FEBRUARY 9, 2004
IMAGINE THAT THE king has died. Now imagine that every day on television you see a procession of people chanting, “Long live the king!” Imagine it wasn’t always this way: Just a few years ago, if the king’s health became shaky, everyone discussed the problem openly. But no more. And now you have to choose. Either you go along and pretend that a dead man is alive—which isn’t all that difficult, since everyone is doing it—or you insist, unreasonably, that you see what you see, in which case you will be branded a kook.
Now imagine you’ve been parachuted into a country like this as a foreign correspondent. Your choices are nearly as stark as those of the natives. If you report on the lies you see every day, you will face an uphill battle. First, your sources will be few, hard to find, and generally considered unreliable. Second, your editors back home may not believe you. So it may seem wiser to report what everyone else is reporting and to assuage your discomfort by telling yourself your vision is a function of cultural bias. After all, not every country has the resources to maintain a living king at all times.
Faced with the challenge of covering contemporary Russia, many correspondents for major U.S. newspapers, as well as their editors, have decided to chant, “Long live the king!” The last four years have witnessed the death of Russia’s nascent democracy—a major international story. Yet the U.S. media have largely papered over it—just like Russia’s newly subjugated media and its newly subservient people.
This winter, U.S. coverage of Russia reached its nadir. On December 7, Russia held a farcical national election in which the local media were biased and campaigning was rigged. The vote ultimately, put a fascist party into parliament, removed the few remaining liberals from office, and handed President Vladimir Putin near-total control of the parliament—called the Duma in Russian. The New York Times responded with a condescending, but positive editorial titled “RUSSIANS INCH TOWARD DEMOCRACY.” The Los Angeles Times went even further. It interpreted Putin’s new dominance of parliament as a chance for the president to “push through additional reforms, including cleaning up the entrenched corruption,” though there was little evidence Putin planned to use his power to do so. With the partial exception of The Washington Post, U.S. papers generally described the elections as a pro-Putin landslide that somehow would foster democracy, despite the glaring evidence that it will do exactly the opposite.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional grouping, had a different view. “The elections failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments for Democratic elections,...[calling] into question Russia’s fundamental willingness to meet European and international standards for democratic elections,” it said in a report released just after the poll. But this opinion did not get a lot of play in the United States. The Los Angeles Times, in a mammoth news story on the election, managed to downplay the OSCE’S conclusion so drastically that you’d think the organization had praised the December 7 vote.
But the OSCE report only confirmed the obvious. With his approval rating never dipping below 60 percent, with a pliant parliament that has green-lighted Kremlin-sponsored legislation for the last four years, and with the media securely under state control, Putin never had any reason to worry that this election or the presidential one, coming up in March, would not go in his favor. Still, the Kremlin decided to meddle heavily in the parliamentary election. A special law passed last June effectively banned the Russian media from covering the campaign, though the Russian Constitutional Court struck down the law halfway through the three-month-long campaign. Then the biggest and best funded party, the pro-Putin United Russia, refused to participate in televised debates. This left the state TV channels free to stage debates aimed at discrediting the participants. Meanwhile, federal and local officials, most of whom are members of United Russia, used their positions to benefit the party. They strong-armed state institutions and local businesses to compel their employees to join United Russia and campaigned at locations and at times banned by law. All this culminated in an election in which many precincts abandoned curtained voting booths in favor of open voting areas offering minimal privacy, and there was considerable evidence of fraud. The result: United Russia won more than a two-thirds majority in parliament, sufficient to change the constitution—to extend the presidential term, for example.
Worse, the new parliament will not only be obedient to the president but will also increasingly feature ultranationalist, almost fascist rhetoric. United Russia itself is devoid of ideology: It supports whatever Putin wants. But a growing number of extreme nationalists and bigots have flocked to United Russia. One United Russia member, Gennady Raikov, who will head a key parliamentary committee, made a name for himself in the previous parliament by calling for prison sentences for homosexuality. And United Russia looks moderate compared with the other three parties that got enough votes to sit in parliament. A new party called Motherland (Rodina) holds over 40 of the 450 seats. One of its leaders, Valentin Varennikov, was an organizer of the failed anti-democratic coup in 1991. The party’s platform, among other things, calls for closing the Russian border to all but Belarusians, who are the ethnic group closest to Russians. Its hypernationalistic allies, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s extravagantly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party and the Communists, will make the ultranationalists a powerful force in parliament. Motherland actually was hatched in the Kremlin itself, to siphon votes away from the Communists; this is such common knowledge in Russian political circles that the American ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, stated it as fact in a recent speech in Washington. So, while United Russia controls a large percentage of parliamentary seats, the Kremlin’s handpicked protofascists and plain old fascists have the rest.
WAS THIS DECIMATION of democracy clear only in retrospect, to a select few Russia-watchers? Were journalists from other countries just as confused as the Americans? Not at all. The day before the parliamentary election, Canada’s National Post ran a story whose headline read, “RACISTS, KILLERS, AND CRIMINALS RUN FOR DUMA.” In an editorial published a month before the December election, The Economist of London declared that democracy was dying in Russia. It followed the election with a special report that called the new parliament “a democrat’s nightmare” and stressed the rising influence of ultranationalists. In the non-English-speaking world, meanwhile, the French media have been more dogged than anyone in covering the nine-year carnage in Chechnya and have covered Kremlin politics in a way that leaves their readership with no illusions about the bloody and often undemocratic nature of Russia’s regime.
