Two Weeks in Russia: part II and conclusion

This is the second part of my post, ‘Two Weeks in Russia’, about my first visit to the country since 2009. You can read the first part here.

The entrance to the ‘Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy’, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post (with one exception) are by the author.

The event in Volgograd took place in front of the building housing a new exhibition: ‘Russia: My History’. A number of them have been set up across the country. I had visited the one in Moscow, in one of the pavilions of the Soviet-era ‘Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy’, the day before my arrival in Volgograd. It was slightly overwhelming. It would be wrong to call it a museum, for there is not one single concrete object in it. Instead, the visitor is treated to a multimedia experience offering a huge amount of information. I had underestimated how much there was to see. Arriving at the ticket desk, I was asked which exhibition I wanted to visit. I had expected a single one covering everything. I chose the 20th century, the period I am writing about in my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin.  

President Vladimir Putin first reached the highest levels of Russian politics when he became Prime Minister in 1999 — but you would be wrong to think that might mean he would not feature prominently in an exhibition covering Russia’s twentieth century. In fact, even Mr Putin’s views on the First World War are shared with visitors: Russia’s attempt to mediate peacefully before the outbreak of war not having succeeded, it was forced to take up arms to defend ‘a fraternal Slavic’ people, Serbia – but paid a high price in defeat.

Revolution followed, and the ‘shameful’ peace treaty made by Russia’s new Bolshevik government. The final analysis of the conflict sets the tone for the rest of the century: noting the collapse of the Russian; Austro-Hungarian; and Ottoman empires before asking who ultimately benefited (a favourite question in any Russian discussion), the voiceover concludes that it was the United States, ‘A new era had arrived. The era of the dollar.’

Part of the outside of the ‘Russia — My History’ exhibition in Moscow, March 2019. It shows Tsar Alexander III above his words, ‘Russia has only two allies: her army and fleet’.

The exhibition is skilfully put together for a generation used to being constantly surrounded by audio visual experience. There is nuance, too: some things are bad and good (the 1990s, for example, may have seen economic hardship and political instability, but they also witnessed the start of a business system, and the reconstruction of churches). Overall, though, a number of messages emerge which confirm that Russia under President Putin has taken a path which respects its past traditions, and will serve it well for the present, and the future.

A newly-restored and reopened church on Khavskaya Street, Moscow. March 2019.

Briefly, these are: Russia has done best when not relying on others; the west is always out to undermine Russia (it is telling that on the section covering the political crisis of 1993, which ended in gun battles on the streets of Moscow, and tanks shelling the then parliament, the only clip of President Boris Yeltsin has him talking of the support he has received from the United States); the ages when Russia has followed conservative social values under the guidance of the church are those ages when Russia has fared best. The Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War is attributed at least in part to the return to more traditional ways after the Bolsheviks’ questioning of the nuclear family as a system of social organization.

Visitors to the ‘The Motherland Calls’ war memorial, Volgograd, Russia. March 2019.

Russia’s biggest domestic challenge in the last quarter century has been to restore faith in the political leadership’s ability to run the country. While many in the West look at the 1980s and 1990s, the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, as a time when relations were improving, for many Russians these are years remembered more for extreme economic hardship and uncertainty than for political freedom. ‘Russia: My History’ understands this, and its overall message is not to tell people of their history, so much as to reassure them that things now are as they should be.

Russia’s post-Soviet attempt at liberal capitalist democracy having been judged a failure, the country has struggled to find a defining ideal since. Pride in history has helped to fill the void left by the death of Marxism-Leninism.

Stalingrad – sacrifice, and triumph

The Second World War – the Soviet Union’s part in which is referred to as ‘The Great Patriotic War’ — is the most prominent example of this. Living in Russia for long periods in the last decade and in the 1990s, I came to understand how much the sacrifice and victory meant. I also came to understand that was not fully appreciated in the West. One of the chapters of my next book covers the work of British and American correspondents in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. As part of my research on this trip, I travelled to Volgograd to see the site of the battle which changed the course of the war. Soviet victory here, and at the Battle of Kursk later in 1943, stopped the German advance onto Soviet territory, and, as it later became clear, was the start of the process that would lead to the ruin of Nazi Germany.

Second World War tanks outside the ‘Battle of Stalingrad’ museum on the bank of the River Volga, Volgograd, Russia, March 2019.

