Alina Seagal
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The Russian Enigma

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Why Canadian reporters sent to Moscow will never understand the country’s soul

This hostile, icy metropolis is exhausting. Every stereotype—the constant military presence, the babushkas begging in the crowded Metro, real fur, stray dogs, dirty slush, the Christmas trees next to statues of Lenin—overwhelms the senses almost instantly upon arrival. Many Moscow buildings carry plaques: this or that historical figure lived here. This land explodes with stories marinated in local colour that attack all western senses. Many foreign journal-ists deal with the intensity of this city by escaping to more familiar terrain every few months. Or they hunker down in groups, eating and shopping in favourite places. They might buy an iconic fur hat and try to fit in, but the effort is often futile. Few stay very long.

Not so Fred Weir, whose 21 years in Russia have not only made him the longest-serving Canadian journalist in the country, but also shaped him into a typical suburban Muscovite family man. If anyone understands Russia, it is this former reporter for The Canadian Press, who now writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

Traditionally, other correspondents call up Weir when they arrive. Typically he briefs them at the Starlite Diner, an overpriced 1950s American-style establishment where short-skirted waitresses wait on journalists in lacquered red and gold booths. This is where Weir and his old friend Matthew Fisher meet me one day last December when I come to Moscow to observe our press corps at work.

“Fred’s really the dean of foreign correspondents here,” says Fisher, who normally reports for CanWest from the Middle East. Fisher has dropped into town for December’s Russian parliamentary election. Since the ’70s, he’s been flying in and out of Moscow for the important stories. He likes Russian ballet and hockey, he tells me, but feels frustrated by the system, the soaring prices and the difficulty getting people on the street to talk. “Matthew doesn’t like it here,” says Weir, half teasing his friend.

“Ask Fred, ask him why he isn’t going to a polling station to do interview streeters,” retorts Fisher, putting down his Oreo milkshake and pointing at Weir.

“We already discussed this,” Weir replies in his calm and thoughtful manner. “For years and years I did these stories, and I don’t think it changes anything.” He is through running around.

Today, Weir, a bookish man of 56 who bears a resemblance to Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion, works mostly out of his study, surrounded by bookshelves. He produces analytical pieces while others pound the pavement in search of the stories Weir knows will never be as black and white as they initially appear.

Two days later, Fisher, his translator and I stand huddled on a dirty staircase in a Moscow elementary school. Voters are submitting their ballots to scrutineers at the electoral station installed on the second floor. Afterward they drift toward the staircase, where we’re waiting to ambush them.

With his Russian-style ushanka (fur hat) tucked safely under his arm, Fisher targets a young couple strolling down the corridor hand in hand. Olga Podolskaya, the translator, stops them at his request.

“Excuse me, can we ask you a couple of questions?” she inquires in Russian. “This is Canadian correspondent Matthew Fisher.”

“Matvei Ribkin,” Fisher pipes. He likes this literal translation of his name.

The conversation flows well until the Russian man asks, “What’s Canada doing here asking questions about Vladimir Putin?”

The translator relates the query to Fisher.

“Because we’re concerned about what’s going on in Russia,” the Canadian replies seriously. “In some countries, the government doesn’t control the television like this. So you don’t see ads for the same candidate again and again.”

The Russian couple shifts uncomfortably as Podolskaya translates the response about Putin and his United Russia party hogging all the ad time. “Maybe,” the young man allows politely. Then, as they’re leaving, he jokes in Russian, “That’s it, I’ve been exposed. I’ll get an angry letter now.”

Fisher, who hardly speaks Russian, doesn’t catch the quip. Having grown up in a Russian home, I do. And not only do I speak the language, but I also identify with the local culture. Still, for me it’s tempting to judge Russia from the point of view of a western observer, because it truly feels like a different place. Peter Solomon, former director of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Toronto, says many western reporters falsely attempt to apply “our universal moral perspective” to Russia. “The coverage is too systematically critical,” he says. “Western correspondents based in Russia have been lulled into a position to see themselves as defenders of democracy.”

