big outlets are looking for. I don’t imply that there’s some cabal of media guardians who don’t want me working for their outlets because they can’t handle the truth that I write. I accept limited prospects (which have been better than I could have imagined) as the price of remaining me.
I hope you’re ready for more passive aggression:
“I have come to realize however that, whatever the dangers might be, for many professional journalists from Europe or the US, spending one or two years in Russia may be a real life-time career investment: after some months spent there, you will deservedly become a respected and distinguished expert on all things Russian until your retirement.”
It’s interesting to me how these types always seem to assume that nobody can possibly have knowledge about Russia before moving there. I’m not talking about picking up a few books and skimming them as you prepare for your assignment. I’m talking about people actually studying Russian language, culture, and history in university, for example. I’m also not sure who these “distinguished experts” are. It sound more like a description of pundits rather than actual journalists.
“After all who goes to Russia voluntarily? There certainly must be some rewards if one is ready to sacrifice one or two years of their lives to live in a dirty, gray, squalid, corrupt and poor country surrounded by rude, aggressive and retrograde brutes.”
Again, a passive-aggressive strawman. These are your words, author, not theirs. The kind of complaints or jokes that many Russia correspondents make are the same as those made by ordinary Russians. In fact I’d say that most newcomers tend to be super idealistic and don’t get why Russians complain so much. To them, everything is magical and wonderful. You only really start to assimilate when you begin to hate the same things that Russians hate. They don’t like the mud and rain, the lack of sun, or the hell that is trying to accomplish any sort of transaction at Sberbank. None of these things are magical because they’re in Russia. They suck in your country and they suck here.
“Going to Russia and reporting from there will also provide you with the unique experience of joining the envied and exclusive club of the Moscow hack pack, where you will meet all these other eccentric and heroic individuals, some idealist reformers, some Oxford educated aristocrats, the inevitable New York Jew who feels tied to his Russian-speaking ancestors, and some mean spirited but good-at-heart intellectually restless and brave villains, who just like you, got stranded between Europe and Asia.”
Passive-aggression intensifies. For those who don’t know, the so-called Moscow Hack Pack, inasmuch as such a group formally exists, is nothing more than a Facebook group. Any member of the group can invite and authorize a new person, and many members are actually Russians as opposed to foreigners. In fact, many of the members aren’t even journalists but fixers, copyeditors, translators, etc. It’s not even remotely exclusive, my membership being strong evidence of this, and this cast of characters the author describes does not resemble anything like the parties I’ve been to. It’s clear that the author is describing these Western correspondents in a way that makes them unlikable, particularly with the “aristocrats” remark.
As for restless or eccentric well, that’s pretty much anyone who lives in Russia long term. And for the record, not all of us got “stranded” here. I’m here because however ridiculous and naive it might have been, I wanted to be here. It was my biggest goal from the end of high school until the day I left. But alas, I guess I don’t really love Russia on the deeper, molecular level that the author does. I don’t love it enough to conflate Russia and Russians with a particular government and its foreign policy. I don’t love it enough to pretend that Russia exists outside of a system based on antagonistic classes.
So the real slaughter of strawmen begins with a bullet-point list:
“You do not have to like Russia. What sane human being likes Russia anyway? At worst, it will only be a temporary stay, just enough for you to become more familiar with the realities of Russia, before your employer decides to post you somewhere else to prevent you from going native, that is to say, incapable of delivering objective reporting.”
From my experience, most of the Western correspondents I know like living in Russia. A number of them have worked in places that would make Russia look like paradise by comparison. It is rarely boring here, and no matter how bad things are you can always find some good in Russian society.
“It is good if you go to Russia with all your good old preconceived ideas: these are the ones that have been popular until now, and frankly, who are you, the newbie, to challenge the good old cliches anyway? After all, Russia is Russia is Russia. Read some of the masters and the classics in the genre of Russia “reporting”, like Edward Lucas and Masha Gessen and stick to their wisdom. They are professionals with a vast experience and you have a lot of things to learn from them. The readers know what to expect when they read about Russia, and you know what sort of people your readers are: idealist loners with a genuine wish to improve humanity and some weird, exotic interest in the dark and cursed corners of the planet, who are looking for the excitement they would otherwise find in a detective story; or your other type of readers, who are worried about the impending threat Russia poses to all of us naive fools who are too cowardly to recognize a threat when we see one.”
