A Picture Worth a Thousand Russian Expletives

Some of them are smiling, a few are holding drinks, and one is even gesturing the “peace sign.” There are nine people in the photo, and the third one in from the right—the reason everyone is posing together—is Alexander Borodai, the former prime minister of the breakaway People’s Republic of Donetsk. The other eight people in the photo are some of the most accomplished journalists working in Russia today.

There’s Andrew Roth of The New York Times, Noah Sneider of The Economist, and Dutch superstar Olaf Koens. The two men to Borodai’s left are two of Russia’s most intrepid war correspondents: Ilya Barabanov and Pavel Kanygin. In February earlier this year, Barabanov was one of the first journalists to report firsthand how the Russian military assisted eastern Ukraine’s rebels in capturing Debaltseve. Just this past week, Kanygin was arrested in Donetsk, where he was beaten in rebel custody and lucky to be released before anything worse happened.

One squabble in a larger war

The photograph was taken on Thursday, June 18, outside a hip Moscow bar called “Redaktsiya.” That same evening, and for several days to follow, the “selfie with Borodai” would fuel a heated debate on the RuNet, where reporters, activists, and intellectuals have growled at one another and pontificated about ethics, the definition of terrorism, and the role journalists should play in society.

For those personally acquainted with the characters in this story (the nine people in the photo, as well as the other reporters present at the bar that night), the scandal is inherently interesting—full of disagreements, alliances, and boiling tempers. Pay close attention on Facebook to who has “liked” whose comments, and the factions and ideological fissures of Moscow’s intelligentsia leap off the screen.

Alexander Borodai. November 2014. Den TV. YouTube.

Alexander Borodai. November 2014. Den TV. YouTube.

But the debate about the photo with Borodai is more than just a hipster gladiator spectacle; it also reveals how contentious journalism in Russia is today. Whether you blame it on the war in Ukraine, the Putin regime, or a thousand years of Slavic history, the decision to pose for a picture with the former leader of the Donetsk rebels has forced many of Moscow’s “opinion-makers” to say exactly what they think a journalist should be.

What people think about this, it turns out, helps a lot to explain why being “independent” and “liberal-minded” is so difficult in Russia: reporting the news isn’t everyone’s top priority. For many who work in the Russian media, ideological purity and moral righteousness—packaged mainly as “good taste”—is most important of all.

Lois Lane or Superman?

One of the biggest debates about the Borodai photo took place between radio show host Karina Orlova and former Moscow correspondent Julia Ioffe. Orlova, the target of several death threats connected to her work for the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow, faulted the journalists who chose to socialize with Borodai, rather than punch him in the face. “Believe it or not,” she later explained, “but I would have fucked him up.”

Orlova’s Facebook post went on to attract more than 150 comments, including more than a dozen from Ioffe, who challenged Orlova to explain why it is a journalist’s duty to commit violence against another person. Orlova responded by saying that the journalists who met Borodai at Redaktsiya should have taken revenge for all their colleagues who were kidnapped and beaten in Donetsk while he was still in charge. Ioffe countered, arguing that a journalist’s job is to inform the public, not dish out justice.

In a separate Facebook post, roughly an hour after the first, Orlova again laid into the people who posed with Borodai, faulting them for mistakes in the “fight against the regime.” Ioffe chimed in once more, this time suggesting that Orlova chose the wrong line of work, if she conflates journalism and revolution.

Arkady Babchenko, August 2008. CC 3.0.

Here, veteran and war correspondent Arkady Babchenko came to Orlova’s defense, recalling how his first-ever newspaper editor once told him that attacking the authorities is a journalist’s “main duty.” Babchenko even authored a separate post shortly thereafter, opining on the nature of something he calls “professional deformation,” where journalists foolishly and automatically socialize with “newsmakers” wherever and whenever they encounter them.

Babchenko says this sort of awkward, immoral socializing is a regular feature of journalism, but it’s not, he says, a “demand of the job.” Babchenko argues that the meeting at Redaktsiya was not an opportunity for journalists to get “insider” information. “I’m sorry, but these are just childish excuses,” he wrote on Facebook. “This just isn’t an adult conversation.”

What actually happened

According to Ilya Azar, the journalist who actually invited Borodai to the bar, he bumped into the former separatist leader by chance and asked him to come to Redaktsiya, where Azar knew Pavel Kanygin would be. Kanygin was fresh from rebel custody, still sporting a black eye thanks to a soldier who hit him in the face with the butt of a gun. Azar thought the two men should talk.

In a Facebook post the next day, Kanygin said the meeting with Borodai was informative. “He’s no friend of mine,” Kanygin wrote, “but he is a part of my work. He has information.”

Max Avdeev, the photographer responsible for the “Borodai selfie” (which admittedly isn’t a selfie at all), says he took the picture simply to mark the occasion, which he claims was an evening of discussion, not a drunken celebration. “We met a newsmaker and used the moment to ask questions,” Avdeev explained. “Kanygin asked about his beating, Olaf [Koens] about MH17, and so on.”

Why were most of the people in the photo smiling? “It’s the only reaction a sane person can have in such an awkward situation,” Avdeev says.


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