Correspondents come here planning to write stories about a land in transition: Russia, the country recovering from the iron clutches. Or, more often now: Russia, the country sinking back into the darkness. A readiness to mistrust Russia prevails in Canadian media. We remain concerned, while the locals remain skeptical of us. It’s a kind of mutual triple “mis”: mistrust, misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Similar problems exist in any foreign correspondence, but the political atmosphere in Russia seems to reach toxic levels more often.

This readiness to mistrust is long-standing. Canadians have always been concerned about Russia, even before uprisings, tanks and Bolsheviks dominated the country’s landscape at the beginning of the 20th century. As early as 1896, The Evening Star, now the Toronto Star, was issuing a “familiar cry” about Russia’s “tyranny” and “barbarity.” Mainstream reporters rarely visited until 1953, when CP correspondent Bill Boss visited Russia. In his five-month stint, he talked his way inside one single Russian home. He took to dining out at 1:30 a.m. in order to entice Soviets drunk enough to exchange words with a foreigner. “Reporting from Russia can be honest and objective,” Boss wrote upon his return. “It cannot be complete.”

By the time the Canadian Press, CBC and the Toronto Telegram established permanent bureaus in Moscow in the mid-’60s, the Soviet Union was a place where a reporter could make his career. During the Cold War, stories about the U.S.S.R. landed easily on the front page. When someone crashed into Peter Worthington’s black Mercedes while he was in the Soviet Union and threatened the then-Telegram correspondent over the phone, his account read like a spy thriller.

Working there was like becoming a character in a John le Carré novel. It seemed glamorous, almost heroic. Yet it was also lonely. While setting up CBC’s bureau, correspondent David Levy would “send long, 90-line telexes from Moscow about how he couldn’t get a chair for his kitchen,” remembers his successor David Halton. “The bureaucrats at CBC thought he went bonkers or something.”

Around this time in Canada, young Fred Weir was bullied by other kids because his father had run for Parliament as a member of the Communist Party of Canada. His peers expressed disdain when, at age 34, he landed in Russia as a correspondent for the party’s newspaper. The Canadian Tribune wasn’t considered real journalism, and until 1990 Weir wasn’t invited to weekly briefings at the embassy—meetings open to other Canadian reporters. “The Soviet Union was misunderstood, a Cold War reflex—everything was painted black,” recounts Weir. “With Putin, there’s a return to the Russia-as-threat image.”

Putin’s increasingly aggressive stance, coinciding with the steep rise in the price of a barrel of oil, has created a sense of déjà vu for Weir. “Maybe it’s what readers want,” he hastens to add, “something breezy and superficial. You know, ‘Oh gosh, what a different place Russia is,’ from fresh eyes. This is a problem for me. I don’t want to be a parrot, regurgitating pretty much the same stories I wrote before.”

Nevertheless, for Weir and his colleagues it is a risky proposition to dig deeper into Russian stories, especially when reporting for the local media. According to Reporters Without Borders, Russia is now one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. The state dominates Russian TV broadcasting, and local zhurnalisty tend to lose their lives if they investigate too deeply: at least 21 journalists, including the highly publicized murder of anti-Putin author Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed in Russia since 2000. Foreigners are not immune if they choose to become localized: in 2004, Paul Klebnikov, an American who crossed over and became an editor at the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was shot outside his office in Moscow. “One of the hallmarks of the Putin era is the bureaucratic mentality coming back,” says Weir. “Never mind ‘Send a letter,’ ‘Submit your questions,’ ‘Submit a transcript.’ You don’t get to see them at all. Their offices don’t return your calls.”

Weir is referring to the time-honoured Russian procedure of obfuscation: being asked to write formal letters, for example, with questions attached; or the fact that sometimes you really do have to let subjects edit their quotes later. I ask which offices, specifically, are starting to elude him, and suddenly Weir sounds alarmed. “Hmm, I’m not going to… what are you going to do with this?” His voice tightens. “I- I- I don’t think I’d like to mention any specific offices because they’ll get pissed off if they hear of it.”