The Soviets’ task was to stop the Germans and their allies taking the city, then called Stalingrad. The fall of Stalingrad would have meant that Hitler’s armies could advance on the Caucasus and the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. It would also have cut off the River Volga as a supply route. After a battle lasting 200 days, the Soviet forces prevailed. The German Field Marshal, Friedrich von Paulus, was captured along with his generals.

Today, the cellar – then underneath a department store – which was their headquarters, is a museum. It was here, in February 1943, after the surrender, that the BBC correspondent, Alexander Werth, was brought by the triumphant Soviets to see their prized prisoners. As a western journalist in Moscow – to whom I told this story during my visit – wondered, this was perhaps the first time during the war that allied correspondents saw such high-ranking German captives.

The ruins of a flour mill destroyed during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-1943. The ruins were left as they were at the end of the battle as a reminder of the war. Volgograd, Russia, March 2019.

Even decades later, and with little to recognize of the city as it was (aerial bombardment, followed by weeks of infantry and tank battles, reduced the riverside stretches to rubble – what you see today is almost all Soviet-era reconstruction, with the exception of the ruins of a flour mill, left as a reminder) Volgograd tells the visitor so much about the way Russia sees itself. Any correspondent or diplomat, any curious business person, newly-arrived in Russia, should visit. This was the place where Russia changed its own history, and that of Europe. This is the place where you understand why, after the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union was so suspicious of the West – suspicions which have found their contemporary counterparts. In their telling, danger came from the West in the shape of invaders, and Russia stood alone to face them – eventually triumphing simply by refusing not to.

The changing of the guard at the Mamayev Kurgan war memorial, Volgograd, March 2019.

The monument ‘The Motherland Calls’ was built to remember the triumph of arms. Mother Russia is no longer cowed: brandishing a sword, the giant statue symbolizes the moment when, victorious at Stalingrad, the Soviet forces went on the attack to drive the invader out. As Mother Russia leads the charge, she looks back at the same time: urging her armies to follow her. The hill where she stands was of great strategic importance, and captured at great cost: a sign tells the visitor that 34,505 soldiers lie buried there in common graves.

This great victory, won at such cost, has become part of the creation of modern Russia’s view of itself. Mr Putin even invoked the sacrifice of wartime when speaking at a concert held to mark five years since the annexation (not his phrase, obviously) of Crimea. ‘The actions of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol remind me of the actions of Red Army soldiers during the first tragic months after the breakout of the Great Patriotic War, when they tried to battle through to join their comrades and carried their field flags close to their hearts,’ he told the crowd.

‘Those Were The Days’

This trip also gave me plenty to consider about the nature of being a foreign correspondent. I will incorporate some of the lessons I feel I learnt into my teaching when I return to City, University of London’s Journalism department in September. It was a time to reflect on my own experiences in Russia, from the end of the Soviet period, to covering a very different kind of era in Russia’s war with Georgia in the summer of 2008.

When I left VDNKh, after my visit to ‘Russia: My History’, ‘Those Were the Days’ was playing over the public address system. The tune was originally a Russian folk song. To me, it evoked not only modern Russia’s assessment of its past, but also to my own long history with this county — long enough that some of the other journalists I have known here have since died: some in road accidents; at least one was killed in a war.

It is with sadness that I reflect that the close ties between Russia and the West, for which my generation hoped at the end of the Cold War, have not been built. After Crimea, and the diplomatic conflict which followed the poisoning in the English town of Salisbury last year of the former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, there is absolutely no prospect that they will be soon.

Russia has built its own system. It has finally – after decades of deliberation – decided on the direction it wishes to take. Freedoms seen as part of a liberal capitalist democracy are curbed. In return, the state is supposed to guarantee stability, a reasonable standard of living, and to permit citizens the liberty to be individual consumers (and despite sanctions, there seemed to be to buy).

The post-Soviet period is over. Russia has completed its transition. The country I knew as a journalist between 1991 and 2009 is no more. Like all countries, Russia will continue to develop – but within the confines of the new order it has established.

The ‘Bronze Horseman’ monument to Tsar Peter the Great, with the Russian Constitutional Court in the background, Saint Petersburg, March 2019.

