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Two weeks ago the news channel Russia Today (RT) launched its UK service and became available to British viewers via the cable. RT is funded by the Russian state and targets non-Russian viewers outside of the Russian Federation. It is generally recognised as an instrument of Russian soft power and part of the overall efforts of the Russian government to influence public opinion overseas.

The RT’s arrival on the UK media scene has generated an outpouring of commentary in the British press. Most notably, British media regulator Ofcom threatened RT with regulatory action. Ofcom charged  that RT’s coverage of the conflict in Ukraine violated impartiality rules and expressed concerns that the channel “would want to present the news from a Russian perspective.” This, according to Ofcom, violated the rules of UK broadcasting, which must preserve “due impartiality … in particular, when reporting on matters of major political controversy.”

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The central concept of Ofcom’s charges against RT also happens to be the murkiest one, for the term “due impartiality” is never explicitly defined. Yet, if Ofcom’s case against RT is to make sense, a clear definition of what it means is very important, especially given the particular context of the British media landscape. When major UK newspapers come in favour of that or another candidate in the parliamentary elections, they are not flagged for violation of impartiality, although one may argue that national election is probably the most obvious case of major political controversy. Nor did Ofcom express any concerns about the availability of Fox News or MSNBC on UK cable, although each of these channels has a clearly defined position on major international controversies such as, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given these examples, and in an absence of a definition of what does “impartiality” mean for the purpose of Ofcom regulations, it is hard to understand what exactly are the rules that RT violates.

RT spokespeople argued that Ofcom’s warnings constitute an essentially anti-Russian move and an attempt to silence a new voice that intends to speak truth to power. This explanation however, appears too simplistic. It seems to me that the source of Ofcom’s concern is not impartiality as such, but what kind of impartiality is it. Another key factor in Ofcom’s warning is the emphasis on the links between RT and the Russian government and the repeatedly stated concern that RT is going to represent the Kremlin’s agenda. Ofcom’s overall approach signals that private-sponsored “partiality,” such as the one displayed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, is considered acceptable. By contrast, government-sponsored “partiality” of Russia Today is perceived as potentially dangerous to British viewers.

Such a fine distinction is a bit disingenuous, for two reasons. First, it obscures the more subtle forms of connections that exist between the government and the press, which allow the former to influence the latter. In fact, Ofcom’s inability to regulate these relationships was at the heart of the recent Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British Press. Second, the distinction between “private partiality” and “government sponsored partiality” ignores important chapter in UK’s own broadcasting history. After all, the foreign service of the BBC, most notably its Russian language broadcasting to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was funded by the British government and functioned as a soft power instrument not dissimilar to contemporary Russia Today.

 

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My letter to the Observer:

Dear the Observer and David Mitchell,

Just read Mr. Mitchell’s article about the controversy over the Hitler wax-figure in Madame Tussaud museum.

Recently, two Israeli tourists filed a complaint with Madame Tussaud’s after observing youngsters taking pictures with the Hitler figure, “heil-Hitlering and doing moustache with the other hand.”

The picture taken by Israeli Tourists

David Mitchell doubted “just for a moment” the sincerity of the couple’s complaint. Regarding their argument that such an engagement with the wax-figurine is “unequivocal demonstration of antisemitism and bigotry” he “just doesn’t think that’s true.”

Mitchell believes that the “heil-Hitlering and doing moustache” is a joke, and does not deserve a serious response.  “When you ban something like this, you only dignify it with significance,” he writes. [click to continue…]

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Title: Putin nominated "person of the year" by Time Magazine in 2007 = appreciation of things he've done. Subtitle: the new Russian Tsar = clearly suggests "Russian Special Way".

So basically it boils down to this:

On the one hand we should see Russia as part of larger European and international context; abolish the divisions into first, second and third worlds; and eschew explanations arguing for “Russian exceptionality”.

