Journalist deconstructs the myth of the great Russia

Mikhail Zygar

Simon & Schuster

Journalist deconstructs the myth of the great Russia

The war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s motivations. The way Americans perceive Russia, and Putin. The state of American democracy. These large topics and others were explored in a conversation with an expatriate Russian journalist Saturday, Jan. 13, at the Cornwall Library.

Mikhail Zygar is a journalist, writer, filmmaker and founding editor-in-chief of the Russia-banned TV Rain, an online broadcaster now based in exile in the Netherlands. Some have described his journalistic approach as a new form of literature. At age 42, Zygar, a Moscow native, has acquired a seeming lifetime of experience, having also served as a war correspondent in Iraq, Lebanon and Darfur. In 2014, Zygar won an International Press Freedom Award.

His latest book, “War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” begins with a confession on Zygar’s part, and he adds in other contemporaries and forebears that include writers and historians who are “complicit” in promoting the notion of Russia as a “great empire,” he writes in his introduction.

“We overlooked the fact that for many centuries, ‘great Russian culture’ belittled other countries and peoples, suppressed and destroyed them,” he continues, adding that the words and thoughts perpetuating this notion of greatness in fact sowed the seeds of fascism and allowed it to flourish.

Before a full house at the library, Zygar talked with Joel Simon, an author, journalist and founder/director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Zygar began by discussing what he termed the “four phases” of his career in journalism. It began at age 21, when he was sent to cover the Iraq War for the Russian business daily Kommersant. He said he landed the assignment because “I spoke Arabic” and the assignment led to more war correspondent work. After Iraq, he covered the war in Lebanon and then genocide in Darfur.

“At age 29, after all these bloody massacres, I needed to quit. To stop,” he said.

Simon asked Zygar about his role in 2010 as one of the founders of the TV station Rain, which was the only independent news channel in Russia.

“We were not only for the young people,” Zygar said. “It was mostly for the middle class to be able to get unbiased information about what was happening.” And Zygar said, during the first years of operation, Rain was very popular, with 20 million households watching daily. Then, in 2014, a month before the occupation of Crimea, Rain was effectively shut down by an order for all Russian cable and satellite networks to switch it off.

Simon & Schuster

“One by one, we lost 95% of our audience in one week,” Zygar said, who said he then began to focus his thinking on Russian history.

“Somehow I realized that broadcasting news for an audience was not enough,” he said. “I realized that I need to talk about history.”

“You’re a journalist,” Simon interrupted. “Why history?”

“If I’m thinking about the future of Russia, I should focus on a younger audience, and talk about values with them.”

Zygar, understanding that the “20-minus” age-based audience is riveted to social media, he created something to meet them where they are. Together with historians, journalists and others he launched “Project 17,” a simulated social network that retraces the Russian Revolution on a daily basis. Go to www.openhistoryarchive.com.

The new book was started before Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Bringing a journalistic framework to history, Zygar takes apart the narrative around the idea of Russian greatness, describing how the myth was constructed. How Putin justified the invasion. How Russian history justified all that Putin approached. “My mission is to start addressing … why we as Russian intellectuals missed that point. We have never started thinking about the propaganda approach to Russian history.”

Audience questions sought answers to where the war in Ukraine will be in one year, and if a longer war poses the threat to Putin, to which Zygar commented. “He’s gotten rid of the people who protested, and oil and gas revenues are enough.”

Asked another question about rising autocracy across the world, and whether the author thinks Putin might have intentions to expand beyond Ukraine, Zygar said, “It’s important to make Russia great again, not bigger.”

“He needs the war to be continued,” Zygar said in a nod to three and a half centuries of Russian myth-making. Zygar also is the author of “All the Kremlin’s Men” and is the recipient of the Committee to Protect Journalists 2014 International Press Freedom Award.

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