By contrast, the Los Angeles Times mentioned the Motherland Party in the twenty-second paragraph of its news story and then characterized it as a populist anti-oligarch organization. Another seven paragraphs later, the paper introduced one of the party’s leaders, Sergei Glazyev, as “a left-wing economist” and “one of Russia’s 10 most popular politicians” — failing to note that Glazyev left the Communist Party to help start Motherland. Considering the staunchly anti-democratic and anti-reform stance of the Communist Party, that detail would have helped in understanding Glazyev. The New York Times named the party in the fourteenth paragraph, characterizing it mildly as “a new party created only months before the election” that won support “with nationalistic appeals.” The Boston Globe incorrectly called Motherland “left-leaning,” and the San Francisco Chronicle characterized it as “patriotic.” Of course, Motherland is patriotic—in the same way Mussolini’s Black Shirts once were.
The mangling of the Motherland story was only part of a pattern of dangerously naive reporting that has been developing for five years. In August 1999, Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin— then head of the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB— as his new prime minister. That September, Russia began a second bloody offensive in Chechnya, where a cease-fire of sorts had been maintained for three years. By December, Russia’s airwaves were dominated by xenophobic rhetoric, occasioned by the new war and a parliamentary election. A new party known only for its loyalty to Putin took a chunk of the seats in the Duma in the mid-December election. On New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin resigned, effectively handing the presidency to Putin, who would now be acting president until the special election, for which he would be the only candidate with enough time to prepare.
None of this resembled a functioning democracy, but most American journalists opted to report the miracle of a peaceful handover of power. Two days after Yeltsin’s resignation, the Times ran an article comparing Putin to both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt as a potential visionary leader for Russia. The Times quoted precisely two sources — Putin himself and his mentor, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, who claimed that Putin was “a convinced supporter of the market economy.” Then, the U.S. media spent late 1999 and early 2000 speculating about Putin’s persona. Putin himself refused to say anything about his plans for the country or his political views. Instead of reporting that: this was a worrisome sign, behavior more befitting a secret agent than a presidential candidate, American journalists looked for clues elsewhere and found them in a think tank Putin had formed to create a plan of liberal economic reforms. The Times ran a 1,500-word story on the think tank a week after the presidential election, drawing the conclusion that the new administration would deliver everything from “an overhaul of Russia’s cumbersome tax code to a streamlining of its infamous bureaucracies”— with little evidence that Putin actually would do so. Putin began to gain an undeserved reputation in the West as an economic reformer.
The new Russian president began his official tenure in May 2000 and moved to shut down the only non-state-owned national TV network and other media outlets that belonged to the same company. (At the time, I was working at one of the magazines owned by this company.) This would have been a good time for American journalists to inform their readers that Putin was starting to look like a dictator—and stories using such phrasing as “authoritarian tendencies” did appear—but then an American citizen was appointed to run the hijacked TV network, and the U.S. media let the story fizzle. The Times, in an editorial, expressed the far-fetched hope that the American would not “do Mr. Putin’s bidding,” and the subject appeared closed, at least for major U.S. media outlets—even though the American minder was ultimately fired and the station did not become any freer.
Over the next year, Putin got more good U.S. press. He solidified his U.S. reputation as an economic reformer, instituting a flat 13 percent income tax, which was billed in The Wall Street Journal as a revolutionary move to simplify the Russian tax system and induce Russians to start paying taxes. What went unreported was that, at the same time, the government increased and complicated the payroll tax. Later, it did away with exemptions from the value-added tax (VAT) and created a hideous new bureaucratic system for paying VAT, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of all collected taxes. In other words, the government slightly simplified the tax system for individuals—the vast majority of whom do not file tax returns anyway, since their taxes are deducted by employers—and significantly complicated them for businesses. Odd actions for an economic reformer.
But, since the Russian economy has continued growing—thanks to high oil prices—there was no real motivation for American journalists to look beyond official Kremlin claims. Putin maintained his reputation as an economic reformer even as he supported measures that severely limited immigration to- and migration within—Russia, exacerbating the problems of Russia’s workforce, which is aging and not concentrated in geographical regions where labor is needed. This looked less like economic reform and more like something that might draw the support of ultranationalist Zhirinovsky.
Meanwhile, the U.S. press portrayed Putin as not only an economic but also a judicial liberal. Yet Putin actually dismantled the judicial reforms of the ‘90s, cutting back the jurisdiction of jury trials and strengthening the role of the too-powerful prosecutor’s office, which not only conducts investigations and brings charges but is also vested with the power to “oversee court conduct.” The U.S. media, however, lauded these changes as the dawning of the rule of law. The Journal concluded that Putin’s judicial-reform bills “show a leader determined to overhaul some of Russia’s most conservative institutions, and face down its most entrenched vested interests in the process.”
