How to write about Russia

Some say being a journalist in Russia is an infernal job. You are lucky if you escape alive. Indeed, Russia may well be one of the most difficult places on earth where to exercise the fourth power, that key function of keeping the government under check that the media never tires of claiming for itself. 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. With the notable exception of a former director of Forbes Russia, a US citizen gunned down in central Moscow in 2004, all other killed journalists were locals.

I actually don’t know if Russia is really the most dangerous place on earth to be a journalist, I have never been there in this capacity. 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.

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. 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. 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.

Journalism appears to be going through a financial drought in Europe and the US too, with journalists being forced to do more with less means, to work more for less pay or to work for a long time with no pay at all (after all, there must be some selection not everybody can be a journalist, right?). So if you are considering a career in this vital but endangered line of business, taking some risk and becoming a Russia (which generally means Moscow) correspondent, might provide you with some future rewards – or maybe not. But these are arguably very good times for Russia correspondents. In 2012, during the US Presidential campaign, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney was laughed off by the media for suggesting that Russia was the biggest geopolitical enemy of the United States. At the time, everybody in the media believed that was an absurd notion. Now becoming a Russia expert seems all of a sudden to have become a wise career choice, in light of the renewed Russian threat.

Here is the receipe to become the ultimate Russia correspondent (from one who has failed at it):

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and Russia has shown no intention to invade the Baltics but this is exactly the reason why Putin will do it. How can you be insane if you don’t do insane things?

Don’t be an appeaser. You don’t need to have any illusions. This is your chance at earning yourself a reputation with your work. The West is weak but united against Putin we are strong! Putin must be stopped!



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