Media and Power In Contemporary Russia and Beyond

Media and Power In Contemporary Russia and Beyond
April 2018 Conference Summary
by Katrina Keegan
Photographs by Zoe Kaiser

The medium is the message, and the message is the moral, at least in Putin’s Russia. On April 27th, participants in University of Chicago’s conference Media and Power in Contemporary Russia and Beyond gathered to discuss the media and messages currently circulating in the post-Soviet space. Topics ranged from puppets to hate crimes, from Veshnoria, a country that does not exist, to a novel that would get Putin to resign, which also does not exist (yet). Conversation frequently circled back to questions of morality. This reminds us that the media’s integrity is not just a matter of dispassionate academic interest, but also something people value and fight for.

It was therefore appropriate that discussion began with two people who do not just stand on the sidelines of Russian media, but are active participants in it. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent opposition activist and journalist, and Dmitrii Bykov, an iconic figure in Russian journalism and literature, joined in conversation with University of Chicago’s Konstantin Sonin, a journalist and economist from Russia. Mr. Bykov’s quip about the irony of three Russians conversing in “poor” English (all three spoke excellent English) in front of a primarily Russian-speaking audience was a sobering reminder of media politics in Russia, where discussions are constrained by different limits. Mr. Kara-Murza is a—thankfully, still—living example of the stakes involved in openly criticizing Putin: he accuses the Russian government of attempting to assassinate him twice by poison. This, clearly, is a violation not just of media freedom, but also of basic morality.

However, even in a conversation between three Russians publicly opposed to Putin, it became clear that the narrative of media freedom is not “black and white,” as Dr. Sonin put it. All three discussants contextualized the situation today in the history of the past century. Mr. Kara-Murza, a historian by education, attempted to dispel the myth of Russians as a passive people who need a strong leader by arguing that when given a choice, Russians always have chosen democracy and its accompanying freedom of speech, such as the period following the 1905 revolution and the 1990s. Dr. Sonin asked Mr. Kara-Murza to compare Putin’s government’s alleged attempts to silence him with more outright Stalinist purges. Mr. Bykov said that the Soviet Union should be “condemned for its deeds but praised for its words,” which he believes espoused admirable values. Today, he contends, Russia is more free than the United States because politicians are free from responsibility for their words, but this is not a good thing, because freedom from morals means no morals in Russia’s case.

If Russia is amoral today, who is responsible? Dr. Sonin thinks that perhaps the intelligentsia should have foreseen the situation and warned the people, rather than feeding into the problem with cultural products, such as the movie Brat. Neither Mr. Kara-Murza nor Mr. Bykov agreed with this assessment. According to Mr. Kara-Murza, the answer is clear: Putin is responsible, and opposition to Putin’s regime, which defies basic morality constructs such as the commandments “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal,” is a fundamental moral issue. Additionally, he thinks athletes and fans should attend events like the Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, but world leaders should not, because their presence tacitly condones Putin’s regime. Mr. Bykov has a softer stance; he thinks Putin is not beyond salvation. Having asserted that Soviet censorship actually helped Russian writers become better at using metaphors, he claimed that he could write a novel with an extended allegory—in short, an overzealous tiger keeper ends up killing all his tigers—that would make Putin understand the error of his ways and choose to resign. Everyone laughed and agreed that Mr. Bykov should go ahead and write that book.

[[Please note: the subtitles within this video are partially auto-generated and are still being edited for accuracy and clarity]]

Political symbols, like Mr. Bykov’s tigers, are important outside of literature as well. Susanne Wengle of the University of Notre Dame and Christine Evans of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee analyzed the political symbolism of Pryamaya Liniya (Direct Line), an annual program in which Putin responds to questions and requests from citizens from every corner of Russia. Drs. Wengle and Evans noted that Pryamaya Liniya, with its focus on Putin as a central figure addressing the population’s concerns, at first glance seems to support the idea of Putin’s Russia as a personality-centric, deinstitutionalized state. However, they argue that the program actually strengthens institutional systems: the medium is an institution that gathers information and Putin’s messages on it are largely about institutions. This “performance of power” on state TV separates concerns that the state considers to be legitimate from those that are taboo, but also unites personal power with state institutional power, neatly packaged for home viewing.

