Vladimir Putin: 20 Years Of Telling A New Story of Russia

 

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St Basil’s cathedral and the Spassky tower of the Kremlin, Moscow, March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

This week, 20 years after Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia, I wrote for The Conversation about how Russia’s place in the world, and the technology used to tell its story, have changed since. You can read that piece here, and a complete text follows. It contains some of the ideas I explore at greater length in my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin.

IT WAS A DAY OF CHANGE. After the long Russian winter, spring had come to the north Caucasus. The air was warmer. Passing trucks and boots kicked up dust from the ruins of Grozny. The city centre was now bombed-out buildings and piles of bricks as far as you could see.

It was Sunday March 26 2000. Far to the north, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin was waiting to see if voting in Russia’s presidential election would confirm him in the post he had held in an acting capacity since the retirement of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin at the turn of the year. It did.

In the two decades since, Putin has defined what political power means in post-Soviet Russia. At the same time, Russia has also tried to control and define the way its story is told to the world.

In a sense, that process was already underway in 2000. Grozny, capital of the southern Russian region of Chechnya, had been through two wars in a little over five years. In the first, from late 1994 to 1996, journalists had been given great freedom to report what they wanted. Their access was restricted only by their own sense of risk.

It was different once the separatist conflict flared again in Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. The government in Moscow, then under the leadership of Putin as prime minister, had disliked the negative coverage of civilian deaths during the previous conflict which had resulted from Moscow’s attempts to bring the unruly region back under control.

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Russian soldiers in the Chechen capital Grozny, March 2000, the month that Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia. Photo © James Rodgers

I was there as a correspondent in Grozny that spring day because I had been able to travel there by military helicopter with Russian army minders. In one sense, that was reassuring. Westerners had been kidnapped and murdered, and travelling alone was even more dangerous than it had been before. It was the army, though, that decided the schedule, and we had very little chance to see anything beyond the places they chose to take us, and the people they permitted us to meet.

Something else was changing, too. For the first time, I saw a photojournalist file digital photos from a laptop. I was reporting for TV and radio that day. I could send radio reports via a satellite phone, but TV material had to be sent from a TV station far from the front line, meaning a long drive before it could be transmitted.

Since then, technology has changed the world of international correspondents in many ways. But some things have stayed the same. Throughout Russia’s modern history, its treatment of foreign correspondents has been the story of its relations with the rest of the world.

For my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin, I have researched the lives and working conditions of Moscow correspondents back to the time of the 1917 revolutions. It is fair to say that their experiences have varied with the political climate.

It was not just the weather that was changing that spring day in Grozny. Yeltsin’s relations with the West are seen now by many of his compatriots as a supine acceptance of US foreign policy. Putin, as he enters his third decade at the summit of Russian power, has chosen to reject and defy.

It has always been true in military and diplomatic affairs that you need not only to act, but to tell your story, too. That has become even more the case in our age, when so many people spend so much time consuming information.

Since 2000, Russia has made great and costly efforts to shape the way it is seen around the world. In 2005, it launched Russia Today, the TV channel now known as RT. It has made extensive use of social media platforms, both to distribute content from RT and other Kremlin-friendly media organisations – and perhaps to interfere in elections.

Within the country, a network of exhibitions “Russia – My History” has been opened to tell citizens which parts of their national story should be particular sources of pride.

With all these official attempts to tell Russia’s story, what hope do correspondents have? The truth is that they still have a great deal of influence. Russia may have spent many millions on RT, but few people watch it. It took a World Cup to polish the country’s image, and to make at least one correspondent wonder if things might change. Continuing diplomatic tensions over Ukraine and Syria, and the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter have not won Russia many fans.

For now, Putin’s 20-year story has become one of war and peace with the West. His presidency has already been longer than the great sweep of history which that masterpiece covered. It may go on much longer.

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New Book ‘Assignment Moscow’ Published In July

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. Photo © James Rodgers

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

My next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting On Russia From Lenin to Putin will be published in the U.K. and the U.S. in July.

It tells the story of Russia, and of its relations with the west, through the words of the correspondents who reported on Russia and the Soviet Union through war, revolution, and resurgence on the international stage. It also includes personal reflections of covering a country I first travelled to as a journalist in 1991.

You can find more details on the publisher’s website, here .

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There will be a number of events this summer and autumn where I will be discussing the book. I will share details of them here nearer the time.

Mr Brexit, Putin, and me, 20 years on

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An EU flag washed up on the foreshore of the River Thames at Hammersmith, West London, July 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

I first met Nigel Farage in the fall of 2000. I was newly arrived in Brussels as a correspondent after covering Vladimir Putin’s election to the Russian presidency earlier that year. Farage’s ideas about the U.K. leaving the EU were marginal, but now, with the British government having taken them on as official policy, his success is complete.

For his part, Putin has built a newly-nationalist Russia–and feels confident enough to declare provocatively, as he did in an interview with the Financial Times last year, that liberalism is ‘obsolete’.

For NBC News THINK this week, I wrote about those memories of the year 2000–and how the politics of the western world have changed in the two decades since. You can read the piece here.

 

‘Assignment Moscow’ publication date and pre-order

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. Photo © James Rodgers

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

My next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin, is to be published next summer as a hardback and e-book.

The book tells the story of Russia, from the revolutions of 1917 until the present, as reported by British and American journalists. It draws on their reporting, their memoirs, their letters, and, from the 1950s onwards, on interviews with the men and women who told the story.

