Reading Russian, reading Russia . . . .
Thomas Campbell • Blogging Russia • NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia • 10 February 2016
First of all, I want to thank NYU, the Jordan Center, Rossen, and Ilya for inviting me, and Professor Borenstein for joining me up here as my interlocutor. Although I have never lived in New York or had anything to do with NYU, I did study at Yale with Ilya and Rossen, and Ilya and I were roommates there for four years, so this is really like a homecoming for me. I am especially grateful to Rossen and Ilya for thinking up such an interesting occasion to come to the States after an absence of several years. I hope it will be a stimulating occasion for you as well.
While I know there are academics and researchers who study blogging and other social media, and I am sure some of them have even written about Russian bloggers and blogs, I am in the uncomfortable position of not knowing much about the “science” of blogging. What I can tell you about is my own experience of blogging about Russian politics and society on the ground in Petersburg for over eight years.
When I started out then I really was winging it, making it up as I went along. The only firm sense I had was that there were huge slabs of Russian grassroots political life, non-mainstream art and culture, and “minority” public opinion that were simply covered very poorly, if at all, by mainstream Anglophone media. So my first impulse was to get these stories out in English, either by translating articles, op-ed pieces, and calls for solidarity published by more or less trustworthy Russian media and activist websites or, in the absence of these and more rarely, by telling the story myself. Some of my blog posts, which I have taken to calling “collages,” have ended up being a combination of translations and bits of my own editorializing.
Another semi-principle I made for myself from the outset was that, whenever possible, I wanted either to have some kind of personal connection, however tenuous, with the topics and people I was blogging about or broadly share those people’s political outlooks. To put it another way, I wanted to share stories by and about people who inspired me with their intelligence, courage, wit, humor, and determination.
Unfortunately, over the past eight years, that has increasingly meant sharing stories about Russia’s political prisoners, especially the people caught up in the so-called Bolotnaya Square case, and grassroots political, labor, and environmental activists, many of whom have also faced belligerent prosecution and harassment from the Russian state.
Let give you one specific example, which I have written about on my blog on three occasions over the last ten months and which, I suspect, you probably would not have heard of unless you were somehow plugged into the Russian environmentalist community. This is the case of Valery Brinikh, an environmentalist from Adygea whose trial for “extremism,” according to the website ovidinfo.org, which specializes in coverage of what it regards as political trials and political persecutions, should have begun in Maykop City Court on January 19.
Just out of curiosity, could I have a show of hands. How many of you had read or heard anything about Valery Brinikh before today?
Since we are already looking at my current blog, the Russian Reader, I think it might be worth taking a look both at what I have been up to lately and also what my readers have been choosing to read.
I reformatted the blog last year sometime to make it less cluttered, but, other than by simply scrolling down the page to kingdom come (which does work, too), you have to hit this little “Widgets” button in the upper right-hand corner to see the ten most recent posts, a list of the broad topics I cover, a calendar showing days on which posts have been published, and my readers’ current favorites.
I think the “learning by doing” or, rather, “not being entirely sure of what you are doing” aspect of the Russian Reader is made clear by this list of topics, which has the added disadvantage of expanding whenever I decide I need a new topic. Nevertheless, I think it will give you a sense of the beats and broader topics I have been trying to cover over the years.
The actual blog, I hope, is a lot more dynamic than that dull, slightly repetitive and ill-conceived list of topics.
Let’s first take a look at what I have posted on the blog in the past few weeks.
1. Alexander Reznik, “Back to the Future: Why Putin Criticizes Lenin.” Although I am not a hardcore Leninist by any means, my blog and I have a decidedly leftist bias. More important, in this case, I have found (as a lot of you no doubt have, too) the “history wars” of the past decades in Russia intensely meaningful for understanding current Russian politics and society more generally. So this is an example of a young Russian leftist historian, based in Perm, who has written what I thought was a very penetrating analysis of Putin’s recent public statements about Lenin and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
2. “The Same Old Tapes Spin Round in Our Heads.” This post incongruously combines a newish passion of mine, the Finnish language, and two beats I have tried to cover more or less consistently for a long time, namely, Russian official and “popular” attitudes towards migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, and foreigners per se, and the rather dreary, contradictory post-fascist swamp that we can either call the “zeitgeist” or “public opinion,” which haunts Russians even after they themselves immigrate to countries where these attitudes are not quite so virulent.
3. “Refugees from Yemen in Dead End.” This is another, more objective take on the treatment of refugees in Russia, produced by the terrific Civic Assistance Committee, based in Moscow and headed by the indefatigable Svetlana Gannushkina. It goes without saying that the Russian Justice Ministry has put the Committee on its “foreign agents” list. I try and publicize their work every chance I get, which is not enough.
