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Political Scientist V. Probkin on Media in Russian, Turkish, English

Updated: Jan 25

Vasiliy Probkin, a trilingual polyglot reader on Russian, Turkish, and English media


AP Photo, rendered

Vasiliy Probkin is a political scientist in Ankara. He is a “Polyglot”, which, at Fictive means a reader of three or more languages. He was educated in Russian, his mother tongue and grew up in Ankara, where he became fluent in Turkish, and, as a global citizen, English.

While facing potential statelessness in the process of attaining Turkish citizenship, an ordeal that his parents suffered as immigrants in Turkey from the USSR, he refers to Hannah Arendt, who said, to paraphrase, that to simply be human, stripped of national citizenship, is to have no human rights.

Probkin spoke with Fictive about the existence and suppression of independent voices in the state-run Russian and Turkish media landscapes in contrast with the English-language international press, where freedom of expression, while valued, is drowned under biased content-saturation under the sways of capitalist consumerism and majoritarian populism.


Avoiding the generalization of language as indicative of its home nation’s politics, he explains why it is crucial to focus on culture more than language when discussing inconsistencies in purportedly objective media coverage across various linguistic perspectives, emphasizing how media literacy requires an understanding of audience, despite linguistic, etymological veils.


There are finer political and cultural nuances to the Russian, Turkish, and English languages than that expressed by their respective news media. Probkin compared specific media coverages across these three language barriers, with special consideration to such newsworthy literary figures as Jamal Khashoggi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Orhan Pamuk with Istanbul as a constant theme in the background.



Let’s start with the Russian media landscape. For example, as I am a unilingual reader of English, how would you contextualize Russia Today, or other English-language Russian media, in terms of cultural or linguistic bias?


Russia Today doesn’t address Russians. Russia Today addresses the Western world. I read outlets that are read by Russians in Russia. When you punch in Istanbul as a keyword [into Russian outlets produced for Russians in Russia], you get a few things. I saw a few articles on Orhan Pamuk. The Khashoggi case, for example, reflects discrepancies in coverage from Russian, Turkish and English sources.


I recently read pieces about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [following the 100th year anniversary of his birth on December 11, 2018], and [the Soviet dissident] Lyudmila Alexeyeva by Masha Gessen, who I follow. She’s an interesting investigative journalist. Looking at what is said about Lyudmila is interesting because she’s a prominent human rights activist in Russia, and in the Western world she has symbolic value because she opposed the communist regime. I did a search on her in the Turkish media. I haven't found a single thing, which is interesting because a few days ago [December 10] was the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


I’m not seeing any sources or reviews on cultural products that come up in both the Russian and Turkish media. I’m sure that there wouldn’t be a problem finding things in the English media that overlap in the Russian and Turkish media, but it’s hard to find the three of them overlapping.


There is a general conversation to be had about language and media considering Russian, Turkish and English-language perspectives without necessarily requiring more research than to reflect on the daily consumption of media in these three languages.


When I read I have an aesthetic eye for language. I follow Masha Gessen in the New Yorker as well and I notice how the editorial language is very different from the New York Times, for example. Language is one thing, coverage another. How might you compare the cultures of harsh, intensive state-run media infrastructures as they exist in Russia and Turkey with that of English-language media sources from England or America?


In our age, when most have access to independent, English-language media sources online, state-run Russian and Turkish media sources are only occupying a slice of the media landscape, but how effective is this in the context of a global readership of Western media? It does make a difference, of course, I imagine, as truly independent, native media sources are invaluable in Russia and Turkey.


Russia and Turkey are similar because the state has a monopoly over the media. What that does is it raises the value of spoken words. Criticizing the state has much more value. Because the media and the freedom of opinion, of expression, is repressed in Russia and Turkey, those words or ideas that make their way through this repression, this wall, this barrier, they have a lot of value.


Those who are prepared to listen, and who seek these opinions, this criticism, they listen. They ask questions and when they stumble on these ideas, they take it as an answer. That tends to resonate. You have this sort of double dynamic. On the one hand, the ideas are repressed, so they are not present in the media landscape, but at the same time that makes the ideas that do make it into the landscape much more valuable than they would have been.


In an open society, in American media, anyone can say anything, but anything can be lost or drowned in that sea of ideas and opinions. In one way, by establishing or attaining a good degree of freedom of expression, some ideas might get lost. People might not pay attention. In a sense that’s one way of censoring opinions and ideas.


