Saturday, November 1, 2008

Language as a tool of evasion

A few interesting conversations yesterday. First, I was talking with a veteran Russian journalist about a training program we’re setting up. We were talking about the various lectures, and he remarked at one point that a good command of the Russian language is essential for a journalists.

This seemed an obvious point, but he was not referring to the obvious use of the language to explain and describe. My friend was referring to the use of language to evade the censor, a cat-and-mouse game familiar to great Russian writers from Pushkin to Pasternak. Certain words, he noted, will get you targeted for such offenses as promoting extremism. So, a good writer must know these words, and know the synonyms for these words.

I thought this little conversation was interesting, because I had never had the issue described so frankly by a contemporary journalist. Later in the evening, I described our dialog to a friend of mine, a writer for Russian television. While his routine is naturally different, he said his team of writers faces the same challenges. But while a journalist may in fact be writing about political matters, these television script writers are writing comedy. Nonetheless, they are constantly having to battle censors at the company – which is essentially government owned – over what can and can’t be said by the characters in the comedy. Anything remotely political is taboo. And laughing at politics is absolutely forbidden.

On a different subject, I heard from two separate sources about new layoffs occurring within the Russian media. The assumption is that they are related to the current or expected economic downturn. Also – I spent some time yesterday looking for a Moscow Times. The newspaper at one point was the premiere English language news source in Moscow, very valuable when the Internet was not so ubiquitous. Now, however, I think it’s lost some of its value, perhaps because it does not claim the same place in the market and because its current owners do not allow it the editorial independence that it had 10 years ago. Anyway – my search was fruitless. I wonder whether it too may be squeezed by the current financial situation.

Another conversation: Yesterday I met a man who works in the financial services area. Specifically, he works with the currency exchange. We chatted, and I ventured that his business might be difficult at the moment. It’s difficult, he agreed, because it’s been very busy. The economic turmoil has increased the number of people coming into the office, seeking to make money from currency speculation. Interesting reaction – but at some level, I understand it.