Friday, March 28, 2014

Writing about Russia or the FSU? Please don't do these things...

Russia is in the spotlight again, mostly because of Ukraine. With the huge influx of news articles, op-eds, blog posts, etc., it would be almost pointless to add to this pile of word slush with yet another blog post about Russia-Ukraine issues. Instead, I will comment on something else altogether: about the stupid things writers and bloggers do when they write about Russia or the former Soviet Union. This often happens when they write about a country they barely know or care about, but even seasoned Russia-watchers (or Russians themselves!) aren't immune.

Here are a list of things writers shouldn't do when they write about Russia or the FSU.

1. Make the title of the article any of the following:
  • "From Russia With Love"
  • "Georgia on My Mind"
  • "Crimera River"/"Cry Me a River"
Use these, or variations of them, as your title will tell your reader nothing about the content of the article, and show that you know nothing about Russia or the FSU so you have to reach out to Western cultural references that have absolutely nothing to do with Russia or the FSU.

Guilty: 

This is actually a pretty good article, too bad for the title! But it also is guilty of No. 8... read on...

The Wall Street Jounal did it. Probably not the first time either.

Even a respected think-tank didn't resist this.



It's just appalling at how many articles borrow the James Bond title. It's probably the longest-running meme in recent history. Just set up a Google news alert for "Russia with Love" and you will get a daily dose of bad reporting on Russia.

And as for Georgia... at least the former reference did have something to do with Russia. But the Ray Charles classic had absolutely nothing to do with Georgia (the FSU country). One would have thought that the song was a hit at the height of the Russia-Georgian war in 2008.




Now let's all drag the already disputed Crimea further into it: 





2. Begin the article with:
  • "Since the fall of the Soviet Union..."
  • "Since the end of the Cold War..."
The first sentence of your article is important, and it's not to be spent on a pseudo-history lesson. It also still tells me you are probably stuck with the Cold War mentality and have nothing new in your article. Don't do this unless you're writing a history essay. Even then, it's a bad way to start the said essay.

Guilty:

Bad student essays such as these.

Some writers can't wait and just decided to use this in the title: After the Soviet collapse--A globe redrawn: Welcome to the new world disorder. From The Economist

3. Use faux-Cyrillic font.

Book writers (or more likely, their publishers) are most guilty of this. Some of us actually read Russian, and it can, at the least, make your book/article look cheesy, or render it completely unreadable.

4. Colour everything red! (And yellow)

Again, book writers/pulishers are most guilty of this. Only one third of the Russian flag is red. Whatever happened to blue and white? Oh wait, you mean you thought that Russia still uses the old red-and-yellow flag of the USSR?

5. Put hammer and sickle symbols on everything.

If you're writing about the USSR, that's fine. But I'm guessing you're not. 

Book covers guilty of 3, 4, 5, or all of the above:



6. Compare Putin with Hitler.


Guity:



7. Compare Putin with Stalin.

Same as above. It makes a weak argument. If you're going to do a hatchet job, do it properly. But remember, attacking the person, rather than his policies or actions, doesn't make your argument a sound one.

Guilty:

No.

Even as a satire piece, it's not that funny. It's cheesy.


8. Whitewash the 90s, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin.

The 90s in Russia was not as bad as during Stalin's time, but it is still pretty bad. Transitional periods generally are. Boris Yeltsin is no angel and remains one of the most unpopular Russian leaders of all time--more unpopular than Stalin and Lenin

Guilty: Masha Gessen, on the Intelligence Squared debate as described (and disputed) by Mark Adomanis here: The Intelligence Squared Debate: Masha Gessen Has Some Really Strange Ideas About The 1990's

Michael McFaul in his book, Russia's Unfinished Revolution, which I will admit that my reading of this book was unfinished as well. (It wasn't humanly possible to finish reading such an awful book.)
 

9. Not researching or checking your facts.

Don't think that only ignorant people will read your article or book and will take every word you write as truth... or that your readers aren't armed with an internet connection and Google. 

10. Insert naked Putin photos in your article.

Enough is enough! Putin's PR team may thank you, but your readers will not. I might have been guilty of this myself, but I'll stop doing it.


It's not easy to write about Russia and the FSU, and many good writers have committed many of these sins at one time or another. I know I have. But I think it's about time to put a stop all these mistakes if we want to have any meaningful debate about Russia and the FSU countries.