Still, there are questions. Can the system, based as it is on the leadership of one man, President Putin, now in the second and final term of his current presidency, endure? Views I gathered during my trip varied on this. The answer, it seems, depends on Mr Putin’s being able to find a replacement – drawn, in all probability, from the security services, as Mr Putin himself was – who will command the respect of opposing factions within the elite. Those factions may also choose to keep the peace to defend their self-interest; there may be some changes to the constitution to allow Mr Putin to retain some form of overall authority when his presidential term ends.

In the history exhibition, there is a quotation from Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, warning that the consequences of the collapse of Russia would make the end of the Soviet Union look like a kindergarten, or child’s play, as we might say in English.

The airport and the streets of the capital may exude confidence, but the warnings of what is at stake suggest a certain nervousness, too.   

Moscow, Volgograd, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. A grant from the Society of Authors funded this trip, assistance which I very gratefully acknowledge.

The author visting Volgograd, 16th March 2019.


Advertisements

Two weeks in Russia

Part of the Kremlin wall and Spassky Tower, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post, are by the author.

I have just returned from a two week trip to Russia, my first visit to the country since 2009, when I finished my posting there as BBC correspondent. It was also my longest time away from Russia since I first worked in Moscow as a TV news producer in 1991. On this trip, in addition to meetings with academic colleagues, and giving two lectures, I went to places which will feature in my next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin. I am extremely grateful to the Society of Authors for the grant which funded my travel. This is a longer piece than I usually post here. It covers change in Russia, history, journalism, and personal reflection. This is part one of two. I will post part two tomorrow.

MOSCOW LOOKS CONFIDENT. It welcomes the visitor now with the self-assurance of a capital proud of how it looks and what it has. Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport I was as impressed as I was obviously supposed to be. I first landed there in the summer of 1991 — the last summer of the Soviet Union — and the contrast could not be greater. In almost every way, that was another country. Gone was the drab lighting, the air tinged with the scent of boiled cabbage and the distinct, if distant, smell of Soviet cigarette smoke. Now the arrivals hall shone: spotless floors, sparklingly clean windows, quick and efficient passport control. There were more signs than ever in English – and in Chinese, too.

If there were any signs of the old days, they were rare enough to suggest that I was witnessing the end of trends from the last century. The taxi driver took pleasure in removing his seat belt as soon as we had passed the traffic policeman at the exit from the airport. He even had a spare seat-belt buckle which he attached in order to stop the irritating and noisy ticking and flickering of the car’s safety warning. The old Russian belief that a seat belt is a restrictive annoyance which can actually impede the driver still had its adherents.

The war memorial at Khimki – in the shape of three huge tank traps – was harder to spot by the road than once it had been. Since the end of socialism in Russia, this symbol of the Soviet Union’s greatest victory (marking the furthest point which the German invaders reached as they closed on Moscow in the fall of 1941) has been overshadowed by the symbols of consumerism – superstore sign after hypermarket sign—which now tower behind it.

I stayed in the Moscow hotel where I stayed during my first ever assignment in the summer of 1991. Its name had long since changed – from the ‘October’ (named for the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power) to the ‘Arbat’, but some of the rooms – and I got one, having requested their cheapest – still have the Soviet-era wood floors and furniture. I was especially pleased to get a room at the front of the hotel – as I had in 1991 – with a view of the foreign ministry from the window.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, March 2019.

The shine of Sheremetyevo spread to the city centre. Moscow’s Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has made the Russian capital smart and clean. A burning rubbish bin outside Smolenskaya metro station made me wonder if that was still a common sight. It was not. In the late Soviet period, cigarette ends – discarded as their owners entered the public transport system – smouldered and smoked in the trash. This was the only time I saw it on this visit. There was not a single tiny piece of litter in the metro. Cleaners rode the escalators in pairs, polishing as they went. New trains and carriages carried Moscow’s millions of passengers quickly and punctually. Station names were also written in the Latin alphabet, that was new since I lived here; announcements made in English.

New Markets, New Words

The sweeping political changes of the last quarter century have been reflected in the Russian language. In the 1990s, ‘biznesmen’ (businessman) and ‘killer’ (hired assassin) were two additions. The first new word I noticed this time was ‘food court’: the English word transliterated into Cyrillic; the concept introduced in Moscow’s increasingly gentrified food markets. From 2006-2009, I lived near one such, Danilovsky Market, south of the city centre. I went back during this visit to see how it had changed.