On the other hand, we are to avoid European/American Centric interpretation and see things as they were perceived in Russia: its notions of ideology, power, diplomacy, security, democracy, etc.

But if we assume that Russian culture has its own particular understanding of, say, ideology, aren’t we in essence arguing that there is a “Russian special way”?

 

 

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My Perestroika (Hessman, 2010)

My Perestroika (Hessman, 2010)

This week a British friend and I went to see My Perestroika, a lovely documentary by an American film-maker about how four classmates were affected by the changes in Russia from Brezhnev to Putin.

The film weaves together contemporary interviews, archival footage and one family’s archive of home videos – all these elements come together to tell a gentle and instructive story of how the relationship between personal life and public events. While all the heroes started at the same class, the life has thrown them in different directions. Borya and Luyba are history teachers at Moscow’s most liberal and high profile public school. Andrey became a successful businessman. Ruslan initiated the Soviet heavy metal scene, but grew disenchanted and now leads life on the fringes of the society. Olga fends for herself and her son by working for a gaming-service company. One of the greatest achievements of Robin Hessman, who filmed and directed, is in managing to establish a feeling of intimacy between the protagonists and the viewers. When the lights turn back on you feel that you know them, and like them.

The film was absolutely fascinating, although the story it tells is a slightly one-sided. Despite the different walks of life all the protagonists experienced the Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union as a positive thing. What the film doesn’t tell is, the story of those, for whom the transformation from “developed socialism” to Perestroika and then to capitalism, resulted in personal tragedy or loss of faith and direction in life.

Equally interesting was the Q&A after the film. Most of the audience seemed your perfect, middle aged and middle class English men and women. And yet, each of the people to ask a question, talked with great passion, as if having a very personal stake in this country so far from their own. An elderly lady got up, saying she volunteered in Russia for several years and accused the director for not exploring what she called the “rising Russian conservatism and the rise in patriotism under Putin”. (As if Russians are not entitled to some patriotism and as if everyone else around is doing such a great job questioning their own disturbing legacies. Are there any monuments for the victims of British colonial empire that I failed to notice ?) [click to continue…]

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This week a Russian spy ring was exposed by the FBI after many years of investigation. On Monday they were brought before a court in New York, accused of “failure to register as agents of a foreign government” – an offence that could put them in jail for 5 to 9 years. Is the Cold War back?

According to the FBI the purpose of the agents was to “gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics”. They were also supposed to “penetrate” the ruling circles at Washington DC., hang out with nuclear scientists and recruit other agents.

Spy stories are the most fun and the most exciting legacy of the Cold War. Not many people today are willing to contemplate the meanings and the dangers of worldwide doomsday arsenal (if it is held by “responsible Western” countries and not NC or Iran). But who wouldn’t watch James Bond or some other “undercover agent” stuff?

Cold War espionage was indeed wide spread, and lets remember, exercised by BOTH Russia and the US. Post-Cold War memoirs by agents retired and agents deflected only fed more fuel into the already thriving spy folklore. Often left outside of our popular memory is that the spy-searching also ruined people’ lives, cost them their livelihoods, made them outcasts within their own communities – and even cost lives. Quite often it later transpired that these were false accusation. But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

The spy story is on “the most popular” list of most newspapers. No real damage was done, so it seems, so why not enjoy ourselves a bit? But it seems to me that in this excitement rush into the new real-life spy thriller, even the best media, like the Guardian or the NYT, are forgetting to ask some important questions. It will be up to the FBI to prove their case in court. Here, I just want to raise some (hopefully) reasonable doubts.

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A tombstone of the actor Boris Khmelnitsky

There is a peculiar brand of Russian tourism – visiting cemeteries. First, there is the most important grave of the most important Soviet dead – the Lenin mausoleum. Second, right behind him, there is the Necropolis under the Kremlin wall – the entire length of the wall facing the Red Square is the burial site of Russian revolutionaries and Soviet dignitaries such as Dzerzhinsky, Gagarin or Brezhnev. A visit to the mausoleum also includes the tour of the “Necropolis”.

