Among the Russians

A few weeks ago I made the following remark in relation to the FIFA World Cup:

Russia seems to be doing a good job of hosting the tournament with visitors being rather surprised to find happy, welcoming people interested in having fun instead of granite-faced thugs with shaved heads waiting to slaughter LGBTs in the streets. Not for the first time have foreigners discovered individual Russians are a lot different from how they are collectively portrayed.

It seems the media are now having to explain themselves:

England fan shames British media,” was one of many headlines of a similar nature to appear in Kremlin-friendly news outlets in Russia over the past couple of weeks. The story referenced a tweet from England fan Matt Maybury, who on returning from a trip to the World Cup wanted to complain about the “clear propaganda against the Russian people” in the British media. Russia was an “absolutely class country”, he wrote, at odds with what the media had led him to believe.

The tweet went viral, and was covered by multiple Russian television stations and news websites as proof of the British media’s lies.


So did the British media get Russia wrong? Well, perhaps a bit.

What, if anything, does the British media get right?

The fans who did come have been impressed by the positive atmosphere: the street parties, the surprisingly lax police presence, the good-natured welcome from the majority of Russians, and the hot weather and cheap beer.

It’s almost as if the media was making judgements of a country they’d never even been to.

Along with most Russians, I’ve been surprised by just how great the atmosphere has been, but I always expected Russia to put on an excellent World Cup. I was a Moscow correspondent for more than a decade, and have seen the city and country change beyond recognition in that time. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen for some time that most fans who came to Russia would be likely to have a great time.

Did you write any columns saying this, or did you know in advance they’d be rejected because they didn’t fit the “Russia is evil” narrative?

Blaming the media is the easy way out, however. There is certainly some terrible coverage of Russia, and some blinkered “experts” with an axe to grind. It is true that if you only read the British tabloids about Russia, you would get a skewed picture, but the same could be said for many subjects.

Oh, so it’s the tabloids that have been demonising Russia since Trump’s election, is it? Not the preferred organs of the chattering classes and wannabe ruling classes? Presumably if we only read The Guardian and The Times we’d have a balanced view, although how Oliver Kamm’s deranged rantings about Russia would help with that I don’t know.

We’re not a travel guide, and it’s not our job to remind everyone that you can get a great flat white in Moscow or have a fantastic night out in St Petersburg every time we write about the difficult issues and abuses.

Because British newspapers rarely write about travel, lifestyle, and holiday destinations. All those supplements which drop out of the main paper on a weekend concern only matters of news and current affairs.

Russia’s bad press is largely of its own making – for years, it has been easier for officials to bray about Russophobia than to show a different side of the country.

In other words, The Guardian’s view of a country is wholly based on government propaganda instead of, say, what reporters see when they get there. What was the Moscow correspondent’s job then, to watch state TV all day? I suppose at least they’re being consistent: back in the Soviet days The Guardian would lap up government propaganda and ignore reality on the ground, and I guess nothing has changed.

It’s a valiant effort by The Guardian to defend their and other’s media coverage of Russia, which has proven in the wake of the world cup to be so inaccurate, but they’ve still not understood their greatest error. Early on in Colin Thubron’s wonderful Among the Russians, he writes:

I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people.

Thubron went to Russia in the 1980s when it was still part of the Soviet Union and travel to the country was heavily restricted. What excuse the international media in 2018?

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21 thoughts on “Among the Russians

  1. “I never again equated the Russian system with the Russian people.”

    Except blaming “the system” has always been a favorite pastime of all Russian scumbags from politburo to the lowliest KGB “stukach”. Another favorite pastime has been building Potemkin villages for useful idiots from the West.

    We’ve been so lucky Walter Duranty did not believe all that anti-Soviet propaganda, but got there and saw. One does not get a Pulitzer for nothing. On the other hand, if one sees something behind the curtain, one does not get to be a Moscow correspondent (or an alive correspondent) much longer, as we know from numerous examples.

    So it’s easy to tell what Moscow correspondents are doing: trying to get some Kremlin cash and/or trying to stay alive. It’s not like there are many options beyond that.

  2. I first visited Russia in 1980, under the commies, and it was a revelation to me, as it was immediately obvious I had been lied to for years. Returning home, the thing that struck me was that the UK was closer in spirit to the USSR than it was to the US where previously I had assumed the opposite.

  3. Yes a major coup for Russia and Putin, their team was surprisingly better than expected as well the best we can hope for now is a Croatia victory and then they can at least claim that they were beaten by the world champions.

    I am in Qatar at the moment and whilst hey have been hyping the 2022 tournament since day one, they are about to go into overdrive as soon as the final ceremony is completed today. FIFA also just announced that it will be held in late November to mid December a major disruption to the various northern hemisphere leagues no doubt. Now that the threat of disqualification is over I can only see they hype going absolutely ballistic over here over the next four years. Maybe someone will try a last minute appeal against it but I would say that it’s baked in in more ways than one.

  4. I went to Russia in the 80s too, briefly. What I saw was entirely consistent with it being a failed police state.

    We were searched incredibly thoroughly on the way in, including a strip search of an a girl at random. We were searched on the way out. I don’t recall 80s Britain having minefields and a cleared strip at the border with Ireland even while fighting the IRA.

    We were shepherded to the good bits, and watched if we wandered elsewhere.

    The people were drab, in their drab clothes and tiny apartments. The hotels were terrible and the food worse. But we were charged high prices because the state was desperate for foreign currency.

    The ballet was good though.

