Mark H. Teeter: Turn on the News

tumblr_m58pus9vFN1qz9qooo1_500Marilyn Monroe doing a spit-take.

And Now the News, With Somebody You Weren’t Expecting
Mark H. Teeter
Moscow TV Tonite
April 7, 2019

The accepted wisdom among high-dome media analysts here in Russia has been that Muscovites who checked on-the-hour radio news either tuned in Ekho Moskvy or Kommersant FM for actual news, in larger and smaller doses, respectively, plus commentary from sources who were relevant and informed or were supposed to be.

Or they got earfuls of untruths, half-truths or misrepresentations of the news from just about everywhere else on the dial, along with pseudo-commentary from various professional spokes-liars (presidential, ministerial, etc.) or professional dim bulbs (Russian MPs, selected idiots on the street, somebody’s cousin Vanya).

Whether or not you accept this accepted wisdom, there has been an interesting recent development you should note: an intriguing Third Way that you may have missed (as I did until recently) has opened up here in the New Muscovite ether for listeners keen on locally sourced radio news coverage. Its creators have given their project’s genre the highfalutin name Avtorskie Novosti, that is, Auteur News, by analogy with avtorskoe kino or auteur cinema.

You might, however, dub the genre The News from Somebody Noteworthy Who Doesn’t Do Radio News for a Living and Might Offer an Interesting Take on Today’s Edition of It.

Auteur News was the brainchild of the modest-sized NSN (Natsionalnaya Sluzhba Novostei), which described the project, as I discovered on its website, in alluring terms.

Auteur News from NSN is a radio program broadcast simultaneously by three stations (Nashe Radio, Rock FM, Radio Jazz) with a daily audience of 1.5 million people in Moscow and four million in Russia. The presenters of Auteur News are well known to listeners, as they are among the most famous people in the country. Currently, 200 contributors are involved in the project.

That thumbnail sketch should pique the interest of listeners numbed by Ekho’s necessary but wearisome good accounts of bad news and the embarrassing agitprop elsewhere on the dial: “President Vladimir Putin today signed another new law to make life better and happier.”

Question No. 1 in the minds of potential listeners would likely be, “Wait, just who are the Auteur 200?” And they would be right to ask. Nikita Mikhalkov is certainly a famous person, for example, but many people would feel more confident getting their news and commentary from a bag of doorknobs.

But let’s start with the glass half full: a brief retelling of how I came across Auteur News.

The wife and I often put on Radio Jazz quietly as background music to dinner, when the grandson, who hates jazz, isn’t joining us.

We were listening to it with one ear, as usual, when the news came on at 8:00 p.m. one recent evening.

Imagine my surprise when a measured female voice from the seemingly politics-free jazz station launched into a four-point litany of items-plus-commentary that seemed like something you’d call Real News with Real Attitude.

The Ministry of Finance, Radio Jazz told us, had “refused to provide the Russian Academy of Sciences funding for international scholarly and scientific cooperation,” which would result in Russia “finding itself in the backwaters of science again, the fruits of which we already know from the Soviet period.”

A repeat of that would be, the voice continued, a “very sad” prospect.

Hmm! My one-ear listening quickly ratcheted up to one-and-a-half-ear listening.

Radio Jazz continued on a more upbeat note.

“Kirill Serebrennikov’s ballet Nureyev was named Ballet of the Year by the jury of the professional music award BraVo,” with the presentation taking place at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

This wouldn’t seem a particularly newsworthy story: the ballet had won a sizable basket of international awards since its premiere in 2017. Ah, but then you recalled the scandals surrounding the production here, including the arrest of the director, and the overall public attitude toward things artistic identified with “non-traditional orientations.”

But the announcement of the award was not the end of the item, as the presenter continued.

“I had the good fortune to see the ballet Nureyev It really is a wonderful ballet, striking from many points of view. And considering that Kirill Serebrennikov, in fact, staged the ballet by long distance, so to speak, the outcome is little short of a miracle. It is sad our national know-how is linked to creative events in ways that are not positive. But I would like to congratulate Serebrennikov on this well-deserved award. May he have the strength to overcome all his trials.”

