Tag Archives: personal

Between The Barricades

Well, this day I was so excited about finally came.

Unfortunately, I was able to attend only two out of six master classes. Not my fault, though. Just schedule conflicts. I mean, whose idea was it to hold the lectures by James Ball from the Guardian and Mark Robinson from Wired at the same time?! It was cruel.

Anyway, one of the classes I managed to attend was given by two editors of Kyiv Post, a Ukranian English-language newspaper. Obviously, they talked about covering the dramatic events that have been happening in their country for the last year.

You can probably understand why I was interested. But I won’t get into the whole argument Maidan, Crimea and the war in Lugansk and Donetsk right now — this is too complicated and, admittedly, sometimes even painful.

I’d like to concentrate on one particular aspect of the master class here. I even asked the Kyiv Post’s editors a question about it. When Katya Gorchinskaya, the deputy editor of the newspaper, was talking about the importance of retaining objectivity even when one side of the conflict seems to be pure good and other pure evil, I asked if their reporters actually went to Maidan to express their views as citizens.

She said no. And that got me thinking about my own experience in that kind of situation, which was completely opposite.

As you may or may not know, in the winter of 2011-2012 we had our own Maidan in Moscow — well, kind of: it was far less violent, which is good, and ultimately unsuccessful, which is bad. From December 2011 until May 2012 there were a lot of massive protest demonstrations against election frauds and the Russian government in general, but, since the opposition didn’t win (honestly speaking, they never really tried), eventually things got even worse, leading to the ultraconservative revival we can see now in Russia.

More than 50,000 people came to the protest demonstration against the election fraud to Bolotnaya square in Moscow on December 10, 2011
More than 50,000 people came to the protest demonstration against the election fraud to Bolotnaya square in Moscow on December 10, 2011

Anyway, Russian liberal media played an important part in this so-called revolution. Many journalists participated in the demonstrations themselves — as citizens, not reporters. It just felt natural; for the first time in our lives my generation, it seemed, had a chance to speak up and make a difference, and why should journalists stay away in such extraordinary circumstances? We didn’t even have any discussions about it. Now I wish we did.

Moreover: right before the first massive protest demonstration that happened December 10, 2011, we decided to publish on our magazine’s website several op-eds in which our reporters and editors explained why they are going to participate in the protest. I contributed to this story, too. Now I regret it.

All these questions have been bothering me ever since, and they won’t go away, and I’m not sure they have any right answers. Did we do the right thing? Shouldn’t we have retained our principles even when we thought there could be a revolution, and we can contribute to its cause? And didn’t this revolution fail, at least in part, because journalists abandoned their principles, thus in a way mirroring the actions of the government who abandoned its commitment to listen to the voice of Russian citizens?

I don’t know, but I kind of feel ashamed that I started asking myself these questions only afterwards, when it was already too late.

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Death and All His Friends

Yesterday I had my second GA shift at the Missourian. And now I’ve got another story out. And it’s an obituary — or, as we call it at the Missourian, a life story.

I thought it would be hard psychologically — it’s never easy for people to talk about their relative who just passed away. Well, actually, it wasn’t hard at all. Frances Marie Colley, the daughter of the man whose obituary I was writing, was very welcoming and willingly told me a lot of stories about her father — how he survived the World War II, how he learned to ride a motorcycle when he was almost 50 years old, what a passionate farmer and a loving father he was. Ms. Colley will probably never read this, but I still would like to thank her for that. She made it a lot easier for me to deal with such a peculiar task.

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t by far my first obituary. But in a sense, it was. And not just because of the language. In Russia I wrote a bunch of obiaturies, but all of them were about famous people, mostly musicians — like Lou Reed or, say, Yegor Letov, one of my favourite Russian psychedelic punk singer-songwriters. And of course, it was a completely different thing. You didn’t have to talk to relatives. You didn’t have to learn anything more about their lives than you already knew. Essentially, these were not so much obituaries, but more like essays about the cultural impact of these musicians, their songs, their lives and their legacy.

This time, however, I had to write about an ordinary man — and by no means I want to say that “ordinary” equals “less important” or “less interesting”. Of course not. Marshall Colley, as it turned out, lived a great life. He survived the war, he was happily married for many years, he raised three children, he worked hard, he was kind to people and helped them whenever he could. As far as I came to understand, he was a great man and he will be remembered. Still, it’s obviously harder to write a good and touching obituary about a farmer from Harrisburg than about, say, Whitney Houston. It’s much more challenging — but I like this challenge (although I’m not completely sure that I was totally successful in addressing it this time). Because being able to see a story where anyone else wouldn’t see it, and being able to find something extraordinary and appealing about any given human being is one of the most important journalistic skills. Basically, that’s the difference between a journalist and everybody else — a journalist sees the world as an endless range of stories that are waiting to be told.

And to finish this story, here’s one the best and deepest songs about death I’ve ever heard.

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.)