#13 | July 31 - August 13, 1997  smlogo.gif


In This Issue
Feature Story


Coin-Op Articles A-Plenty

by Abram Kalashnikov

Years ago, when I first began studying in the United States, I saw a program that had rightfully been consigned to UHF called "Mazes and Monsters." It was a stale docudrama about American teenagers who got so caught up in those darned Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy games that they all lost their minds. One lost touch with reality to such an extent he spent the rest of his life wandering around his parents' luxury summer home wearing a cloak and claiming that he had been given a "reusable coin" by an elf. Whenever he spent the coin, he said, he would reach in his pocket, and find it there again.

The sequel to this peculiarly American type of tragedy could be filmed here in Moscow today. Here there is not one deranged individual, but a whole army of respectable Westerners wandering around with reusable coins in their pockets. They are the Western press corps, and their coin is a thing I call the "Times Have Changed Since Communism" lead.

Here's an example. I offer my entire collection of die-cast Dungeons and Dragons action figures to any reader who can find something in this paragraph that would stand out as unusual in any story written by any Western writer for any publication about any place in Russia today:

"The Communist rituals are gone now. No more ideology classes or marches through the potato fields in gas masks. Instead of hoping to listen as a powerful party boss from Moscow describes the next wave of history, children now have the opportunity to take classes in management, marketing and sales."

The author, Bureau Chief Michael Specter of the New York Times, was not ashamed to use his reusable coin twice in the same article, about a revamped Pioneer camp in Yalta. Fearing that his audience might not have gotten the point, he added another long illustrative graph before heading off to unburden himself of his expense account in a Yalta bar:

"Socialist theme songs no longer thunder across the four miles of coastline. The open-air auditorium where Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, spoke now offers film festivals and rock groups. The yacht slip is manned by a paid staff. T-shirts by Calvin Klein have appeared among the usual uniforms of blue and white."

Many attentive people, and probably Specter himself, have noticed that communism died in this country six years ago. For journalists, however, it still lives to breathe life into their stagnant careers. We have had six years now of reports that pioneer uniforms are being replaced by Calvin Klein shirts. We will have six more. And unless Klein and all of his t-shirts follow Giannini Versace into the netherworld, we will likely have six more after that.

That's because the "Times Have Changed" coin is infinitely reusable. When the chips are down and the ideas aren't coming, every journalist in this town knows he can always pull yet another one of those stories out of his cloak- and his editors at home will buy it.

The "Times Have Changed" lead is not only a life-saver for journalists, it's a time-saver for readers. After reading thousands of similar stories already, a reader confronted with a fresh 2,000-word piece by usual Press Review suspect Carol J. Williams of the Los Angeles Times can save time by reading the lead paragraph only, and guessing the rest: "AKADEMGORODOK, Russia-After long days in the emptying institutes of this birch-shaded Siberian enclave, the academic elite of post-Communist Russia can be seen loosening their ties and reaching for buckets and shovels."

Be honest now-do you really need to read on? Or can you guess that Williams will go on to show how funding for academic research has been cut severely since the pre-perestroika days (more than ten years ago!), how many of the older scientists find this humiliating and depressing, and how many of the younger ones, despite it all, still, gosh darn it, find reason to hope that science will be revived?

If you guessed that, then you've saved yourself a lot of trouble, because before she gets to her point, Williams pads her piece with an dizzying array of Specter-style "Times Have Changed" illustrative comparisons:

"In those days, shops in this prestigious research enclave were better stocked than those in Moscow and the cosseted residents had priority for purchasing everything from plane tickets to televisions. Today, about the only perks that survive are the fresh air and country atmosphere that distinguish this settlement from the sooty centers of industrial production."

There is a flip side to the "Times Have Changed" coin that Western reporters are often compelled to use. This is the "Times Have Not Changed" angle.

It is handiest in explaining difficulties experienced by Westerners here; obviously, since the possibility that new democratic Russians simply dislike Westerners/ Americans is excluded on principle, Russian churlishness must be explained by the fact that communism actually never died.

A recent print story by NBC's Preston Mendenhall, about Americans attempting to adopt Russian children, is a typical example. After suffering through an array of "Soviet" creature discomforts, including rickety Volgas, exhausting air travel, and the threat that their new baby will be in poor health, the "Lirgg" family from Fayetteville, Arkansas found themselves fortunate to escape Russia quickly after adopting [read: buying] a Russian baby for the bargain price of $20,000:

"Two days later, Lirgg and the new parents were on their way back to the United States. This group was lucky; they spent only five days in Russia. Some parents spend weeks in a labyrinth of bureaucracy in far-flung Russian regions stuck in a Soviet-era mentality."

Thank God they didn't have to spend any more time attempting to understand the home country of their new child! And fortunately for the Lirgg child and other Russian babies-and for Mendenhall, whose piece would not be complete without a Specter-style plug for American products-their new American parents brought a little piece of Arkansas-paradise-with them:

"Within minutes, the babies had been transformed from bundles of worn, Russian cloth into Fisher-Price poster children. They were entertained by dizzying array of toys dangled simultaneously by cooing parents. Their Russian linens, and lives, were quietly pushed aside."

In place of an award this week, I am creating a club. I call it the "Flow of Blood" club. Membership is offered to any journalist who takes the time out in a story to explain, using exactly these words, that Russians beat themselves with "freshly-cut birch branches" to "stimulate the flow of blood." Last week the Reuters bureau won a membership for its coverage of Boris Yeltsin in the banya: in this issue, I admit Richard Paddock of the Los Angeles Times:

"Renat Akchurin, the surgeon who operated on Yeltsin in November, joined the president in the banya, where they enjoyed the intense heat and swatted each other with freshly cut birch branches to stimulate the flow of blood."

That's two members already. Anyone else want to spend some coin?

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