Mike Averko told me that interviewing La Russophobe wasn’t my finest hour. So, I interviewed Mike as well.
Mike doesn’t have a blog of his own, but he does make extensive use of the internet to express his strongly felt – some might even say controversial – views on Russia and the former Yugoslavia. Many people will know him from his Quick Takes email (see his email address at the end of this interview if you want to subscribe), but he has also recently written a number of guest articles for Russia Blog and Sean’s Russia Blog.
Never one to shirk controversy, Mike has used his interview to not only give us his opinion of Russia (look out for some interesting comments about the state of Russian media towards the end of the interview), but to give his opinion of a number of ‘name’ Russia bloggers and commentators as well.
1. (As Mike doesn’t have a blog, in place of the first few standard questions I asked him to provide a brief introduction to his internet commentary and his goals).
I make it interesting eh? Interesting – is what’s required to positively enhance the coverage of the former USSR. Specifically, a constructive interesting, as opposed to sensationalistic stupidity, or flat out dullness.
Thanks for this 100% free form interview which permits me to say whatever I please. I became aware of this series when Johnson’s Russia List (JRL) posted your initial feature with La Russophobe (JRL posted directly from La Russophobe on Feb. 28). No disrespect Andy: I’m on record for protesting JRL’s posting of that interview. The reasons having to do with what JRL continues to censor like The Tiraspol Times (TTT) and the The American Journal of Russian and Slavic Studies (AJRSS). If La Russophobe/Oliver Bronsen is good enough for JRL, than so should TTT and the AJRSS. TTT is an excellent English language news and commentary source on Pridnestrovie (Trans-Dniester). I defy anyone to claim differently. The AJRSS has scholarly material and some views that are disagreeable to some. That last point hasn’t stopped JRL from posting La Russophobe/Bronsen, eXile and Edward Limonov. JRL is supposed to be an English language compilation of worthy former USSR related material.
All this relates to what I’m partly about. Improving the situation with common sense advocacy. That JRL sees fit to post La Russophobe/Bronsen, while censoring others is a reflection of its biases. JRL posted La Russophobe’s/Bronsen’s pathetic rant on Russian women’s tennis without posting any reply to it. My rejected reply received a thumbs’ up from several JRL subscribers who I’d solicited it to. The court appointed Russia friendlys dare not speak out against the JRL selection process for fear of losing their posting preference with that outlet (this has been privately confirmed to me by a few of them). Depending on the topic, these individuals aren’t always the best of sources. This isn’t said disrespectfully (I greatly respect some of them), but as a matter of fact. Meantime, JRL receives funding from Russian and American government funded orgs.
Those sharing my views that the English language mass media coverage of Russia is lacking should keep in mind which sources have been active parts of the process. The situation is improved by looking for other options and not clinging to an existing status quo. It’s unreasonable to expect the existing status quo to be completely overthrown. With the right prodding, it can be improved upon. This includes bringing talented others on board.
La Russophobe’s comeback of being widely viewed has been second guessed by others. Lately, I’ve been quoted a good deal of unsubstantiated claims of wide viewing audiences from assorted vendors. Just how accurate are some of those claims? If we go by ratings, there’s a good deal of regularly posted JRL material that could be considered as irrelevant. All of my Russia watching friends who read La Russophobe do so out of a curiosity for the bizarre. They’ve no respect for “her”. As an anonymous individual having had other pennames (Kim Betty among them), we can’t be so sure of his/her sex. Those unfamiliar with La Russophobe might see these thoughts as rude. They should go to his/her site and read what La Russophobe says about others, including yours truly. Not nice isn’t nice and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. As is, there’s enough bullshit being passed off as acceptable
Regarding your impressive site and interview series, I don’t exactly blog. I definitely have the quintessential blogger’s spirit. Besides the establishment venues (news talk radio as a guest and print/electronic media), some of my commentary has appeared at Russia Blog and Sean’s Russia Blog. Along with Siberian Light, those two blogs have been featured at JRL, which like it or not, has a good deal of influence within English language “Russia watching” circles. Some in your audience might be unaware that many “made” people blog to air out additional views which they don’t get to state in their other experiences. Hence, blogging has a definite universality to it. Many establishment venues have incorporated blogs to supplement themselves.