If Pryamaya Liniya is a “spectacle” for the living room, Kukly had gone further, taking “the carnival into the living room.” William Nickell of the University of Chicago discussed how Putin has gone from being represented as puppet on the satirical former NTV program Kukly (Puppets) to being represented as a puppet master in western media. At first Kukly writers portrayed Putin as merely a political tool raised from obscurity to power by oligarchs, notably in an episode that particularly enraged Putin called Kroshka Tsahes (Little Zaches). Putin demanded that his puppet be removed from the show, and the writers briefly complied, mockingly depicting Putin in the next episode as the burning bush of the Old Testament. Putin seized control of the narrative a year later when state-owned Gazprom took over of NTV, and he began to transition from the puppet to the person pulling the strings in popular imagination. While some in Russia lament the loss of media freedom, others question whether the show crossed a moral line, becoming counter-productive, and the show’s main writer Shenderovich has suggested that the show might have been saved if he had manipulated Putin’s character more subtly.

The resurgence of patriotism that may motivate retrospective popular support for shutting down Kukly is not limited to Russia. Elena Gapova of Western Michigan University discussed nation-building in the digital age, using Belarus as an example. While the internet is commonly perceived as a tool of globalization, it can also be a platform to express national identity. She contends that national expression on the internet is a form of participatory “banal nationalism,” that is, daily reminders of who is “us” and who is “them.” In this framework she says that the discourse is often that “ ‘they’ are evil; they kill our poets, rape our women,” but she is less concerned with the moral message of online nationalism than with its medium. Digital storytelling can promote flattering historical narratives and create (cyber)spaces for national language, such as Wikipedia. One striking example is the fake country Veshnoria, which was created as part of a Belorussian military exercise and later became an internet meme with a life of its own.

Fake countries, fake news; what happened to pravda (truth)? Natalia Roudakova of University of California, San Diego presented on her recent book Losing Pravda: Ethics and the Press in Post-Truth Russia. Attempting to explain why the quality of journalism in Russia declined after 1991 even as freedom of the press increased, Dr. Roudakova theorized a change in epistemology. In the Soviet era, both the government and dissidents valued the truth and believed it existed. Now, the prevailing idea is that truth is plural, that there are “no facts, only interpretations.” She talked about the evolution of styob, a form of cynical satire, described by Aleksei Yurchak and others. Belief in the existence of objective truth and morality, even if it seemed elusive, grounded early styob in the late Soviet period and the 1990s; the cynics had the potential to become activists. However, in new styob, “moral certainties have eroded” and an overwhelming amount of content, often positing conflicting truths, has created a different, disengaged, passive cynicism. According to Dr. Roudakova, reduced valuation of truth and morality go hand in hand in Russia.

In some cases, however, destruction of truth through fake news can also create new morals. Eliot Borenstein of New York University showed how fake news stories–purporting the crucifixion of a child in Eastern Ukraine, the rape of a Russian girl by a Syrian migrant in Germany, and the rape of a Russian child in a Putin costume who was seized by child protection services in Norway–are part of a “new approach to morality in the name of the child.” Dr. Borenstein described the Russian idea of “Gayropa,” gay Evropa/Europe, where androgynous, weak men can’t protect women and children and willfully work to destroy the family. The Russian state is seen as a stronghold of the traditional family, while simultaneously acting itself as a paternal figure for its citizens. This “clash of civilizations” between Russia and the West has been represented as a struggle between “morality and vice.”

Least of all does the Russian state want “Gayropa” to become “Gayrussia.” Drawing on the rhetoric of protecting children, Putin defended the law against gay “propaganda,” saying that people are free to do what they want, but “just leave the kids alone, please.” Alexander Kondakov of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his team compile news reports of LGBT-related violence in a database. He analyzed the language of the reports and found that before the law, vocabulary was “richer.” Language implying moral condemnation of LGBT people could often be found alongside neutral terms. However, after the law reports started to mimic its language of “nontraditional sexual relationships.” He also concludes based on these and other data that the frequency of hate crimes has increased since the law was passed.

