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Journalism in Russia, A Response

I WELCOME the debate about contemporary Russia that Steve LeVine invites with his review of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev. But I must correct some inaccuracies and inventions that will otherwise mislead readers about what my book actually says.

LeVine writes that “Russia is known for the dangerous conditions under which journalists work, but Treisman contends that few of the most infamous murders are actually attributable to the writing of the victims.” On the contrary, I write that fifteen deaths since 1992, including the “big-name cases familiar to Western readers of Anna Politkovskaya, Yury Shchekochikhin, Nataliya Estemirova, and Paul Klebnikov” could plausibly be cases of murder by some associate of the state aimed at intimidating journalists. What I criticize is the lumping of these cases together with journalists murdered by Islamic terrorists, Chechen rebels, and other enemies of the Russian government and using the total as a “barometer” of the Kremlin’s hostility towards the press.

I certainly do not write, as LeVine contends, that “Russian journalists have sufficient freedom.” In fact, I write that the press “operates under constraints in Russia, and to pursue a career in investigative journalism requires considerable courage.” I write that the government uses “administrative levers and economic threats to cow the press.” I do argue against equating Russia’s imperfect media environment to that of Yemen, as Freedom House has done. For all its faults, Russian law does not provide for flogging journalists for defamation or executing them for apostasy.

I do not assert, as LeVine claims, that “the Kremlin has not steered elections through manipulation of the media.” In fact, I write that “the main television channels have provided disproportionate coverage of Kremlin-connected parties and candidates, violating election laws. Reporting on Kremlin favorites has been lavish and uncritical.” Nor do I deny that, as LeVine writes, “scores of ordinary Chechen men... were fully prepared to fight without anyone having to order them to do so” once the Russians invaded in 1994. Of course they were, and I describe in the book how they fought. 

Finally, your website’s characterization of the book as a “defense of Vladimir Putin” betrays unfamiliarity with the book’s contents. The Putin I portray is a leader whose priority was most plausibly “to build an empire of international companies, controlled by close associates, many from the security services,” who “seemed to coast along ... animated mostly by cynicism,” and presided over security services that 28 percent of Russians thought might have participated in bombing four apartment buildings full of sleeping families. If this is a defense of Putin, Heaven save him from his defenders!

Daniel Tresiman is the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.

Steve LeVine’s original review can be found here.

Steve LeVine’s response to this letter can be found here.