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Stalin, Vodka and Nuclear Weapons: How Not to Write About Russia

A few humble suggestions

When I started blogging about Russia a decade ago it was an attempt, as an American living in the country, to debunk both the positive and negative stereotypes perpetuated by the western media.

I was not the only one to be riled. Journalist Michael Idov has also listed his five major bugbears in western reporting about the country: from exclamations that on “grimy and deserted” streets stood Pizza Huts and Versace boutiques, to a tendency to start every headline with the words “From Russia with ... ”

Today, as the “cold war 2.0” narrative is bandied about in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and president Vladimir Putin’s involvement in Syria, many of these cliches still exist – and new ones have emerged. Here are some of the worst offenders:

‘Russia is so different from the west’

Yes, but why act so surprised? To put it simply, the thing that makes Russia so different can be found in 70 years of Soviet rule, when the country was run by a radically different system.

A system which, for better or worse, had a major cultural impact not only in Russia, but many Soviet republics and, to a lesser extent, some eastern European nations too.

An extension of this is the “Russia is so extreme” narrative, which verges on fetishisation. In my view, expat writers and travel journalists cling to this cliche out of a latent desire to appear more hardcore and rugged to their western readers back home.

‘Everything is like War and Peace’

We get it, you read War and Peace. But is it really necessary to compare the Moscow metro at rush hour to the battle of Austerlitz, or did you just want everyone to know you read it?

Russians take great pride in their classical literature and a working knowledge of it will certainly help you make friends. But it’s worth remembering that history is best left to historians, not novelists.

Would Americans find it odd if foreign writers shoehorned Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway references into every story? Must every article about the UK involve a reference to the works of Shakespeare or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

‘Prostitution is rife’

There are two major topics writers often turn to when writing about women’s rights in Russia: those being forced into prostitution and the mail-order bride industry.

Prostitution, human trafficking and sex slavery is a big problem in Russia – but not exclusively so. Plenty of other countries face a similar battle to improve protections for women, but when it comes to Russia journalists seem to have become fixated on this issue.

After the rouble collapsed in 2014 Apple temporarily suspended its store in Russia to revise its prices. Some luxury car manufacturers did the same.

But for many media outlets the major story was about sex workers in Murmansk allegedly raising their prices in order to keep up with inflation, despite the source originating from a less than trustworthy Russian outlet.

‘Stalin, vodka, nuclear weapons, Putin’

Stalin, vodka, gopniks, pelmeni, matryoshka, nuclear weapons or Putin – in an article that is not about the president.

Some writers love to pepper their pieces with random Russian words and references.

Imagine if you started reading a piece like this on the property market in London. 

Life in modern-day England is hotter than tea and more action-packed than a double-decker red bus! But the real Trafalgar square of this piece is about accommodation in London, which can be more expensive than the crown jewels and one needs the detective skills of none other than Sherlock Holmes so as to find a reasonably priced flat.

My article on expat accommodation will give you the advice you need to become a William the Conqueror of London faster than it takes you to finish your bangers and mash … Buckingham Palace, Harry Potter, the HMS Prince of Wales, can you see how assimilated I am?

Yes, I jest, but I have seen a lot of expat writers get frighteningly close to this level of hyperbole.

If it’s annoying when you apply it to your country, then it’s annoying applied to Russia or anywhere else.

Source: The Guardian
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