These presentations showed that the powers that control the media use them to shape morality. That is, the medium of state-dominated outlets is the state-sanctioned message is the state morality. In short, power mediates morality. The state may exercise control through silencing, as in the attempts on Vladimir Kara-Murza’s life, taking over Kukly, and banning gay “propaganda.” This is the narrative most familiar to Western audiences. However, censorship alone cannot account for a decline in morality. As Dmitrii Bykov pointed out, censorship in the Soviet era did not change the moral message, but shifted the creative medium to more allegorical modes. Contemporary Russia differs from the Soviet era because the state also controls media by turning up the volume, creating a cacophony of (plural) truths and half-truths and lies, which the nation readily shares on Facebook and VKontakte. Thus we get the rehearsed voices of Pryamaya Liniya, the Veshnorias, the post-truth styob, the boys in Putin costumes.

The last word of the conference, however, was one of hope. An audience member, tying together her teaching experience with Mr. Kara-Murza’s description of millennials demanding media freedom, and Dr. Roudakova’s comment that perhaps young people can break passive cynicism with sincerity, expressed optimism about the future. In order to reclaim control over morality, the people not only must speak out from censored silence but also, simultaneously, mute the cacophony of confusion. It is a difficult task. The good news is that once they have done it, they have already won; the message itself does not so much matter. It is the medium–more precisely, making media their medium—that will be their message.

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June Pachuta Farris, Bibliographer for Slavic and East European Studies, 1947-2018

June Pachuta Farris (Photo by John Zich)

June Pachuta Farris, who passed away on July 27, 2018 after a brief illness, was both a scholar in her own right and a devoted supporter of scholarship through her work. Her work greatly benefited UChicago’s Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies (CEERES) as well as scholarship in general relating to the CEERES area. June earned her B.A. (Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) in Russian and French from Case Western Reserve University in 1969, an M.A. in Russian Language and Literature at The Ohio State University, with a thesis on Dostoevsky and Camus, in 1971, and an M.A. in Library Science at the University of Denver in 1973. She also studied Czech at Charles University in Prague (1980, 1981) and Russian at Pyatigorsk State Pedagogical Institute (1970). She was the Slavic Bibliographer and then the Slavic Reference Librarian at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 1973-1986, and she was the Bibliographer for Slavic and East European Studies at Regenstein Library from 1986 until her passing. She published, edited, or co-edited more than twenty bibliographies and bibliographic series on various topics all relating to the CEERES area. She was an active participant in numerous scholarly organizations, presenting papers at the annual meetings of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (formerly the Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies), the American Library Association, the North American Conference Czechoslovak Academy of Arts and Sciences, the World Congress of Central and East European Studies, as well as many workshops and activities designed to enhance the research capabilities of students and colleagues. Starting from 1999, she also curated 38 exhibitions at Regenstein Library. Over the years, she was the recipient or principal investigator for over $400,000 in grants for the improvement of resources and access for various library collections.

In 2012, the Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS), an affiliate of the Association for Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), awarded June its Outstanding Achievement Award. It was the first time that a librarian was honored with the award. The AWSS citation is worth quoting in full:

Serving for more than twenty-five years as the Bibliographer for Slavic and East European Studies at the Joseph Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, June has developed a superb collection of Slavic, East European and Eurasian resources, many of them found nowhere else in the world. As one of her colleagues at the University of Chicago has noted, in addition to developing a “world-class collection at a world-class research library,” June also “understands the importance of the kinds of ephemera not found in most library collections.” Scholars and students at the University of Chicago are far from the only beneficiaries of her expertise, however. The entire profession has been enriched by June’s unassuming yet dedicated commitment to helping scholars wherever they work — whether formally, through her many published bibliographies on subjects as diverse as Dostoevsky and Czech and Slovak émigrés, or informally through her willingness to respond to countless queries from individuals. June’s services to the field of women’s and gender studies make her an especially deserving recipient of this award. Members of AWSS have grown to depend on her quarterly and annual Current Bibliography on Women and Gender in Russia and Eastern Europe, which has appeared in the AWSS Newsletter since 1999. Collaborating with Irina Liveazanu, Christine Worobec, and Mary Zirin, June also produced an invaluable two-volume publication, Women and Gender in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia: A Comprehensive Bibliography (2007). Last but far from least, June is known by her fellow Slavic librarians as a generous mentor. As one of them has written, “over the years she has taught me most of what I know about the field.” For her selfless, consistent, and dedicated service to scholars, students, and fellow bibliographers, AWSS is proud to honor June Pachuta Farris.