I don’t have an active blog because there’s a techy aspect to blogging. Something I’m not efficient at or particularly interested in. I’m an analyst and as such, it’s important for me to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Without a salary, I’ve received free offers for a state of the art designed web site and tech support. That’s not for me because it would involve more work on my end without a salary as part of the deal. There’re some fortunate people who are making a good living doing what I do great as a hobby. On a level playing field, I’d be in some of their positions. I’ve more than proven my worth at several venues.
My commentary at Russia Blog and Sean’s Russia Blog have received great feedback in terms of increased site traffic, posted comments and linked references from other venues. The principles involved with those two blogs have personally thanked me for increasing the traffic to their respective sites. This is something that can’t be legitimately denied by anyone.
As some others and yourself know, I’ve an email list known as Quick Takes (QT). It was recently featured at the Action Ukraine Report. Among others, The Economist’s Edward Lucas (himself a blogger) has acknowledged QT as a source well worth receiving. His stated approval on record isn’t exactly the most desired of recommendations and I in turn wrote a not so smooth rejoinder to it. After a somewhat rocky start, I sense a mutual respect between the two of us. He has given me good advice. Elements on the Russia friendly side are baffled by my positive expression towards him. He has done more for me than a good number of those on the Russia friendly side. A reason why there continues to be problems for Russia in the English language market.
My initiating QT had to do with my own issues with JRL. As previously stated, that source doesn’t always carry all of the best English language material on the Former Soviet Union (FSU). I attempt to provide what JRL doesn’t. I’ve a general interest in foreign affairs. Unlike JRL – QT regularly posts material dealing with former Yugoslavia and other non-FSU areas. Unlike JRL – I tend to focus more on FSU sports. Unlike David Johnson’s tact, I’ll comment on the articles chosen for posting. QT is non-partisan, in that it posts material I disagree with. It’s partisan in terms of my commentary. Other views are welcome. As someone having experienced censorship, I very much loathe its practice.
Sean Guillory (of UCLA and Sean’s Russia Blog), Wally Shedd (of the Accidental Russophile) Eugene Soukharnikov (a well traveled St. Peterburg, RF businessman) and Ajay Goyal (the principle of the one time Moscow based Russia Journal) have commented at QT by name. Others have done so anonymously. As a media savvy person, I value the spirit of keeping private conversations on a confidential basis.
On your very last comment, I don’t expect the not so Russia friendly side to like my views. The Russia friendly side has different degrees of friendliness. Some of them might be Russia friendly for the primary reason of their own business interests. There’s a politically unhealthy environment in the Russia friendly grouping. A worthy competitor of a like mind can be seen as a threat to one’s livelihood. This attitude isn’t to my liking. I’ve been on the receiving end of it.
2. What have been your best and worst experiences involving your internet activity?
The praise accorded to me by people in academia and media. Seeing my advice followed up on, albeit in an often unofficial manner (a point that somewhat perturbs me). Having some rather important people take the time to visit me at my home. All of this happened as a result of my internet activity. A bureau chief of a leading Russian TV network contacted me on guests for a feature on minority views in the Republican Party. Two of my suggested guests appeared in the televised segment. One of them (a “name” person in think tank circles) thanked me for the referral. I “coached” a non-Anglo-American with editing and submission suggestions, which helped place his article at a prominent English language vendor. I’ve successfully referred others to venues which posted their work. I get tickled when a “name” person asks me to post his/her material at QT. There’s plenty of additional work to be done. Poor decision making and back stabbing politics are hindering efforts to nurture a better product.