This one’s a bit long so I’ll break it down into two parts. First let’s tackle that thing about preconceived notions. The author is right to attack the practice of coming to Russia with preconceived ideas. For example, when I came to Russia my preconceived notion was that Putin was a patriot who was making his nation stronger, cleaning up corruption, and restoring Russian pride. I dismissed the Western media coverage of him because at the time I assumed they just hated him for all those aforementioned things he was doing. Luckily once I arrived it was blatantly obvious that this was all bullshit. Putin and his cronies were comfortably in bed with the West, which happily accepted their ill-gotten fortunes in Western banks and real estate markets, and which also invested billions into Russia. Good thing I gave up that preconceived notion, right?
Now for the second part, notice the only Russia journalists that are ever named are Ed Lucas and Masha Gessen. These are two members of the Trinity of Low-Hanging Fruit for Kremlin Apologists, the third member being Paul Goble. The implication is that other Western correspondents write like them. Uh no, they do not, in fact. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re not paying attention. And while Gessen is indeed hysterical at times, she did spent much of her life in Russia and speaks Russian. That ought to count for something.
And get a load of that description of the audience. Hey, guess what- that’s you, dear reader! You’re an idealistic loner who wants to save the world. I say let’s look at the audience for pro-Putin English-language media and see who has more loners and weirdos. Take a look at the comments section on any RT article some time.
I hope I’m not the only one that doesn’t find this incredibly pretentious beyond belief. The Western correspondents don’t really get it. The media outlets don’t get it. The audiences don’t get it. No, only this guy, who admits he failed at journalism in Russia, truly gets it. Sure.
“You don’t need to do your own investigative work. After all, you are in a foreign and dangerous country, and you’d better take care of yourself. Just read the newspapers, watch TV and talk to opposition politicians, particularly those who got so little votes that they failed to get into Parliament. In other countries, their voices would be “marginal”, that it is to say, insignificant. In Russia, their voices are “marginalized”, so well worth reporting.”
This one is really insulting. Just to give you an example why, here’s Simon Ostrovsky sitting in Moscow and reading some newspapers:
Ostrovsky’s work is extreme, but I can rattle off numerous “hack packers” who have reported from front lines in Ukraine, often on both sides. Many have literally put their lives in danger when reporting on this war. In fact, so have I. That’s why I get a bit pissed when I see some self-acknowledged failed journalist implying that Western Russia correspondents just hang out in Moscow, surf the net, and meet with opposition candidates.
Next a word on those opposition candidates. When someone asks why such candidates get that amount of attention it is an indicator that they know little about Russian politics. When you cover politics, you’re supposed to cover controversy and conflict. That’s why the Tea Party got so much attention, for example. The problem in Russian politics is that the official opposition parties don’t really oppose the government or more accurately, the president, on any issue of significance. Anyone who does gets seriously “marginalized.” Just ask Ilya Ponomarev.
The fact is that such opposition parties are marginalized. Their candidates and supporters have suffered everything from arrests to assaults, and in the case of Nemtsov- assassination. They are typically banned from the ballot in most regions. They often get no media coverage save for the occasional story about how they’re secret agents of the United States.
As for the official opposition parties, as I wrote in an update to my last post, this is basically a trap. If you report on the bombastic antics of the LDPR or the Stalin rehabilitation of the KPRF, as many reporters do from time to time, the pro-Kremlin people can just claim those are opposition parties that have nothing to do with Putin. You’re “smearing” Russia by implying that they have real power. If you don’t report on them, you’re focusing on marginal opposition figures. You just can’t win.
“You don’t need to study Russian (a smattering of Russian will be more than enough). Opposition politicians generally speak English very well, especially these self-exiled martyrs who have fled Russia for abroad. They might live outside of Russia now, but nobody has so much insider information about the inner diabolical workings of the Kremlin and so much insight into the bully psychopathic soul of Vladimir Putin. In fact, opposition politicians will court you, because they are careful to avoid Russian state propaganda media. Limited knowledge of Russian will also keep your exposure to Russian propaganda under check. Putin’s propaganda won’t fool you.”
Most of the correspondents I know either have a working professional knowledge of Russian or they are fluent in it (sometimes because it was their first language). But maybe that doesn’t matter. They don’t really know Russian like this author. There’s actually some kind of deeper Russian, so powerful that when you use it in conversation you actually make a connection with the other speaker’s magical Russian soul.
Oh and about interviewing opposition politicians, again I know plenty of people who interview die-hard regime supporters like Evgeny Fedorov (Marc Bennetts does so in his book I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives) or Night Wolves motorcycle club leader Aleksandr “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov. Western journalists have interviewed cossacks, volunteers in the Donbas, Sergei Markov, and of course Putin himself, on occasion.
As a final note, I find that a working knowledge of Russian is what protects you from “Putin’s propaganda.”