To this I can add that June played a crucial role when CEERES successfully applied for Title VI funding as a National Resource Center for 2006-2010 and when the grant was successfully renewed for 2010-2014 and 2014-2018. (CEERES is still awaiting notification concerning its application for 2018-2022, but if the grant is received, June will have played an important role in that renewal as well).  Strength of the library collection is one of the ten major qualifications for Title VI funding.  That the collection is as strong as it is can be attributed to June’s excellent work. Moreover, when it was time to apply for funding or renewal, June did not just supply the necessary data, she wrote the entire library section of the application (which, when I was director of CEERES, I then only had to pare down to fit the overall word limit). June was always ready to (successfully!) help faculty and students find resources, as well as taking the time and trouble not only to build Regenstein’s collections by acquiring and accepting a vast array of relevant materials, but also by making sure that duplicates found good homes in other research libraries, and exchanging them for materials needed by Regenstein.

With June’s passing, Slavic, East European, and Eurasian studies has lost an outstanding contributor. She will be sorely missed and fondly remembered by all who knew her.

—Victor A. Friedman
Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, University of Chicago
Research Professor, La Trobe University
former (2005-2015) Director of CEERES

Colleagues are invited to send tributes and stories about June and her impact to junefarrismemories@lib.uchicago.edu.  These will be collected, shared with June’s family, and deposited in the University Archives.

The University of Chicago Library has a detailed survey of June’s bibliographic work on their site

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Interview with Lenuta Giukin on The Romanian New Wave

By Angelina Ilieva and Esther Peters

On Friday, March 30, “Cultural Discourse(s), Romania, and Eastern European Paradigm” will examine East European cultural and political discourse, as well as the most important trends in the contributions of Romanian intellectuals, artists, and academics in the contemporary global space of ideas. As part of this event, we will be screening the most recent film by Cristian Mungiu, Graduation. The film is about a father driven to extremes in order to protect his daughter’s future.

Lenuta Giukin is a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at SUNY Oswego University in New York. She is editor and contributor to the collection Small Cinemas in Global Markets: Genres, Identities, Narratives. Professor Giukin agreed to answer a few questions to help provide context for the Romanian New Wave and Mungiu’s place in that movement.
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CEERES of Voices Interview with Bradford Morrow

In January 2017 the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies and the Seminary Co-op Bookstore decided to formalize our partnership and we created A CEERES of Voices, an author-centered series of readings and conversations on books from or about Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Eurasia, and the Caucasus.  On October 17, 2017 the CEERES and Seminary Co-op Bookstore and opened this year’s CEERES of Voices with a discussion of The Prague Sonata with novelist Bradford Morrow and Esther Peters. Continue reading

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Revolution Every Day

by Robert Bird, University of Chicago; Christina Kiaer, Northwestern University; and William Nickell, University of Chicago

This essay was originally published in the October 2017 edition of the NewsNet, ASEEES’ newsletter, which carries news of the profession and the association and is published five times a year. 

The centenary of the Russian revolution is being marked on the campus of the University of Chicago by two exhibitions. At the Smart Museum of Art Revolution Every Day displays revolutionary posters along with historical and contemporary time-based works to immerse visitors into the distinct textures and tempos of life that arose in the wake of revolution, and that have lingered stubbornly since the demise of the Soviet Union, informing the prospects of revolutionary change in our day. Next door, at the Regenstein library, the Special Collections Research Center is presenting Red Press: Radical Print Culture from St. Petersburg to Chicago, which puts visitors onto the revolutionary street, surrounded by the printed media that produced and disseminated revolutionary (and counterrevolutionary) ideology. The exhibitions anchor a range of courses, conferences and lectures, held across Chicago and Evanston, that will explore the revolution and its ramifications, including a special reception at the Smart Museum and the North American premiere of Dziga Vertov’s film The Three Heroines (1938) at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center on the evening of November 10, during the 2017 ASEEES Convention. Continue reading

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Interview with Andrei Soldatov