I was reading Nabokov’s lectures on Russian literature delivered in English when he was in the U.S., he was making this distinction between positive censorship and negative censorship. Negative censorship tells you what not to write. It basically says that you can’t write about this, so nobody writes about it.


If you can’t write about human rights, or of the human rights activist Lyudmila, for example, then there’s a message or signal that goes through the state-run media that you shouldn’t speak of this figure, and journalists won’t speak of it. That’s negative censorship. But there’s also positive censorship, when journalists are told what to write.


That throws me off, the wording, “positive censorship”.


They tell you what to say. They give you content.


I understand, like in Russian news agencies, which selectively republishes, and reposts content.


Yes, or more generally, when the authority projects a particular substance that is to be mediated to the population. When that happens there are certain things that get published and republished and certain things that don’t. Silence is significant there. In the Khashoggi case the first thing that comes to my mind is geopolitics. You’ll see all of the state-run media outlets [in Russia] covering it but doing it in such a way so as not to block channels of possible political and economic interaction with Saudi Arabia. They present it in such a light that does not speak of it as a terrible murder by an authoritarian regime that goes unchallenged, but rather it’s pushed in a light that enables the portrayal of Russian-Saudi relations in the future positively.


In Turkey, it’s a bit different because here, Turkey is pushing for regional leadership. And given its position, one of the ways of doing that is to make reference to values that are dominant in the west. Suddenly there is criticism of the murder of Khashoggi, but this criticism is inconsistent. I think there are 73 journalists jailed in Turkey and in total in the world I think there are 290 journalists jailed, something along those lines*. In order to be consistent with this criticism, it needs to be applied to all cases of violence. In Russia, on the other hand, there is much less ground for such criticism by the state. But these are the outer layers, the obvious geopolitical dynamics.


I am more interested in the contrast in between the lines, between the multiple takes. You get that when you look at the assumptions in the coverage. There it gets trickier.


[*The latest report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, published Dec. 13, 2018, has found that there are at least 251 journalists in the world currently jailed in relation to their work, and that Turkey is the worst jailer, imprisoning at least 68 journalists.]


At the website of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, an article published in 2014 listed 20 Russian news outlets that would likely be shut down by the prevailing regime. How accurate was this analysis?


The first one on the list, Ekho Moskvy, the “Echo of Moscow”, will never be axed. That’s a station that I listen to everyday. Like I said, this is one of those places where [independent] ideas make their way to the people who are listening. However, there is an interesting thing. Ekho Moskvy is one of the central [Russian] radio stations, obviously it’s located in Moscow. It’s considered to be the voice of the opposition. At the same time, it features other voices. They have this claim to objectivity, but 60 to 70 percent of this station is owned by Gazprom, which is the state oil company. You could question how independent it might be, but such questioning needs to proceed carefully, keeping in mind the contextual dynamics.


We live in a world where values like freedom of expression have a lot of weight. Russia is situated in this globalized world. It has to move within it. When Russia, rightly so, gets criticized for repressing opinions especially those of the opposition, what the state can do here is point at this radio station, Ekho Moskvy and say [to the West], ‘You speak of us repressing freedom of expression but we have this channel here which can speak all at once’. It’s sort of used as a way of legitimating the regime. It goes way beyond the regime, because you have to consider the people there. The way that these things are framed is there’s an authoritarian regime, there’s Putin, and him and his cronies are repressing the Russian nation, the Russian people and if there were free elections things would be very different, he would go and things would be well. But it goes much deeper than that. What if people don’t want to listen, right?


It comes to this issue of dialogue, or lack of it. You can see the same thing in Turkey. People don’t talk to each other. They don’t have conversations in which they express different views that might oppose each other. They don’t talk these things out. If you don’t agree with someone you go to your own corner and you sit there and you think with those who are like-minded, who think like you. I don’t live in Russia. These are the observations I’ve made here in Turkey but in Russia it’s likely similar.


Also, one thing that I was noticing, which supports what I just said. One day I was listening to Ekho Moskvy and there was this program. They were doing a survey. The people were invited to call this station, to share their opinion on the nature of American and Russian relations. This one caller said that Russians are much better because they have a soul, and Americans don’t. He was talking about it in terms of degree, that Russians have more soul, and Americans they don’t, or they have less. When you start framing it like that, in a moral, or even theological framework, there’s no possibility of you having a conversation with the other side.


Who said that exactly?


It was a random caller who happened to be listening to the program. He called the program in order to share his opinion, his view.


