A panel of Moscow correspondents discussed their experiences and opinions on covering Russia under media oppression and Soviet rule, and how these policies affect Russia’s present-day situation.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, an exodus of outside media correspondents from Russia has been occurring. This in itself is no surprise: current conditions and heavy censorship laws make the country exceptionally dangerous for journalists. Nonetheless, it is also thoroughly unprecedented. Even in the heart of the Cold War, a high number of journalists (especially Western ones) stayed in the country to report on events and the Russian people. On Monday, in the World Room of Columbia University’s Pulitzer Hall, a panel of famed correspondents, journalists, and editors gathered to discuss how the media situation in Russia has progressed and changed over time. The event also served as a tribute to Dusko Doder, famed Moscow correspondent during the 1980s and Columbia Journalism School graduate, currently living in Thailand.
The panel began by discussing Doder’s work, primarily in his role as the Moscow Bureau Chief of The Washington Post. Doder was, by all accounts, unique—both as a correspondent and simply as a person. To others around him, he appeared as a gruff, cigar-smoking journalist with incredibly fluent Russian. But this was a carefully built persona. He used this personality to talk with high Russian officials in the same way one would catch up with an old friend. One anecdote, shared by Doder’s wife Louise Branson, encapsulated this technique perfectly. While interviewing an editor of one of Russia’s leading magazines, he dealt with a tense situation by beginning to curse profusely in Russian (the panel, unfortunately, could not repeat it), at which point the editor started to laugh and talk more casually. In the long conversation that followed, Doder managed to get the editor to reveal previously unknown information about the war in Afghanistan taking place at the time. Perhaps even more amazingly, Doder did not publish a story on this, but instead kept the information for later and kept the editor as a friendly contact. This was one of many such stories. Doder used his Yugoslavian background to come across as basically native to Russian officials, achieving an incredible reputation due to his ability to report more accurately than even the UN. He was the first person to gain knowledge of several key events, including Yuri Andropov’s (interim leader of the Soviet Union) death. Unfortunately, some in the US government believed that Doder was too good. In 1992, Time magazine published a huge piece (which came out to likely be supported by the CIA) slandering Doder for working with the KGB. Although fellow journalists defended him and Doder eventually took Time to court and won, this case of libel deeply affected him. After this, he began to settle down, eventually writing his memoir The Inconvenient Journalist.
Many of the panelists had been friends and fellow journalists of Doder during the Soviet era. Serge Schmemann began the discussion of how the media was treated in Russia at the time. Unlike Doder, Schmemann focused less on Kremlin politics, but instead on the Russian people and culture. Both of them operated in large part during the Brezhnev era, during which Western journalists were constantly followed, attacked, and even drugged. Russian journals would constantly slander their actions, to the point where Schmemann, writing a film review, was attacked in the press for attempting to “ingratiate” himself with the Russian people. Doder himself was taking even more risks at the time. Involved in politics, he constantly dealt with situations filled with lies, where instincts, connections, and an acute understanding of people were necessary.
Ann Cooper led the next portion of the discussion, focusing on the Gorbachev era, at which point the ideas of “glasnost” and “perestroika” began to appear. Although the country was changing, not everything was different. Correspondents were always bugged, tracked, and lived in closely controlled foreigner compounds. But there was a sense among the people that something was coming. Russia had begun to release political prisoners, local newspapers were writing differently, and journalists, although watched, faced fewer consequences for their actions. Cooper even managed to gain permission to travel to a formerly closed town in order to meet with a group of veterans, interviewing them as well as local college students from the area.
Joining from Berlin on Zoom, current New Yorker correspondent Joshua Yaffa talked about what working in the Putin era of Russia is like, comparing his experiences to that of the older speakers. According to Yaffa, the Soviet-era state had an official ideology that it “had” to abide by, trying to keep up outside appearances. With Putin taking power, this mentality went away. The new type of authoritarianism had none of the past ideologies, but just as much oppression as ever. Yet, when Yaffa first became a correspondent in 2012, ongoing protests seemed to provide hope that the country was changing. This would turn out to not be the case. In fact, the government was being steadily cleared of Putin’s opposition, all while increasing the state’s power. Officials became essentially unreachable and Russia ceased to care at all about how they were perceived. In this state of affairs, journalists were almost completely ignored. They were not attacked or even greatly restricted, but they had little ability to gather real information about Russian politics. Yaffa and others instead traveled freely across the country, talking to common Russian people.
Coming closer to modern times, Russia began to initiate more aggression on the world stage (including the invasion of Crimea), and in general, turn its back once more. In 2021, Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, survival, subsequent return to Russia, and eventual disappearance marked another change. Russian media began to shut down and the attitude of the government started to shift. Yaffa, who left Russia right before the invasion of Ukraine occurred, decided to not return given the country’s enactment of wartime censorship laws and overall danger. As of now, some journalists are beginning to return, but others are using modern technology to gather information in other ways.
The panelists proceeded to discuss the changes from the past to the present. They agreed that the Putin of the early 2000s was a man concerned with his image, even publishing a book about himself. This is in sharp contrast to current times, where he is almost entirely shut off from even his own government. This shows the progression of not only Putin but the country of Russia as a whole. The question, of course, remains: what will happen next? The journalists conceded that not only do they not know, but it is likely that the Kremlin itself does not truly know. However, although Russia will not necessarily lose the war, and Putin will not necessarily lose power, they believe that Putin has put himself and his government under the greatest threat his rule has ever experienced. Many people also think that the war will go on for a long time yet and that Putin hopes to outlast Ukraine and the West through staying power and stamina. The session then moved on to a Q & A with the audience, and the correspondents in attendance made closing remarks.
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