A few weeks ago, Russia's I journalist community erupt-I ed in a scandal that I had the I misfortune of sparking after being invited to a Sunday radio show on Ekho Moskvy called "Polny Albats." That name is a pun on the expression "polny pizdets," which is appropriate it was, indeed, a "sad state of affairs." The pizdets blew over without too many casualties, however. No one fired the high-strung liberal journalist Yevgenia Albats for yelling at me in her studio. The Livejournal-hatched flashmob which threatened to boo her off the air didn't go far past the blogosphere. And fortunately, Ekho Moskvy the "independent" radio station that many love to hate is also still on Gazprom's payroll, one of the few renegades left to broadcast to the rest of the world just how repressive the current regime has become... and doing the Kremlin a great favor by advertising its sensitive, pluralistic side. But by the time the shitstorm settled, that very community was finally, irrevocably a war zone with two camps out to destroy each other.
There is something so inherently Russian about this scandal what with all the self-righteous moralizing on both sides that it's almost embarrassing to recount. But I'll try. It all started when I wrote a really long news analysis about Anna Politkovskaya's murder for The Moscow News. It was not my best the piece was not very inspired. But sometimes that's what our paper does I try to give overviews of reactions to certain events in the Russian press for people who don't read Russian. If David Johnson notices, great.
I was surprised when a girl who introduced herself as Nina from Ekho Moskvy contacted me and asked if I would like to participate in a live radio show about the Russian media. Somehow they'd noticed my Politkovskaya article, asked me if I wrote it, but then assured me that I wouldn't be asked about it on the program. So when I arrived at Novy Arbat 11, armed with that promise and the title of the program ("Does Russia Need a Fourth Estate?"), I had no idea what their real intentions were.
What they arranged, without warning, was a three-against-one (Novaya Gazeta heavyweights Yuri Rost and Sergei Sokolov were also guests at the show) pile-up on an obscure journalist (me) who wrote an English-language article that apparently offended Albats, the program's host. After informing her listeners that it took her "just an hour" to read everything I'd ever published, Albats proceeded with an interrogation about my sources, repeatedly asking me to confirm albeit skeptically that I was the true author of the offending Politkovskaya piece.
"Tell me, what motivated you to write this article?" "Did anyone ask you to write what you wrote in the article?" And finally, my favorite: "Are you ashamed for writing this article? For having slapped a martyred journalist who can't answer you?" Uh, no? It was hard to answer rhetorical questions, especially since I was still struggling to understand why exactly these people had invited me here. Ganged up on by three well-known journalists, I didn't stand a chance. Albats concluded her sneak-attack on me by telling her lis- teners, "This is exactly what a discussion on whether Russia needs a fourth estate should look like. I think that as long as it's possible to write what Anna Arutunyan wrote about a murdered journalist, we can't expect to be looked up to as a fourth estate." Indeed, staging a rigged-up show trial of an English-writing journalist whose English articles Ekho Moskvy listeners will never have the misfortune of reading is certainly one way of discussing the "fourth estate" in Russia. Another way of looking at the problem with the Fourth Estate in Russia is turning the mirror back on Albats and Ekho Moskvy, who shouldn't have to resort to sleazy tricks in order to get guests on their show. Indeed from a purely professional point of view, one would think that if Albats and Ekho Moskvy were out to punish Politkovskaya's skeptics, they should have probably invited a heavyweight like Vitaly Tretyakov, the former editor and founder of Nezavisimaya Gazeta who now heads Moskovskiye Novosti.
The one-hour gang-up wasn't even the most bewildering part of the evening. After the show, back in her office, I tried to ask Albats what was going on. "You should leave the profession," she started yelling. "I sent your article to the editor of The Nation. I'm going to keep track of all your publications and remember, I know important people in the States!" Remember, this is the same Albats who self-righteously bemoans the problems of free speech and the Fourth Estate in Russia.
