Russia's 'State-Controlled' Media Facilitates Vibrant Debate — Just Not in English

Why are there no English subtitles available for most of Russia's top political talk shows? 

Wed, Mar 29, 2017
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There's vigorous debate in Russia. But it's in Russian. Go figure.
There's vigorous debate in Russia. But it's in Russian. Go figure.

Editor's Note: This is a terrific follow-up to Doctorow's previous article about the value of Russian political talk shows. We agree fully with Doctorow's belief that the easiest way to present a clearer picture of Russia is by bridging the language barrier, which has allowed mainstream western media to present unchallenged narratives. 


 

When I hear from those of my peers in the American foreign policy Establishment that Vladimir Putin is inscrutable, unpredictable, I am amused. Perhaps our analysts have just been spoiled by their access to the inner thoughts of other world statesmen from intelligence surveillance of their telephones.

In fact Putin is an open book to those who follow closely his public speeches and responses in the press conferences that follow all of his meetings with foreign leaders and many other public events around Russia.  He is one of the few world leaders who does exactly what he says. And to understand the thinking of the Russian elites who constitute the various factions among which Putin as politician has to maneuver to come to policy decisions there are also available some very good tools.

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As readers of my past essays dealing with Russian political talk shows are aware, I firmly believe that the best of the genre are valuable to experts in Russian affairs because of what they tell us about the thinking of the country’s political and intellectual leadership regarding the major issues of the day.

Of course, to profit from these resources at present, you have to have a pretty good working knowledge of Russian, because none of these programs is currently available in translation and the talk can be fast and furious in open debates.

However, the argument I will lay out here for making precisely these programs accessible to global audiences goes way beyond any benefit that may bring to area specialists in the West.  The reason for doing so is that they demonstrate to any open minded person just how vibrant Russian political life is and how sophisticated its leadership cadres are both in government and in civil society.

In several of my articles over the past year I summarized or even gave verbatim translations of debates on some of the most outstanding Russian political talk shows.  And among comments from readers were expressions of amazement at the quality of the debates and the repeated question: why are there no English subtitles on the youtube.com videos of these shows that the Russian television channels have posted.

The obvious reason for this is that the programs I cited are on Russian domestic television directed at the home audience.  Russia’s television broadcasting to the world is a wholly different structure, RT, which produces its own content and has fought long and hard for its independence from the home team.

RT has become a topic for discussion all on its own, but largely for the wrong reasons.

The channel has been severely criticized especially in the past half year for allegedly being a tool of Kremlin influence in the US presidential campaign. That accusation figured prominently in the infamous report of U.S. intelligence agencies looking into Russian “meddling” issued in December.  About all that we heard by way of the channel’s defense is that it has a tiny market share in the American market and so was incapable of being a significant influencer.

However, if we put aside the recent victimization of RT within the McCarthyite campaign against all things Russian now going on in Washington, D.C. and in the national media, the channel is only marginally “Russian.”  A lot of its production goes on outside of Russia, namely in Washington and in London where it is heavily influenced by inputs of Americans, Brits and other foreigners.  It is a pale reflection of Russian domestic media.

My first thoughts on the way forward, the way to bring the gems of current Russian political broadcasting to global audiences was that perhaps RT could be persuaded to sacrifice some of its less successful own shows to free up 10 to 20% of its programming to such a featured category coming straight from the Moscow studios of Pervy Kanal and Rossiya 1.  Colleagues persuaded me that most decent way to float that idea would be to present it directly to the general manager of RT, Margarita Simonyan.

I have done just that, mentioning to Ms Simonyan that her competitors like Euronews now very commonly take interviews in languages other than English and systematically dub them into English and the other 9 languages of their international service.  The same procedure could work successfully if a selection from the best of Russian domestic news and commentary programming were added to the program mix of RT.

Regrettably I have received no acknowledgement from Margarita Simonyan.  I take no offense, because it is quite understandable that turf warfare may make it difficult for her to give any concessions to the domestic broadcasting industry even if that were to serve the cause of Russian prestige abroad.

And so I take the question to the domestic broadcasters to see if they will seize the opportunity to make their best programs accessible to English speakers by, at the very least, putting up English subtitles on what they post on youtube. This is becoming all the more justified as week by week we see that the best talk shows are attracting ever more prestigious and competent U.S. and Western journalists from leading media.  The Washington Post and The Atlantic are just two of the major publications whose Russian speaking representatives have appeared recently in the talk shows.

In closing, let me be very specific about where this internationalization of Russian political talk shows might begin:   with Воскресный вечер с Владимиром Соловьевым (Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev) and Специальный корреспондент (Special Correspondent) produced by Rossiya 1 and Время покажет(Time Will Tell) and Первая студия (First Studio) produced by Pervy Kanal.  These particular shows very often feature some of Russia’s best minds from its legislative branch and from its think tanks. And now, as I say, they also frequently have very capable and serious American, British, German and other foreign guests from among politicians and academics. To Western generalist audiences, these shows will be a real eye-opener with respect to the nation that is our great competitor for global influence.


Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future?  was published in August 2015. Visit his personal blog here.

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