Russia is the only country I know of, that has more than one cemetery designated specifically for cultural and scientific elite and former leaders. Novodevichy, Vagan’kovo, and Kuntsevo are the most famous ones. All constitute important sites of tourism and pilgrimage. Novodevishy, for example, is listed in the top five tourist attractions of Moscow.

This phenomenon strikes me as radically different from say, a visit to the Westminster Abbey, Lincoln Memorial or Mount Herzl. Unlike other places, where people usually visit just one memorial, in Russia one visits the entire cemetery. [click to continue…]

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In recent years we see the rise of the trend to boycott the Israeli academia and to cancel cultural performances in Israel. According to Wikipedia, such boycotts were inspired by the boycotts against the South Africa, in an attempt to pressure it to end the policies of Apartheid. Following the recent Israeli attack on the international aid to Gaza flotilla, the various calls for boycotts and cancellations have been growing like mushrooms after the rain.

In my opinion, such boycotts constitute poor and miserable solution, and do more service to the self-esteem of the boycotters than to the cause they apparently try to promote. [click to continue…]

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Victory Day

It happens again. I am sitting on a couch and watching the Victory Day parade on the television. May 9th is the day when Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War (or WWII) has been commemorated since 1945. Everything is almost similar to the last I watched it as a Soviet child. Only that this time I watched it in HD, holding a lap top in my hands, while outside is not “developed socialism”, but capitalism in the service of the government, or something. The new leaders of Russia have also changed. They are no longer obscure heavy rectangular shapes.

photo by Reuters

This year Russia celebrated 65th anniversary of its victory over the Nazi occupant. This is a semi-round date and therefore Moscow was decorated more than usual. Every second person on the street was wearing a military styled after the ones worn during the war (can be bought for a 100 rubles on every other corner), strings colored in black and brown – the colors of Georgii Cross – a pre-revolutionary military honor. The streets are adorned with the colors of the Russian flag as well as red and yellow (the Soviet flag is called today the “Victory Flag”). The words “the Great Victory”, “Hooray”, “Veterans” were springing on the people at every street corner.

So what has changed?

photo by AFP

The big deal this year is not just the round date. This is the first time since 1991 that Russia held a full military parade on the Red Square. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the parade consisted mainly of veterans and a bit of infantry. This year, the march included many different units of the Russian military (including the mysterious unit for “Space Warfare) followed by a wide array of military technology from tanks to ten meters long rocket carriers. The parade was concluded by the Russian air force that passed by in the skies above the Red Square.

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The Internal Colony

Went with Zohar to  a screening of The Time that Remains, by Elia Suleiman.

The film narrates a story of one family from the Nakba – the Palestinian name for the establishment of Israel in 1948 – to the present. This is not your typical “Arab-Israeli Conflict” film. It focuses on poetics and aesthetics, the camera movement and narrative are not means to deliver a message but an end of itself. And through this subtle, gentle and poetic narrative, one learns the story of Suleiman’s family within the history of what is called “Arab Israelis” (the Palestinian citizens of Israel) community.

See the Guardian review here.

Are there a-historical works of culture?

In his interviews Elia Suleiman emphasized that he wasn’t trying to make a movie about a conflict. He aimed, he said, for a universal human story, which could be understood by people anywhere in the world. If you want to know about the conflict, he said, go to the library and read some books, the aim of this film is different.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this assertion, especially after seeing the film. It is indeed very different from the standard depictions of this topic. While being overwhelmed by its beauty, humanity, tenderness and intimacy, I was constantly aware how everything this film shows was created, dictated, and influenced by the Israeli conquest. And despite, or maybe because of aesthetic and poetic emphasis of the film, it strongly emphasized the situation of colonial oppression under which Palestinian citizens of Israel live. [click to continue…]

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