Wow, just wow. It dawned on me what I was hearing was not only not The News in Putinese. It was news-plus-opinion that would make many Putinistas angry and hostile. I was beginning to wonder whether black sedans and a police van were heading toward Radio Jazz that very minute.

Next, Radio Jazz reported that an ominous institution called the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia, which sounds even more ominous in Russian (Federalnaya Sluzhba Ispolneniya Nakazanii, or Federal Service for the Enforcement of Punishments) now “want[ed] to oblige its employees to apologize to prisoners in cases where their rights and freedoms have been violated.” As in, “Sorry for the rubber hoses and the knuckle sandwich there, Petrov, we didn’t mean to, y’know, violate your rights and freedoms and stuff.”

As absurd as it sounded to me, it sounded even worse to the Radio Jazz news commentator.

“What a Kafkaesque reality! We will torture people, but then apologize to them. I don’t really understand how these things go together. Lately, I’ve been seeing various features of the old utopian Soviet mindset in a great number of legislative acts. You get the feeling lawmakers don’t understand what is happening in reality at all and create an attractive little mockup of it for themselves, to placate their consciences. As in, ‘Go right ahead, citizens, demand an apology from your jailers for beating and torturing you.'”

Kafka and sarcasm are surely justified in passing along this news item, I agree, but it was still hard to believe my ears. At this point, I was experiencing a flashback impulse to close the kitchen door and huddle around the radio so the neighbors wouldn’t hear us listening to illegal “foreign voices”!

The final item Radio Jazz offered its evening listeners to ponder was a question about as philosophical as a news broadcast gets: How happy are you?

First, the context.

“Finland is the happiest country in the world,” Radio Jazz told us by way of summing up the annual World Happiness Report. “This ranking of global happiness takes into account GDP per capita, life expectancy, charitable contributions, social support, the level of freedom and the level of corruption in terms of their impact on residents ‘vital decisions.’”

Well, Miss Radio Jazz News gave the neighboring Finns plenty of credit.

“Frankly speaking, I am ready to agree right off with this award, because in Finland they do a huge number of social projects. The Finnish people try to be at the center of their own culture. For example, if a festival takes place in a large city in this country, the residents of the surrounding villages are brought there free of charge by bus so  they can be involved in culture. I won’t even mention many other important laws related to social status, support for the population, and so on. In sum, we should follow the path of Finland, and not, say, North Korea.”

The last time I heard a Russian newsreader say, “Let’s not be North Korea” was, let’s see here, carry the two, ah, that’s right: never. Which was why I almost lost a mouthful of after-dinner decaf doing a Danny Thomas spit-take over the kitchen table as the news ended. A little went up my nose, but it was still worth it.

After the shock wore off, a little laptop skating yielded some background on the presenter and commentator of that evening’s edition of Auteur News: “Irina Prokhorova, editor-in-chief of the publishing house New Literary Review, specially edited what she thought were the top stories of the day for NSN.”

All I could say was, Nice job, Irina, and here’s hoping you get another turn at Auteur News before unpleasant men in ill-fitting suits are sent to chat with you at your place of work.

A further bit of web surfing still did not yield what I wanted most: a list of the Auteur 200 and a schedule of their appearances for, say, the upcoming month. But I did dig up a little more background.

I discovered that Auteur News had been on the air for nearly five years, and over 200 presenters had contributed, including politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, politican and TV presenter Pyotr Tolstoy, football star Ruslan Nigmatullin, actor Sergey Bezrukov, rock musician Andrei Makarevich, writer Sergey Lukyanenko and other Russian celebrities.

This was clearly a very hit-and-miss kind of thing, I could tell. You can imagine setting a long jump record with a sudden vault across the kitchen to turn the radio off before “Auteur News with Vladimir Zhirinovsky” (or Pyotr Tolstoy) abused your eardrums, but if such leaps of faith were what it took to get the likes of Makarevich, long implicitly banned from state-controlled media as an “enemy of the people,” back in the public arena, then maybe it was worth it, I figured.

Yes, perhaps sharing the airwaves with the loud and confused was not too great a price to pay for getting a great unheard voice of reason heard again.

