This is the season of "March Madness": the NCAA basketball tournament as well as the eXile's "dumb and dumber" tournament that judges the worst of Western reporting on Russia. I'd like to make a small contribution to this tradition by reviewing the work of three Moscow correspondents for The Economist over the last ten years.
Of course, its Russian coverage is far from the only of magazine's bloopers. The list is long. There's the famous March 1999 cover story predicting an "endless era of cheap oil," which appeared the same week that oil prices began their steady ascent from the lowest point in a quarter century. Perfect timing! Then there were The Economist's strident editorials in favor of Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003.
First up is Edward Lucas, the Moscow correspondent who in the annual glossy "The World in 1999" issue, issued this prediction for Russia, at once gloating and apocalyptic:
"1999 will be the year of Russia's disintegration... Trade between Russia's regions will plunge at least until they hit on a stable, trusted currency in which to do business. That is hardly likely to be the rouble, and the planned coupons and currencies which some regions have been planning look equally unattractive substitutes... foreign invasion, albeit of a peaceful and benevolent kind, is exactly what Russia's regions should want... The probable decline in Russia's wealth in 1999 will be around 10%... expect yet another bleak and miserable year".
How would you like your crow pie served, Mr. Lucas? Hot, room temperature, or with a side of horse sperm?
Somehow Lucas made Russophobia a family franchise, co-opting his wife, a London socialite and daughter of a former World Bank official, into this sordid business. It's hilarious today to read over her whiny pieces, including "The Russians are here already. Damn", about how rich Russians are driving up London real estate prices. A piece of barely-disguised xenophobic trash that she only got away with because Russians aren't dark enough to excite the PC crowd.
Edward Lucas fortunately departed Moscow, but still rants about Russia in his personal blog and articles for the Economist. I have no problem with Mr. Lucas hating Russia for some personal reason; it's his own business. But why does The Economist, verbal-porn for the British right, consistently choose people like him for the Moscow job?
The Economist correspondent to follow Lucas was Gideon Lichfield, the most cynical but the least hackish of them all. I'll point out just one example. In March 2004, before the Russian presidential election, I noticed a whole swarm of almost identical articles in the Western media. The economic boom in Moscow had become increasingly hard to ignore, and to show how awful was Putin's Russia (it was just a few months after Khodorkovsky's arrest) a new line was chosen: find dirt-poor villages that prove that Putin-era gloss does not extend beyond the Garden Ring. One entry in Lichfield's blog admits that this was a directed campaign indeed. It is so revealing that I'll have to quote it at length:
[It] is a time-honored exercise in mendacity... if an aged crone bent over by the travails of her century tells you that she is going to vote for Putin because she considers his economic policy sound and prudent, she is excluded; but one who says he is the ideal president because he has strong eyes, or a nice tie, or is president already, makes the grade as triumphal proof that the average Russian voter has no sense of democratic worth and would vote for a cast-iron pitchfork if it looked sober enough.
However, as we trundled down remote forest lanes, surrounded by snow that looked as if it had been freshly laundered and laid out to dry in the bright sunshine, we realised that something was wrong. Instead of the dirt-poor villages whose paralytic citizens were as content to spend their stupor lying in the street as under the half-demolished roofs of their crumbling hovels, we found neat old cottages and solid, new Finnish-style dachas, and we were constantly swerving to the side of the road to make room for their owners' late-model SUVs. If anyone needed proof that the Russian economy is improving, here it was: the Moscow dacha belt is rapidly expanding towards the limit beyond which nobody who lives in the city would reasonably want a dacha. We had to drive an hour and a half outside the city before we got to a village where there was no trace of Finnish design to be seen and the obligatory cantankerous old citizen, steaming drunk, emerged from his cottage to berate us, his political leaders and the world in general.
Relieved to have confirmed by this exhaustive survey that that Russia was still principally inhabited by unhinged alcoholics, we drove back to town. There I joined another pair of colleagues for the defeat party held by one of the presidential candidates, Irina Khakamada, who had hired out the entirety of a rather trendy Tex-Mex restaurant so that she and a carefully invited list of celebrity supporters could bemoan the government's ruthless attack on democratic principles over frozen margaritas.
The translation: we're a bunch of corrupt Western reporters ordered specifically to write about how horrible life is in Russia provinces, because this is the "topic of the day" that all other asshole reporters write about. What we've actually seen in our trip won't get to publish our newspapers and magazines, because they practice censorship of the sort that would make the Soviets envious. So the only thing we can do is to bitch about it in blogs, samizdat-style.
This is certainly the most honest piece you will ever find from an Economist correspondent in Moscow. But Lichfield is gone, too.
His replacement, Andrew Miller, seems deep in a headlong sprint to win the bottom-feeder race in Russian coverage. The list of his blatant errors and disingenuous reporting is endless. A few weeks ago he claimed in an article that Putin's regime is responsible for "the re-emergence of Soviet style checkups on those citizens having too close contact with foreigners and other undesirables." This was so over the top that banker Eric Kraus called his bluff in a letter to Johnson's Russia List. Miller could not, of course, offer anything substantive and just squeaked in response that "...to suggest that we are guilty of fabrication is wrong and intolerable."
Anybody familiar with today's Russian realities would find it laughable. There are some two hundred thousands expats from western countries living in Moscow, as well as about two million or more immigrants from "near abroad." Putin's government can be heavy-handed and inept in quite a few policy areas, but to suggest that it has nothing better (or more profitable) to do than to spy on anybody who is just "having contacts with foreigners" this is either utterly paranoid or monumentally dumb. It is about as fake and idiotic as writing an article about how not a Sunday goes by in the American south without another public lynching of some unfortunate local black.
It is fascinating, in a macabre way, to read what The Economist offers in its "city guide" section on Moscow. It is about as accurate a guide as that homoerotic snuff flick "300" is a historical documentary. Among the various scams allegedly practiced in Moscow, The Economist authors mention the following "helpful" advice: "Con-artists often hang around foreign exchanges. Their usual trick is to offer to change your dollars. Once you've handed your money over, an accomplice then shouts that the police are coming. In the confusion, your larger note is replaced with a dollar bill and handed back to you."
Had The Economist been just a bit sharper, it could have noticed that the year is 2007, not 1992! There are now several thousand currency exchange shops all over Moscow (not counting ATMs), and to swap rubles for dollars or euros is easier than buying a newspaper. Only somebody as dimwitted as The Economist's Moscow correspondent would seek assistance from a suspicious character for such a transaction.
The rest of the advice offered is just as worthless. Somehow an observation is made about having small talk with Russians; it turns out that some of them don't like Anna Kournikova. Kournikova?! Welcome to 1997!
It is high time for some Russian oligarch to buy The Economist and put it out of its misery. As they say, "all options should be on the table."