This post was provoked by the rash of new and reheated Russia takes getting a lot of visibility on Twitter recently because of the escalation threat in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. I also got a little ‘triggered’ by Kevin Rothrock’s* ‘head-to-head’ voting competition between Russia experts – also on Twitter. In fact, the whole ‘expert’ thing is weird in the first place. What does it actually mean? There are millions of Russia experts. In Russia they’re called Russians… We’ve basically just accepted that expert is someone who mediates second-hand sources to buttress their own opinion and usually reinforce preconceived opinions that serve the powerful.
So what’s my beef? It’s twofold: there’s the usual problem of social media grifters. Since Trump and Russiagate they are like mushrooms in an endless late Russian summer – they just keep coming. What’s a grifter? A self-appointed expert who is a fraud; we could even call them ‘hack frauds’ as many are adjacent to a media outlet or think tank that churns policy and opinion pieces.
The second problem is that Russia coverage on Twitter is dominated by Washington DC policy types who may not be frauds* (although some of them are), but who often have a very narrow, and second-hand, knowledge of Russia the country, and Russia the diverse population, as opposed to Russia the foreign policy problem. I’ve written about ‘imperial’ hierarchies of knowledge production before here. Another issue was the extreme Anglo/US-centric focus of Rothrock’s list. (The finalists of his list were defence and crime/security/military scholars; you couldn’t get a more depressing picture of how Russia is framed).
You can see where I’m going here – I’m making a claim for ‘in-country’ knowledge, and depth and breadth of engagement. For some reason, some people don’t even understand this argument.
In case you think I’m talking exclusively about non-Russians, I’m not. These issues pertain just as much to ‘natives’. There are plenty of Russian Russia experts who have long had a comfortable DC or US media gig and who have a weak direct grasp on events. Just as much as others, they are vulnerable to bad takes due to the secondary or belated sources of their analysis.
Another hobbyhorse of mine is the extreme self-selection and self-reproduction of this group: in the main they are privileged Russian liberals who are often the last people to ask about the diversity of Russia itself. Think for a moment about who can and who can’t up-sticks and move to the US, regardless of the level of repression in Russia. Think also for a moment about the clustering of political viewpoints that this results in (something I implied in my piece about Navalny-love in 2021)
But that’s not the end of it, the same DC types and ‘expat’ Russians often read the same set of narrow sources and have the same contacts. So not only does their shared relative wealth and class position lead to blobism, but also their lack of interest in exploring other sources or coverage adds to that as well.
Some of these people have spent the majority of their adult life outside Russia, or only visiting Moscow/St Pete. There are two ‘syndromes’ we could coin: the ‘Marriott-International Russia expert’ (folks who get uncomfortable leaving their hotel in Moscow – yes, I know them); and the ‘not-outside-the-ring road’ native Russian experts who disdain and are often even fearful and incredulous of non-metropolitan Russia (yes I know them too).
Aside: who do you think is most incredulous about my research and work? Yes, that’s right, it’s privileged Russians. And by incredulous, I mean, they regularly say things like ‘how can you spend so much time outside Moscow?’ ‘What food do you eat?’ ‘How can you talk to ordinary people?’
As this post is already a rant I want to shift the focus. A third thing that prompted me to write this post was that a few people got in touch to say how recent events not only pertaining to Russia express something alarming about how editors and publishers value expertise. They also said things like: ‘I’d love to call out so-and-so, but I need a job in the US’, or ‘Yes we know so-and-so is a fraud (and probably CIA-funded), but as part of the community ourselves we can’t say so’. The incestuousness of ‘Russian expertise’ is another problem that as often prevents open debate as stimulates it.
Here’s some of what they said to me and allowed me to report anonymously:
- The shift of so many Russian journalists abroad has actually weakened ‘mainstream’ coverage in English as these experts are unable to adequately filter their own sources back in Russia and they themselves rely on Telegram channels, many of which are not at all reliable. Ex-Lenta editors have been in Riga for 8 years, remember.
- ‘The worst of Polsci is on Twitter’. There are too many ‘Putin is THE problem’ people there, banging the same drum, year after year. Polsci is partly responsible for the perception that Putin controls the discourse. So stop talking about him, if you don’t like it! People should stop writing books about Putin, but they won’t because they make money.’ [caveat – there are great polsci people on Twitter like Sam Greene, for example. No, he didn’t contribute to this rant]
- Detachment from country and embeddedness leads to extremes and tired replication of Cold War Kremlinological approaches. ‘Russia is about to have a revolution because my taxi-driver said so’, or ‘Putin is a puppet-master’ are both outcomes.
- Presentism (obsession with the news) and the need to be shown to be relevant leads experts to echo conspirological tropes on the one hand, and facile historical analogies on the other (‘Kazakhstan intervention as another 1956’).
- Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good). Particularly with regard to the Blob (DC foreign policy community). There are great people even at the Atlantic Council, but, to use the example of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the best people have been crowded out in that space by less informed and highly ideological voices.
- The obvious paucity of regional coverage in Russia (and on Kazakhstan) as a result of the loss of Area Studies expertise and programmes.
Why does this matter? Because increasingly ‘experts’, particularly on Twitter, drive media coverage. If they are narrowly wonkish, and narrowly blobby (the DC academic and think-tank community) this only hurts societies’ understanding of Russia. The real tragedy of the ‘Russia discourse’ online is that so many got caught up in the idea that ‘understanding’ a country involves just understanding foreign policy and kremlinology and that ‘understanding’ anything else is seen as secondary.
*I want to be clear that these criticisms are not directed at Rothrock himself.
*on fraud – eventually we are all frauds in some aspect of our professional life: we are always going to be guilty of talking about something publicly about which we do not know enough. In the post above I’m using the term fraud about a Dunning-Kruger level of commentary.