Ellen Barry’s keen look at what many believe to be the final, legacy-cementing term as president for Vladimir Putin contains this nugget of nostalgia: “New tasks are at hand, like searching for a trusted person to whom Mr. Putin can eventually transfer his authority, just as Boris N. Yeltsin did with Mr. Putin 12 years ago.”
This would be, one expects, a moment of great fanfare and obsessive media coverage–assuming Putin serves out his full term and the raucous Russian blogosphere continues its spirited and playfully anarchic expansion. It will also, if covered honestly, be very different from Putin’s ascension a dozen years ago. The Western media’s reporting–especially that of American newspapers–was characterized by nothing so much as a hopeful construction of events that only slightly resembled reality.
As Masha Gessen writes in her forthcoming biography of Putin, in 2000 the American media was obsessed with the Bush-Gore presidential election, but soon found other excuses to ignore what was happening in Russia:
Once the election story was finally over, American media had to deal with the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, beginning a wave of budget cuts and rollbacks that would last more than a decade. Many media outlets cut back on their foreign coverage, including Russia–and sometimes beginning with Russia. It became a self-perpetuating story: having told their audiences and themselves that Russia was safely entering a period of political and economic stability, American media effectively declared the Russia story dead, cut the resources available to cover it, and thereby killed their ability to report the story. ABC, which had had several dozen staffers occupying an entire building in central Moscow, closed its bureau altogether. Other outlets’ cuts were not as dramatic but just as drastic: entire bureaus were replaced by part-time freelancers.
Gessen saw this firsthand–she was working for U.S. News & World Report at the time. Russia was going through a change much different from the one Americans hoped and expected, and this change began gathering momentum and rolling downhill faster than even Russians realized.
By 2003, the American coverage had become comical. Russia held parliamentary elections in December of that year, and while other Western media seemed to have some idea what was happening, Gessen was horrified at what she saw in the States:
After the December 2003 parliamentary election, in which Putin’s United Russia took nearly half the seats […] while all remaining liberals and democrats lost their seats, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) reported: “The … elections … failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, calling into question Russia’s willingness to move towards European standards for democratic elections.” The New York Times reported something entirely different, publishing a condescending but approving editorial titled “Russians Inch Toward Democracy.” The paper of record did not mention international observers’ criticism in its news story the day of the election but published a separate piece on the critics the following day; the Washington Post and the Boston Globe left the critics out of their coverage altogether. The Los Angeles Times went even further: in a mammoth news story, it managed to downplay the OSCE’s conclusion in such a way that it sounded like the opposite of itself.
More than eight years after that, here we are. The transition from Yeltsin to Putin was more complicated than it may look in hindsight, and we should be careful not to oversimplify it. But neither should our major newspapers use hope and exhaustion as an excuse to phone in coverage of historic events. Much has changed since Russia’s last succession. Much needs to change about the coverage of the next one.