Every time it seems like the US media can’t get any worse with its reporting and analysis of Russia, some writer or editor manages to plumb the depths of suckery even further, dumbing down their readers and viewers even more in the process. This time it’s Foreign Policy Magazine.
On June 1st, the outlet published the article “Putin’s Imperial Palaces Are a Manchild’s Dream: The Russian leader isn’t the macho genius of Western fantasy” by Konstantin McKenna.
But the article is too clever by half. McKenna is not even someone who claims to have any personal expertise or on-the-ground experience with the country other than apparently having an emigre mother who is originally from Russia. He is a college student from Tennessee who is majoring in math and once co-wrote a fantasy novel with his mother. He was welcomed as a contributing writer to Foreign Policy because he had a connection with someone on Twitter.
So what did McKenna have to offer in his article about Putin that the editors of Foreign Policy thought was so compelling?
Let’s start with the article’s opening: “Ever since his accession, Westerners have been fascinated by the macho image of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shirtless, horseback-riding, karate-chopping leader became a meme.”
This introduction doesn’t exactly instill confidence in what is to come. First of all, Putin doesn’t practice Karate, he practices Judo. Furthermore, as usual in the US press, everything Putin does only matters within a western interpretation. It likely isn’t that Putin has been playing macho to the cameras to impress a western audience. When Putin took over Russia, the mortality rate for Russian men was poor with life expectancy at around 64. During the collapse of the 1990’s many men had succumbed to what we would now refer to as diseases of despair: alcoholism, heart attacks, suicides and homicides. During my first visit to the country, Russians told me they liked the fact that Putin had provided a positive image for men to aspire to – one who was fit, active, didn’t smoke, and drank very little. If Foreign Policy got a writer who actually had some substantive understanding about Russia’s post-Soviet past, this context might have been provided. Instead the reader is given a shallow depiction of Putin’s actions based on the same old tired tropes.
As the title implies, a good chunk of the article is spent going into detail about Alexei Navalny’s video about “Putin’s Palace” and providing a sort of psychoanalysis of Putin based thereon. McKenna takes the Navalny-as-saintly-opposition-threat-to-Putin’s-rule narrative at face value, though it’s been documented via polling that Navalny is seriously unpopular within Russia. The palace that is supposedly owned by Putin is a claim recycled from ten years ago. It was unsubstantiated then and it remains so today. When two reporters visited the site of the “palace” after the Navalny video was released, it turned out to be an incomplete skeleton and the images in the video are a mockup of what the place is supposed to look like when finished. There’s no evidence this building has ever belonged to Putin. Nevertheless, the Navalny narrative is treated as flat fact in the Foreign Policy article with no attempt to convey that these assertions are disputed and largely speculative.
Another example of the poor quality of the article’s analysis involves the following:
These are token offerings to the persistent Russian notion that leaders, however brutal their origins, have to be cultured. Nekulturny (“uncultured”) cuts in Russian in a way that has little equivalent in English; not only does Russian respect for the arts run deep, but so does the fear of being seen by others as a peasant. Soviet leaders were fierce autodidacts. Putin, however, although born into an upper-middle-class Soviet family, appears to have none of the aspirations for learning and the taste of a spoiled, rich teenager.
This paragraph is filled with biographical inaccuracies and out-of-context generalizations about Russian culture. Putin’s family of origin was lower middle class, not upper. Renowned scholar of Russia and Putin biographer Richard Sakwa described Putin’s childhood apartment as a fifth-floor flat shared “with two families…The sink and gas cooker were in the corridor, without hot water or a bathroom, and of course there was no lift.”
As for having none of the aspirations for learning, Putin has a law degree, regularly rattles off tons of statistics on any number of issues, and engages in hours-long Q&A sessions with no notes, but somehow the implication here is that he’s an intellectual midget.
According to another Russia scholar and Putin biographer, Allen C. Lynch, the Russian president historically lived modestly. There have been many attempts over the years to accuse Putin of being a secret billionaire but, as with so many accusations leveled against him, there’s that pesky problem known as evidence. None is ever provided.
So much for that fact-checking that Foreign Policy touts on its “writer’s guidelines” page.
I don’t fault McKenna for this, but the magazine’s editorial team. I’m aware that editors often want a unique angle, but typically the writer must have some sort of direct experience or acquired knowledge of the issue they are writing about in order to be given valuable space at a reputable outlet in which competition to get published is stiff. McKenna’s Foreign Policy bio says simply: “Konstantin McKenna is a writer in Tennessee.” There is no mention of any personal direct knowledge or experience he has about Russia or international affairs. In fact, the piece reads like it was written by someone who has not been to Russia in the past ten years (if ever) and is regurgitating the same superficial and factually questionable commentary that can be found in any mainstream US media outlet.
Mainstream journalism is in the midst of a crisis of credibility that has been chipping away at the average person’s trust over the course of years. When it comes to reporting on Russia in particular, mainstream outlets have bungled it repeatedly. We just endured 3-4 years of incessant Russiagate claims that never panned out, we have individuals with questionable expertise who are consistently wrong continually being given media space, and we’ve been subjected to the equivalent of modern day phrenologists reading every conceivable pathology into Putin’s gait, health, hobbies, etc.
None of this has contributed an iota of genuine knowledge or insight into the world’s other nuclear superpower for the average US media consumer. No one I talk to who relies solely on the mainstream US media for their news has a clue about what Russia is really like or why Russians perceive their interests the way they do. Liberal Democrats think Russia is the nightmare that lives inside Masha Gessen’s head and conservative Republicans think Putin is some kind of Russian version of Pat Buchanan.
Unfortunately, this is to be expected when outlets who fancy themselves as “serious” and “respected” rely on lazy write ups like McKenna’s that simply repeat sensationalist rumors about Russia and its leadership.