The charming chaos of a Russian market had been swept away. I was reminded of the taunt opposing football fans flung at supporters of Chelsea and Manchester City when new, wealthy, owners changed their club’s fortunes on the field, and, supposedly, character too: ‘You’re not Chelsea anymore’. Danilovsky market was not Danilovsky market any more. A few of the stallholders looked like they might have made the transition, but they had been squeezed into corners by the advance of globalized good taste. Potatoes, still with the soil of mother Russia clinging to their skins, spilling out of sacks, and bloodied chopping blocks for butchering fowl and fish – all this was gone. Although any property this close to the city centre would – as in so many global capitals today – be eye-wateringly expensive, that did not mean its inhabitants were necessarily well-heeled. The prices in the market were London prices; Moscow’s salaries are not London ones. I cannot imagine this gentrification, good though it may look to a visitor like me, has been given an unadulterated welcome.

A coffee stall at Danilovsky Market, Moscow, March 2019.

Messages from History

Some things were reassuringly similar. The radio tower built nearby in the early Soviet period still dominates the area. Philip Jordan, in Moscow as correspondent of the News Chronicle during the Second World War, described in his 1942 memoir Russian Glory, ‘the great lattice tower of the Comintern Radio that hangs above the city like a minaret of the twentieth century’. He would recognize it today.

The Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Gregorievich Shukhov, Shabolovka St., Moscow, March 2019.

Then, the radio tower was a beacon sending socialist propaganda to the world. The correspondents of that era were frustrated by the fact that often they were not permitted to file news until it had been on Radio Moscow – meaning that their home news desks had the story before they were allowed to offer it, and raising questions as to the value of their presence. Today, Moscow still sends its views out over the airwaves and internet connections: Russia Today (or RT as it now calls itself) and Sputnik have become symbols of a country which feels it has regained some of the status it lost when the superpower that was the Soviet Union fell apart – but the correspondents are at least allowed to compete.

Yet for all the ‘food courts’ with their sushi and espressos, for all the beer bars where bearded hipsters show off their inked arms as they serve craft ales, the appearance of internationalism is deceptive. Russia wants to be part of this global society, but only to an extent. The shining new streets of Moscow may impress the visitor, but if outsiders are the target audience at all, they are the secondary one. Muscovites and their fellow Russians are the people who are really supposed to be impressed – reassured that Russia is back where it belongs, and that Russia is best.

Every country has its patriotic pride, but in Russia this seems to have become a principle characteristic of official policy. The new metro trains are proudly made in Russia. During my visit, a televised competition ‘Leaders of Russia’ was followed nightly on the main TV news bulletin, Vremya (‘Time’). Prominent members of Russia’s political and business establishment (Mr Sobyanin among them) offered advice to young people seeking to become the country’s future elite. The prize was a million roubles (about $15,300; €13,500 or £11,600) to be spent on education, but only in Russia, not abroad. Vremya also offered news reports on how good Russian weapons were, even including the range of missiles imposed on a map of Europe, in case you didn’t get the idea.

A mural on a Moscow building. The writing says, ‘I defend my Motherland. 23rd February, Day of the Defender of the Fatherland’. Moscow, March 2019

Crimea Five Years On – No Regrets

Vremya also aired reports about the building of rail links between southern Russia, and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. A very excited correspondent breathlessly described the construction of a rail link alongside the bridge for motor traffic, which was already open. My visit to Russia coincided with the fifth anniversary of the annexation. Political leaders lined up to express their enthusiasm: an event in Crimea on Friday 15th March drew the leaders of all the main factions in the Russian parliament, the State Duma.

Foreign guests were few, although television pictures showed the French politician, Thierry Mariani, offering, in broken Russian, a message of solidarity and support. It was warmly applauded. There was even more the next evening, when about half the 30-minute bulletin was devoted to celebrations of the welcoming (annexing) of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation: a long piece of public relations about infrastructure was followed by a another report on the visiting French politicians. Their presence may have impressed some sections of the domestic TV audience; to an outsider, the fact that the guests were not of a higher profile served as a reminder of the price that Russia has paid internationally for Crimea. That, though, was not an angle I saw addressed in any of the coverage.

