Can you believe these Russians?

Monday’s Guardian offered this story about a video of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Note the title and subheading:

Dmitry Medvedev might not be Russia’s great badminton hope after all

President extols game’s virtues, but web clip of him playing Vladimir Putin reveals a less than world-class player

For those who don’t know Russian—the video is a few minutes of Medvedev explaining the origins of badminton and the benefits of playing: physical fitness, better reflexes, enjoyment. In a country facing massive public health crises, it’s not a bad message for the President to promote.

[Indeed, the US President and First Lady often advocate various kinds of physical activity: basketball, hula hooping, and so on. This is not unusual territory for heads of state.]

Why, then, does the US and British press treat this story with disdain? (Let me know if non-English Western media are saying something different! That would make this story more interesting.)

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin Try Shuttlecock Diplomacy

a grim-faced Mr Putin is shown lobbing a shuttlecock at Mr Medvedev, both of them wearing dark tracksuits bottoms, all set to a soundtrack of cheesy 1980s style electronic music.

Putin and Medvedev Play Badminton for Control of Russia

Any suspicions of bad blood between the two can be put to rest after watching the above video of Putin and Medvedev engaged in what looks like the most tepid game of badminton ever played. According to the Telegraph, Medvedev is a Badminton enthusiast. “It’s not just a game,” he says about the game half-enjoyed by nine-year-olds everywhere.

I pick these sources not because they’re especially good sources for news of Russia, but because they’re not. These are representative of the kind of news about Russia that filters out into the broader public, and which seems to fit into a very few categories, analyzed within a very few set frames.

  • Goofy Putin (and Medvedev) Antics
  • Crime and Corruption
  • New Russians, So Crazy!
  • Russia, the Evil Empire

I’ll add to/edit this list as I identify new examples. I’ll get to the others in future posts, but for now let’s start with Goofy Putin Antics.

Here is the essential story that eventually finds its way to the general public:

8 Hilariously Insane Examples of Vladimir Putin Propaganda

Propaganda is like nuclear material: It can completely change the political landscape, it goes scarily out of control when you have too much of it, and Russia has way more than too much of it. When America wanted an action hero as president, they filmed Air Force One. According to the stories coming out of Russia, such effort is unnecessary when your country is run by Vladimir Putin.

The frame: Russia is a batshit-crazy country whose all-powerful crazy leader does “hilariously insane” things. He tranquilizes tigers! He fights wildfires from the air! Just because he can! Or because he’s propagandizing. The reasoning is a little unclear. (If he’s all-powerful, why does he need to create propaganda?) But the point is, it’s hilarious!

And this isn’t just on Cracked—I have often heard the very same amused dismissal in academics’ discussions of Russia.

Why it’s weirdly biased: Does anyone remember this? Or this?

Why it’s a problem:

First, there’s a certain blindness involved in criticizing other countries’ faults while ignoring similar problems in your own. Many Russians, by the way, are keenly aware of the prevalence of this kind of hypocrisy. They ask, why should they take Western advice on how to develop freedom of speech, a fair and open press, and democratic elections if those very countries do the same things Russia is criticized for?

Second, the constant repetition of this same frame discourages any deeper engagement with the puzzle of Russian politics. Again I ask: if Putin really has near-total control over the political scene in Russia, why does he make Western-style efforts to appeal to public opinion? I think it’s a question worth some consideration, and one I’ll be looking at in depth in my research next year.

Third, and back to Medvedev, that all mainstream Russia coverage returns to the same shallow wells over and over again means that lots of other, often important, news from Russia goes unreported. Why is Medvedev promoting badminton? Maybe because Russian men have an abysmally low life expectancy due to poor health from bad diet, lack of exercise, and high rates of smoking and especially alcohol abuse. Ineffective as the campaign will be, perhaps Medvedev hopes that a few more young people will take up a healthier hobby. But that’s not a very funny story, is it?

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