How Russia is seen outside its borders is largely shaped by its presentation in the media. And that is shaped by Moscow correspondents. We spoke to three leading Moscow-based journalists — Shaun Walker (The Guardian), Nataliya Vasilyeva (Associated Press) and Andrew Roth, (The New York Times) — about their relationship with Russia, accusations of Russophobia and the current tense situation
Interview: Jamie Rann
The Calvert Journal: All of you had some connection with Russia before you became a correspondent here. Does that change the nature of your reporting?
Shaun Walker: I studied Russian history at university and came here after graduation ten years ago to learn the language. I worked as a freelance journalist, then the Independent for six years and now the Guardian for the last six months. Especially in a country like Russia [reporting is different]: it’s not the sort of place where that many people speak English, and the amount of stuff you just pick up from walking the streets and looking at billboards and overhearing conversations and being able to just chat casually to people does make for a different kind of coverage, and, in a lot of ways, probably better coverage.
Nataliya Vasilyeva: I'm a Russian by birth and a Russian citizen, so I sometimes get into tricky situations where people don’t quite understand whether they're dealing with the Russian press or not. People sometimes don’t really understand why you would be interested in a story which to them seems of no consequence. In some cases, as Shaun noted, when you can talk casually to people without a translator you can have a better human interaction. But I've actually found that in many cases a correspondent who doesn’t speak any Russian can sometimes get more because locals look at him or her as some sort of a novelty and will give them more detailed background information.
TCJ: There's obviously an escalation of the temperature at the moment in regards to the relationship between the Russian state and the media. Is that having any day-to-day impact on your job?
NV: I haven't really felt any changes in the past months or even in the past couple of years. It’s more or less how it was five or six years ago.
SW: I think there's definitely been a change of atmosphere in Russia but at the moment it’s only a sort of vague worry that one of the next targets could be foreign journalists as a whole. That said, with both Crimea and, weirdly, but more poignantly, with Sochi, there's definitely an enhanced feeling among Russian officials that the western media is nefarious and working to a [US] State Department script. I’ve had a couple of conversations with people, including one moderately senior official who said that the negative coverage of Sochi was obviously a conspiracy. He said that the toilet photos [of two toilets in one room] were clearly arranged as part of an anti-Russian plot. I tried to say: “I know the journalist who took the first photo: they just thought it was funny; this is how Twitter works, this is the age we live in.” They said: “Well maybe the journalists aren’t but their editors are definitely working to these plots.” The Sochi problems meme, followed by what is seen as a one-sided and hypocritical coverage, has intensified these feelings.
Andrew Roth: I agree with Shaun, especially concerning Crimea. The Russians felt like they had a happy ending to Sochi and felt vindicated there and they’re sort of vindicating themselves with Crimea right now, but it’s an extremely touchy subject. This is an issue that’s divided a lot of Russians. Even for liberal Russians who might be in favour of the opposition, Crimea is something very close to their hearts that they do believe is being incorrectly covered by foreign media. I think that there is going to be a noticeably different change in Moscow. The pro-Kremlin groups have a very strong propaganda movement of their own. I'm talking about LifeNews and other internet sites. It’s not just about blocking out liberal voices, it’s about occupying that space. They want to create a vacuum for it, so now they need to push out the obnoxious, hipster, liberal things like Rain TV. Part of the reason we're seeing this right now is because there’s such a powerful new pro-Russian media that's been developed in the past five years.
TCJ: I want to go back to the question of the perception of foreign journalists, particularly in Russian officialdom. I often hear Russians complaining about the representation of Russia abroad, saying: “Why do you always say bad things about Russia?” Do you hear this a lot? And do you think there might be some justification in the claim that newspapers just want bad news from tyrannical Russia?
SW: People come to me with this complaint about every seven and a half seconds. The problem with this obsession with a conspiracy against Russia is that it gives too much importance to Russia. I do write a lot of stories about negative things happening in Russia because I'm the Moscow correspondent. If we take a broad definition of what a negative story would be and take as a positive story something like “Stunning Russian prodigy wows the world with incredible ballet performance”, then I don't know if the balance in favour of negative is any higher in Russia than in any other country. Because they’re in Russia and they’re reading the Guardian’s reports on Russia, some people seem to sort of forget that outside the Guardian’s reports on Russia there are also the Guardian’s reports on the US, the Guardian’s reports on Britain, on every other country. So often people come up to me and say: “I bet your paper’s never published anything that went against the official line of the White House.” And you think: “Do you have any idea what this newspaper’s been doing over the last two or three years…?”
