So you want to become a journalist covering Russia for Western media? Once you get past the self-serving bluster, it’s really a very safe, well-paid, and rewarding job – but only on condition that you follow a set of guidelines.
Update 2021: I wrote a version of this article in 2016, but unfortunately it is still as topical as it was last time. I figured it was time for an update because some new names have appeared, and some facts have changed.
1. Mastering and parroting a limited set of tropes is probably the most important part of your work as a journalist in Russia. Never forget to mention that Putin used to work for the KGB. Readers should always be reminded of this: The “former KGB spy,” the “former KGB agent,” etc. Other examples include (but are not limited to) “Putin destroyed democracy,” (which of course ignores what Boris Yeltsin did with US backing in the 1990s), “The Russian economy is dependent on oil,” “There is no media freedom,” “Russia is more corrupt than Zimbabwe,” “Navalny is a political prisoner and Russia’s next Sakharov,” “Russia is really weak” (but also a dire threat!), “Russia is a Potemkin village” and “a dying bear” that is ruled by “a kleptocratic mafia,” “Russia produces nothing…” You get the drift.
2. Not sure who is doing what? Not sure how Russia works? Just make a sentence with the word ‘Kremlin’. Examples include “this will create problems for the Kremlin,” “the Kremlin is insecure,” “the Kremlin’s support of anti-Western dictators,” etc.
3. This ‘Kremlin’- is always wrong, and its motives are always nefarious. If it requires many signatures to register a party, that is authoritarianism, meant to repress liberal voices. If it requires only a few signatures to register a party, that is also authoritarianism, a dastardly plot to drown out the “genuine opposition” amidst a flood of Kremlin-created fake opposition parties.
4. If visitors to your blog or Twitter criticize you for your one-sided coverage, don’t try to argue with them (or explain your reasoning). This will only hurt your professionalism. If one comes a-knocking, call him or her a “KGB agent,” “FSB agent” (names of security services always work well), “fellow traveller,” “Stalinist,” “useful idiot,” “Kremlin troll,” “Kremlin bot,” “Putin’s pilot fish,” or “Simonyan propagandist.” If they persist, start deleting their comments and block them on Twitter.
5. Your job as a journalist isn’t to be objective. Instead, personal grievances against the Russian authorities should always be prioritized. Remember, Putin is the Stalin of our age. If the Russian police are trying to arrest someone because he violated the law, it is perfectly acceptable to try to physically prevent the police from arresting him. In no way will this impinge on your professionalism.
6. Hyping anti-government demonstrations is of the utmost importance. A demonstration in downtown Moscow of 500 people, at which your fellow journalists outnumber the protesters? Revolution tomorrow!
7. An important rule is that reporting on Russia means NOT researching important issues or looking past the rhetoric. To partially invert what CP Scott once said, “Comment is free, and facts aren’t sacred.” If various anonymous “experts” say that corruption in Russia is worse than in Zimbabwe, but the Russians themselves only report paying bribes as frequently as Hungarians, it is clear which line you should copy and paste.
8. You must also learn to suppress any cognitive dissonance you might get from arguing that Russia is really weak and in a state of seemingly perpetual collapse (“dying bear,” “rusting tanks,” “mafia state,” etc), but at the same time a dire threat to Western security and civilization itself. This has been dubbed ‘Russophrenia’.
9. Every non-systemic opposition member is a potential ally. Don’t cover any negative sides of these people, as this will only complicate things for your reader. Though it may be true that the left-wing activist Sergey Udaltsov is known for his Stalin admiration, that the anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is prone to frequent racist remarks, that liberal journalist Yulia Latynina doesn’t want poor people voting, that Mikhail Khodorkovsky made his fortune in what was dubbed “the swindle of the century,” and that businessman Sergey Pugachev was found to be highly unreliable by a UK court. These are all unimportant details that detract from the overall goal of overthrowing the bloody regime and true democratization.
10. Speaking of democracy – as far as a democratic journalist like yourself is concerned, anybody who is against Putin is a democrat. No matter if the people only favor him or her with single-digit approval ratings (and even regardless of his or her own views on democracy). To the contrary, any Russian who supports Putin is part of the “sovok” cattle herd, and his or her opinions are invalid due to their poor education or Kremlin brainwashing. Feel free to express these sentiments on Twitter, but do make an effort to cloak them in political correctness when writing at more august venues.
11. Members of the systemic opposition – i.e., those who participate in Russian elections – are really Kremlin stooges in disguise. Even though the Communists are by far the formal biggest opposition bloc, it is non-systemic activists and sundry “dissidents” who are the “genuine Russian opposition.” It’s important not to drop your forcefield towards the Communists, and give them the benefit of the doubt, because your own government hates them even more than Putin’s crowd.
12. Everything in Russia involves around Putin. There is no one else in Russia, never was, and it is he who decides everything in the biggest country on this planet. Did it take an annoyingly long time for you to get your clothes back that one time you lost your dry-cleaning ticket? Or maybe someone stole your purse in Moscow? All Putin’s fault!