4. Hafsa Sabr, “Geneva or Bust.” As I point out in a little afterword to this post, I have seemingly strayed out of Russian readerdom altogether in this instance. But I think Hafsa’s story dovetails nicely and awfully with my coverage of how migrantophobia manifests itself in Russia and among Russians abroad. I also wanted to show my solidarity not only with the folks from the Calais and Dunkirk camps but also with fellow Minnesotan Ed Sutton, who runs a terrific website called antidotezine.com and has been getting his hands dirty by going into places like Serbia with anarchist/No Borders-type activist groups and actually giving real aid to the refugees arriving in Europe from Syria, Iraq, etc.
5. Grigory Tumanov, “Kadyrov Is Not Chechnya.” This is a good example of another meta-project I have been pursuing over the years, which is that, despite the well-deserved hype about crackdowns on press freedoms in Russia and the majority of Russians being glued to their propaganda-laden TV sets, there is actually a lot of very good mainstream or slightly left-of-mainstream print and Web-based journalism in Russia. I find it important to translate really meaty articles like this whenever I can, because the reporters who write them often go where western reporters could not go or would not think to go, and have a take on the topics they are writing about that is not based on concatenations of boilerplate, cliché, and dubious “public opinion poll” results. (More on that, later.)
6. “Travel Tip.” This post is no more than a slight advertisement for a graphic reportage piece by Russian artist Victoria Lomasko about a recent trip she made to Dagestan. I translated it, and it was just published on the newish graphic journalism website Drawing the Times. But translating Ms. Lomasko’s work has been such an important part of my own blog over the past few years that I even made a separate heading for her in the “Topics” list. While there are other names that come to mind, I think her work is one of the best examples of so-called activist art in Russia now, especially because much of it aims to give voices and faces to people who are roundly ignored by everyone else.
7. “Petersburg Remembers Markelov and Baburova.” Here we see several threads I have found worth pursuing over the years coming together in one post: the antifascist movement in Russia, grassroots (sometimes “unauthorized”) protests in Petersburg, and the terrific work of the local journalist and photographer Sergey Chernov, who wrote for over twenty years for the English-language newspaper St. Petersburg Times, until it was closed last year along with its website, which contained archives of Chernov’s invaluable, decades-long reporting on the city’s music scenes, grassroots protest movements, and alternative culture. In the wake of the closure, I was gladder than ever that, as an inveterate copylefter, I had made it a habit of lifting Chernov’s articles as needed and pasting them into my blogs, because for the time being at least, those “pilfered” articles constitute the bulk of Chernov’s important body of work that is now accessible to the public.
8. Sergey Abashin, “Captives of the Caucasus,” and 9. Ivan Ovsyannikov, “Putin as the Mirror of the Russian Counterrevolution.” Another meta-project I have been try to implement on the blog is to build up a small but identifiable (identifiable to my readers, at least) corps of “involuntary” op-ed writers, meaning that I take opinion pieces from public blogs, Facebook walls, and websites, translate them, and post them on my blog. Here are two of my favorite such op-ed writers, Sergey Abashin, who is a specialist on recent Central Asian history and migration and teaches at the European University, and Ivan Ovsyannikov, a born op-ed writer who in real life is an activist with the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association (ITUWA/MPRA) and the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD). Although more than a few of my op-ed writers were initially shanghaied into the job (meaning I did not ask their permission), all of them have been quite happy to see their work reaching a wider audience in English.
I think it would be appropriate here to say something about my audience and the numbers. First, I know (because WordPress tells me so) that I have a combined total of 621 followers via WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. I also have a negligible number of followers (21) but a disturbingly large number of total views (135,194) on Google +. I also send out an occasional email newsletter to a smallish group of friends and acquaintances highlighting recent posts I think are particularly important. Finally, I sometimes send links or whole posts to the Marxmail mailing list, moderated by Louis Proyect, and my friend Rossen also occasionally reposts things on the fabulous LeftEast website he edits. Combined with the repostings, Facebook “likes,” and retweets of readers, and rerouting from a couple dozen blogrolls, this is the only promotion the blog gets.
Last year, 2015, I published 220 posts and got a total of 36,741 direct views. This averaged out to 101 views per day on WordPress and I don’t know how many on Google +. The trend over the past few years has been upward, so in January I had an average of 120 views per day, and when I checked it last Wednesday, an average of 179 views per day so far this month.
By way of comparison, during the heyday of the blog I previously edited, Chtodelat News, I achieved similar daily statistics, except during the “anomalous” year of 2012, when the sheer (and deserved) hysteria surrounding the conclusion of the Pussy Riot trial in August led to a total of 101,181 views overall for the month and a monthly average of 3,264 views per day.
