That’s How It Starts

Before we begin, I believe I should introduce myself.

My name is Aleksandr Gorbachev, and I’m a first year Graduate Students (MA program) in J-School at Mizzou. I am from Moscow, Russia… Well, not exactly: originally I’m from Obninsk — a small town near Moscow which you may have heard about because the very first nuclear plant in the world was launched there in 1956, — but I’ve been living in Moscow for the past 15 years. I didn’t like it very much at first — and to be honest at times I still struggle to love it wholeheartedly, — but still: Russia is a very centripetal country. If you want to try to achieve something, you have to be in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. And I wanted to try indeed.

I graduated from Russian State University for the Humanities with a degree in Russian Literature in 2006, but by that time I had already been involved in music journalism — and I decided to pursue a career in it. I started writing several years before that — just for myself at the beginning: I just thought at some point that the best way to sort out my relationships with certain bands, albums or songs — and to better understand them — would be to write about them (since I was young, I have seen the world as a text to be written and analyzed, so it seemed logical to apply this concept to my own perception of music). Then it became a passion. Then a job.

In 2005 I began working at Afisha, a biweekly Arts & Culture magazine that at the time was — and still is, I dare say — one of the most influential cultural publications in Moscow, if not the entire country. I was its music observer, its junior editor, its senior editor, its executive editor and — for the past year — its editor-in-chief. 9 years is a long time, as you can imagine, and in that time I’ve done a lot. As a music writer I helped a whole new generation of young, independent and globally oriented bands emerge and establish themselves as a cultural force worth paying attention to. With my help and under my supervision the music section of Afisha has become probably the most influential music media in Russia — in fact, what at the beginning was just my own music blog at the magazine’s website eventually evolved into a separate media outlet, a webzine called The Wave that we launched last November. As an editor I took part in developing a new concept for our magazine, shifting its focus from culture towards social and even political matters and completely redesigning it — making its centrepiece a main feature which is a profound journalistic research of a particular topic, be it the history of contemporary Russian cinema or the Pussy Riot trial (such features could be up to 200 hundred pages long, so we basically had to write and publish a book every other week). As an editor-in-chief I put girls from Pussy Riot and Alexey Navalny, the most promising Russian opposition leader, on the cover of the magazine — causing something of a public opinion fuss. I also… Well, I think I’ve already showed off too much, and this paragraph is definitely too long. You probably get the idea.

That's what the frontpage of Volna (The Wave) looked like last week. Everything is in Russian, obviously, but you probably can recognise some familiar names in English
That’s what the frontpage of Volna (The Wave) looked like last week. Everything is in Russian, obviously, but you probably can recognise some familiar names in English

The obvious question follows: why did I leave all this to study in the US? Well, several reasons. First: at some point I realized that I really missed education. I wanted to be able to study again — to go to classes, to sit in the library, to do some research; I felt like I needed a complete change of my daily routine — and when the Fulbright program (which I am a fellow of) provided for such an opportunity, I seized it immediately. Second: considering the current state of Russian media (which isn’t so good, to put it mildly) and the constant decay it has experienced in recent years, I felt that it might be good to study practices, policies and traditions of American journalism — which seems to be the strongest in the world, at least as regards to its values and diversity — from within. And then, maybe, to try to make a difference by bringing these policies and practices to my homeland. Third: journalism today faces so many challenges, and some of them, I think, can’t be addressed if you have to put a magazine out every other week — there isn’t so much room for study and research. At least not so much as we’ll have here at J-School — and I’m very eager to address and analyze issues that concern my profession. For example, I’m interested in studying how printed magazines can remain relevant in a digital era and what their business models can be. Last (but, as they say, not least): I really wanted to live outside Russia for some time. If you watch the news, you know that the situation there gets more and more difficult, and being a journalist in Russian now — and I mean a journalist, not a propagandist — is one of the fastest tracks to depression, I believe, even if you write about music and culture. At some point I though it would be better for me to pull out of it and to watch everything that happens from a distance. That surely doesn’t sound patriotic, but that’s how I feel.

Nonetheless, I will probably still write a lot about what happens in Russian in this blog, because I still read the news and more often than not feel some obligation to react. What’s more important, though, is that the current situation in Russia with all its complications has a lot to do with the power of media — it basically shows us that this power can be used for very unpleasant purposes, that the media, if not controlled by civil society, can transform this society into a totally uncivil one. So my reflections here would probably be not so much about Russian politics, but more about journalism in general, its principles, its values and its consequences. Oh, and I’ve never ever written in English, so mistakes are inevitable — and I am already sorry for that. And mind it: I spent many years writing about music — that means song quotes are inevitable too.

So here we are. (Yes, that was a quote.)


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