Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#1 - JRL 2007-93 - JRL Home
Moscow News
April 20, 2007
David Johnson: Navigator of Russian Media
By Robert Bridge

Since 1996, David Johnson - a name familiar to anybody with a serious interest in Russia - has been providing thousands of dedicated readers with a clearinghouse of news articles and information related to the Motherland via his website and email. He agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule and grant an interview with The Moscow News

MN: Could you tell us the title, date and author of the first article to appear on Johnson's Russia List?

DJ: The vagaries of memory and of computers make this difficult to answer. I began Johnson's Russia List (JRL) in either May or June 1996. I don't think I have copies of the earliest issues of JRL. I can say that my first idea was to try to find non-American journalists covering Russia. The Canadian Fred Weir (who today works for The Christian Science Monitor) was one of the first journalists whose work I sought out. My initial audience was limited to the arms control community in Washington. I felt that people needed a broader perspective on Russia than was currently available in US media. I then expanded the audience to academics and journalists working on Russia... Initially, I must confess, I was uncomfortable with the policies of Boris Yeltsin and the usually uncritical support given to Yeltsin both by the US government and most US media.

MN: When and how did you become interested in Russia?

DJ: My interest in Russia goes back to my sophomore year of high school when I started studying Russian. I went to a very small Quaker boarding school in New Hampshire called the Meeting School, where Joel Hayden with a PhD from Harvard taught Russian and Russian history. The Soviet Union and Russia remained my central academic interest through graduate school. My first trip to the Soviet Union was in 1962. In the early 1970s I moved to Washington and worked in Congress before joining the Center for Defense Information (now the World Security Institute) at its founding in 1972.

MN: Those who daily receive the Johnson's Russia List are impressed by the large quantity of information from around the world that you present. What is your method for sorting through so many various media sources?

DJ: I put together and send out JRL on my own. The only assistance on the project is provided by Steve Welsh of the World Security Institute who maintains the web archive for JRL.I am primarily interested in Russian sources on Russia. I have access to several services that provide timely translations from Russian newspapers. Of course, every day I scan the various English-language Russian news sources like RIA Novosti, Interfax, and ITAR-TASS. From the beginning of JRL I have had great admiration for The Moscow Times...

JRL was an early beneficiary of the Internet and perhaps a model of how to use the Internet to keep on top of an important subject.

MN: Please describe a typical working day at JRL.

DJ: Well, my wife Lisa Cannon is a high school English teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington DC. School starts very early so JRL starts very early as well, usually by 7am. By this time, I would have already gathered quite a bit of material from work the previous day, but I supplement that with news and analysis gathered at the beginning of the day. Because of the time difference between Europe (especially Moscow) and the U.S. it is usually possible to have materials from European media early in the day Washington time. I try to get JRL sent out by mid-morning so that it arrives at the beginning of the work day in the US and before the end of the work day in Europe.

MN: When was the last time you had a vacation? Where did you go? How do you spend your free time?

DJ: I do have vacations, but do try to keep JRL going, perhaps on a more limited scale, when away from home. Two years ago we started spending considerable time at Chincoteague, Virginia. Chincoteague is an island on the Virginia eastern shore by the Atlantic ocean. It is a wonderfully peaceful place with lots of things to do. But JRL continues even when we are there.

My main hobby is running and racing, which I have been doing for about 25 years. I try to be competitive in my age group. I once signed up to run the Moscow marathon but it was cancelled that year.

MN: Could you tell us a little bit about your formal education.

DJ: After high school I attended Brandeis University in Massachusetts and then did graduate work in Soviet and Chinese studies at Harvard.

MN: What impresses you most about your trips to Russia?

DJ: One regret I have is that although I have visited the Soviet Union and Russia a number of times, I have never spent more than a few weeks there at once.

MN: Once you wrote about a news conference at the Kremlin where President Putin spoke to a group of editors and correspondents. What was your impression of Vladimir Putin?

DJ: Putin was very impressive in his command of subjects and apparent open-mindedness. I think most of us at these meetings felt this. However, there were certainly critical views expressed about some of Putin's policies. I never got to ask my question so let me do it here: How does President Putin try to insure that he has the best information and makes the best decisions? What institutions and practices does he have in place in this regard?

MN: Would you say that Russia is on the right path of development?

DJ: These days I try to avoid having strong opinions about Russia and generally succeed in this. While I was very skeptical of Yeltsin and uneasy about Putin as Yeltsin's appointed successor, I think it has become harder to reach judgments these days than before. My working notion is that most subjects are complex and difficult to understand from the outside and that diverse opinions are inevitable. I try to make JRL a useful vehicle for exposing the diversity of views. I do feel that many people in the US and the West are rather quick to jump to the attack, just as they were rather superficially infatuated with Yeltsin once-upon-a-time.

I am sympathetic to the view that these days Putin and Russia are perhaps getting too dark a portrayal in most Western media. Or at least that critical views need to be supplemented with other kinds of information and analysis. An openness to different views is still warranted.

MN: Some commentators in the past have criticized JRL for focusing too heavily on articles that emphasize Russia's problems. How do you respond to such accusations?

DJ: I actually would like to carry more informative, substantive "defenses" of Russia and go out of my way to get those items. I do not do translations myself and am dependent on what comes my way in this regard from Russian media. I do carry items from important Western media because it's important to know what The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Economist, etc. are saying about Russia. It's also important to know what's in Novaya Gazeta and the like. If anyone would like to help me find more positive articles about Russia please do.

MN: Could you give us an idea as to how many people receive your mailing list, and how popular is your web-site?

DJ: I send JRL to about 7000 people. We don't track traffic at www.cdi.org/russia/johnson, in part because the web archive actually only carries a small part of the content that appears in the daily email version of JRL.

MN: In what ways do you think the United States could be a better partner with Russia?

DJ: I'm sure that if officials in both Russia and the U.S. look dispassionately at themselves they will find mistakes that have been made and initiatives that can be taken. Americans tend to be missionaries and see themselves as the center of the universe (As perhaps others do?). Americans need to work even harder at understanding the perspectives of non-Americans. Both Americans and Russians need to recognize that there are many more peoples and nations in the world as well.

MN: Are you surprised by the success that JRL has enjoyed over the years?

DJ: After being the research director at the Center for Defense Information for many years I was very fortunate to be able to return to my original interest in Russia and eventually make JRL my full-time preoccupation. The work on JRL is almost always a very solitary experience, sitting endlessly in front of the computer screen as you might imagine. The recipients of JRL "out there" usually seem quite remote and distant. So it is always a bit of a pleasant shock to get direct positive feedback from people about JRL. I hope I will be able to keep JRL going for many more years.

MN: Is there anything about yourself that would surprise people?

DJ: I do need to emphasize that I come from a Quaker background. My father, Russell Johnson, was for many years the peace education secretary for the American Friends Service Committee in New England.

While I am not particularly religious, I do think that Quakers strive to understand those regarded as enemies... and highly value the need to learn about foreign cultures.