Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

Two Russians walking down a sunny street in central Petersburg, 17 September 2017. Do we know what they’re thinking? Unless we talk to them and get to know a good deal about them and their lives, of course we won’t know what they’re thinking. And there are 144 million other Russians like them. Each an individual, not a statistic, they are complete mysteries, like people anywhere else in the world, unless we spend a lot of time in their company, talking to some of them, and living lives much like they live. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Contrary to what Samuel Greene wonders in his recent blog post, namely, “Can we learn to listen to the voices of Russians without first sorting them into boxes that reflect our own insecurities more than their complex realities?”, most “Russia experts” are only interested in listening to other “Russian experts” (especially the ones they agree with) and otherwise promoting themselves as “Russia experts,” a term I define broadly, because it includes, I think, not only the usual suspects, but the relatively small cliques of activists, journalists, writers, scholars, and artists who try very hard to control the discourse about Russia to their own advantage.

I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.

But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.

Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.

After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.

People like the ones depicted and heard in my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”

And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.

At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians understand.

So what do we need “Russia experts” for? TRR

3 thoughts on “Voices of Russians, Unsorted into Boxes

  1. As a wannabe Russian expert (well, I speak Russian, was born there, have family there etc.) who is probably overly sympathetic to the Russian high state, I have to say that your long piece on the submariners park is journalism as it imho should be, and that it was very interesting and rewarding to read all of it. Particularly because it was a) unfiltered and b) something I never heard about.

    Raw and unfiltered Russian (and Ukrainian) voices are a very good reality check.

    I find it interesting that you get these type of voices, my own “kitchen talks” tend to be a bit different (of my student/doctorate/young professional acquaintances typically one out of 5 are “Russija bes Putina”, while the rest tend to be various stripes of Pragmatists, my Russian relatives (a bit older) are heavily pro Putin, but then they are policemen).

    I am also an obvious foreigner from my hilarious German accent, which I expect to considerably reduce the degree of Anti Putin venting in my immidiate vicinity.

    1. Thanks for supportive comments, Andrej.

      You’re very right when you say that “raw and unfiltered […] voices are a very good reality check.” “Real” journalism lets them into its realm far too seldom.

      The battle over Submariners Park, while it was a fairly big deal here in Petersburg at the time it happened, was probably reported in other languages on my blog and in the now-defunct St. Petersburg Times, whose archives are now essentially inaccessible because the newspaper’s owner turned off its website. Although a friend of mine says you can find some things using the Wayback Machine.

      It was part of a larger series of battles between Petersburgers and developers and the city officials backing the developers. Perhaps you’ve heard about the campaign against Gazprom’s plans to build a skyscraper on the Neva, opposite the beautiful (and much shorter) baroque Smolny Cathedral? This all happened at the same time.

      It was an incredibly interesting time because, relatively speaking, so many Petersburgers felt compelled to resist their betters. And they were right to resist, because in every single instance where they lost the battle, what the developers and the officials did made an incredibly beautiful city a bit uglier. When all those little bits start numbering in the hundreds and thousands, you end up with a very different city, a city that looks quite confused architecturally and aesthetically.

  2. I find the following contrast interesting:

    My relatives in Chelyabisnk complain about their “immidiate” betters all the time, but are typically mostly successfull in circumventing these “immidiate betters” and raise issues with “the betters of their betters” (which is still a lot of steps away from the pyramids top) instead.
    And it mostly works for them (it clearly doesnt seem to work for the various examples you are citing otherwise). I am not sure if this is a) regional or b) connections based (one relative is a pod-polkovnik in the traffic police, I cannot assess how much blyat that gives you, but messing with her is more risky then stomping on a 90 year old) or c) Chelyabinsk being run by fairly stationary bandits as opposed to roving bandits.

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