And that, it has long been assumed here, is the same devil’s bargain by which the majority Gazprom-owned Ekho Moskvy stays on the air: lowbrow types and state shills get air time so real news and sane views can reach millions who would otherwise have to scan the dial for “foreign voices” or, more likely, give up the dial altogether and simply glue their eyes and ears to social media.

Which doesn’t sound so bad at first blush, until you recall that social media were instrumental in blessing our brave new millennium with President Donald Trump, who has in turn introduced us to a new and apparently effective form of zombie-generating, masses-manipulating monologue that substitutes for press releases, news conferences, and indeed governance itself: the Auteur Tweet.

Yikes.

In any case, I was still bothered by one thing: how a longtime listener to Radio Jazz could have remained blissfully unaware of Auteur News for the first five years of its existence. Were the presenters less outspoken before? Or did my long-suffering ears simply click automatically to OFF for any radio news that happened to reach them from a station other than Ekho or Kommersant? Possibly both, but one more net search yielded a more likely answer.

This time, I turned up NSN’s original announcement of Auteur News, dated November 7, 2012, which noted the program would air only on weekdays, and only twice daily, at 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. If you were merely a one-ear listener, and your dinner usually ended before eight, it obviously took a bracing shot of Irina Prokhorova to get your attention.

This last search also produced a much better picture of the fabled Auteur 200, as the original announcement named names that were big time; indeed, almost all of them, as the list ran to some 178 people (if my count was correct). And the Big Picture spectrum is a broad one: there are plenty of presenters an educated listener would definitely like to hear an earful from. Beyond Makarevich, the list included director Serebrennikov himself, historian and journalist Nikoai Svanidze, progressive politician Irina Khakamada, saxophone legend Igor Butman, political scientist Nikolai Zlobin, filmmaker Alexei Uchitel, theater director Konstantin Raikin, satirist Mikhail Kononenko, producer and composer Stas Namin, national elections commissioner Ella Pamfilova, and a bunch more.

That said, there are just as many (probably more, actually) who would make the same listener wish he had taken his high-school long jump practice more seriously. Beyond Zhirinovsky and Tolstoy, you find motorcycle gang leader Khirurg (The Surgeon), the “pranksters” Vovan and Leksus, dim Duma stalwarts such as . . . but why list the losers here, have a look for yourself.

And relax. While there are definitely some wildcard types, including several rock musicians who use a single name (ask your grandson), you won’t find Director Doorknobs on the list. At least not yet.

Which is a reminder that, while Auteur News is a real find, without an updated contributor list and a schedule for it, you’ll need to be wary.

Irina Prokhorova was a great way to start, but the next presenter you hear might well focus on Putinista bikers running amok in Crimea.

Be prepared to leap.

Mark H. Teeter, a former opinion page editor and media columnist for the Moscow Times and the Moscow News, is the editor of Moscow TV Tonite on Facebook. His original article was lightly edited to conform with TRR’s nonexistent style guide. My thanks to Mr. Teeter for letting him reprint his article here.

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Sparta F.C.

Russian football hooligans attacking an opponet in Marseille. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru
Russian football hooligans attacking an opponent in Marseille. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru

Come on I will show you how I will change
When you give me something to slaughter
Shepherd boy (Hey!)
Everybody sing (Hey!)
Better act quick (Hey!)

Be my toy
Come on have a bet
We live on blood
We are Sparta F.C.

The Russian National Football Hooligans Squad: The Russia They Represent in Marseille
Sergei Medvedev
Forbes.ru
June 14, 2016

Russia has fought yet another small victorious war. On the eve of the national squad’s first match in Euro 2015, a couple dozen Russian fans routed the numerically superior forces of the English fans in the Old Port of Marseille. A day later, right after the match, they went berserk in the English sector at the stadium, beating up everyone in their path, including spectators with families and elderly people. The results were distressing. At least thirty-five people were injured, and a fifty-year-old English fan who was crowbarred over the head is at death’s door. As punishment, UEFA has provisionally suspended the Russian team until the end of Euro 2016 (if the violations are repeated, we will be completely disqualified from the championship) and fined the Russian Football Union 150,000 euros, including for the racist behavior of the Russian sector during the match against England. On June 14, French police detained fifty people from the Russian Union of Supporters, led by the notorious Alexander Shprygin (aka Kamancha) and held them for twenty-four hours. Russian fans made the top world news headlines (isn’t it what they wanted?), and Russia’s chances of losing the right to host the 2018 World Cup have seriously increased.

