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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Sunday Salute: LR on MT

As the screenshot shown above indicates, a screenshot of La Russophobe appeared as the lead to an article in the Moscow Times on Friday called "Under Western Eyes" in which the paper takes a look at English-language blogging about Russia, calling us "notorious" for our "anti-Russian slant." Publisher Kim Zigfeld was interviewed by the reporter for the piece. Here's the article:

When Rebecca Roberts, a 26-year-old Australian lawyer, moved to Moscow for work, she did not know what to expect. Like many new arrivals, she was both amused and confused by the nightclubs, the girls, the money and the haircuts. But then she saw an article in Britain's The Guardian newspaper recommending a blog about Russia's nightlife, "Moscow Doesn't Believe In Tears."

"I find that the international papers are all focused on taking a superficial look at Russian politics and guide books are often outdated and boring when you are trying to live as a local," said Roberts. "Blogs like 'Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears' are hilarious as they are written with a familiar Western view on things that are part of my daily experiences."

The popularity of blogging in Russia is evident from the sheer number of blogs that crop up on the Yandex search engine. But there are also countless blogs about Russia that are run by Westerners, many of whom live abroad. Their focuses range from nightlife, like "Moscow Doesn't Believe In Tears," to politics, like "La Russophobe."

"Originally, I was going to do a Moscow food blog (or rather, an anti-food blog, as I have a pretty dim view of the restaurant scene)," said the writer of "Moscow Doesn't Believe In Tears" in an interview. Her identity is an open secret in the expatriate community, but one that she prefers to keep in the real world because she does not want her name attached to anything she says online.

"A good deal of the visitors arrive at my blog looking for where to pick up prostitutes in Moscow. Unfortunately, they come away empty-handed because that's a topic that has been extensively, depressingly covered in other publications," she said.

One of her blog entries, titled "I hate Moscow" reads, "Everyone hates Moscow. Everyone except the people who just got here, with a degree in Russian history and a fresh copy of Dostoevsky in their back pocket. And even they are beginning to realize that the waitresses are mean and it's hard to cross the street."

Now living abroad, she said she did not intend her blog to be anti-Moscow. "Unfortunately, the longer the blog went on, it began to reflect my deepening personal feelings about the city, which is that it's a depressing, overpriced [expletive] that should be fumigated."
Another blog notorious for its anti-Russian slant is "La Russophobe." One image on the web site depicting Vladimir Putin's face morphing into a skull embodies the blog's stance on Russia.

"I started blogging to warn the world about what I felt was a coming neo-Soviet style crackdown on civil society in Russia and an aggressively imperialistic foreign policy leading to a new Cold War," said Kim Zigfield, the blog's writer, in an interview. Zigfield lives in New York and writes for Russia! magazine as well as Pajamas Media, an association of 90 worldwide bloggers, where she is a Russia correspondent. "The main reason I started my blog was that I didn't find what I wanted to read on other blogs, and I saw those who wrote about Russia making some fairly serious mistakes and misleading statements that I thought should be corrected," she said. Zigfield said only 10 percent of the blog's readers are from Russia, and only half of those are Russians -- the audience is mainly international.

"They are people who are concerned about the threats they see being posed by Russia and want more information, and there are others who are what I call 'Russophiles,' or apologists for the Kremlin, who come to criticize me." She took inspiration from a blog by Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist magazine. She read it shortly after starting to write and felt that the focus of his writing was too broad.

Not long after she started her blog in 2006, jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's attorney Robert Amsterdam also began a web site. "I feel I broke the ground for him and helped him become the formidable force he is today in the blogosphere, and I'm now a regular reader and great admirer. His is the only Russia blog on which I regularly post comments. It's very comforting to have him around, as well."

Other blogs start out with different aims. "Initially, I started it [the blog] as a way to keep in touch with family and friends in a general way. I didn't even put much thought into it. You can see this in the name, which I don't like, but now it's difficult to change because it is a bit of a brand," said Sean Guillory, who runs "Sean's Russia Blog." Guillory, who now lives in Los Angeles, started his blog in the autumn of 2004 just before he came to Russia on a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship. Originally it was intended to be a blog leaning toward Russia's historical past rather than its political present. But Guillory became interested in certain contemporary themes and found that they took over his writing. "Anyone who looks through the blog's archives, which include 563 posts, sees that my interests tend to focus on Russian youth politics, particularly Nashi, high politics and bit of what people call Kremlinology, nationalism, racism, and extremism, Russian-Western relations, and Western representations of Russia in the media."

"Overall, I try not to fall under the typical binary of pro-Russia and anti-Russia," Guillory said. "I'm more interested in how Russia actually exists. For example, I think the constant pointing out that Russia is authoritarian, not democratic, and Putin is a former KGB agent is rather trite and doesn't say much except that Russia is not like us. Okay, fine, it's not. But then what is it?"A post about the Dissenters' March in December of last year is typical of Guillory's style: "The 'March of Dissent' has certainly come and gone. The demonstration was modest and certainly ineffective on a political level. And while I don't think the event should be overblown, I do think the march does raise some interesting questions about the Russian state: how it deals with opposition and, perhaps, how it understands its power."

One-third of the visitors to the web site are from the United States, but Guillory is less interested in numbers than he is in the amount of time that people spend browsing his blog. For example, the 12 percent of people that spend over an hour on his web site use it for interaction, whether for comments, research or links. Despite being recognized at parties and quoted in the press, Guillory is a little uncomfortable about his success. "On the one hand blogging is a very egotistical, even narcissistic endeavor. You do it with the assumption that not only might people want to read what you have to say, but that you should actually say it," an act that he describes is a cry for recognition.

"When I do get recognition, it still freaks me out no matter how much I enjoy it. When I find out people I know and respect are readers, it makes me uneasy, like someone is watching me without my knowing. I don't know if I'll ever get used to it. I'm still amazed that people read it at all."

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