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Unfiled April 5, 2002
Get Set To Suck
By Mark Ames Browse author Email

Moscow's economy may be rocketing Westward on a sashimi-greased catapult, but its English-language expat press is continuing its degrading 3-year slide towards what can only be described as The Russia Journal.

For those who remember the heady, condom-free days of the Yeltsin era, the local English-language press was one of the most vibrant, if infuriating, of any expat press in the world.

Then something weird happened. Two months after the 1998 financial crisis decimated the expat community, the advertising market, the banking system, and the local media, someone decided it was a right good time to invest millions of dollars into a new English-language newspaper, The Russia Journal, and its accompanying weekly entertainment guide, LifeStyle. The backers' angle was simple: aggressively pro-Kremlin editorial, written in equally aggressive ungrammatical English that makes even the George-Romero-inspired Moscow Tribune appear at times merely retarded. It was as if some practical jokers in the Kremlin wanted something to swat jobless expats on their asses with as they filed their way towards Sheremetyevo.

Or maybe it was part of an incredibly clever Kremlin plan. A plan? It seemed like a ludicrously bad plan -- drop millions of dollars into creating a newspaper-like product designed to spread the Good Word about Russia, nickel-and-dime on the content end by hiring a bunch of non-native-English speaking shuttle-traders for journalists, drop the switch... and sit back and wait for Russia's Image Abroad to turn Bright again.

This took the cake in sheer idiocy and corruption, we thought. It couldn't possibly work!

Boy oh boy was we wrong.

Not only has The Russia Journal NOT been laughed out of town, it's become a trendsetter, infecting and affecting all of us with its bizarre lower-middle-brow strategy whose purpose only becomes clear in hindsight. Pick up any foreign-language newspaper today in Moscow, and what you'll get is... The Russia Journal. From The Moscow Times and Panorama, to the foreign correspondents who take their lead from RJ "scoops", there has been a depressingly consistent drift towards ungrammatical irrelevance and barely-professional blandness.

It's as if they're trying to lull us all to sleep or something. But why in the heck would "they" -- the Kremlin, let's say -- want to lull foreign journalists and Russia watchers to sleep? And how did they do it?

Last Thursday, March 28, the Journal offered a window into their triumphant formula, with the introduction of its new insert, a weekly entertainment guide called "Get Set". The strangest thing about the RJ's "Get Set" is not just its creepy daycare center newsletter-like name, but that it serves no apparent strategic purpose. "Get Set" is merely an atrocious, pinched version of the RJ's other weekly entertainment guide, LifeStyle, which comes out the following day, Friday.

"Get Set" made its strange debut last Thursday as an insert into the Journal's daily wire reports edition. You'd think they'd be conscious of creating a memorable launch, a cover design that would grab people's attention away from all the other entertainment pull-outs and guides. Think again. Get Set's cover is almost 80 percent blank white space. It features some five different fonts used on the dozen or so words employed. All this blank space and crap lettering draws you to the small, smudged photo near the upper-center, where we see a pair of confused degenerates in tall white chef caps. The sassy entertainment guide's eye-grabbing headline, which includes a typo, reads: "a [sic] week of French cuisine at Le Royal Meridien National Hotel".

But don't bother looking inside for the accompanying article about French cuisine in Moscow: there isn't one. Just microscopic lists of irrelevant museums and irrelevant movie theaters you'll never go to. The only thing resembling an article is the freak show on page six: a photo of some Masha Gessen look-alike with her tongue hanging out over two paragraphs of patented Russia Journal Stylebook Indgleesh describing what appears to be a restaurant: "The menu, including business-lunch, well deserves to be described as an unsuccessful experiment of a beginner cook," she writes. "But it seems one has to be really inventive to show up almost all possible cooking defects."

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