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#11 - JRL 9310 - JRL Home
From: Ira Straus (IRASTRAUS@aol.com)
Date: Thu, 1 Dec 2005
Subject: re: media and Russia

In the half dozen responses on jrl 9309 to your question about the media and Russia in 9308, one assumption is shared: that the question is a matter of fairness or unfairness of Western criticisms of Putin.

This is an illuminating subject in itself, but it misses 70% of the question.

The Western media were also very harsh in their criticisms of the Russia of Yeltsin. That is, 70% of the time span of post-Soviet Russia.

There are plenty of Western analysts who were pro-Yeltsin, or pro-Russia under Yeltsin, and are now anti-Putin, viewing Putin as someone who has gone into reverse on the virtuous tendencies of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin regimes. These people cannot be presumed anti-Russia or unfair to Russia, although in some cases they may have so become by the logic of opposition to the leadership in a country where the leadership plays a large role in defining the nature of the regime. There may also be some undue personalization in their reaction and a consequent episodic unfairness to Russia.

However, these analysts are mostly in think tanks and universities, not media. The media tell a much simpler story.

The media have gone from Yeltsin-bashing to Putin-bashing. They have kept up a steady diet of Russia-bashing in either case. The analysts who have gone from pro-Yeltsin to anti-Putin have, on the media level, simply merged into the main stream of Russia-bashing.

This uniform bashing over different regimes is indeed something that can be safely presumed to reflect a mindset or milieu of unfairness to Russia.

And it is something massively present. It has a major contributor to shaping, or deflecting and misshaping, Western attitudes and policies in the post-Soviet era.

The media are indeed unfair to Putin, as they were to Yeltsin, not because Putin is undeserving of criticism, but because the unfairness to Yeltsin and to Russia in general, which was somewhat restrained and balanced by positive voices in the early 1990s, lies at the basis of a uniform view now that the pro-Yeltsin commentators have joined the anti-Putin crowd.

The result is not only uniform but often ill-informed bashing of Putin and of Russia. This is why the soft authoritarianism of today's Russia, which Gordon Hahn has noted with some precision, gets covered as raging Stalinism -- and with far less sympathy than Stalin got in his day.

The anti-Putin chorus was briefly interrupted after September 11, when real enemies forced themselves on our attention, but resumed with surprising speed thereafter.

It is a curious phenomenon that the media were less disrespectful of Soviet Russia, when there was a solid anti-anti-Soviet lobby on the left, than of post-Soviet Russia. It is probable that the only period when coverage of Russia was mostly positively favorable was the Gorbachev period. It is a matter that would be worthy of a number-crunching quantitative study by some student at a school of journalism.

I have written elsewhere about the reasons for this phenomenon. As I remember it there was a good discussion of the matter initiated on JRL by Branko Milanovic a year or so ago.

The West continues to need Russia as an ally, and Russia continues to need integration with the West. The media's blinders have constituted one of the major obstacles.

Ira Straus
U.S. coordinator
Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.