My views have won out over the highly promoted experts. Back in January of ’05, Adrian Karatnycky’s Newsday article likened Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to Nelson Mandela and other noted civil rights leaders. Newsday, ran my reply which gave an opposite view (the referenced hyperlink is an abstract and not the full text). In the present, it seems that most of Ukraine’s citizenry agree with me on that point (Yushchenko’s popularity has sharply declined and was never over 50%). In early ’05, Taras Kuzio was brazenly declaring an end to “Blue” (the Ukrainian opposition to Yushchenko) and Russian influence in Ukraine. At the time, I am on record for stating otherwise. In addition to the mentioned Newsday letter of mine, there’s my March ’05 Intelligent.ru article on Kuzio, entitled “Soviet Style Journalism in the ‘Free’ Press”. When Russia invited Hamas to Moscow following the latter’s election victory, Russia Blog principles Yuri Mamchur and Charles Ganske sharply disagreed with my take of the invite. I correctly predicted what happened. After Hamas was diplomatically spanked in Moscow – Mamchur and Ganske adopted my stated view.
Of recent note, it has been a pleasure working with Sean Guillory of Sean’s Russia Bog. This isn’t meant as a swipe against other editors I’ve worked with (they’ve their definite strong points): Guillory is the best of them. He comprehensively reviews what he’s reading and follows up with some constructive suggestions. At the same time, he’s very open to other suggestions. The two of us recently collaborated on a feature about Andrei Vlasov. Guillory doesn’t over edit. Instead, he takes the: don’t tinker with the already well presented route. My last article at his site is edit free (one which received 91 posted replies). The Vlasov feature ended up with the two of us editing each other for a great end result. The posted replies below that feature and private emails confirm its quality. We didn’t edit out each other’s respective views. I wasn’t completely agreeable with Guillory’s “bloody” Nicholas reference in his introduction. My gut reaction was to not have it (not that it was exactly my choice, seeing how it’s his blog). To me, Russia’s last czar lived in a bloody situation, as opposed to being bloody himself. I didn’t protest that detail because he put bloody in quotes and most importantly, he never censored my commentary when editing it. In the short time I’ve known him in cyber, Guillory impresses as an eclectic (non-doctrinaire) person of the left, whereas yours truly might be best classified along paleo-conservative lines.
Of a quick related note, I regret that http://english.intelligent.ru has been taken down from viewing. My commentary at that site was very well received (as is true elsewhere). My Sept. ’05 article “Personalizing News Issues to Underscore an Agenda” was by far the most read essay at that site. Regarding that essay, then Intelligent.ru Editor Sergei Roy might’ve set an editor’s record in the fastest time an editor posted an article upon its submission. The other Intelligent.ru articles of mine dealt with subject matter shunned in English language mass media. Among those articles: “Stephen Cohen: Mainstreaming for the Elites”, “Behind the ABC News NightLine-Russian Government Dispute” and “Human Rights as a Propaganda Tool Against Russia”. At present, all of those articles can’t be so easily hyperlinked, due to the site having been taken down.
The not so pleasant experiences haven’t stopped me because (as previously stated) I know that on a more level playing field, I will show myself to be a worthy contributor to those who are actively trying to block me from further advancement. I’m not so keen on ethno-religious stereotypes. I nevertheless sense that my Jewish (Greek Sephardic and Baltic German Ashkenazi) and Russian (Orthodox-Christian) backgrounds have probably nurtured a stubborn resiliency that keeps me going.
I touched on the existing neo-Stalinism given great editing powers. The source which banned eXile for a lengthy period continues to act in this manner towards others and myself. Another outlet flat out told me that an article submission of mine was primarily rejected because of previous critical comments I’d made of its venue. As a comparison, some of the selected material at that site is definitely not of a superior quality. Mind you, that outlet has no problems posting critical commentary about Russian mass media (like Russian State Television). Numerous people know this politically unhealthy environment exists and dare not speak out against it, while privately disagreeing. That very same venue had earlier invited me on their panel discussion and accepted my submission for posting. Without notice, it cancelled my submission and hasn’t invited me back on any of its panel discussions. This sequence of events was obviously done in a calculated way to send me a “message”. My reply is that I will not be a subservient dupe to a far from perfect situation. Kowtowing to this behavior doesn’t lead to an improvement.
I’ve experienced sudden rejection by those who’d embraced me. This change having to do with what some influential others had said. Folks who never met me in person and obviously don’t believe in an honest and up front dialogue to air out differences. Unlike myself, these individuals have been a part of the imperfect process. Behind the scene, there’s the absurd Soviet psychiatry practiced by some in an effort to explain away their censoring ways. “The guy is a nut!” (I have my intelligence sources) How about, the situation continues to be ****** up and it’s time to bring the “nut” on board? How many ****** up people are actively involved in the process? There’s no legitimate excuse. I’m not violent, racist, anti-Western, terrorist or rude. On the rude point, there’ve been some disingenuous claims made. It’s not rude to steadfastly object to rude actions directed at oneself and others.
3. Which blogs about the former USSR do you most enjoy reading?
At the moment, Guillory’s blog, Russia Blog and yours top my chart. Among others, I like Wally Shedd’s Accidental Russophile which has been on an extended break. Shedd isn’t shy in participating at other venues. Earnest activity like his is appreciated. Orange Ukraine keeps one updated on what the not so Russia friendly view evident among some Ukrainians and others are thinking. I make it a point to read what the opposing side to my own is saying. It makes me a more informed person. There’re a few other blogs on the former USSR which I periodically peruse.
On the subject of former USSR blogs, does Dmitry Babich’s Russia Profile blog actually constitute a blog? The standard blog offers the reader to post comments. Initially, Babich’s blog accepted posted comments underneath his articles. This has since stopped. Why? Is it because of poor feedback? When earlier posted, there weren’t too many posted comments at his blog and two Russia Profile forums were cancelled for the obvious reason that hardly anyone was posting at them. In comparison to Babich’s blog, Chronicles Magazine and Front Page Magazine qualify more as blogs. The interactive “Comments” section typically found under a blogger’s (author’s) post allows for readers to express their views and carry on a discussion with the post’s author and other readers. Interactive journalism at its best or worst. Qualitatively, the participation ranges from great to poor. Regretfully, some blogs practice censorship, by politically blocking out some submitted comments.
4. What first sparked your interest in Russia?
My late father was from that land. He was a distant relation to the late Michael Karpovich, who in his day was one of the prominent American based Russian historians. Although a Columbia University educated political economist by trade, my old man often spent his leisure time reading books on Russia’s history and foreign policy. At weekend family gatherings or those with his Russian friends, lively political discussion was the norm. Mother Russia was a frequent topic. This was my environment from the get go.
5. If you could recommend one book on Russia, what would it be?
Foo yuck on this one. There’re so many great books on Russia that I can’t give a direct answer.
For a quick check of basic Russian history issues, I periodically refer to George Vernadsky’s “History of Russia”. Dmitriy Lehovich’s “White Against Red” is my favorite book on the Russian Civil War.
My favorite books include those from authors who I don’t always agree with. In this category, two books come to mind. Konstantin Pobedonsotev’s “Reflections of a Russian Statesman” is a fascinating read on 19th century Russian conservative thinking. As it very much relates to Russia – Orest Subtelny’s “Ukraine: A History” is an interesting read.
Again, there’re many many great books on the subject of Russia.
6. What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?
Due to my family roots, I’ve a soft spot for St. Petersburg. Also, as a New Yorker, I’ve another soft spot for cities on the water like St. Pete. Cosmopolitan Moscow has similar qualities to New York City.
Of those places in Russia that I haven’t visited, parts of Russia’s Fareast are a desired destination.
7. If you could invite three Russians, past and present, to a dinner party, who would they be?
Maria Sharapova, Sergey Lavrov and Catherine the Great. You said that the setting is a dinner party. From a distance, all three appear to be lively interesting sorts. I’m a bit of a fitness buff and would like to discuss training methods with Sharapova. Lavrov’s frank comments on foreign policy and other matters get my thumbs’ up. I gather that Catherine the Great was a great all around conversationalist.
8. On balance, do you think Vladimir Putin’s presidency has been good for Russia?
A resounding yes.
9. Do you think Russia will ever embrace the style of representative democracy now favored in most of the rest of Europe?
Not sure. As an American, please excuse me for addressing your question in more of a US (as opposed to European) context. For whatever my disagreements with Michael McFaul, I share his view that the cultural/historical experience rationale by many doesn’t lock a given country into an eternally set pattern. Right now, Russia is a representative democracy because:
- most of the population is in general support of the government
- in conjunction to that last point, in the last Russian presidential election, Putin could’ve been voted out of office.
There’s a yearning by elements in the Russian government and public domain to foster greater democracy. Putin’s political grouping is the dominant one. At the same time, Russia has a number of other parties having greater clout than those US parties outside of the American Republican/Democratic duet. A tandem that has been described as a one party system, subdivided in two. Of some relation to your question: contrary to what some believe, America isn’t so free and Russia isn’t so un-free.
10. Do you think the average Russian’s life today is better or worse than it was in 1989? Why?
If some quality of life gauges are lower than in ’89, it’s because of the lingering aftereffects of the last decade and before. Russia is definitely moving forward and in the long run, Russia will be okay as per McFaul and if I’m not mistaken (even) Zbigniew Brzezinski. Russia’s rising middle class is a good sign.
11. If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing, what would it be?
Haah!! A different approach in its English language media/PR efforts. A hint of sorts (the answers to some of the below questions provide suggestions).
12. Russia has developed a much more assertive and confrontational approach to foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly in its near abroad. From Russia’s perspective, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
Overall, Russia is acting quite responsibly in the area of foreign policy. The “assertive” characterization reflects a nation on the rebound. “Confrontational” is more in the eyes of the beholder. On the matter of the disputed former Communist bloc territories, I believe Russia’s policy to be more reasonable than what’s evident with the Bush administration. Regarding Russia’s near abroad, I think there’s more of a two way street than what’s typically depicted at Anglo-American mass media organs like The Washington Post.
It’s foolhardy for Russia to not act in its best interests. I don’t see these interests as fundamentally going against Western ones. As for pissing off many in the West, should Russia neuter itself and for what in return? I caught the end of a recent NBC aired McLaughlin Group segment on Russo-American relations. Along with Pat Buchanan, there’s an undertone of fairly prominent Americans cautioning against what John McCain and others like him have been advocating.
13. What changes in policy (if any) do you think the European Union should implement to deal with Russia’s increasing dominance over energy supplies?
Hmm. As is true with some other issues, the EU nations aren’t always united on energy related matters pertaining to Russia. We saw how some in Poland characterized the recent Russo-German deal to build a sea pipeline overriding Polish territory. That agreement had a good deal to do with Russian and German apprehensions about Poland. On the energy front, there’s enough of a mutually understood need for the EU and Russia (which is a part of Europe) to seek common ground. They clearly need each other.
14. You regularly offer criticisms of Western media where you feel it’s deserved. What criticisms would you make of Russian media?
Similar to the criticisms of Western media. I recall former American Ambassador Alexander Vershbow acknowledging diversity among the top three Russian TV news networks. He added that the diversity isn’t as great as it could be. On a number of issues, the same can be said of the top three American TV news networks (ABC, CBS and NBC). The follow-up to that would be that Americans have other TV channels with news, as well as other news gathering sources (print and electronic). The same applies to Russia.