Nichego is a word that Russia’s foreign correspondents know well. In this dualistic society, the word means both “It’s okay” and “nothing.” Here, “nothing” stands for what is accessible to unlicensed reporters. “Nothing” shows the amount of journalistic progress in the former Soviet Union. “Nothing” measures the amount of western journalists’ knowledge about the Kremlin. Foreign correspondents can drive up to a dacha (summer home), enjoy a steamy banya (Russian sauna), sip vodka and share a dinner and their frustrations. In a turbulent country bursting with activity, not a single person within that circle would have any “inside” information.

“Why don’t you ever write anything positive?” an official at the Canadian embassy in Russia once asked Jane Armstrong, The Globe and Mail’s temporary correspondent in Moscow.

“Why don’t you tell me something positive?” Armstrong shot back.

“Many here believe the foreign media circulate a lot of negative information,” says Russian freelancer Igor Malakhov. “Basically, it’s true.” But what are they given to work with?

A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs voiced concerns about “the maintenance of the country’s positive image abroad” in a 2006 article from a Russian journal titled International Affairs. “Unfortunately, some foreign correspondents… are still enslaved by old stereotypes, creating the impression that there are no changes in the political, economic, social or public life in Russia,” wrote Mikhail Kamynin. The Kremlin recruited pro-fessional stylists—New York-based public relations agency Ketchum—to help in preparation for the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

For occasions like the summit, Putin meets with journalists reporting for the countries involved. But at other times, unless a meeting with Canadian officials is on the Kremlin agenda, the only chance to grill the president is at the annual Kremlin press conference. During this approximately seven-hour affair, most answers are buried in subtleties: Russian language is complex. Clinging to a headset, reporters pray to catch a strong, clear quote that will satisfy Canadian readers. “Anything you say about Russia is a vast generalization,” says Malcolm Gray, a Moscow-based freelancer who files to the Star, referring to a country that spans nearly 17 million square kilometers.

Armstrong recruited a young local journalist to do some reporting for her. Her Russian shadow played detective, interviewing shopkeepers at marketplaces, for instance, or infiltrating the Kremlin-funded youth movement, Nashi. The week I was visiting, a store clerk told Armstrong’s researcher his boss would get an additional stall if all the employees voted in Sunday’s election. And Nashi spilled the beans about an upcoming demonstration. But it’s still just scratching the surface.

Reporting gets even more complicated if journalists want to tackle the sensitive subject of the Chechen war. They must apply for a permit to enter Chechnya. After that, correspondents will be escorted around Grozny in a truck. No time will be allocated for independent sightseeing. Reporters can try to bribe their way through the border without a convoy, but they’ll lose their license if caught. Canadian reporters have been detained and questioned in Chechnya before.

In phone conversations, some say “south” rather than “Chechnya” these days. According to rumours, the C-word triggers recording devices. Just before he left his Moscow post in late 2004, the Globe’s Mark MacKinnon published a brief email interview with now deceased Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry Press Center issued “an official protest,” identifying MacKinnon as “the initiator of the provocative action.” A year later, in 2005, an ABC producer lost his license for airing an interview with the rebel leader.

Even something as straightforward as getting full names of sources that agree to be interviewed for streeters remains difficult. Some say people smell the new mood in the air and try not to speak out too much—just in case.

Back at the elementary school, a United Russia observer, white name tag strung around her neck, scans the narrow hall as she perches herself on a children’s stool. Fisher spots her clutching a book called English in Two Years, and balances himself atop a miniature stool next to hers. With his translator, Podolskaya, mediating, the correspondent throws out some questions. “Speak in English—I speak English, too!” he dares her with a smile. Has he just winked?

Tense and uncomfortable, she starts a phrase in English. Stops. Jumps up. Looks at Podolskaya. Sinks back into her chair. Murmurs one or two short answers. Then she’s on her feet again, promising to return momentarily.