And then the story took the ultimate nosedive. After September 11, 2001, Russia became America’s strategic partner in the war on terrorism, which has meant that Putin can get away with the continuing carnage in Chechnya and just about anything else. It can be embarrassing to read stories from 2001 and 2002, which completely glossed over Russia’s problems. Take a Los Angeles Times editorial from November 2001 that ended this way: “Never mind for now the remaining political and policy differences between the two countries....[T]here’s nothing wrong with reveling for a warm moment in the changes today.”
WHY DO THE British and Canadian journalists get the Russian story right while the U.S. media can’t? For one, the U.S. media has, in recent years, drastically slashed Russia bureaus, while the European press corps has suffered less attrition. Some offices, such as that of U.S. News and World Report, my former employer, were simply shuttered; others were cut down drastically. ABC, which used to occupy an entire building in Moscow, is down to one person. Other Moscow bureaus, including those of the Journal, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, are increasingly used as bases to send reporters to cover the war on terrorism in Central Asia. Even publications that have maintained bureaus don’t seem to care about them. The New York Times rotated virtually its entire Moscow bureau last summer, sending in an inexperienced group of reporters just months before the Russian election. And the fact that former Russia hands hold positions at the top of many U.S. publications (Bill Keller, executive editor of the Times, for starters) may present another obstacle to good reporting today. Many of these former Russia experts are familiar with the Russia of the early ‘90s, a more democratic and generally happier place. As Russia’s political landscape changed, many of these editors did not keep in touch with the developments, yet they were still dictating tile coverage.
But the biggest barrier to good U.S. journalism about Russia is the nature of U.S. journalism. American reporters are trained to rely on other people to tell their stories. In most places in the world, the primary sources of information for foreign correspondents are their local colleagues: American journalists rely on the local media to tell them what the story is and then on local journalists to point them toward sources, nuance, and interesting bits of background. It’s a perfectly reasonable arrangement—as long as the local media are free of censorship. Five years ago, the Russian media were basically free, if vulnerable to government or corporate influence. Now, nearly all national broadcast media and much of the print media are controlled by the state. The change has been so sudden and drastic that even the Russians working for the few remaining independent newspapers haven’t figured out how to operate: whether, in essence, to scream that the king is dead or to try to gently raise the question of the king’s health. Yet foreign correspondents continue going to their familiar Sources-Russian TV channels, newspapers, and print and broadcast journalists— no matter how much the Russians and their allegiances may have changed. The result is that American media repeat the propaganda printed in Russian newspapers. Even when, on occasion, the American reporter actually gets a quote offering an alternative viewpoint to one expressed in a Russian newspaper, he has allowed the Russian newspaper to frame the debate—and state-sanctioned debate in an authoritarian country rarely contains even shreds of truth. This is how we get surreal stories: a fixed election as the authentic expression of Russia’s electorate.
But, if the story told by the Russian media cannot be trusted, where is the journalist to find an alternative narrative? A logical place to look would be the U.S. government. That was where reporters looked in the bad old days of the cold war and where most international stories in the U.S. media originate today. But Washington is telling the same story—one of Russia “inching toward democracy,” of Putin’s friendly and cooperative soul, of Russia as a partner in the fight against terrorism. Much of this story simply isn’t true. The vaunted partnership in the war on terrorism amounts largely, on the U.S. side, to ignoring the Chechnya problem and, on the Russian side, to acquiescing to U.S. use of Central Asian air bases—and to nothing on Iraq or Iran, where Russia still plans to build a nuclear reactor. But, because of the hyped ongoing honeymoon between the two countries, the State Department, even when it chooses to criticize Russia, goes very easy.
THE BRITISH, THE French, and even the Canadians are lucky. In their journalistic tradition, a correspondent is allowed to inject some editorial perspective, to discuss what he sees—a fascist running for parliament, a democracy wilting, a King dying. An American reporter apparently can’t trust his or her own eyes unless he or she can back them up with a quote. But the only potential sources of quotes about the sad demise of Russian democracy are the few people who’ve chosen to break with the national consensus. To afford them the credibility of a news source, American journalists would have to break with their own national consensus, the Russian national consensus, and, it seems, the professional consensus.
This isn’t a new problem for U.S. reporting from Russia or for U.S. journalism in general. In the 1930s, Times correspondent Walter Duranty ignored the evidence before his very eyes to report that there was no famine in Ukraine; his Pulitzer Prize still hangs in the Times’ hallway. In the 1950s, Times correspondents Harrison Salisbury and Max Frankel based their reports from Russia primarily on stories published in the Soviet press. All the while he was stationed in Moscow, Salisbury begged his bosses at the Times to precede his stories with a disclaimer stating that the Soviet censor cleared them. He never succeeded.
It wasn’t until the late ‘70s, in fact—six decades after the Bolsheviks came to power, four decades after the Great Terror began—that Soviet dissidents came to be seen as an appropriate source for U.S. media. The Motherland Party and its nasty allies inside and out of the Kremlin could get a lot done in 40 to 60 years.
Masha Gessen has been U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT’S Moscow bureau chief and is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.
This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine.