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The Putin Presser

Russian president Vladimir Putin addressed the press at the World Trade Center in Moscow on Dec. 20, 2012.

Two days ago I had the rare opportunity to attend Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference. My colleagues at Itar-Tass warned me that the president tries to break his time record every year–and last year’s topped off at a whopping 4.5 hours. This time, I and some 1,300 other journalists were held captive for a  marathon five hours!

I was impressed by the range of questions, everything from economic policy to human rights to the fishing regulations in a remote region. Representatives came from across the country, and a few from abroad, and each brought their own local concerns to this once-a-year opportunity to interact directly with the man in charge.

One topic which came up over and over was the new ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children. The regulation, which has since passed in the Duma, is seen to be a reaction to the Magnitsky Act–recently passed in the U.S., it bans travel of Russian officials seen to be complicent in human rights abuses and was deeply resented by the Russian government.

Whether or not the adoption law was an act of retaliation, it is both a potential disaster for  children and families and a sign of weakening relations between the two countries. It is also a stark example of the misunderstanding that pervades U.S.-Russian relations. During the conference, for instance, Putin continued to sight the misguided point that Russian children that are mistreated in the U.S. are not protected by American law enforcement. The law, he said, is meant to protect Russian children, but with Russia’s overflowing orphanages, it seems more likely to harm them. Putin’s answer to these concerns–a promise to incentivize domestic adoption.

Unlike press events in the U.S., Russian journalists are much more open about their opinions. Several criticized the president directly, openly disagreeing with his policies–including the adoption bill. On the other hand, several praised the president, including a woman who called him strong and handsome. It is a myth that people in this country cannot say what they want, the bigger problem is that saying things doesn’t do much.

Most of the journalists in that auditorium on Thursday work for state controlled media. Their papers won’t publish stories that are very critical or in-depth. And even when the independent media does do investigative work, it rarely influences policy or even public opinion.

Additionally, journalists who do investigative work put themselves at great risk. One of the most remarkable questions on Thursday came from a journalist who was shot twice in the head because of a story he reported. Putin did make promises to increase investigations in such cases, but even he acknowledged that journalism is a dangerous business.

Journalism here is more about spreading information than breaking big news or unveiling scandals. And most often, this information comes from official channels.  So it is not as simple as censorship or lack of free speech.

We have spent a lot of time on this trip thinking about the role of journalism in Russia and what I have come away with is that it is impossible to try to compare with journalism in the U.S. We have both different governments and different public expectations. These are certainly themes that I will continue to think about when I return to New York tomorrow and I am sure these experiences will help all of us to think more critically about our own work and what role it plays in our cities and states.

A note: After reading this, one of our Russian counterparts from the ICFJ program pointed out that state-controlled media, as I said above, is probably not the correct phrase. While I have certainly seen a few examples of media outlets that are very influenced by the government here, it is more appropriate to say that many publications are limited by their dependence on state funding. The ways I have seen this manifest range widely and as with everything else here, it is a nuanced and complicated issue. 

 

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Ufa in Photos

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Bashkortostan: Land of horse milk and honey

Ufa

A view of the city from the offices of the Bashkir presidential administration.

Last week, Itar-Tass sent two of my American colleagues and I on a press trip to Ufa, the capital city of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan. Ufa is only two hours away by plane but culturally, it is a world away from Moscow.

Bashkortostan is a sovereign state within the Russian Federation and has historically been one of the most independent republics in the country’s history. Our main reason for going to Ufa was to meet with the republic’s president, Rustem Khamitov. Unlike his predessor, who was elected to office, Khamitov was appointed to his position in 2010. It is likely that Khamitov, only the second president of Bashkortostan, will also be the last. The Russian government is set to change his title in what some see as a move to diminish the autonomy of the regional republics.

But for now, Khamitov is president and his administration is focused on promoting industrial and economic development in the region, which in the past few years, has been growing steadily. Coincidentally, my husband is from Ufa and since the first time I visited in 2004, there have been noticeable changes in the city. I was surpised this time around to see how many new shops and restaurants had opened in the center, hopefully a sign of a growing middle class.

A good deal of this economic growth is due to Bashkortostan’s rich natural resources. Ufa is an oil and gas town, a fact that has allowed it to develop slightly faster than other regional cities. But in a country almost entirely dependent on energy-sector profits, I fear this may further threaten the region’s independence and consequently, its ability to protect local traditions.

The culture of Bashkortostan, and the region’s native language of Bashkir, has been kept alive in Ufa. Both Russian and Bashkir are used officially, though we did notice during our trip that some newer signs were written in Russian only. Lamp posts on the city’s main boulevards were strung with lights in both the blue-and-red of Russia’s flag and the green-and-white of the local government. Ethnically, the region is a mix of Bashkirs, Tatars, Russians and several other ethnic minorities.

Religion is also a central feature of the local culture. The population is split almost evenly between Orthodox Christian and Muslim believers and Ufa is home to many mosques and  churches, most of which were only built or restored after the fall of the USSR. On our first day in the city, we visited the Lala Tulpan mosque, named for its two red-and-white minarets that resemble tulips.

Another highlight of Bashkir culture is food. While I have been to Ufa several times, I have never before had a chance to try Bashkir food (my in-laws are Russian and Tatar.) Local specialities are конина, horse meat, and кумыс, a drink made of fermented mare’s milk thought to have many health benefits. I grew up around horses and the idea of eating them made me a little queasy, but I think it is important to keep an open mind while traveling. The meat was very dark and very gamey with a taste that I could not really compare to anything else. The кумыс was also unlike anything else I had ever tried. Slightly acidic, not at all like milk and both a little sweet and a little bitter, it was certainly an interesting meal.

Local honey is a point of national pride in Bashkortostan and evidence of this is everywhere. It is sold all over, in containers ranging from re-filled plastic bottles at roadside stands to elaborate, bear-shaped wooden sourveneir pots. Concerned locals will warn you to watch out for the fake stuff–watered down with sugar–lest the reputation of this local treasure be tarnished.

And while I truly enjoyed our opportunity to see real Bashkir culture on this trip, the downside was that our experience of the city was tightly controlled. The visit was sponsored by the local administration who were both exceptionally hospitable and exceptionally careful about exactly what and who we were allowed to see. Taking an unsanctioned Marshrutka (mini-bus) ride from our hotel one night, I felt a little like a kid sneaking out of the house.

Ufa, of course, has its problems, but we would never know it. In fact, on many of our excursions, we were not able to speak with any local people. I know from previous trips to the region that many parts of Ufa are still struggling to develop. The local universities are some of the best in the country, but there are not yet enough local jobs for graduates. While the center of the city looks more beautiful than ever, many outlying neighborhoods are still troubled by bad infrastructure, and crime and widespread corruption are, as even Khamitov admitted, still a problem.

On my last day, I was able to speak with one non-government voice. Professor Marat Kulsharipov is an expert on Bashkir history and the chair of the history department at Bashkir State University. He voiced concern about increasing efforts by the federal government to diminish the autonomy of the region and in doing so, the Bashkir culture and language. He had a lot to say, so I will write-up the full interview in a seperate post.

All in all, my experience of Ufa this time around was enlightening, in that it gave me a much better understanding of how the local government operates and how they would like to be viewed by the outside world. The president seemed to genuinely care about the region, but also seemed to feel that his hands were tied by Moscow. And despite differing opinions about the future of the republic, everyone we met, including my family and friends who were not part of the “official” tour, did agree on one thing–Bashkortostan does have the best honey in the world.

 

 

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Cops and cameras at Moscow opposition rally

Today, as temperatures dipped below zero in Moscow, supporters of the Russian opposition gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s public anti-Kremlin movement. The event was unsanctioned by Moscow authorities but despite a massive police presence, the afternoon was relatively calm. Rather than mass intimidation, the authorities seemed to be using a very targeted approach, singling out only a few high-profile opposition leaders for arrest. Watching the interaction between the police and protesters was one of the most interesting aspects of the event.


The NY Times has the full story of the day’s events here.

 

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Russia week one: The good, the bad and the breakfast buffet

From Nov. 26-Dec. 23 I will be in Russia with a joint program through the International Center for Journalists and the Moscow Union of Journalists. In addition to my own reporting, I will be working with Russian wire service Itar-Tass.

This is not my first time in Russia, but it is a trip of other firsts. This is my first working trip here, the first time I have traveled with other Americans and my first stay in a Russian hotel (more on that later.) So far, this has meant a very new  impression of a country that I have previously experienced only through small-town life in the Urals.
The biggest culture shock was being in the capital–a huge, modern city so different from the rest of the country. But Moscow, in all its metropolitan glory, is still Russia. So despite the $6 Starbucks coffees and massive luxury shopping centers, there are still quirks. I believe our hotel spared no expense when they flew in a top set-designer from 1970s-era sitcom television to furnish the rooms. Our beds, though, are strictly Russian and I am forever thankful for my short stature as Soviet-style beds are consistently one or two feet shorter than the average Russian man.
Our hosts have also afforded us the luxury of access to the hotel’s daily breakfast buffet. The food is ok, but the real draw is the atmosphere. A large banquet hall, outfitted with cloth-covered tables and piped-in music (though, inexplicably, this is almost always Michael Buble’s Christmas album.) It is like going to prom for breakfast every morning!
But back to why we are really here. What does it mean to be a journalist in Russia? One week in and I am still pretty far from an answer. I think it is safe to say that being a journalist here can mean many things. Most of us in the group are working with news organizations that are at least partially subsidized by the government. This does not mean that they don’t report real news, but it does limit, in varying degrees of severity, what goes to print. Internal censorship is the phrase I have heard most often. And for independent journalists, neutrality is rare. Journalism-as-activism is one of few alternatives to state news. It’s a tough market for objectivity.
I am grateful for the opportunity to get this inside look. At the end of the day, the experience is challenging all of us to think about what we do and how, and why, we do it.

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Boardwalk Oasis: One Brighton Beach Bathroom Is a Step Above the Rest

Most of the public bathrooms in Coney Island are pretty unremarkable. The NYC Parks Department operates several beige and white cinder-block “comfort stations” that offer visitors simple, efficient and (usually) clean facilities. But one of the women’s rooms on the boardwalk stands out from the rest.

For years, I wondered who was behind the decorations.

 

Years ago, before I lived in Brighton Beach, I walked into the restroom near Brighton 2nd St and was surprised and delighted by what I saw. Wreaths of silk flowers bordered the mirrors, photographs adorned nearly every wall and gospel music played over the sounds of flushing toilets and roaring hand dryers.

I felt like I had stumbled into someone’s secret garden–a little oasis on the boardwalk and, for years, I wondered who was behind it.

For the past couple of months, I have been covering Southern Brooklyn as a freelancer for DNAinfo. While thinking about local stories to pitch, I remembered the bathroom and  took the opportunity to investigate this little mystery.

As it turns out, the woman behind the restroom ambiance is a 63-year-old Parks Department seasonal employee named Hazel Chatman. For nearly 20 years, she has spent summers beautifying the bathroom she works in.

I was really happy to get to meet Chatman, who, it turns out, is as lovely as her decorations. To hear her story, check out this short video that I made for DNAinfo.

Click here for the full story on DNAinfo.

 

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Russian Ballot Backlash in NYC

Activist Natalia Pelevine distributes flyers to potential voters in Brooklyn

A small, but passionate group of Russian opposition activists is asking emigres in New York to deface their ballots in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections in an act of symbolic resistance.

The technique is called “Nacht-Nacht”: Voters mark their ballot with a large “X” or write an off-color word or phrase. In Russian, “Nacht-Nacht” is an obscene play on words intended to send a rude message to the ballot counters.

“It is a way of saying, ‘Go to hell’ to those in power,” said Natalia Pelevine, a Russian activist based in New Jersey, “saying, ‘We are not voting for any of you, we don’t believe in any of you.’” READ MORE