This shameful episode perhaps should not deserve such attention. Football hooliganism has long ago turned into a sanctuary of violence and a near equivalent of world war. Fans of all countries fight and run rampant, and massacres happen too, like the tragedy at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, which left thirty-nine people dead and led to all English clubs being banned from UEFA competitions for five years. And Marseille well remembers the English fans during the 1998 World Cup, who staged a donnybrook with fans from Tunisia and smashed up half the town.

But the difference lies elsewhere. While in England, supporters are unanimously condemned by society and politicians in the wake of such scandals, over the last few days the football hooligans have figured almost as national heroes in Russia. Dmitry Yegorov, a reporter for Soviet Sport, live tweeted the carnage, commenting it like a football match and admiring the organization and physical training of the Russians. Social media have been buzzing with approval for the supporter, who smacked the spineless English upside the head and stood up for Russia like the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae. A blog by sports journalist Andrei Malosolov entitled “Why the Victory of Russian Supporters in the Port of Marseille Is Cool!” has been especially popular.

What is even more curious, the Russian hooligans have enjoyed the backing of high-ranking officials. Russian Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin commented on the reaction of the Marseille authorities on Twitter, calling the Russian fans “well-trained fighters.”

“A normal man, as he should be, surprises them,” he wrote. “They’re used to seeing ‘men’ at gay parades.”

LDPR State Duma deputy Igor Lebedev (whose aides include Shprygin aka Kamancha), a member of the Russian Football Union’s executive committee, wrote, “I don’t see anything terrible about fans fighting. On the contrary, our guys were great. Keep it up!”

“If [Russian sports minister Vitaly] Mutko had been with the fans in the stands, he would have fought too,” Lebedev suggested later, in an interview.

Here we have to acknowledge one unpleasant thing. The fans in Marseille supply a honest picture of official policy and conventional wisdom in post-Crimea Russia.

They are waging the same hybrid so popular in our propaganda, infiltrating well-trained fighters, skilled in hand-to-hand combat and disguised as “holidaymakers,” into France, using force selectively and purposefully, attacking in unexpected places. The web is now full of rumors the hooligans were really Russian military intelligence (GRU) special ops units, who had infiltrated the championship to intimidate Europeans, so pumped-up, organized, and sober did the Russian hooligans appear in the numerous videos, but we shall leave this hypothesis to fans of conspiracy theories. As I imagine it, a joint detachment of so-called ultras from different “firms” of fans, fighters experienced in street brawling, converged in Marseille, attacking beer-bellied English “Kuzmiches,” i.e., simple fans who had come not fight, but to cheer and show off, some accompanied by their families.

One Russian fan admitted as much in an interview that our guys had come to fight.

“It doesn’t matter what cities our fans are from and what teams they support. What matters is that we are from Russia and are going to fight against the English. They have always said they are the main football hooligans. We are here to show that English fans are girls.”

Russian football hooligans displaying captured English flags. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru
Russian football hooligans displaying captured English flags. Photo courtesy of tribuna.sports.ru

So even if the Russian assault was not really a planned military operation, such rumors do not come out of nowhere. First, Russia is not a novice at “hybrid” interventions in social movements in Europe. It has organized rallies and agitprop campaigns, worked skillfully through the media to fuel anti-immigrant sentiments, cooperated with right-wing radical and neofascist movements, and supported scandalous populists and European separatists. Just as in Soviet times the Comintern engaged in subversion in western countries, Russia has been worming its way into the cracks and fissures of European society. It has been trying to weaken the west from within, explaining it in terms of a total “information war.” Alarmed Europeans see the Russian ultras in this light.