13. Don’t bother learning Russian. It does not help to increase the quality of your articles. You can always rely on your fellow non-Russian journalists for some juicy rumors about Putin’s Swiss bank accounts and nubile mistresses. (In general, be bold! As Russia coverage is concerned, plagiarism isn’t really an issue – you’re more likely to be promoted than fired if discovered). If anything, learning Russian will put your professionalism at risk by exposing you to the opinions of ordinary Russians, which may accidentally leak out in your articles.
14. If you do end up learning Russian, make sure to keep your circle of Russian acquaintances limited to other democratic journalists and leading members of the liberal opposition. Never mingle with non-opposition Russian journalists, i.e. propaganda mouthpieces of the regime.
15. Above all, you must cultivate a burning, righteous hatred for “the Kremlin’s TV channel,” RT, and anyone who works or even appears there. It is “low brow,” “full of conspiracies,” “slavishly pro-Putin,” “anti-American,” etc. Never directly compare it with Western media bias, because that is “moral relativism” and “whataboutism” (see below). It’s one thing if “Kremlin propagandists” broadcast in Russian; it’s quite another when they directly compete for your Anglophone audience by covering irrelevant and anti-American stuff like Occupy protests, WikiLeaks, America’s indefinite detention laws, Julian Assange, and the very real threat of ultranationalists and Nazis in Ukraine. Attack them like your credibility is on the line! (And it is!)
16. While almost all Russia-focused news outlets in the English language are state-funded, remember that only those supported by Moscow itself are bad. Thus, RT and Sputnik are “state-run.” But RFE/RL is “US funded.” This is despite the fact that the charter of RFE/RL’s parent literally obliges it to “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States” and the US government controls the make-up of its top brass. Also, don’t forget to ignore when RFE/RL fires journalists when governments friendly to Washington complain about their work. As it happens, don’t forget to call the Moscow Times (which is mostly bankrolled by the Dutch state) and Meduza (which won’t reveal its financial backers, but is known is to have gotten Swedish government cash and to have worked with British state agencies) “independent.” You must apply the same rationale to BBC Russia and MBK (Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky) Media, despite the clue being in the names.
17. Whenever you study conflicts between Russia and other countries, always blame everything on Russia – regardless of objective facts, and especially when the conflict is with a staunch Western ally. So, even when Russia bans wine imports from a country, one of whose own ministers described said wine in scatological terms, it is “economic warfare.” Ergo for cutting off gas supplies to a country that refuses to pay for them. Killing Russian soldiers is always commendable; any Russian retaliation is typically either “imperialism,” “nationalism,” “neo-Soviet revanchism,” and various combinations thereof. Never forget that Putin hates the West and dreams of rebuilding the Tsarist empire. Any expression of Russian goodwill to the West is a plot to dupe or divide the tragic, all-too-trusting West. Any expression of Western goodwill towards Russia is “appeasement,” and is to be condemned in no uncertain terms. Don’t forget to mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, even though England, France, and Poland (who even invaded Czechoslovakia) had already signed similar deals with Hitler before that.
18. Guessing is fun! In the event you find guessing a bit too taxing on your imagination, just interview some marginal, highly unpopular Russian political figure like Gleb Pavlovsky, Valery Solovey or Evgeny Chichvarkin. Their guesses are usually a lot more creative than what you could have come up with yourself. But do remember: when they become more positive towards the Russian government, like Mikhail Gorbachev has done over time, please stop quoting them!
19. Never try to place Russia’s problems in a broader perspective. Don’t mention that population decline is far steeper in the Baltics, that more Americans were arrested in Occupy events than Russians protesting against Putin, that more Britons say they want to emigrate than Russians, and that the new government in Ukraine is actually closing down media after the president’s party lost the local elections. This is called “Soviet-style whataboutism,” and only “Kremlin trolls” engage in it. Leave logic and statistics to those losers; your weapons of choice as a democratic journalist are rhetoric, personal attacks, and insinuations.
20. Always remind readers that Putin kills critical reporters – brave reporters kind of like yourself, in fact! – and prove it by quoting one he has not, or by including in your examples murdered journalists who were supporters of Putin. Under no circumstance should you mention that the rate of journalist murders was much higher under Yeltsin, or that it is lower in Russia today than in “democratic” Mexico and Brazil – or that unlike Russia, Turkey currently imprisons more than 170 journalists.
21. Stalin. Always remind readers that Russians like Stalin very much. Putin, even more so. Their names both have two syllables and share the last two letters; what more evidence do you need? Every time Stalin appears on a bus or in a school notebook, or is described as an “effective manager” in one of dozens of textbooks, it must be on orders from Putin himself. Do not mention any instances of historic revisionism involving the glorification of SS and nationalist war criminals in the Baltics and Ukraine. Also, ignore how Putin himself has repeatedly denounced the terror of Stalin’s regime and even opened a huge monument to his victims in downtown Moscow, in 2017.
22. Alcohol. Please do keep exaggerating the alcohol use in Russia, even though the consumption of alcohol has plunged by 40% and the French and Germans are drinking more than Russians nowadays. Please do not give your readers the idea that the life and well-being of Russians has actually improved over the last 20 years.
Good luck on your new career as a Western media Russia correspondent!
(This article was first published on rt.com and has been reproduced here in full.)
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