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

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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

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