“Always remind the reader about Putin’s (preferably accompanied by the adjective “sinister”) KGB past. If you have some space left, do not fail to point out that in reality Putin was just a low level unglamorous employee posted to an insignificant provincial town in Eastern Germany, which does not make him anyway less sinister however. Putin is a nonentity, Putin is a nobody, but he is a dangerous tyrant who wants world domination too.”
The author nearly had a point here until the screwed it all up. Yes, there was and in some cases still is an irritating habit of always pointing out Putin’s KGB past any time he is mentioned. There are times when it is relevant, but this is way overused.
However, one reason it is overused is for the reason the author provides, namely that he was basically a desk jockey. Contrary to his implication, most journalists don’t point this out, and it has bolstered Putin’s mystique.
It’s probably worth pointing out that while Putin’s position was indeed not glamorous, he was stationed in Dresden, the capital of Saxony, and not some “insignificant provincial town in Eastern Germany.” Gee, the global Western media conspiracy really missed out on a great Russia expert here!
“Whatever action Russia takes, it is aggressive. For example Russia aggressively annexed Crimea (actually not a single shot was fired) and aggressively allowed for an aggressive referendum to take place in March 2014. Or like President Poroshenko put it last week, “the aggressor Russia, (with whom Ukraine is fighting a war) aggressively closes its markets, which amounts to economic aggression”. Not only the aggressor is aggressively attacking your country, it is also, aggressively, refusing to trade with your country!”
Whatever action? No, just the acts of aggression. The author excuses the annexation of the Crimea (which began with a military operation to secure the Crimean parliament building) because it was carried out without a shot fired. Well guess what- the Anschluss, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the annexation of what was left of Czechoslovakia were all accomplished without a shot fired. Incidentally, the author is wrong about no shots being fired, and the takeover was far from non-violent; in some cases it was lethal. Incidentally one correspondent of mine had his camera stolen from him by Russian military personnel in the Crimea. Serves him right for not staying in Moscow and interviewing opposition figures!
Back to the question of aggression, seizing other countries’ land by military force, even if they rarely resort to using deadly force, is still aggression, period. Does anyone have the slightest belief that the author would approve of the US doing the same thing?
But you know what’s really funny? The author seems to be leaving out something. There’s a remark about Ukraine fighting a war with Russia, but no word as to who started it. For all we know, maybe Ukraine invaded and occupied Kursk or Rostov-na-Donu. Why mention aggression and then not bring up the Donbas? Instead the author mentions Poroshenko’s reference to a trade war. What the author doesn’t seem to know is that Russia had already pulled this trick…prior to Maidan.
Russia used trade and “sanctions” as a method of dissuading Yanukovych from signing the EU Association Agreement. Here’s a relevant passage from that article:
“Glazyev, speaking on the sidelines of the discussion, said the exact opposite was true: “Ukrainian authorities make a huge mistake if they think that the Russian reaction will become neutral in a few years from now. This will not happen.”
Instead, he said, signing the agreement would make the default of Ukraine inevitable and Moscow would not offer any helping hand. “Russia is the main creditor of Ukraine. Only with customs union with Russia can Ukraine balance its trade,” he said. Russia has already slapped import restrictions on certain Ukrainian products and Glazyev did not rule out further sanctions if the agreement was signed.
The Kremlin aide added that the political and social cost of EU integration could also be high, and allowed for the possibility of separatist movements springing up in the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine. He suggested that if Ukraine signed the agreement, Russia would consider the bilateral treaty that delineates the countries’ borders to be void.”
Hmmm…Glazyev. That name sounds familiar. Glazyev…borders void…separatist movements…OH RIGHT! THIS THING! Isn’t it weird how the thing they threatened Ukraine with in 2013 actually happened almost exactly as they said it would?
So no, Western journalists don’t call everything Russia does “aggression.” Only the aggressive stuff. And on that note, Russian state media loves to brag about Russia’s military and nuclear capabilities. When you do that, people might see you as aggressive, particularly if you’ve invaded your neighbor. On to the next point.
“No explanation is too far-fetched. 9/11 truthers, it is widely known, are a bunch of lunatic conspiracy theorists. Russia actually had its own little 9/11 two years earlier, in September 1999, when bombs were detonated in Moscow and other cities killing almost 300 people. It has become common place in the media universal consensus on Russia that these bombs were actually planted in the apartments by FSB agents who were trying to create a pretext for the next invasion of Chechnya. The tragic accident is often remembered because it brought about the rise of Putin, who had left his post as FSB director, where he served for eight months, and had just been nominated Prime Minister by Eltsin.”