Thus, one of the uglier moments in recent Russian history produced some of my “happiest” days as a blogger, if that is the right word. I actually could not believe my eyes when I saw the numbers rolling in every day, but I realized three things. First, the Russian government had thoroughly discredited itself in the eyes of progressive humanity. Second, Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich were real Russian heroines, a brilliant collective image of the grassroots activists Russia I had been trying to portray and translate on the blog for over four years. Third, blogging Russia in this way was a worthwhile pursuit for someone like me who cares deeply about the country, has lived there nearly half of his life, and whose own views and self-image have been profoundly shaped by his own mediated and real-life encounters with Russian activists, artists, scholars, poets, and “ordinary” but inspiring people.
But what do my Russian Readers actually enjoy reading the most? As I sat grimly contemplating the snowless South Karelian landscape on January 2, I decided to answer that question, not by reposting the year-end report generated by WordPress itself, which the WordPressers encourage their bloggers to do, but by writing my own “top of the pops” list. Here is what I came up with.
These were the most popular posts I published in 2015:
- “Rotenberg Is Worse than ISIS!”: Russian Truckers on Strike in Dagestan and Elsewhere (The year-ending story that the major Russian media have been trying not to cover at all.)
- Why Such Hatred? (The Death of Umarali Nazarov) (What happened when a totally corrupt law enforcement and immigration system took an infant Tajik boy into custody while it got ready to deport his mother.)
- Victoria Lomasko: 18+ (A look behind the scenes of Petersburg’s lesbian scene.)
- The Two-State Solution (Racism and the Russian Intelligentsia) (Reflections on the tortured and often racist soul of the Russian intelligentsia by Boris Akunin, Kirill Kobrin, Yegor Osipov, and Our Swimmer.)
- “A Home for Every Russian” (In which I refute the rather odd argument that Putinist neoliberalism is really a much-improved version of “actually existing socialism” when it comes to delivering affordable quality housing to the masses.)
- Oleg Shevkun: “I Don’t How to Trim My Sails to the Wind” (A portrait of the quiet heroism and sanity of a blind journalist in an insane time.)
- Syrias (Five different but complementary reflections on the beginning of Russia’s misadventure in Syria by George Losev, Greg Yudin, Alexander Feldberg, Ilya Matveev, and Bob the Australian.)
- “Smash the Kikes and Save Russia!” (If you’re a neo-Nazi, you don’t want to have Petersburg Jewish community leader Leokadia Frenkel as your opponent.)
- Vlad Kolesnikov: A Real Russian Hero for Russia Day (Young Vlad Kolesnikov was recently driven to death in a provincial Russian town for facing down the madness of a society made sick by Putinism, but back in June of last year that as-yet-unknown ending was outshone by his sheer pluck.)
- Suffer the Little Children (In neo-imperialist countries on the warpath, the neo-imperialist brainwashing starts in kindergarten.)
And these were the posts, published in previous years, which had the most staying power last year:
- Don’t Leave the Room (April 2013) (An inspired bit of graffiti inspired this inspired translation of one of the great Russian poets of the postwar period.)
- Ilya Matveev: A Word to the Wise (On Putin’s “Leftism” and Solidarity with Russians) (February 2014) (This little gem could not be reread or republished enough, but its message seems to have been lost on large swaths of the western “progressive left.”)
- Hanna Perekhoda: Freedom and Social Identity in the Donbas (August 2014) (A heartbreaking essay whose message seems to have been lost on folks inside and outside Eastern Ukraine.)
- Victoria Lomasko: A Trip to Kyrgyzstan (August 2014) (There is nothing trippier and more educational than going on a trip to former Soviet republics and the far-flung reaches of Russia with graphic reportage artist Victoria Lomasko.)
- Russia’s Anti-Gay Law Kills (July 2013) (This was just a little bonbon of a blog post, a translation of a news release documenting a street performance in Moscow, but if it seemed alarmist then, it seems like common sense nowadays.)
Although I let my readers have their say when it came to these “pop charts,” I couldn’t resist appending my own favorite posts from 2015:
Kena Vidre: What Was Frida Vigdorova Like? (A warmly written memoir of the heroic Soviet journalist and human rights activist.)
Rikhard Vasmi: Counting the Ships as They Sail Past (Pavel Gerasimenko’s perfectly rendered review of Petersburg artist and Arefiev Circle member Rikhard Vasmi’s 2015 posthumous retrospective at K Gallery + my translation of a little book Vasmi made in 1994 about life in the Port of Petersburg.)
59°54’32″N 30°29’49″E (Okkervil River) (In which four brave souls set out to find what manner of life exists on the far shore of the Okkervil River, which is a real river in southeast Petersburg, not just a compelling pop band from Austin, Texas.)
“I Broke All the Laws I Could” (Leonid Nikolayev, 1984-2015) (A heartbreaking and detailed obituary of the most tender troublemaker in the world’s largest country.)
