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2 comments, In Series: Nicolai Petro: Western Perceptions of Russia

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Russians recently launched another dastardly cyber attack, this time against one of Britain’s most venerable institution. Was this a follow up on the Litvinenko poisoning? Were the British bank accounts of exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky being hacked?

No, this time the target was a report on the Russian language web site of the BBC--a study by the British medical journal The Lancet that found alcohol abuse in the Udmurt capital of Izhevsk to be the leading cause of death among working age males. Researchers estimated their death rate to be six times higher than that of males who drank rarely or not at all.

Now, since for most Westerners the words “Russia” and “vodka” are largely synonymous, this is hardly shocking news. What seems to have drawn the ire of Russian readers, beyond the article’s beguiling title “Eau de colognes ‘kill Russians’,” was the web survey inserted at the end of the article, which asked readers to admit: “How often do you drink eau de cologne, antifreeze or cleaning agents? Regularly, Very rarely, Never, I don’t drink.”

Seems like a harmless enough question, the sort one might encounter in USA Today, right after an article about the incidence of incest in some benighted Appalachia township. I can easily imagine the editors querying their gentle internet audience about how often they themselves partake of the forbidden fruit, all the while dutifully noting that this is not an “official survey.”

Some bloggers on Livejournal.ru, Russia’s most popular blog site, however, were not so blase and urged their compatriots to play along with the survey’s assumptions. Within hours, sometimes at a rate of two votes per second, more than 25,000 testified to being “regular” consumers of antifreeze and the like. Even after BBC computers zeroed out the results the next morning, the votes kept piling in, with over 90% blithely confirming suspicions that Russians are pretty much liquored up all the time.

Now that is some real news: the “finding” that 90% of Russian internet users regularly consume some form of grain alcohol! No doubt it will be reported as such by journalists and pundits who miss the point entirely, just as they did with Putin’s tongue-in-cheek reply to a German journalist who asked, on the eve of the latest G8 meeting in Heiligendamm, whether he considered himself a “pure democrat.” “Of course I am, absolutely,” Putin replied, but “I’m all alone. There is no one to talk to since Mahatma Gandhi died.” It’s a “real tragedy,” Putin sighed.

Putin’s gentle leg pulling of a few doe-eyed western reporters, and the spontaneous reaction of thousands of Russian internet users to the outrageous assumption made by the BBC, both carry the same message (though many in the West will be loathe to hear it)--unlike their elders who were uncomfortable dealing with the outside world, today's young Russians are not about to let insulting stereotypes about their lives and their values pass totally unchallenged. To earn their respect, one has to give it.

Until recently, Russians rarely ever saw what was said about them in the Western media. When they did, language barriers and scarcity of internet access meant they had no way to respond in a timely manner, and to set the record straight.

But now that a quarter of the population has regular internet access, they can read what is being written about their country in real time on Russian translation sites, and they are finding out, as Daniel Thorniley, Senior Vice President of the Economist Group recently put it, that it is “95 percent rubbish” (true, he was talking about business--an area where the coverage is still relatively favorable).

For the first time in history, the global reach of the internet is allowing large numbers of Russians (and others within the former Soviet Union) to talk to the West directly, rather than only through the filter provided by visiting journalists and pundits. This means the free pass given by Russians to those who write about them, something that most of us here have long taken for granted, is rapidly coming to an end. We already see the first signs of the new era in the blistering comments from outraged Russian readers that now appear regularly on the web sites of major British newspapers.

Today’s politically and technologically savvy young Russians, well traveled and with more disposable income than their Western counterparts, will increasingly turn to the internet to respond to the western media’s hyper-negativity about their country. Their message is simple: Go ahead and caricature our country if you must, but learn to do it right! That way, at least, your readers will be under no illusions about the nature of the information they are being fed.

 

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)
 
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