The newsreader said that celebrations had been taking place across the country. I was in Volgograd that weekend. I arrived at the place where the event was happening about an hour after it had started. By then, the crowds were already dispersing. I could not say how many people had been there, but for a city of a million people, it seemed few. Opinion polls suggest that Russians still strongly support the annexation of Crimea, but, in Volgograd at least, normal weekend activities seemed to have proved a stronger draw than a political rally.

For Russian TV news, though, this was pretty much the only story for days – and there was more to come.

You can read part II here

My next book: ‘Assignment Moscow’. March 2019 update.

WP_20160607_10_01_49_Pro (2)

The Soviet Foreign Ministry building in Moscow, June 1991. © James Rodgers

The lack of recent posts on here can be explained by the fact that I am currently working on my next book: Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin, which is due to be published next year, by I.B. Tauris (since 2018, part of Bloomsbury).

The book will draw on published and non-published archive sources; journalists’ memoirs from the time of the 1917 revolutions, the civil war, the Show Trials of the 1930s, the Great Patriotic Warm, the Cold War, Perestroika, and post-Soviet Russia. My interest in the subject stems from the many years I spent covering Russia between that first assignment in 1991 and finishing my posting as BBC correspondent in 2009.

Western journalists have witnessed Russia in a way that few of their compatriots can rival, so their stories have, for audiences of millions, become the story of Russia.

As part of my research, I will be travelling to Russia for the first time for many years — so I may take the opportunity to post some news about my trip on here. The picture above was taken on my first journalistic assignment to Moscow, which was then still the capital of the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1991.

The press card below was issued during that trip, when I was working for the Visnews Agency, later to become Reuters Television.

WP_20160607_10_02_14_Pro (2)

A Press pass issued to me by the Soviet Foreign Ministry for a Gorbachev-Bush summit meeting, summer 1991.

Selective commemoration: remembering 1918, forgetting 1948

This piece was first published earlier this week on The Conversation.

FOR THOSE OF US OF AN AGE to have known only peace in Western Europe, the centenary of the end of World War I is a an opportunity to learn something of the extreme consequences of the failure to solve political differences peacefully.

But another anniversary that fell this year – that of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1948, a seminal moment in a conflict that continues to this day – has been largely ignored. It should not be. Britain’s role was pivotal – and, if it is forgotten in the UK, it is remembered in Middle East.

IMG_1118

The entrance to the allied military cemetery in Jerusalem, resting place of some of those killed in the 1917 British capture of Jerusalem

For one of the consequences of the end of World War I was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The December before the Armistice in November 1918, troops under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby (nicknamed “The Bull”) captured Jerusalem. After the end of the war, The League of Nations “mandated” (handed over) what was then Palestine to British rule. That rule lasted until 1948. Then the British withdrew. The region’s Jewish and Arab populations were left to fight it out. The Jewish forces prevailed and, in May 1948, the State of Israel was declared.

The conflict is remembered by Israelis as the War of Independence; by the Palestinians as “al-nakba” (the catastrophe). In Britain – whose retreat after a period during which “the purpose of the mandate was never entirely clear to most of those serving in Palestine”, as Naomi Shepherd put it in her 1999 book Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine – it is barely remembered at all.

In a sense, this is all the more surprising because of the scale of British involvement. The numbers are staggering today. The National Army museum website gives a figure of 100,000 British troops in Palestine in 1947 – compared to a total of 78,000 fully trained troops in the entire British Army in 2017.

In another sense, it is not. The task faced by the mandate authorities was not easy. They left the region riven by conflict which continues to this day. Seeking international Jewish support during World War I, Britain had – in the words of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm – “incautiously and ambiguously promised to establish a ‘national home for the Jews’ in Palestine”.

The Balfour Declaration – as that pledge was known – was made in 1917. Its centenary in 2017 was barely noticeable compared to the attention the Armistice has generated. Like the end of the mandate, the Balfour Declaration is an anniversary Britain has mostly preferred to forget. The same cannot be said in the land that was Mandate Palestine.

CNV00014

A watchtower at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Gaza 2004

As a correspondent newly arrived in Gaza to take up a posting during the second Palestinian intifada, or the uprising against Israel, I was soon welcomed by an elderly resident of a refugee camp – and then chastised by the same gentleman for the Balfour Declaration. The year was 2002, but he traced his wretched fate – his breeze-block house had just been demolished by the Israeli Army – to that document from 1917.