The Hipster’s Dream Debased (Portlandia) (What happens when milquetoast Putin-era hipsterism meets hyper-powered catastrophic urban redevelopment in the middle of Petrograd.)
Knowing that I would soon be speaking before you all, I also decided to come up with a mission statement of sorts. (Up until then, my only motto had been the opaque and nonobligatory “Reading Russian, Reading Russia.”) This is what I wrote:
I regret that I am not a mutant, alien or robot capable of translating and writing ten times more than I do on this blog, whose secret mission is to give people a glimpse of a Russian society that is smart, brave, independent minded, strong, and willing to get a few lumps on the head (or worse) to build a country that is democratic, egalitarian, LGBTQI-friendly, vigorously environmentalist, progressively urbanist, anti-xenophobic, pro-immigrant, and any number of other good things.  That is why I try and give a voice in English to some of the people trying to build that Russia or at least trying to think about building it. […] But one thing I try not to do is focus obsessively on Putin, his whys and wherefores, which is what 99% of what the so-called media do, including some alternate media, both inside and outside Russia. Putin is hardly the only problem in Russia (or the world), just as he is definitely not the real solution to any real problems.
To this end (and in partial contradiction of my half-baked mission statement), one of the topics I have been treating with a vengeance over past couple of years is something I have dubbed “pollocracy,” the obsession with so-called public opinion surveys and Putin’s allegedly brilliant approval ratings both in the Russian and foreign media. I concluded, in fact, that such polls are another instrument of authoritarian rule, albeit with a pseudo-populist tinge, and I have been assembling a dossier of writings on the subject that looks like this.
I launched the dossier on “pollocracy” (not knowing it would become a dossier, of course) with this little reflection, published in October 19, 2013, at the height of the Greenpeace “piracy” affair.
In the queue outside the centre, there is little sympathy for Greenpeace among relatives of other detainees, as they wait to deliver packages. “We have a saying in Russia: you shouldn’t go into someone else’s house and try to live by your own rules,” said one middle-aged woman who had bought a parcel of food for her 33-year-old daughter, who had been inside for five months on charges she did not want to reveal. She had been waiting in freezing temperatures since 4am to ensure she was among the lucky few who got to deliver her package.
Another man, waiting to deliver a package to his brother, suggested the Greenpeace activists were paid by western oil corporations to undermine Russia and should be “shot, or at least sent to a camp”. The opinions reflect surveys which show that the majority of Russians support the piracy charges.
Shaun Walker, “Greenpeace activists await trial among harsh winds, tears and no sympathy,” The Guardian, 18 October 2013
For some reason, as the country sinks deeper into the Putinist fascist night, this “saying” becomes more and more popular. I’ve personally heard and read it something like six hundred thousand times over the past few years, but it’s hard to remember anyone ever saying such a thing in the nineties. It’s just remarkable how people participate so willingly in their own enslavement and extinction, and with the help of such “sayings.” Yes, “folk wisdom” really does consist in repeating over and over again what some fat cats with soccer teams in England, kids in Swiss schools, and mansions on the Riviera want you to think.
On the other hand, reporters like Shaun Walker wouldn’t have to look that hard for Russians who don’t think this way, even in Murmansk. And it’s pointless, as he does here, and as avid Russian watchers both inside and outside the country love to do, to cite a “public opinion” poll that, allegedly, shows the majority of Russians don’t support the arrested Greenpeace activists. Aside from any other number of methodological and philosophical issues with such polls more generally, not only in Russia, “public opinion” is a nearly meaningless concept in a country lacking all the things that make it a somewhat more meaningful concept in other countries, things like free elections, broadly based political parties, non-astroturfed grassroots groups, much stronger and more militant independent trade unions and, most important, freedom from constant terrorization and brainwashing, in the not-so-distant past and now again, over the past fourteen years, by officialdom, whether in the form of bureaucrats, police or state media.
Why does “the majority” not support the arrested Greenpeace activists? Because they (or, rather, a good number of the people who answered this dubious poll) thought that this was the response expected from them. Why did they think that? Because state and loyalist media have portrayed Greenpeace as the second coming of Al Qaeda, willing dupes of the CIA, and any other baleful thing you can think of. You don’t even have to believe this stuff. You just know that if some “polling organization” calls you up out of the blue, there are strong cues out there in the big media world to which you have access telling you how to respond to such questions. So what’s the point of thinking something different out loud? But then Shaun Walker, hundreds of other reporters, “political analysts,” “sociologists” and so on cite this “public opinion” as if it weren’t obtained under duress. It’s a vicious circle.
That is all I wanted to say by way of presenting my work as a blogger. Thank you for your attention. I look forward to the discussion and your questions.