“Get her last name from the name tag, in case she doesn’t want to give it to us later,” Fisher tells Podolskaya as the observer returns. Irina Pavlovna Sharova, the name tag reveals.

The conversation resumes. As it does, another stern-looking woman begins to circle us. Shooing bystanders away—“Keep walking, comrades”—she sneaks discreet glances at my notes.

“Oh, I can only imagine what these dear new acquaintances of mine will write from this now,” the observer prophesies gloomily in Russian, addressing no one in particular. The translator doesn’t relay the statement to Fisher.

“So, you are satisfied with the current government?” continues Fisher, ignorant of this woman’s comment.

“No, no, now that’s enough!” the observer rises again.

“What’s your family name?” tries Fisher, throwing a hand forward to stop her.

“It’s a secret,” she mumbles in Russian.

“It’s a secret,” repeats Podolskaya.

The observer brings an A4 sheet of paper, examines the journalist’s laminated accreditation card and copies down the information.

“This is very Soviet. It was much better before, they didn’t do this,” Fisher tells me. “It’s much better when people aren’t afraid.”

Fisher and Weir still clearly remember Russia in the 1990s—a chaotic, free, confused, corrupt and outspoken nation. The locals stopped reciting textbook answers and wanted to talk to the foreign press. “They thought the westerners were influential,” says Weir. Western money flowed into the country as unrestricted reporting took place. You could waltz into the Chechen war zone and dine with representatives of either side of the conflict. You could show up at the offices of local officials—with their identical red carpets, L-shaped wooden desks and numerous phones—and chat, if they were free.

“Russia was the place to be,” Weir says, fondly recalling the glasnost era. “Real things started happening.” Not to mention a little comedy. Once, as Weir was wandering through the ominous corridors of the Kremlin, an intoxicated Boris Yeltsin, supported by his unsteady presidential bodyguards, burst out of an office. “C’mon Hans, let’s go,” Yeltsin yelled to a Swedish correspondent who was standing next to Weir. Like a stampede, the group swept through the hall, dragging Hans along.

But readers eventually grew tired of stories from Russia. The tales of communism, espionage, superpower conflict and, finally, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, all of which had fascinated Canadians for decades, grabbed headlines until the late ’90s. But then the suspense ebbed. We in the West had “won.”

“When I later talked to the newspaper’s publisher,” says Olivia Ward, the Star’s former Moscow bureau chief, “it became perfectly obvious that as far as the Star was concerned, the big story in Russia was over.” Ward sealed her bureau’s heavy metal door with its numerous locks in 1997. Today, apart from a couple of freelancers, only CBC and the Globe remain in Moscow.

Some believe that, with the exception of the Middle East, a shift in priorities has caused a general drop in international focus in today’s media. Weir has ceased pitching his stories to Canadian publications because there are fewer opportunities available to sell them. Besides, newspapers are content to publish international wire copy free of a Canadian angle. “I remember from the years I worked with CP,” he says, “part of its belief was to bring a Canadian view to the news. Now it runs AP copy and puts its own logo on it.” Last year, Canadian Press chose not to renew its contact with him as a “symbolic” correspondent. “They couldn’t afford me,” Weir says quietly. “Apparently, they blew their foreign budget on Afghanistan.”

It costs somewhere between $400,000 and $450,000 to maintain a Moscow bureau for a Canadian print-based publication, according to Globe executive editor Neil A. Campbell. Moscow is not as expensive as London or Tokyo, but it remains a pricey place where piles of paperwork and accreditations are required in exchange for an uncertain payoff in terms of quality, in-depth coverage. For a foreign channel to film in Russia’s famous Amber Room, for example, the cost can be upwards of 10,000 euros per day.

At the end of my stay, I watch a small television screen in a minibus called a marshrutka blink with advertisements and trivia while the bus shuttles between terminals at Sheremetyevo airport. The solemn face of Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev appeares on the screen, followed by a few verses he wrote in the 1860s:

You will not grasp her with your mind

Or cover with a common label,

For Russia is one of a kind—

Believe in her, if you are able…

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