It’s absolutely great news that NBC has hired David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, and a very, very long-time reporter on Russian politics, and in particular, Russian dissidents, to provide political commentary on the Olympics, which will be held in Sochi amidst a long-running controversy over the country’s so-called “gay propaganda” law. As Deadline reports:
“We are facing an Olympics that have a number of issues around them — substantial, meaty, news issues,” NBC’s Olympics exec producer Jim Bell told Sports Illustrated over the weekend. “For us to be able to have an opportunity to address them with someone like David made perfect sense. We would be remiss not to rely on some of the best and brightest minds to help present this to our viewers the right way.”
Added Remnick: “I think they want to have someone who has a familiarity with Russian politics and culture, various controversies, Vladimir Putin and all these questions I have stepped in for a very long time.” Bell said Remnick will kick off his in-Games commentary during the “creative part” of the opening ceremonies. Remnick served as a Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days Of The Soviet Empire.
That’s actually understating Remnick’s qualifications quite a bit. If he had stopped chronicling Russia after the downfall of the Soviet Union, he might not actually have been particularly well-versed in contemporary Russian politics. But since the release of that book in 1993, Remnick’s done reporting work (as well as editing the New Yorker) that touches on many aspects of civil society. He’s covered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s return to Russia from exile and written about the life of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Remnick’s reported on the rise of Russian oligarchy and the war in Chechnya. In 2007, he wrote a long profile of Gary Kasparov. Last year, he checked in with Petr Verzilov, who is married to Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. This year, he filed a thoughtful dispatch on the experience of exile and how it shaped the Tsarnaev brothers, authors of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Remnick, in other words, is a commentator qualified to explain Russian society in some depth to American audiences. The “gay propaganda” law sounds bizarre out of context. But as an attempt to defend “Russian values,” including the Russian Orthodox Church, and to defend and define Russia after the national trauma that was the dissolution of the Soviet Union and ongoing territorial disputes like the one in Chechnya, it makes somewhat more sense. If the “gay propaganda” law is to be the signal issue of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and part of the point of moving the Olympics around the world is to familiarize international audiences with countries they may pay varying amounts of attention to, Remnick is positioned to both contextualize the law and provide a full portrait of Russia to international audiences.
What Russian audiences hear about themselves, the Olympics, and the world’s response to the “gay propaganda” law is another question entirely. Yesterday, President Vladimir Putin dissolved RIA Novosti, which was one of Russia’s official news agencies, and the country’s international broadcast radio station. As the New York Times reported, “The decision shutters a decades-old state-run news agency widely viewed as offering professional and semi-independent coverage, while putting a reconstituted news service in the hands of a Kremlin loyalist…RIA Novosti’s report on its own demise said the changes ‘appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.’”
It would be significant if Putin had only shut down RIA Novosti and moved to control state media more carefully in advance of the Olympics. But his choice as new head of the consolidated agency, Russia Today, is telling, too. It’s Dmitry K. Kiselyov, who’s made his name in part on the virulence of his homophobia. Most infamously, he’s declared that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to donate blood, and that if gay people are fatally injured in car accidents, rather than donating their organs, their bodies should be “buried or burned as unfit for continuing somebody else’s life.’’
But he’s also suggested that he believes the Cold War isn’t over, but rather, has heated up. His appointment by Putin to head Russia Today suggests that one of the flashpoints in that war is gay rights. And that move is a perfect illustration of the dilemma for NBC, and all the athletes and heads of state who are trying to figure out their approach to the Olympics. Condemning Russia’s treatment of gay people, as well as its other authoritarian policies, is both personally satisfying and morally necessary. But internally, it may only serve to harden the sense among some Russians that their country is culturally different from the people, entities, and nations who criticize it, and that standing firm on Russia’s treatment of LGBT people is an important way for the country to emphasize its cultural and political independence from the decadence around it. The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of shared international norms. But in trying to report on Russia to American audiences, while also appealing to Russian ones, NBC is running up against the limits of that vision.