It’s predictable at this point that any mainstream media outlet in the U.S. is going to paint Alexey Navalny in a positive light. Furthermore, a feature article typically allows the writer to write lengthy pieces that might indicate some sympathy for a person or issue being discussed in-depth. But the Vanity Fair piece published for the September issue doesn’t even count as a normal feature article, it’s a hagiography – and a very schlocky one at that.
The article is in the style of what is known as personal journalism – something akin to a personal essay with journalism incorporated into it. These kinds of pieces can be done different ways and the degree of the personal narrative versus the journalism can vary. But these types of articles are still supposed to adhere to facts.
This piece is filled with bias, over-simplification, and is factually anemic – but that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it’s written by Julia Ioffe who is not exactly known for grounded reporting on Russia.
The first factually problematic issue is that Navalny is (again) touted as the main opposition to Putin. This is not true: the most popular opposition in Russia is the right-wing nationalist LDPR Party followed by the Communist Party. Meanwhile, Navalny’s trust and approval ratings in general are low.
Another problem is that the narrative put forth by Navalny and his team about what happened to him over the past year is accepted at face value. There is no attempt to delve into any aspects of his story that don’t make sense or are disputed.
I can’t imagine Vanity Fair or any other U.S. mainstream outlet running a feature article on Bernie Sanders and his wife, for example (who had much more support among Americans than Navalny has among Russians), and providing virtually no space to what detractors have to say or any criticisms at all.
Then there is the superhuman manner in which Navalny and his wife, Yulia, are described throughout the article. With respect to Yulia, it’s admittedly nice to see an English-language media outlet cover a Russian woman who is not a sex worker, vampy spy, or vapid eye candy; instead here the reader is treated to an unrealistic (and equally obnoxious) characterization of Yulia as a composite of every literary heroine that ever was: smart, beautiful, brave, loyal, long-suffering, self-contained, strong but sensitive, etc.:
Navalnaya was a revelation. The country saw her living out the worst moment of her life—live. And yet she was strong, she was stoic, she didn’t crumble under pressure and, through the sheer force of her will and the strength of her love, she got the dragon to release her man.
Meanwhile, Alexey seems to be some Russian version of Jimmy Stewart going up against Stalin and the Navalnys’ love seems to be the stuff of golden era Hollywood fairy tales. We are treated to a hyperbolic liberal Russian economist who is a friend and supporter of Navalny describing the saga of the couple in “biblical proportions.” These sorts of comments abound.
I half-expected Ioffe to tell us at some point that the Navalnys have ascended so high on angels’ wings that they now deposit rose petals and wine into the toilet every time they go to the bathroom, complete with a harp playing in the background.
I’m not saying that Navalny and his family didn’t experience a scary ordeal. However, one wonders why Vanity Fair would choose to devote so much space to canonizing Navalny and his wife when they have yet to do a feature article on Julian Assange’s harrowing ordeal at the hands of the U.S. and UK governments, which is much closer to home. There are any number of other dissidents that could be featured but they pick Navalny. Why?
Here’s a link to the article to read for yourself. Just make sure to have some Pepto-Bismol on hand.