The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

“I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity—a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”

How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?

She claims she knows this because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.

I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.

The problem is that the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.

The problem with the standard narrative is it’s not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky or Vladislav Surkov or a whole team of such spin doctors.

Over the last eighteen years it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to brainwashing each other with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.

Or is this the “real” Russia?

However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.

Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always somehow know what’s best for the people of Chelyabinsk; twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.

It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 143 or 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.

That’s a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters aren’t up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in circumstances where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.

Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russian handdom spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, quoted above.

If there’s anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it’s the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what’s really been going down somewhere.

“Real Russians” are upset “the west’ has swallowed the standard narrative hook, line and sinker.

Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional, and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.

Amid the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how the western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.

This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the backstocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR

All photos by the Russian Reader

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