With relatively few outsiders having visited Russia for themselves, the book makes the case that those correspondents who have been curious enough to go have had a huge influence–for better or worse–on westerners’ impressions of Russia. Readers will learn how audiences found out about the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks; famine and show trials under Stalin; the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany; Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’; tales of imprisonment and expulsion during the Cold War. The last sections of the book cover the Soviet Union’s final years, and the eras of Yeltsin and Putin which followed.

The book will be published by I.B. Tauris, part of Bloomsbury. Details of how to pre-order here.

I will post details of promotional events and talks as I have them, but in the meantime please feel free to contact me by email at reportingconflict@hotmail.com, on Twitter, or LinkedIn .

Looking On A Page Of Holocaust History In The Czech Republic

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The Old Jewish Cemetery in Kolín, Czech Republic. Photo © James Rodgers

Earlier this year, an invitation to a bat mitzvah opened my eyes to an astonishing and tragic story from the blood-soaked years of Europe’s twentieth century. On a recent trip to the Czech republic, I got the chance to learn more. You can listen to my report on the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’ programme here (from around 11’30).  This is the first part of the script.   

The story of the scrolls had moved me. It made me want to learn more. Earlier this year, a friend from my schooldays in Manchester invited me to his daughter’s bat mitzvah. At the appropriate time during the service, my friend’s daughter took her place in front of the synagogue’s congregation to read from the Torah, the law of God as Jews believe it was revealed to Moses.

The scriptures are written on scrolls. The scrolls from which my friend’s daughter read had a remarkable story of their own. They had been saved from a synagogue in Czechoslovakia—a synagogue where the worshippers had been wiped out during the Holocaust.

On a recent trip to Prague, I unexpectedly found myself with a free morning. The story of the scrolls had stayed with me, so I decided to visit the town from which they had come.

 

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Gravestones overgrown with ivy. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Kolín, Czech Republic. Photo © James Rodgers

Understanding the stories of others

Detail from a War memorial in Volgograd, Russia. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

I wrote this recently for the website Journalism Knowledge Exchange. You can read that version here. 

‘WE’RE NOT HERE TO GIVE PEOPLE A HISTORY LESSON.’ The editor’s succinct rebuke served to curb the enthusiasm of a reporter intent on telling the world about the latest international story in the greatest detail. During two decades dealing with newsrooms, I heard it several times in several places.

The sentiment is sound, of course. Even if journalism is supposed to be the first rough draft of history, the material which journalists prepare for their audiences is supposed to be something different: new, and of the moment.

Yet in an age such as our own, when history is in western European politics to a greater extent than at any time since the middle of the last century, I am going to argue that to hold that view is to risk not telling the full story.

Before becoming a lecturer in Journalism in 2010, I covered international news for twenty years. The experience of covering events that changed the world as I had known it in my childhood taught me lessons about telling the stories of people living through war and revolution: the attacks of September 11th, 2001; the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A return to Russia earlier this year to research my next book, Assignment Moscow, gave me a chance to look again at a country I had not seen for ten years. It was a strange time to be there as a Brit: relations between Russia and the west were bad enough; relations between Russia and the U.K. worse than ever they had been since the end of the Cold War.

Russia was seen as a threat. The poisoning in the English town of Salisbury of the former Russian military intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, was one especially unsettling example; persistent allegations of attempts to use social media to undermine western democracy was another.

It attached itself easily to older forms of fear of the huge country on Europe’s western edge: cold war confrontation; nineteenth century cartoons of oversized bears helping themselves to chunks of the globe.

The ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in volgograd, Russia. March 2019. © James Rodgers

Part of my trip this year took me to Volgograd. As Stalingrad, as it was known in the 1940s, it was the site of the battle which halted the German army’s attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Soviet forces, newly energized and enthusiastic after defeating on their mighty enemy, began to turn the tide of the entire war.

The city skyline is dominated by a colossal statue of Mother Russia, a sword in her raised right hand. She looks back over her shoulder, urging her people to emerge from the places where they have taken cover, and go on the attack. The hill where she stands is the site of the decisive, final, battle for the city: 34,000 Russian dead lie buried beneath her feet.

All of this, I reflected, is relevant to explaining Russia as it is today. No, people don’t talk about the war every day any more than they do in western Europe but, boosted by official propaganda which serves as a constant reminder of Soviet sacrifice and victory, it shapes and influences Russia’s view of itself.

It also shapes the way that it sees the west. For if we have tended to see Russia as a threat (even the name, ‘the beast from the east’, given to the snowstorms in the spring of last year seemed to have a hint of Russophobia), then let us consider how the west must look when viewed from Russia.

The west may have brought new technology and new ideas to Russia. It also brought invasion and occupation from Napoleon and Hitler. More recently, it brought ideas of democracy and free markets at time when millions struggled to make ends meet. One consequence of that confrontation is that the word ‘democracy’ (‘demokratiya’ in Russian) is still sometimes subject to a pun which replaces the first two syllables with a Russian word, ‘der’mo’, meaning ‘shit’.

Reporting on Russia, as on any other country or culture, requires an understanding of that country and culture. That means an understanding of its history. In that sense, especially today, when identity more than ideology is credited with driving our politics, we do need to give our audiences a history lesson.

That lesson must explain how we understand the story of a nation, and its influence on the present. That is context, so frequently cited as an indispensable ingredient of good reporting.

The other lessons which correspondents need to heed is a lesson in listening: as you prepare your story, listen and watch carefully to the stories surrounding you. To report a story from a country, you have to understand the stories which the people there tell about themselves.