In his memoir, Ever the Diplomat, the former British ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Coles, recalled an encounter he witnessed between the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the British Middle East envoy, Lord Levy. An increasingly undiplomatic exchange ended when Sharon’s “massive fist came thumping down on the desk”, as he shouted: “The British Mandate is over.”

It is hard to imagine now, but when the mandate did end in 1948, it was a huge story in the British press. Research for my book, Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, led me to archived newspaper articles where the first draft of the history of that era was written. The morning that British rule ended, May 14 1948, the Daily Mirror did its best to rouse patriotic pride:

When British rule began, says the Colonial Office, Palestine was primitive and underdeveloped. The population of 750,000 were disease-ridden and poor. But new methods of farming were introduced, medical services provided, roads and railways built, water supplies improved, malaria wiped out.

The next day’s Daily Mail painted the stirring picture of the “weather-beaten, sun-dried Union Jack” which had flown over British Headquarters in Jerusalem being brought back to “the airways terminal building at Victoria” in central London.

Where the story has found its way into contemporary newspapers it has had a fraction of the attention granted to the end of World War I in Europe – a lack of public commemoration which suggests a combination of ignorance and shame.

“There were no brass bands playing when they came back. They were treated as if they’d been involved in something dirty”, the organiser of the Palestine Veterans Association told the Sunday Times recently.

Ignoring anniversaries such as these – especially at a time when the poppy appeal is given ever greater public prominence – amounts to selective commemoration, which acts against learning from military and diplomatic mistakes.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘War in 140 Characters’ by David Patrikarakos

9780465096152

War in 140 Characters: How social media is reshaping conflict in the twenty-first century

by David Patrikarakos. Basic Books. 2017.

PREPARING FOR A TRIP TO THE MIDDLE EAST in the 1990s, I bought a guidebook which had just been published. The author, apparently enthused by Israel’s recent signing of a peace treaty with Jordan, suggested that one between Israel and Syria might soon follow. Alas, the world has not turned out that way.

Writing on current trends in a way that will have some enduring relevance is a great challenge for an author. In his engaging new book, War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarkos succeeds in telling us much which we did not know about the new world of media and conflict.

The book’s strengths include an approach which combines eyewitness reporting with more considered analysis. The author’s readiness to accompany Ukrainian social media activists into the warzones of the east of their country offers the reader truly revealing insights. The chapter on the Russian troll, Vitaly Bespalov, is the highlight of the book — leading as it does to the disgruntled former employee of St Petersburg’s infamous troll farm concluding that ‘unfortunately’ he too was ‘an actor in the Ukraine war’.

As anyone who has written or spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, it is impossible to offer any analysis which will be universally accepted. That said, Patrikarakos’ discussion — enlightening though it is  — of the social media war which accompanied Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, comes across as one-sided. His interview with the teenaged Palestinian twitter user, Farah Baker, is compelling for the way that it identifies a new front in the propaganda battle between Israel and the Palestinians. As Patrikarakos notes of the Palestinians, ‘Hopelessly outgunned, their side could never hope to win militarily’.

His argument that ‘Israel bombed and invaded Gaza with deadly success, but it still “lost” the 2014 war’, because the Palestinian media campaign was more effective, is stretching a point. Israel does all it can to avoid negative media coverage, but surely it cares more about its ability to win on the battlefield.

Nothing which has happened since 2014 suggest that this supposed Palestinian victory in the media war has delivered any lasting benefits. The killings of protesters at the Gaza border fence over the last few weeks tend strongly to suggest the opposite. Patrikarakos seems to admire the slick Israeli PR operation — right down to the ‘immaculate’ uniform of the ‘courteous and well-disposed’ Israeli Amy spokesperson whom he interviews — but then, that is what it is there for.

The undoubted effectiveness of the reportage is occasionally weakened by a tendency to overuse the weather and the light as a means of introducing new scenes. Patrikarakos’ point about the political significance of the use in Russian of the prepositions v or na when talking of Ukraine is important, but muddled here. ‘Na Ukraine’ does not mean ‘on the border’ (although the country’s name does share a root with the Russian word krai meaning edge, or district). The significance of the preposition is whether the speaker implies that Ukraine is a country in its own right (v) , or a region, (na). The use of the Google definition of ‘propaganda’ feels a little lazy when so much has been written on the subject.