Second, football supporters really are one of the combat units of the regime, which has an irresistible attraction to various groups of mummers who try and make a show of strength, such as Cossacks, bikers, and football supporters. Members of these stern fraternities are invited to drink tea with high officials. They are identified as exemplars of patriotism. They are awarded civil society development grants. And when push comes to shove, they are sent out on so-called Russian Marches and sicked on opposition rallies and individual dissidents. However, the football hooligans are as alien to the football tradition as the Surgeon’s latex bikers, with their Orthodox banners and Saint George’s ribbons, are to the rebellion and freedom of Easy Rider, and the paunchy “Cossacks,” with their glued-on topknots and cardboard medals, specialists in fighting gays and theater productions, are to the honor and glory of Russian Cossacks. They are all fakes in the era of Putin and Pelevin. When “the public” is a total simulation, protest countercultures turn into vehicles for dull officialdom and perfunctory patriotism, into tamed grant recipients.

Finally, the Russian fans (at least the ones who are photographed by reporters) are the readymade products of official propaganda, reproducing on their clothes and bodies all the typical corny kitsch of the era of Crimea and “getting up off our knees”: t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “polite people” and “we don’t abandon our own,” budyonovkas and earflap caps twinkling with red stars, banners displaying toothy bears and Slavic Siegfrieds, kids in Armata tank t-shirts and, as the apotheosis of all this patriotic trash, a gigantic tricolor, covering half the Russian sector at the stadium, inscribed with the message “YOU’RE FUCKED.” Apparently, these people see this as the new Russia’s national idea.

This mayhem, however, kicked off long before Crimea. Russian fans have usually reserved the most boorish displays of great-power chauvinism and racism for trips abroad. In the Czech Republic, Russian hockey fans unfurled banners emblazoned with tanks and the promise to reprise 1968. In downtown Warsaw in 2012, football supporters staged a march in honor of Russia Day, nearly provoking a battle royal with Polish ultras. Fueled by beer and egged on by propaganda, Russian resentment shows itself to the hilt in the stands at football and hockey matches, taking symbolic revenge for the Soviet empire. Yeah, we forfeited a great power and never have learned how to play football, but we can smash chairs and smack Europeans in the kisser, “kick the shit” (otbutskat) out of them, as Vladimir Putin once put it, invoking a football supporter coinage. Ultimately, wasn’t it Putin who shared a bit of popular wisdom drawn from a tough childhood in Petersburg’s courtyards, i.e., you have to hit first?

The fans in Marseille did just that, and in this sense they are worthy ambassadors of Putin’s Russia.

As MP Lebedev would have it, they should be greeted at the airport as heroes, just as the bikers have been greeted when they return from their patriotic motorcycle rallies. They should be secretly awarded state honors, as the “polite people” were in their time for bringing Crimea back into the fold. And they should be elected to seats in the Public Chamber and State Duma. Football hooliganism is a matter of national importance in hybrid Russia.

The term “football hooliganism” (okolofutbol) quite precisely reflects the essence of events. Despite the adult budgets of its premier league teams and national squad, despite the purchase of international stars (a typical strategy of superficial modernization), Russia has remained an average performer in the world rankings, both in terms of its own national championship and the performances of its national team. Before the start of the Euro 2016, our country was ranked twenty-ninth in FIFA’s world ratings. But, at the same time, a fan movement based on the British model has very quickly and naturally put down roots in Russia. Books by Dougie Brimson, who has written authoritatively on England’s football fan culture, have achieved cult status among Russian supporters. Without becoming a world football power, Russia has succeeded brilliantly in hybrid football hooliganism, spewing its entrenched and publicly recognized culture of violence onto the international arena.

But Russia has been engaged in the same hybrid “football hooliganism” in Ukraine, where it has not been waging an open war, but delegating well-trained groups of fighters, and in Syria, where it arrived with its own agenda and has been bombing targets for reasons known only to it, and in Europe, where it has banked on populism, separatism, and breaking up the European Union.

Football hooliganism substitutes fair play, real work, and the painstaking cultivation of institutions with violent action and demonstrative bullying. This is not the first year the entire Russian state has been playing at football hooliganism. The hooligans in Marseille are merely its away side.

Sergei Medvedev is a journalist, historian, and faculty member at the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader

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