Within a week, online publications with a pro-government reputation like Vzglyad.ru and Dni.ru, featured out raged opinion columns about the incident. My Russian-language Livejournal entry became the most-visited according to Yandex.ru. Suddenly, it had all come down to a nasty war of words between the purveyors of "real journalism" like Albats and the emerging class of pro-Kremlin hacks out to expose liberal dem-agoguery wherever they saw it. All that time, I was struggling to keep myself from being turned into another Terri Schiavo.
By now, the spat has been mentioned in both the Moscow Times and in Kirill Pankratov's article in the eXile's last issue. Maxim Kononenko (Mr. Parker) wrote a vladimir.vladimirovich.ru column about a televised press-conference with Albats in the role of Kirkorov and me in the role of the Armenian journalist in the pink blouse. Recollections about Albats' notoriously rude manners came pouring in from reporters, students, and even bank clerks who once fell victim to her wrath. A young woman from Massachusetts wrote me to complain about how Albats harangued her for asking the wrong question at a Harvard lecture Albats gave on Oct. 31. From the pro-government side, Oleg Kashin, once a Kommersant reporter and now a writer for Vzglyad and Expert magazines, published a column speculating that this could be the end of the Albats show. Izvestia columnist Maxim Sokolov wrote in his blog comparing what she did to a typical Communist Party style dressing-down. No one could get over just how Soviet the whole thing was.
On the side of the liberal Albats supporters, perhaps the most articulate was Livejournal user zt Dmitri Butrin, a Kommersant journalist who sided with Albats in the name of "professional reporting." Otherwise it seemed as though the madness would never end. By last week, the Rosbalt news agency published something I'm going to assume was an opinion column by a writer with a made-up name ("Man of the Area") saying that "it's perfectly clear that Anna Arutunyan's article was zakaz-naya [meaning that someone paid me to write it on "special orders"], after all why else would it be published only in English?" Indeed.
To my mind, the most interesting debate between the two sides in the Albats-Arutunyan scandal came down to a point-counterpoint between Butrin and another journalist and editor who writes under the Livejournal name donnerwort. "It wasn't that Albats was rude," wrote donnerwort, "it's just that she gave the girl a thrashing based on the moral and professional authority to dictate who is a journalist and who should 'leave the profession. [Journalists like Butrin] are asserting their exclusive right to determine who is a real journalist.... And if Albats is a fool who's stuck in the 90's, these people are far smarter and more subtle." To which Butrin responded: "Exactly. I am asserting just that." And here is what the whole battle in Russia's political/journalism world comes down to. Not who is right or wrong, but who is with "us" and who is with "them." Here's another quote from donnerwort's blog: "Anna isn't really 'ours' and is certainly not 'theirs'. She's a very strange journalist." Bingo. The "us/them" dichotomy says a lot about what dictates current journalism ethics in Russia. The other day I was talking to a certain political expert, journalist and activist in the nationalist camp (the conversation was off the record, I'd rather not mention his name) who asked me to write an explanation for my Ivannikova article (about the Russian woman who stabbed and killed an Armenian cab driver, and was freed), which appeared in this paper last year. "See, I'm on your side," he kept telling me. "But other nationalists are calling you dirty names because you didn't stand up for Ivannikova in your piece. Why don't you just make an announcement that you supported Ivannikova's cause, and then all those people can support you against Albats?" In a community still so deeply divided along party lines, everyone seems to be fighting in some kind of meta-world where nothing is as it seems, and everything is a grand conspiracy by the other side. One entry in Albats' blog went on about "Pavlovsky's puppies" who were allegedly supporting me if I get her drift right, what she was trying to imply that Gleb Pavlovsky, the pro-Kremlin spin-doctor, was behind the whole scandal. It's hard to say what exactly Albats was trying to achieve -- to be right and to condemn, or to maintain a monopoly on exporting information about Russia to the West? She certainly wasn't achieving either, and that seemed to be at the heart of her paranoia.
If people in the West are wondering why the liberal intelligentsia of the 90s is so scorned in Russia these days, then this should give you a taste of why. What's more distressing for me is that as a journalist, I have never wanted to take either side -- either the "patriotic" or the "liberal" side. But in an increasingly acrimonious atmosphere, trying to remain independent means I'm creating at least one, perhaps two camps of enemies, rather than none at all.