    So you can f**k off Roue with the UK being close to the USSR. Hyperbole like that is for SJWs, the “repression” and control of the UK aren’t in the same league as the Soviets.

    You don’t need policemen wandering the streets to be a police state. There was an informer in every workplace and every apartment block.

  5. Journalists are, in general, lazy. Despite all the cinema portrayals of them as fearless seekers of truth, most of them will just go where their handlers take them, on PR trips, or copy something read.

  6. Chester,
    All I can say is we wandered the metro, chatted to people, chose our own restarants and made jokes at communism’s expense with our intourist guide. The only hassling we received was guys trying to buy our jeans or sell us roubles. You say the 80s, maybe late 80s when things were going pear shaped?

    AND, I did not say the UK was like the USSR, I said it was closer IN SPIRIT to communism than free market capitalism. An uncontentious statement, surely?

  7. The notion that you can get the “truth” about the “real Russia” from an event that is by definition stage managed is absurd.

  8. The notion that you can get the “truth” about the “real Russia” from an event that is by definition stage managed is absurd.

    That’s not what anyone’s saying. What’s happened is, like with many people who go to Russia, they’ve meet some ordinary Russians and found them nothing like they expected.

  9. “they’ve meet some ordinary Russians and found them nothing like they expected.”
    Why should anyone, in any walk of life, tether their experience to someone else’s expectation?
    Or to put it another way, if the prior probability is 70/30 but the 30% probability (Trump wins!) comes up, that does not invalidate the prior probability.

  10. I took a brief trip through Europe before the election and Russia was by far my favorite country. This was when oil was <$50 and everything was cheap and wonderful. (Aside from customs which was slow and intimidating.)

    I've always told people Russia was my favorite destination when asked, but have received increasing degrees of disbelief in return.

    People have a very skewed perspective on the Scandinavian countries in particular. Its damn hard to like a place after paying fifty dollars for a burger, and the west doesn't seem to understand that niceties we take for granted (cars, washing machines, central heating…) are not ubiquitous. Its a very different lifestyle.

  11. It is true that if you only read the British tabloids about Russia, you would get a skewed picture, but the same could be said for many subjects.

    Pure projection.

  12. Were the crims and the gangsters and the merely pug ugly rounded up and bussed out of town for a few days? I really don’t know. Is there real poverty in the countryside? Again, I don’t know, and very few would have visited.

    I do know that if your editor asks for a colour piece, you oblige. Hookers and cabbage, or smiley face and caviare. You can run these off without leaving the bar.

  13. I really don’t know. Is there real poverty in the countryside?


    Again, I don’t know, and very few would have visited.

    I have. Rural Russia is pretty shocking tbh.

  14. Consider this joke that has been going around:

    Journalist: As a fan, what is your impression of the cup organization ?
    Fan: Oh, I was surprised of how well it was organized. Also everybody is so unexpectedly nice and friendly.
    Journalist: Thank you. And where are you from ?
    Fan: Kuzminki

  15. “Thubron went to Russia in the 1980s when it was still part of the Soviet Union and travel to the country was heavily restricted. What excuse the international media in 2018?”

    Tim – The fact that a Visa costs about 150 quid? There’s no money in journalism these days, and there is certainly no UK editor who would advance money for writing a piece that says “it’s not that bad really.”

    Let’s be clear though, in respect to all of the English people who travelled to Russia for the world cup: You enjoyed it because you were not accompanied by a massive entourage of beery sunstroked mongoloids who are only there for “the atmosphere” i.e. Sleep on the floor of a mate’s hotel room, sit around in a public square, get drunk, have the occasional fight and try to see if you can get to the end of the event without having to paint your face more than twice.

    The reason for that quietly, is that linking valid match tickets to the immigration system was a good idea. That did as much to improve the event as any overt police presence ever would.

    Just going with it, forking out for a ticket to say, Japan versus Senegal, or whatever and enjoying “the atmosphere”, still feels like you’ve had your beer money fleeced off you. So they stayed away.

  16. I have never been to Russia but I am an admirer of its culture and think it is a terrible shame that – now the shroud of Communism has been lifted – we don’t have a better relationship.

  17. Visiting post-USSR Russia is on my bucket list. I saw it in the 80s on as a teenager on a school trip and even the best bits looked like, as the late journo Auberon Waugh put it, “a John Pilger documentary about collapsing Liverpool”. Individual Russians were nice, but the main thing that stays in my mind were the Berioskas. These were the shops where the only stuff you might possibly want to buy could be bought – and only by paying foreign currency. Told you everything you needed to know about soviet economics. Of course, even if you had managed to snaffle some foreign currency you weren’t allowed to shop there if you were an actual Russian. Told you everything you needed to know about soviet politics.

  18. I’ve always been curious about Russia. How hard is it to learn the language?

  19. How hard is it to learn the language?

    Very. The alphabet is the thing most people worry about, but you can learn that in 2-3 hours. The second most difficult thing is the grammar which is not only conventionally difficult (gendered nouns and adjectives, conjugations, polite/familiar forms, etc) but it has fiendishly difficult grammatical concepts which don’t exist in the common European languages. The verbs of motion are a special hell all of their own, as is the genetive case (needed to indicate possession and quantities), and the distinction between what’s known as the perfective and imperfective cases. Ask Russians about that last one and they’ll have no idea what you’re even on about. However, the hardest part for me was learning the vocabulary: the words sound like nothing in English and it’s very hard to remember new words unless you immediately practice them. And it’s impossible to guess!

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