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Russia Profile
February 3, 2009
Ignored in Translation
The Russian Media Increasingly Turns a Blind Eye to Major World Events

Comment by Shaun Walker

Ive been dealing with an incident in the past couple of weeks that leaves me amazed by the provincialism and bizarre attitudes of certain sections of the Russian media. A few months ago, I was asked to write a weekly blog for the Web site of the magazine Snob, the new project of Mikhail Prokhorov. Set up late last year, its an online club and an expensive monthly magazine aimed at rich Russians who arent afraid to be snobbish.

Of course, they couldnt have come up with a worse time to launch a self-congratulatory magazine aimed at the wealthy. But despite the timing and the obnoxious title, the huge amount of money invested in it meant that it managed to attract quite a bit of Russian journalistic talent and become a promising new magazine.

Two weeks ago, the day after Barack Obama was elected president, I picked up all the Russian papers, and was stunned to see that almost none of them had Barack Obama on their front page. With the exception of Novaya Gazeta, which featured a front page devoted to the murdered lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova, none of them seemed to have much of an excuse. So, I wrote the following short blog entry:

Yesterday, by any standards, was a pretty earth-shattering day. Finally, George W. Bush is no longer the president of America. The eight years, during which the entire world has been completely changed most people would agree, for the worse are finally at an end. The first black man has entered the White House, and America has a new, interesting and dynamic leader, who promises to change the way that the world looks. Yesterday, millions of people in America and around the world watched his inauguration speech and heard how he wants to change America and the world for the better.

Maybe it will work, maybe it wont. But its pretty undeniable that his inauguration was a huge world news event, and was eagerly awaited by people across the planet.

This morning I picked up the Russian newspapers, as usual, and thought Id have a good read about the Russian perspective on this event. I looked at the front page of Kommersant, and... the main article is about the ruble exchange rate. There are three other articles on the front page one on Rosukrenergo, one on Oleg Deripaska, and one on a group of nationalists responsible for killings in Moscow. At the top there was a picture trailing a foreign news story its Viktor Yushchenko and Alexander Lukashenko, who met yesterday. Obama was relegated to the back page.

Now, I understand that Kommersant is a business paper, primarily. And mostly about Russia. But it always surprises me how little attention the Russian press pays to the Western world. The fact that Lukashenko and Yushchenko met on Monday is very interesting and of huge importance for this region, but is it really more interesting than a new U.S. president? And the fact that the ruble gained a few kopeks on the dollar is also surprising, but again, is there no sense of perspective?

With most of the other papers it was the same, though Vedomosti had a small picture of Obama and a small article midway down the front page. Why this total lack of interest in earth-shattering events abroad? Are intelligent Russians mired in provincialism or are they just getting their news about the West from other sources?

I thought this was a pretty measured blog entry, and I was genuinely interested to hear the responses of the readers. Id been told, after all, that the readers of Snob were all people who travelled widely, and probably spoke good English. Did they perhaps just use the Russian papers to get their information about Russia, and read their foreign news from Western sources? I looked forward to reading the responses. I understand that most Russian papers dont have the resources to have correspondents across the globe, but then that is what wire agencies are for. And with a huge event like Obamas inauguration, not having it on the front page seems like a conscious choice.

Later in the day, I got an email back from my editor at Snob. They werent going to publish the entry, she said, because her editor used to work for Kommersant and thinks that the paper has excellent coverage of world events, and my blog entry was nonsense. The magazine clearly has a very bizarre idea of what a blog should be like, and I wished the editor good luck in creating a fascinating Web site consisting only of blog entries that she agreed with.

But aside from the point that Snob is run by people who dont understand the concept of blogging or debate, it did leave me surprised that there was such a defensive response to the question of why the coverage of Obamas inauguration was so thinly covered here.

I hear endless complaints about Western coverage of Russia, and quite frankly many of them are justified. But perhaps Russians should also stop and think for a minute about Russian coverage of the West.