That’s interesting when you think of the relationship between religion and politics and how that creates an authoritarian, fundamentalist, extreme right, and how that culture thrives on ignorance, and then, at the same time, how it feeds into the capture of the press by the state, and how that functions in the US or the UK, where there very much is that political-religious complex in power but the media plays its role.


How do we compare English-language, Western media versus that produced in Russian and Turkish? The latter two are a different ballgame so to speak. As a reader of all three, how much do you depend on the independence of voices in the English language versus what would be known by the local, national perspectives in Russian and Turkish?


I depend on them quite a bit when it comes to understanding the changing relationship between state and society. One of the main tasks of the media is to bring to light constantly emerging issues in society, and it is the task of the government to act upon the developments. I think that it is safe to say that the Western media is in the position of carrying out that task, although it seems to be increasingly difficult for it to withstand the pressure of big business that attempts to reproduce a state of affairs that is favourable to its existence, and the market that demands a spectacle instead of a continuous and consistent coverage of pressing issues.


In Russia and Turkey the main threat to independent media comes from the partisan authority with concentrated and centralised power in the state organs that increasingly permeates the fabric of the society. Novaya gazeta is one of the alternative media outlets in Russia. So is Gazete Duvar or Diken in Turkey. I follow them daily. They are significant because they bring relevant and pressing issues to light. To think of these issues is already to begin acting upon them. So naturally, I depend on them all the more as I try to stay in touch with the social realities.


But in being dependent on the independence of a given media outlet in a given country, it is important to know exactly what the outlet is relatively independent from.


When we read into news pieces written by individuals, original content in other words, on the same themes, such as a topic in Novaya gazeta, Hurriyet, and the Washington Post, for example, there are clear biases considering how people act within their first languages, their national perspectives.


Khashoggi’s final column was expressly about press freedom. But in the Russian and Turkish media, his voice is co-opted. It’s not about press freedom in Russian and Turkish media. It’s about politics with Saudi Arabia, serving justice to the killers, etc. Whereas in Western media it’s practically a press freedom campaign. It could also be advantageous to critique the Russian, English and Turkish content published by Turkey’s pro-government, national newspaper Sabah.


The New Times is an opposition channel [in Russia]. It recently got a fine of 22 million rubles [320,000 USD, for failing to notify authorities on time of receiving foreign funding], which it’s dealing with right now. They had to close down the agency, but the internet version is working and they are active.


I saw an article about [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn by a columnist who I really enjoy reading, Andrey Vladimirovich Kolesnikov. The article is titled, “Who is Mr. Solzhenitsyn?”. It is important to look at the way that these different countries remember Solzhenitsyn. This article [by Kolesnikov] is perfect for that. From here we get the perspective of the current Russian view of Solzhenitsyn, who is himself a figure of anti-authoritarian protest. From here we get an idea of how the opposition in Russia positions itself historically.


And then, for example, if you look at an article that was written by a Turkish columnist knowing the audience they’re writing for, we see a manifestation of this opposition spirit in Turkey. Although I don’t think that we can speak of a single consistent opposition here. We have to take into account the different ways that figures symbolising the opposition spirit are remembered in different countries, by writers of different dispositions.


Talking again about discrepancies in Turkish, Russian and English-language media, basic, topical keywords shared by these three linguistic perspectives would revolve around the Khashoggi case, perhaps Orhan Pamuk and his literature, or Istanbul as a city in general.


It’s not as simple as to say that Russians see it like that, or Turkish see it like that, because Russians themselves are not homogenous, or Turks, or anyone. You also need to give the background of who is involved, and who the audience is in these countries.


As a reader of English-language media exclusively, what I want to better apprehend is the multilingual culture in which we live, and an appreciation for not only people who read in multiple languages, but for these languages themselves with respect to something that we can express as a quality, or character of them and their cultures, even in dry news writing.


I pay a lot of attention to etymology. It’s an important aspect to understanding people from a different culture, and how they came to where they are. Looking into etymology gives you clues as to the narratives behind how people came to think the way they think. When it comes to these things, I don’t have a comprehensive view, or a comprehensive framework. I just usually catch these little details.


One of them is the word yabancı in Turkish. When you translate it into English, it gives you the word “foreigner”. But if you look at the word, yabancı, it derives from yaban, and if you translate yaban into English through a dictionary it will give you the word, “wilderness”. If it’s an adjective it will be, “wild”. In that sense, yabancı is not a foreigner, but a savage. This can be read as a reference to an antagonism of civilisations. The foreigner is a savage. These are the little things I’m talking about.


