Russia and the actions of her government are forever in the press. Over the last number of years there have seemed to be numerous acts of aggression on the world stage by the Kremlin, and Ukraine, Crimea and Syria have been the victim of interventions by Putin’s men.
We in the West are usually only privy to what we see in our media, which will undoubtedly have its own biases. So what do everyday Russians think of the portrayal of their homeland in Western media outlets, what is it like inside the country, and what are the biggest challenges facing Russia these days?
To find out I caught up with several Russians: journalists Daria Sukharchuk and Adilya Zaripova, born in and around the fall of the Soviet Union and now residing in the former symbol of East and West division, Berlin; English literature and art history student from Belarus, Anna Belitskaya; Muscovite Svetlana Shramko; Ukrainian Mikhail Yegorov; Masha Hegney, a project manager from St Petersburg, and Sergei Nosov, who hails from Magadan, a city in the far east of the country.
First of all, how do you think Russia is portrayed by western media outlets?
Adilya Zaripova: “Just as the Soviet Union was seen in its time – big, powerful, dangerous, and unpredictable. Also, I guess there is something mysteriously attractive about bad guys. I can see a lot of interest and fascination with Russia here”.
Daria Sukharchuk: “I’d say the portrayal of Russia, certainly over the last few years with Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, it’s definitely worse, more negative, it is very much optimised by the coverage of president Putin, who is basically seen as a cartoonish dictator”.
Anna Belitskaya: “As has been witnessed historically, Russia was always the bearer of all evil – mostly I think because our direct and straightforward mind-set and way of doing things is less PC than that of the West, thus deemed ‘offensive’.”
And how does this image correlate to what it’s actually like inside Russia?
AZ: “I would say it doesn’t – people have no idea what is actually going on in the country. Well, big and unpredictable – that is true. Dangerous, well also true as a result of being unpredictable. I admit that the image of Russia in the West is exactly what our government wants people to see.”
Svetlana Shramko: “Inside the country the majority of people consider Putin to be a powerful and wise president, who defends their interests and prevents potential aggression from the U.S. and NATO”.
DS: “I do not know, it’s extremely hard to measure. Even the polls which show the 86 per cent approval rating are said to be unreliable in any post-Soviet state because the people are basically drilled from that time to say that they approve of everything the government does for their own safety. They do not believe that the polls are anonymous, that they will not have any effect on their career, that’s just not the way they think. There’s a really weird relationship between people and the government”.
In 2014 Russia invaded Ukraine, seemingly to crush a coup that was taking place. They also annexed Crimea the same month, how do Russians see these actions?
Anna Belitskaya: “Did Russia invade Ukraine? Or is that what the Western media told you? I rest my case on this one – there were no air raids, and no tanks sent in. Ukraine was in a state of civil war and remains so because of their corrupt leaders. Crimea voted in a referendum – and the land historically belonged to Russia – mostly Russians live there”.
AZ: “There are very few media organisations that are trying to form some kind of an opposition, present an alternative opinion. But their audience is small – only well educated people in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The rest of the people watch First Channel – the official government mouthpiece. They think exactly what they are told – Crimea belongs to Russia, NATO wanted to use it as a base in a future war against Russia, there is no invasion – only a fight for independence, we are always right”.
Mikhail Yegorov: “Russia’s military has never invaded Ukraine because if they did, how long do you think Ukraine would survive? Yes, there were Russian mercenaries and private contractors there, but on the other side there were Western and Eastern European nationalists fighting in the Ukrainian army. What Western people don’t comprehend is that there was a civil war in Ukraine sponsored by the U.S.”.
Masha Hegney: “Russian didn’t invade; it is preposterous to suggest they did. People in Crimea voted, just like people in Scotland and Catalonia. Approval was then sought through the Russian parliament. There was no army in Crimea taking charge”.
Despite international condemnation Putin continues to support President al-Assad in Syria, how is this perceived in the country?
DS: “A certain minority, which I belong to, thinks the war in Syria is just insane, we cannot afford it, that should be reason enough to stop it, how many hospitals could be built with the money spent on the war? There was a calculation, something like one missile launch could run a year’s worth of services at a children’s hospital, we need that, the money spent on the war could be spent on the health of the nation, we have HIV epidemics for fuck sake”.
Sergei Nosov: “Russia is the only country that was officially asked to help by the legal president of Syria. Russians are positive to that, not for war, but to help and support”.
MY: “The western world is condemning Putin and Assad because the U.S. has failed miserably in the region. The U.S., in their fight against terrorism, were bombing the Syrian army instead of bombing ISIS groups, their allies have destroyed civilian infrastructure – schools, hospitals etc – and they said that it is Russia who is to blame anyway. It’s a Russian mentality to protect the one who is weaker, and with that the Russian intervention in Syria is considered to be a heroic act of ours and the Syrian army”.
Some of you have both spoken about the country’s internal problems, what in your opinion is the biggest challenge Russia faces at this moment in time?
DS: “Health is a huge problem because we are the only country in the whole world where HIV is growing not falling, partly because the government cut all of the sex-ed programmes. Also when local governments try to cut the budget one of the first things they do is cut health care for drug addicts and therefore HIV spreads”.
MY: “The biggest challenge is the state of the economy and the country’s future growth. Sanctions, not taking into account Russian politicians’ bravado, have badly damaged the economy. We also need to clear our international reputation that has been completely destroyed by Western press propaganda, as we want peace and to go back to normal partnership relations with EU countries”.
AZ: “I would say no opposition and no free media. No opposition means no discussion. No free media means no transparency. As a result, we have NO idea what our government is doing and why. All we see is a final result; we can only guess how these decisions were made”.
And finally, there has been a lot of talk of a direct confrontation between the United States and Russia, what do you think are the chances of this?
None of the respondents thought there was much of a chance of this, Adilya sums up their feelings:
AZ: “Extremely unlikely. I believe that the Russian government, despite all the talk, would avoid it at any cost. Even though they spend the biggest share of the budget on armed forces, the U.S. is spending much more. Yes, Russia still has nuclear weapons and never fails to remind the world about it. But if they decide to use it, well, I guess there will be no one left to discuss”.