Thursday, September 19, 2013

McCain's Op-Ed in Pravda


In light of President Putin's Op-ed in The New York Times and Senator John McCain's reaction in Pravda, I wanted to take a few minutes to contextualize the civil war in Syria and international relations in Russia. Having spent the summers of 2012 and 2013 in Russia, watching the Russian news coverage of the civil war, and studying the country and region at Georgetown, I hope to shed some light on the Russian political environment. I know American political commentators will over-analyze and inaccurately interpret the impact of McCain's article in Russian society.

First, quick Russian lesson! Pravda = truth. Izvestia = news, communication, reporting (generally, what is known.)

Second, let me quote an old Russian saying, "In Pravda, there is no news, and in Izvestia, there is no Truth."

The newspaper Pravda began around 1917 under the direction of V.M. Molotov and Alexander Shlyapnikov, both of whom opposed the liberal Provisional Government. Initially, Molotov was opposed to Stalin joining the editorial board -- quite a bold move. But Stalin eventually took over the magazine and Molotov had a successful career in the government, becoming the only senior official to outlive Stalin's purges (Molotov died in 1986). Pravda has always been an instrument of the state for the promotion and proliferation of propaganda.

I've taken media classes in Russia, with Russian professors, and they told me everyday they pick up Pravda and/or Komsomolskaya Pravda for fun reading, and another paper (Rossiskaya Gazeta, Argumenti i Fakty) for news. Russians, by and large, know to read between the lines when they read Pravda and they do not take the paper seriously. I am not suggesting that everything in Pravda is false, but rather that the paper is not considered a serious, credible, legitimate source like The New York Times.

In recent years, Pravda has declined in popularity. Today, there is Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is comparable to OK! or People Magazine. It is kind of like the Russian tabloids. It is super cheap and available everywhere. Pravda, however, is no longer available in kiosks. You must read Pravda online or specially order the delivery of the paper. Pravda is in limited publication and reaches a generally older demographic.

Most young people read other news outlets through, Facebook and Twitter. Again, I am not saying that Pravda is worthless, but it certainly does not have the esteem and credibility we think of in the West.

I read the Russian version of the article and also want to make a few comments.

Much of what McCain argues will not resonate with the Russian people.

McCain writes that "The Russian powers manipulate your elections." You think Russians don't know this? They know it! They know politicians are corrupt and whenever you bring up politics, Russians respond, "oh, they're all corrupt," and brush off the conversation. They are so jaded with the system. There is no history of civic activism like in the U.S. The demos keeping in check the powers of the legislature and executive is an unknown concept in Russian civics, history, society and politics. Russians by and large recognize their system is corrupts and there are corrupt politicians, but do not do anything. 

Furthermore, many Russians associate wealth with corruption. If someone has money, the assumption is that they quickly grew rich vis-a-vis corruption. This is a long-standing tenant of Russian culture, going back to the days of serfdom. McCain then goes on to criticize Russia's political-economic system. He writes that Russia's economy is  based on a few natural resources and that a few officials will bring the resources under their control and capital will then flee from Russia. Russians know they have an oil and gas-based economy, and they are not necessarily ashamed of this. Basically, he is not saying anything new to Russians.

This brings me to politics in Russia -- most Russians do not like to discuss politics. They love discussing poetry, books, music. Politics is just not discussed as much as it is in the U.S. -- it is just the culture.

Finally, McCain must realize that he is an American politician and army veteran speaking to the Russian people and Russians will perceive him as that. Regardless of his intentions, McCain will be viewed as an American criticizing the Russian government. And who is he to tell the Russian people "I believe in you"? Where is this coming from? I can envision many babushkas sitting on a bench, gossiping and asking "Who is this guy?"And even if McCain believes in the Russian people, what can he do to protect Russians against the human rights abuses and prevent corruption by officials he details in the article?

My point in writing this is not to criticize John McCain -- I have a lot of respect for him and it was quite brave of him to write this. However, the article's message will likely fall on deaf ears and will not tarnish Putin in Russian politics. My message is simple: Do not over-analyze and over-estimate the impact of McCain's Pravda article in Russia.

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