For the 16th Istanbul Biennial, the curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, wanted people to reclaim the concept of the savage, by reimagining the role of the artists as that of a savage, or the individualist as the savage. His concept is based on the exoticism of the other in a postmodern worldview in which each person lives in and originates from their own estranged, hyper-contemporary social reality. And currently in Istanbul, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum is exhibiting a show dedicated to the Russian Avant-garde. This is a historic exhibition for Istanbul. It features writers of art theory, such as Vladimir Tatlin. Are you aware of the work of Tatlin?


Of course, [Vladimir] Tatlin, of the famous Tatlin tower that was never built, the symbol of the Third International.


I wonder, how accurate is Google translate with Russian?


It’s good. I was just reading an article by the political analyst Ian Bremmer [president of the Eurasia Group]. It’s a very short article, “Why You Should Learn Cultures, Not Languages”, in which he was making the point that in about ten years, Google translate will become so good that you will not need an interpreter, or a translator anymore. Google translate is really good.


Bremmer has a point but he doesn’t say directly how people should talk to each other, how to communicate with people who are different from them, because there is this dynamic in our contemporary world.


Technology is advancing in such a way that the distance between people is much shorter. We see all of these different people on a daily basis, but we don’t know how to talk to these differences. There’s a physical proximity at the expense of a dialogue with that which is not known, which is the point of a dialogue, to know the other.


It’s important to think critically and start dialogues about the relationship between multilingualism and globalized media, especially for people like me who don’t necessarily see through the cultural veil because I’m not literate in more than one language. It doesn’t come natural to me to prioritize the importance of culture and audience over language, for example.


We tend to paint these broad pictures based on the identity of a language group, or a national group. I think that’s why I wanted to focus on language more than nationalism per say. Even a Russian language journal in America, or England or anywhere in the world, or in Turkish anywhere in the world would provide some insight.


Snob.ru is a good website, and Republic.ru has really interesting articles, but you have to pay a 71 USD [about 4,880 rubles] subscription fee to read their articles, which is expensive especially if you have to convert it to Turkish liras. Given the fact that piracy is something that thrives in Russia, I would think that I wouldn't have such a hard time reading these articles. Sometimes there are shared accounts. Snob and Republic are a couple of [Russian] outlets that show the extent to which there is a production of knowledge independent of the state in Russia. A similar thing is happening in Turkey with Bianet.org and Gazete Duvar.


Novaya gazeta is a very good outlet in terms of content quality. There is one literary critic there who I follow, Dmitry Bykov, who, in October of 2017, was interviewed in the LA Review of Books. He frequently writes in the opinion section [of Novaya gazeta]. He’s at the intersection of politics and culture. He sometimes writes these satirical poems that criticize not just the regime but the currents state of affairs in general, what’s wrong with the society. He does it in a very smart way.

Bykov is also a columnist [at Novaya gazeta]. The other day I read an article of his in Russian that was talking about Harry Potter, and how Harry Potter constitutes a narrative that grasps the transhistorical aspect of existence, of how things play out. He was talking about it as a narrative that parallels the Bible.


I wonder how the Turkish media is talking about this history of the Russian avant-garde in the context of this exhibition, and how this history is also written about in Russian media today, compared with how related topics are covered in Western English-language sources in the UK and US for example.


I was thinking of tying all of these points together through the topic of the avant-garde. Here we speak of dreaming of the future, thinking of an alternative. An alternative has this progressive context, a progressive notion attached to it. Conservatives would not dream of the future, they would be happy where they are or where they used to be.


Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In that context, the avant-garde was widely discussed. The question is how these different countries and the different segments within them, through their respective languages, approach the idea of change (or lack of it).


I wonder how Turkish critics and audiences of this exhibition understand, or have understood that this was a defining impetus for the progenitors of the Russian avant-garde. What word did you use? Approaching the idea of freedom, liberation?


None of those words, but it’s interesting how those were the associations you made in your mind. It was about change, the idea of political change.


And then, I immediately jumped to typical globalized, American political slogans.


Freedom, liberation... [laughs]. That’s an interesting point, because everyone speaks of freedom, but there are different kinds of content attached to that word. There’s an interesting conception by Michael Freeden, a political theorist. He has this conception called “decontestation” of something, which basically means rendering something uncontested, universalizing a particular definition of a word that can otherwise have other definitions.


That might bring us back to etymology, to appreciate more progressive, pluralistic interpretations of geopolitics and international culture through an appreciation of multilingual literacy.