TCJ: Like Wikileaks, I suppose.
SW: There may be another question about the nature of journalism: does journalism naturally seek out bad stories? Possibly it does, and possibly there's a good reason why it does. Does journalism tend to sensationalise and fit things into an easy narrative to make it easier for readers? Good journalism shouldn’t, but often we do see that. But it’s wrong to think that people putting Russia into stereotypical boxes is a sign of an anti-Russian conspiracy, rather than just a sign of lazy or sensationalist journalism.
NV: I was doing a story about stray dogs in Sochi and I called the head of the pest control company that was basically killing the stray dogs and he gave me a ten-minute lecture on us finding bad stories in Russia. But I just think it comes with the job.
AR: When you’re talking about Crimea again you'll say something and people will say: “How can you ask me that question when the US has done this?” As though we're answering to the line of the US or any other country. People expect that you’re going to carry an official line and that you’re not just a journalist working for a publication that's based in America but you’re an American journalist working for an American publication that's part of a larger information war.
TCJ: I wonder whether this speaks of the history of media in Russia being a very different one in which politicians really did have control over media, which contributes to this culture of thinking of the media as a governmental structure.
SW: Yes, and it’s reinforced by, for example, Russia Today and by a lot of Russian state media. A lot of people who have worked for Russia today will admit that they have a one-sided view of the world but they feel that that's acceptable because it counters another one-sided view of the world which is heard much more. They’ve been quite successful in getting an idea across that all media is cynical.
TCJ: Do you ever come to your editors with stories that don’t get run because they don’t fit a certain narrative? I'm not saying that newspapers are run from the US State Department, but rather that newspapers have a narrative: perhaps what it wants to run differs from what you're perceiving as interesting on the ground?
AR: There are often differences in narrative between the journalists who are on the ground and the editors who are based in New York but I don't think it’s related to a political line or to fitting a narrative. Sometimes they’ll say something is not tough enough and we need to take them to task on it. But the journalist gets a lot of licence to control how the story is told. If the suggestion is that certain stories are forwarded out of New York or any kind of hit out against Putin could be ordered, then the answer would be no. You can always find a Putin story that we've had where Putin's on top. I think it’s a fairly liberal approach.
SW: In my six and a half years working with different publications, I’ve occasionally had editors that I've found a bit frustrating to deal with, people who have wanted to have a particular narrative — not a Russophobic agenda, but just a narrative that is very black and white. But when I was in Kiev and said: “Look we've done a lot of pieces about the wonderful feeling on Maidan, but I think we should do something about the sort of unsavoury right wing elements of it,” they said: “That's really interesting, we should definitely do that.”
TCJ: Russia is an incredibly centralised country. Is it a constant struggle to break out of the Moscow bubble? Do you manage it?
NV: It depends on timing. If you say to Andrew or Shaun let’s find original Russian stories they’re going to tell you at this particular moment that we're busy with Ukraine, we're busy with Crimea. When you’ve got such a big story running you're definitely not going to go out to the Volga region or Siberia to find some interesting stories. Sometimes you feel you don’t really know much about regions like eastern Siberia because they have very little independent media so there aren't many sources to find the original threads of information.
AR: We're blessed by having a couple of correspondents here but not everybody has enough reporters or enough time to be able to go further out. The last year and a half has really had the right topics to get people out of Moscow. It’s not just the ongoing Putin story, you had asteroids slamming into Russia in Chelyabinsk and [mother of Boston bombers Ailina] Tsarnaeva showing up in Dagestan. I just came from Belgorod, which is a small city right on Russia’s border with Ukraine, because my editor sent me there to see if there were any tanks around.
SW: I've just had a long lecture from an official this week asking why don’t we write more about ballet and opera. When nowhere is being annexed, I go to the opera once a week but an interesting opera performance at the Bolshoi is not really a story whereas someone throwing acid in someone else’s face is. What’s more, I'm the only Guardian correspondent here: there was all this fury that we weren't covering the right-wing elements of Maidan enough in the weeks afterwards, but I was in Crimea so it was impossible to be in Kiev as well.
TCJ: To what extent are the foreign correspondents like a club? Do you see quite a lot of each other?
NV: Well, we certainly see each other outside courthouses and police stations.
SW: Yes. Courthouses and Ukrainian military bases.