Overall, though, Patrikarakos is to be congratulated on a book which makes important contributions to a number of important debates. War in 140 Characters is especially worth reading for its sections on Russian trolls, and its account of Bellingcat’s impressive investigation of the shooting down of MH17. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the way war, politics, and the media interact in today’s conflicts, and look forward to discussing it in Journalism seminars.

 

Misled by elites? Not every journalist

This is the first part of an essay which I wrote for the current issue of the ‘British Journalism Review’. Based on my experiences reporting from Russia in the 1990s, and partly as a response to concerns raised by Channel 4’s Jon Snow in his 2017 McTaggart Lecture it argues that not all journalists are too close to political elites — especially foreign correspondents in countries where the elites don’t want to to talk to them. That gives them insights often denied to their better connected counterparts.

goldenring.june08 004

Restoration work on a church in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

THE MISSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD STORIES of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – as well as political correspondents’ failure to predict Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority last year – have all led to soul-searching about whether journalists are too close to the elite. In his MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Jon Snow described his own background and said: “We are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.”

Foreign correspondents often come into closer contact with those “not of the elite”. While the political upper class may want to talk to foreign media to get their international message across, these are more likely to be rare, set-piece events. In consequence, reporters overseas seek out other stories – those of the ordinary people who will more readily speak to them. Ryszard Kapuscinski was famous for this approach. It was also one often followed by western reporters in Russia in the early post-Soviet era.

It may seem strange, in this era of confrontation between the UK and Russia, to write this, but I have Vladimir Putin to thank for the experience which has led me to develop the argument I am going to put forward here. For it was during his own formative years as a politician – Russia’s troubled 1990s – that we western journalists based in Russia were left largely to our own devices. Senior politicians did occasionally give interviews, but the often chaotic world of Boris Yeltsin’s administration meant that they had plenty of their own worries to deal with.

This was when a large part of the political elite were keen to show that they were breaking from the Soviet past, promoting a western-style idea of a free press, a “fourth estate” permitted to speak truth to power. Russian journalists enjoyed then freedoms unknown before or since. We did, too.

The restrictions on travel which had been part of the Soviet police state were mostly gone. Travelling close to military installations without permission was an exception, as I discovered in 2009 when the FSB arrested my colleagues and me for visiting some glasshouses which happened to be about 20km from a naval dockyard.

Kept at a distance from the Kremlin’s innermost power struggles – as foreigners generally have been throughout Russian history (remember Churchill’s “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won”) – and allowed to explore the biggest country on earth, we had the chance to learn more than other generations of western journalists covering Russia. Going somewhere that your news organisation has never been before is always a help pitching a story, and travel – thanks to the troubled rouble – could be incredibly cheap. The weak currency did throw up some absurdities. One flight from St Petersburg to Moscow is memorable because the sandwiches in the airport café cost almost the same as the plane tickets.

With air travel literally as cheap as chips, and Russia’s overnight trains even cheaper, we took advantage. There was then a huge appetite for learning about Russia, with which we were enjoying much better relations. That has changed since. As I write this in late March, the talk – following the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – turns to tension between Moscow and London. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Moscow has warned that British journalists will be expelled from Russia should RT (the Kremlin-backed channel formerly known as Russia Today) be closed down in the UK.

It was different then. In the late 1990s, colleagues and I travelled to Siberia to do a story on forest fires; to the far north east, above the Arctic circle, where blocks of flats, abandoned after their residents’ jobs went with the collapse of the planned economy, were being buried by massive snowdrifts. With Allan Little, I produced for the BBC’s Newsnight a lengthy report on how people of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don coped with an economy that had largely ceased to function: workers at one of Russia’s biggest agricultural machinery factories got jars of gherkins instead of wages.

On that first trip to Siberia we also interviewed a coming strongman in Russian politics, the Afghan war veteran Alexander Lebed, then governor of Krasnoyarsk. He later died in a helicopter crash, but his growing popularity provided a clue to the direction Russia might later take. The consequence of these trips was that we saw how the country was changing.

