Mary Dejevsky: Don't always believe the worst about Russia

Share

When a Russian plane collided with a DHL cargo plane over Lake Constance two weeks ago, the gut reaction outside Russia was that the Russians were somehow to blame. Either the plane was not airworthy or the Russian pilot was incompetent. Within 24 hours, it turned out that neither was true. The plane was fine; the pilot had understood and complied with instructions. The fault lay with the Swiss air-traffic controllers. This did not bring any of the dead back to life, but it did remove one potentially indelible stain from the Western world's image of Russia.

When a Russian plane collided with a DHL cargo plane over Lake Constance two weeks ago, the gut reaction outside Russia was that the Russians were somehow to blame. Either the plane was not airworthy or the Russian pilot was incompetent. Within 24 hours, it turned out that neither was true. The plane was fine; the pilot had understood and complied with instructions. The fault lay with the Swiss air-traffic controllers. This did not bring any of the dead back to life, but it did remove one potentially indelible stain from the Western world's image of Russia.

Not that this will be much consolation to Russians. A glance through news agency headlines for the past few days shows what Russia is up against. "Heart, stroke deaths in Russia at record high", "Explosion hits auto shop near Russia's government headquarters", "Moscow court orders newspaper closed for fomenting ethnic hatred", "Russia factory workers ill after chlorine leak", "Two interior ministry officers killed in overnight shooting", "Israeli citizen gunned down in St Petersburg", "Russians caught in string of air scares". Almost the only semi-positive report in more than a week described events to mark the anniversary of the last Tsar's execution.

Now I fully recognise that "news" worthy of the name is more likely to be bad than good. And when some cheerful soul such as myself helpfully suggests a bias to the positive, we are told, correctly, that good news does not "sell". I also concede that post-Soviet Russia has brought many of its image problems on itself. Who can forget the fatal Russian plane crash caused by a pilot who left his young son at the controls? Or the brutality of Russian troops in Chechnya? Or the Kursk submarine disaster and its aftermath of official insensitivity, complete with paramedics subduing a widow hysterical with grief?

Sometimes, too, Russia has projected itself in a poorer light than necessary because it had so little experience of putting out bad news. Only 16 years has passed since the massive (and failed) Soviet cover-up of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. To those of us grown cynical from Whitehall spin, such innocence of public relations as sometimes shown by Putin's Russia is almost refreshing.

When all the reasons and qualifications have been added up, however, Russia still seems to attract more solidly negative coverage than many other countries, and to more damaging and distorting effect. Take just a few of the headlines I cited earlier. The overall picture of Russia that emerges is of a dangerous, xenophobic and debilitated country. The gloom seems unrelieved. Yet there are other ways of reading the facts in these headlines. Heart disease and strokes are the ills of a rich society and a measure – a gloomy one perhaps – of economic progress. That a newspaper is threatened with closure for inciting racial hatred is because that is now a crime – which it was not before. A "string of air scares" has been reported – but none caused an accident and none would even have come to light a decade ago. There is progress here, as well as disaster.

One reason why the overwhelmingly negative reports from Russia have such a distorting effect is because they often lack any reference to the broader historical or social context. And while that complaint could be applied to media coverage of many countries, Russia's liability is that most people have no counterbalancing image or experience. TV news might present the US, for example, as a continuum of thuggish cops, crooked company directors, school shootings and judicially suspect executions, but travel programmes show Florida beaches and the west's wide open spaces; television and the cinema show Hollywood glamour and American home interiors. We have McDonald's, Disney and Levis, and millions of us visit the US on holiday.

Our image of Russia suffers from the absence of such balancing information as history and experience. Last week, the BBC's Today programme broadcast an interview with Brezhnev's grandson after an introduction about Khrushchev. So much for history.

Having recently been in Russia, I can say that the economic, social and cultural scene in Moscow and the central Russian countryside has been transformed in the last 10 years. Moscow is now one of the liveliest capitals east of London, with theatres, cafés and restaurants springing up all the time. I walked around, often long after dark, without sensing danger. Food, clothes and household goods are available and affordable as they never were 10 years ago; choice is taken for granted, as is freedom to speak your mind.

You can park a car in central Moscow without having it looted and dismantled; you can fuel it and service it, too. The streets are cleaner and better lit than London's. Once crumbling historic buildings have been restored. Shop assistants are mostly polite. New private housing is snatched up. And while you may have to pay fees for your child's college course, you probably won't have to pay a bribe.

Of course, Russia has its problems and its hardships, but you knew about those already. This is why you were so ready to blame the Lake Constance air crash on the Russian pilot, and why the steady flow of negative information needs to be leavened.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?