Andrei Soldatov is a Russian investigative journalist, co-founder and editor of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of the Russian secret services’ activities. He has covered security services and terrorism issues since 1999. With Irina Borogan he is co-author of The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB and The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. He will be in Chicago this upcoming November to participate in the ASEEES Annual Conference and the Chicago Humanities Festival. In these various presentations he will be discussing what he describes as “a strange phenomenon about the Russian Internet: there are very few countries in the world where the local Internet companies dominate, and Russia, with its recent totalitarian past, is one of them. We have Yandex, the Russian Google, Mail.Ru, the local Gmail, and Kaspersky, to name but a few. Yet when the Kremlin started its offensive against internet freedoms, we’ve seen very little resistance from these companies. Moreover, some of the companies were happy to lend a hand to the Kremlin when it needed their help. The Soviet legacy is clearly part of the reason.” Continue reading

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Central European University Under Attack:  In Victor Orbán’s Hungary, illiberal politics cannot tolerate liberal minds.

This post originally appear in The Nation. You can see the original post here

 by John Connelly

On April 4, Hungary’s Parliament passed amendments to an existing higher-education law that were intended to force the closing of Central European University in Budapest, an institution created in 1991 to restore and revitalize an intellectual life that had been ravaged by decades of fascist and communist rule. Since then, CEU has expanded and evolved, becoming one of the most international and diverse universities in the world, with some 1,440 students from 108 countries enrolled in graduate programs under 12 humanities and social-science faculties. The amended law is a grave threat to CEU because it makes two demands that the university cannot fulfill: It must ground its existence in a bilateral treaty between Hungary and the United States; and it must open a campus in New York State, where it is also accredited. Otherwise, CEU must cease taking new students in the fall of 2018. The law was signed by the Hungarian president on April 10.

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Support for Central European University. Directors of Regional Centers and CEERES Faculty speak out

PROTEST LETTER IN SUPPORT OF CEU

April 24, 2017

 

Dear European Parliament, European Commission and Government of Hungary:

We write to you as the Directors of Centers for East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies across the United States, in Germany and in the United Kingdom.  As scholars and experts on the region, we forcefully protest the recent amendments to the Hungarian National Higher Education Act that pose an existential threat to the Central European University in Budapest. These actions threaten academic freedom across the region and in Europe as a whole. Continue reading

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Mobilizing Gender: Secularism, Nation and Remaking Europe

by Jennifer Cole and Susan Gal

From left to right: Jennifer Cole, Éric Fassin, Agnieszka Graff, Susan Gal, and Sarah Green.

The conference on March 31st examined the entanglement of gender, nation, sexualities and secularism in Europe, East and West: Why and how have these issues become sharply visible in the last several years, in eastern Europe (as was clear in 1989), and now in the west as well?

Four trends underscore this phenomenon. First, there has been a mobilization of “women’s rights” talk (closely connected to “human rights”) often used to discipline – or promote – religious beliefs and practices. Second, we see the use of homophobic discourse to stigmatize liberal states, politicians and policies. Third, state efforts to manage immigration hinge on attitudes about gender and sexuality. Claims about national religious (Christian) and/or secular heritages of Europe highlight the supposed contrast to attitudes about gender and sex of migrants. Fourth, abortion debates (e.g. in Poland as well as Ireland) reveal tensions between national Christian heritages and a Europe-wide commitment to secularism and liberalism. Continue reading

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Reflecting on “Mobilizing Gender: Secularism, Nation and Remaking Europe”

by Zoe Berman

Over the last several years, the entanglement of gender, nation, and secularism has become sharply visible in Europe. From the 2010 “Cologne Attacks,” in Germany, when roving bands of young men (many who were said to be either foreign nationals or refugees) sexually assaulted and robbed young women during New Year’s festivities, to the rise in anti-LGBTQ, misogynist, and xenophobic legislation across the continent, to the precipitous decision last week in the Hungarian Parliament to outlaw the continued operation of the Central European University, a crucial hub for gender studies instruction and research, a diversity of issues across the continent have sparked conversations around gender that continue to reverberate in the international political arena.  On Friday, March 31, 2017, scholars from across disciplines gathered to discuss such emergent gendered global linkages at a one day mini-conference, entitled Mobilizing Gender: Secularism, Nation and Remaking Europe, hosted by the University of Chicago. The conference featured scholars from Europe and the United States who drew from both the humanities and the social sciences to probe the day’s themes of gender, sexuality, nationalism, and secularism.  Continue reading

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