While the truth will probably never be known until after the regime’s archives are opened, I would ask the author to look at the concrete evidence provided for both conspiracies before declaring them to be equal. And another thing to consider is that the idea that this was a false-flag was not cooked up in the Western media but rather in Russia. Lastly, if this was a false-flag, it was a crime of the Yeltsin administration and not Putin, who could not have organized such a thing at the time. Putin no doubt became aware of what happened somewhere down the road and thus this incident is probably one of many reasons why he’s afraid to leave power.
“Putin is a macho. What could possibly be worse than being a man, and not just any man, but a man who pretends to pose as a manly man? The age of men is over. Men should not be allowed to be men, otherwise they become machos. Putin may have been seen shirtless a couple of times or two. Angela Merkel has been spotted naked. Somehow the press does not show the pictures of the German Chancellor naked every time there is a passing reference to her. It must be because she does not look so good naked.”
What’s a pro-Kremlin article without a little bit of creepiness. The thing isn’t that Putin is macho, it’s that he wants to be seen as such so badly. He’s constantly appearing in photo ops riding motorcycles, shooting guns, running around shirtless. He’s not simply “spotted” this way. Putin’s media machine promoted this macho image so they’re responsible for the reactions. And no, I don’t see references to shirtless Putin any time there’s a passing reference to him. I think I’ll just take the author’s word on the Merkel thing.
“If somebody online is expressing a view which might be interpreted as a slight display of sympathy towards Russia, you can assume pretty much without doubt that you are dealing with a paid Kremlin troll. There are actually millions of them and they are extremely infectious, their sole task is to transform the naive online users into Putin worshiping zombies, so the best way to deal with them is to ignore their inherently worthless arguments while naming-and-shaming them. If your article or your book receive a bad review, do not worry at all, it is the work of professional online trolls.”
I’ve often written about how ridiculously overused the term “Kremlin troll” is. For one thing, people need to be aware that these pro-Putin citizens of theirs have been around for a long time, some before the advent of the St. Petersburg troll factories and some even before the founding of RT. Instead of pretending this phenomenon is some kind of artificial foreign invasion, they should look at the problems in their society which alienate people so much that they’re willing to fantasize about some foreign government being their potential savior.
Now that being said, don’t worry, author. If you told me that nobody pays you to write, I’d believe it 100%.
“Russia is on the brink of economic collapse, but it has billions of dollars to invest in propaganda operations to subvert the Western liberal order.”
More like hundreds of million now, but that’s beside the point. Venezuela is on the brink of collapse and yet they still fund Telesur. As for that Western liberal order, well, it is subverting itself with its internal contradictions.
“If somebody is killed in Russia, the first thing to do is to blame the Kremlin for the assassination. After all, centuries of history have proven that Russia is a genocidal country.”
Russia has a higher homicide rate than the US, so that would be a lot of murderers pinned on the Kremlin, don’t you think? And yeah, when outspoken Kremlin opponents are gunned down in a country where getting firearms is no easy task, people are going to look toward the Kremlin. The last political assassination included as one of its suspects a man connected to one of Russia’s most powerful men, Ramzan Kadyrov. The killing was carried out within sight of the Kremlin walls. Yeah that strongly suggests some state involvement, doesn’t it?
“Putin wants to invade the Baltics. Nobody understands what Putin wants, nobody can understand him because he is illogical and insane. Indeed Putin has no reason why and Russia has shown no intention to invade the Baltics but this is exactly reason why Putin will do it. How can you be insane if you don’t do insane things?”
This is the one argument I’d totally agree with, but even here it fails because the link used as an example goes to the Atlantic Council think tank and I don’t see many Russia correspondents taking this threat seriously. I strongly suspect that the author had Ed Lucas and possibly Anne Applebaum in mind when they wrote this whole piece, but I don’t understand why they didn’t just call those people out. Instead they go after this exclusive “hack pack,” which as far as I know, never included either of those authors.
This seems to be a common tactic of some Putin fanboys, as I’ve often seen it before in Op-Edges on RT. Basically you smear Western correspondents in general, then pick some low hanging fruit, many of whom are more pundits than journalists these days, and the reader thinks that the rest of those Western journalists are the same. Guess what- they’re not. Actually read what they write some time.
But in case the author hasn’t insulted your intelligence enough, they end with a cover of Der Spiegel magazine that says, in German, “Stop Putin Now!” This is supposed to show how hysterical and biased the Western media is. Yet looking at the cover and the date, it looks as though it is a photo collage of victims from the MH17 incident. These people were killed with Russian weapons, by Russian-backed forces, in a war started by Russia. But the author looks at this and smirks at how irrational the Western media supposedly is toward Putin.
Can’t imagine why those Western outlets never hired this individual. Must be because they all secretly hate Russia. If the author’s still up for the job I’m sure RT will take them. They’ll hire anyone.