It was not changing in the way that many people in the west hoped.

You can read the full article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review

 

Blocking out the light: plans in Israel to keep soldiers off camera

This latest post agrues against plans in Israel to ban the filming or photographing of soldiers. It was originally published on The Conversation. You can read that version here, and the full text follows below. 

abumater.house

The ruins of a house destroyed during an Israeli Army operation, Rafah, Southern Gaza Strip, October 2003

That evening, the sun sank swiftly. The tank which blocked our way was briefly silhouetted by the last sharp rays, before it disappeared into the gloom. It was still there, but the detail of track and gun turret could no longer be seen. Eventually, whoever was giving the orders decided we could go. The material we had filmed would not make it onto that night’s news.

It was October 2003. I was working as a BBC correspondent in the Gaza Strip. I was trying to return from Rafah, at the territory’s southern edge, to my office in Gaza City. A major Israeli military operation, code named “Root Canal”, was underway. The army strictly controlled access to the area. My colleagues and I had got into Rafah without too much trouble, but had waited several hours to get out. By the time we did, our material was late.

That hardly bothered the soldiers who held us up. They weren’t wondering which bulletins we were missing. They probably weren’t too bothered that they were stopping us getting our report out, either. Israeli army operations in Gaza often involve civilian deaths. In such a densely populated strip of land, where the people are not permitted to leave, it can hardly be otherwise.

Operation Root Canal was targeting tunnels running under Gaza’s border with Egypt. That day, we had heard the stories of Rafah residents whose houses had been destroyed because they were suspected of concealing tunnel entrances, or of being used as firing positions – or just because they were unlucky enough to be too close to Israeli army posts, at a time when the Israeli army were going on the offensive against armed Palestinian groups.

Whatever the reasons given for the operation, the consequences for local residents would not exactly look good on the international news. No army wants that kind of publicity.

IMG_1351

Part of the wall near the Qalandiya crossing point between the West Bank and Jerusalem

Now, apparently troubled by recent incidents of soldiers caught on camera breaking the law – Israeli soldier Elor Azaria’s shooting to death a wounded, prone, Palestinian attacker being perhaps the highest profile example – one Israeli politician wants to place strict legal limits on the filming and photographing of soldiers.

Robert Ilatov is a member of parliament for the right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu (which translates as “Israel, our home”). His plan has already been criticised by journalists’ organisations: “It constitutes a serious breach of the freedom of the press, as it precisely criminalises the work of journalists”, in the view of the International Federation of Journalists.

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been the focus of extensive international reporting since the middle of the last century. “Every single word is scrutinised”, said Crispian Balmer, then Jerusalem bureau chief for Reuters, of the challenges of covering the conflict, in an interview for my book Headlines from the Holy Land.

The bloodshed in Syria may have drawn media and diplomatic resources away from Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in recent years. But the Israeli army’s killing of Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border fence last month shows that the conflict can still grab the world’s attention. Even in our image-saturated world, pictures seem to retain a particular power – easily shared as they are on social media. This power is presumably what concerns Ilatov.

The opposition to his plans is not confined to international organisations. Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, Ha’aretz, has condemned the bill as “dangerous”, noting that “anyone who breaks the law is subject to five years in prison”. Yet censorship on reporting the activities of armies is nothing new. Its rules are often characterised by vagueness.

British correspondents during World War I were forbidden to publish any, “false statements or utterances ‘likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty’,” as Susan Carruthers put it in her book The Media at War. The bill before the Israeli parliament echoes that lack of clarity, warning civillians and journalists alike against “undermining the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents”.

Although they are rarely required to conform to it, any international journalist granted an Israeli Government Press Card has to agree to “accept the censorship declaration”. This new legislation would be more extensive, covering not just the foreign media, but anyone at all.

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience”, wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Social media have given us the chance to see ever more of our world. As with all new media, governments and armies seek to influence the messages they bring.

Today, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries feel at liberty to sneer at any journalists who question them. Adding extra layers of censorship to that scorn will hardly help audiences to understand this complex and unstable age. Besides, legislation has limited power to stop what technology has started. While military victories may enhance a country’s reputation, the manner in which they are achieved may also tarnish it. Criminalizing journalism definitely does.

9781137395122

My second book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ was published in 2015, and reissued in paperback in 2017