Sixty years ago, bureaucrats and journalists on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain came to a remarkable agreement: our bipolarized world would be better served if we exchanged magazines to show one another how the other lived.
In October 1956, the first issue of USSR appeared. It would later be renamed Soviet Life, and after the fall of the USSR it was resurrected as Russian Life. While the Soviet Union existed, the magazine was unquestionably a propaganda tool of the Soviet Communist Party, and some of our readers (many of whom have subscribed since the Soviet Life days) have told me that copies were sometimes mailed in brown envelopes, to hide their “subversive” reading from their neighbors.
By my count, the current September/October issue of Russian Life is the 574th in the long lineage of these magazines, and it is the 143rd we have produced since we took it over (making it free of censorship for the first time) in July 1995.
Sixty is a proud anniversary, but don’t look for a retrospective in this issue. We did that a decade ago, when we celebrated the magazine’s 50th. The article from that issue is available here (PDF) for those interested in delving into the history of the magazine and its American counterpart, Amerika Illustrated.
So, now that the Iron Curtain is gone and the Cold War is over (sort of), is a magazine like Russian Life still necessary? And what need is there for a glossy print magazine when one can read or see anything on the internet?
We grapple constantly with these questions, with how to adapt Russian Life to new media and new opportunities. But suffice it to say we are convinced that Russian Life is as important today as it was in 1956. Mainstream media are producing little in-depth journalism on Russia. What is more, many who watch Russian affairs seem to feel that we must begin our analysis from a position of fear and paranoia, that certain forces at work beyond the Kremlin walls are relentlessly seeking to undermine and destroy our world.
It is my contention, however, and it is a guiding principle of this magazine, that Russia-watching needs to begin from a position of engagement and investigation; that Russia is no different from any other society in having good and bad elements; and that our world will be better off if we focus more on what Russia is doing right. Does that mean we should gloss over the bad (or even dangerous) bits? Of course not. But we should no more let the bad unnecessarily darken our image of Russia than we should let the good give it a cartoonish cast. Context is everything.
And stories matter. A proper understanding of Russian motivations and actions requires that we seek out and tell the stories of people, places and things that live well behind the attention grabbing headlines.
Constructing an enemy relies on dehumanizing him, painting him in black and white. It therefore is and will remain the job of Russian Life to show Russia in living color, in all its baffling, human complexity.
Thankfully, we can now do this without having to use brown envelopes.
A slightly different version of this column appeared in Russian Life's Sep/Oct 2016 issue.
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
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Montpelier VT 05601-0567