Another criticism contradicts what Andrew Kuchins said about Russian media. Concerning the last Valdai Discussion Group, a Moscow Times article by Andrei Zolotov uncritically cited Kuchins’ statement about Russian State Television being (as per Kuchins) one sided. The state owned giant Gazprom owns Ekho Moskvy, which is often biased against Putin and Russia. In comparison, the Moscow based non-Russian owned Moscow Times isn’t so forthcoming towards Russocentric views going against that outlet’s bias.
This leads to another observation about Russian media faults. Anglo-American mass media at large has done a great job at promoting Russian journalists/analysts who subscribe to the former’s views. In comparison, I don’t see Russian media outlets doing much for Western based Russocentric journalists/analysts.
The English language section of RIA Novosti can be easily improved upon. With an existing American staff, The Moscow News has great potential. Its being recently acquired by RIA Novosti is reported to have boosted its budget. Time will tell how that budget is used. My initial vibes are circumspect. As is true with RIA Novosti – The Moscow News would greatly benefit from American style punditry with a Russocentric twist. Their two lead writers Anna Arutunyan and Robert Bridge would be enhanced by what I’m advocating. Despite her being pitted against Yevgenia Albats (in a recent Ekho Moskvy exchange), Arutunyan isn’t a Russocentric journalist. Bridge is great at debunking some of the biases out there. However, he’s doing it from a common sense vantage point in contrast to a common sense Russocentric vantage point. The latter is what will bring added punch to The Moscow News. The Western Russocentric analyst has the advantage of knowing the Western biases and counteracting them with the Russocentric upbringing. Unless The Moscow News takes this advice, it will likely not be an effective political alternative to The Moscow Times.
For clarity sake, in 19 sixties America, the term “Afrocentric” was bandied about to mean a Black person’s self awareness with his/her identity. There were and remain wacky and reasonable approaches to Afrocentric thinking. This is no different with the Russocentric side. As per America, Russocentric relates to a Russian-American’s understanding ot the way Russia is negatively portrayed in many English language circles. With all due respect, the Russian born in Russia that spent most of his/her life there, can’t know the English language situation as well as an Anglo-American reared Russocentric person. Likewise, and again with no intended disrespect, the most well meaning of non-Russian Western sources often fall short in fully grasping the described Russocentric view. Of course, not all people of Russian origin are Russocentric. The extreme derisive analogy to that would be the “Uncle Tom” label put on some Blacks. In the Russian context, there’re a few different shades between the Russocentric and Uncle Tom. Vis-a-vis the current media situation, those in between shades aren’t reflecting “balance” because the Russocentric view is so grossly underrepresented in comparison to the others.
15. Do you think the Russia Today TV news channel is a success?
No, at least not yet. Given its young age, RTTV can’t be categorized as a failure. At present, I’d put it in the great potential, with room for improvement category. This is said from someone who enthusiastically supports its originally stated purpose of offering the English language community a different view of the news about Russia and other issues. RTTV hasn’t really cracked the American market. It recently made an inroad in the British market. Overall, I believe the British are better informed on Russia than Americans. America is the lone superpower. An effective English language Russian mainstream news network is most needed in the American market.
From what I’ve observed in conjunction with what I’ve been told by people familiar with RTTV – it suffers from a relatively low budget. I also sense that RTTV isn’t always getting the best advice.
16. You’ve previously mentioned that Trans-Dniester should become independent, but Kosovo shouldn’t. Negotiations have begun on the future status of Kosovo. What do you think will be the outcome of these discussions?
As of right now, I think the option is good for a scenario where Kosovo becomes a republic, with a constitution and monitored military wing, with the complete understanding that it remains a part of Serbia. This view is based on the current positions of Russia, Serbia and some other nations. As long as they hold firm, Kosovo independence is less likely to happen.
17. In concluding, do you have anything to add?
Very often, an interview ends with people having comments and-or additional questions. I can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s also your interactive Comments section which I will check.