Five Worst Clichés of Russia Reporting

by Michael Idov January 24, 2013

Writing about Russia always carries a whiff of proselytizing. The reason is simple: people tend to either be obsessed with it (that includes the obsessive loathing, too) or know next to nothing about it; the first group are invariably the ones doing the writing for the second one. As a result, even the best writers are forced to pick from a woefully tiny toolbox of memes and metaphors that would make the material “sing” to the general public. Below, the five journalistic devices we never, ever want to see used again.

• THE CONTRAST LEDE. “Just ___ years ago, these streets were grimy and deserted…” And now there’s a Pizza Hut/Versace boutique/Swarovski-encrusted missile silo! This lede used to be valid; it simply expired once the “years ago” number crossed into the double digits. It looks especially silly now that Russian street life is visibly reverting to Soviet-like torpor. Mark Krotov picked apart the New York Times’ unhealthy dependence on this device in more detail in RUSSIA!’s Winter ’09 print issue.

• THE TURDUCKEN METAPHOR. “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Churchill said it, and it’s a nice enough turn of phrase (when you get the nestling order right, which doesn’t happen terribly often), but give it a rest already. Interestingly, the Russians have their own domestic version of this adage, which comes from poet Fedor Tutchev and is every bit as annoying: “Russia cannot be understood by reason, nor measured by a common rule… it can only be believed in.” Use that one next time, or don’t. As for us, we prefer to think of Russia as a potato wrapped in herring inside a blin.

• THE FIFTH BEATLE. Yes, there exists a song called “Back in the U.S.S.R.” It’s a nice throwaway goof on the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” And it doesn’t mean you have to dredge it up for a headline every time Putin does something reactionary.

• THE WRITER’S BLOC. Have you ever noticed how the word “bloc” sounds exactly like “block?” So that, by substituting it into any idiom, you can make that idiom sound vaguely Soviet? Bloc party!Rock around the bloc! Too bad that the “bloc” this refers to, the Warsaw pact, is about as relevant as the League of Nations.

And now, the worst offender of all, the bane of our existence and the phrase that should disqualify the author from ever writing about Russia again:

• FROM RUSSIA WITH BLANK. Here are the results for NYT alone. In the last few years, the newspaper’s subjects have come FROM RUSSIA WITH following things: loathing, cash, cash (different article), tats, wealth, Olympic sponsors, red tape, luster, deal, !!!!, dread, verve, affable understatement, discomfort, tsoris, individuality, sympathy, petroleum, luxe, scorn, hope, hope and fear, love for U.S. goods, humor, dark humor, all kinds of weird stuff, rubles, buzz, blood and shape shifters, without twang but with country in their hearts, magic, bankruptcy, hearty dose of eclecticism, perestroika, paint and politics, songs of days long gone, endorsements, talent, retributions, apologies, Mozart, fur, and finally “love and a few other things.”

This post was first published by RUSSIA! in 2009. We decided to run it again is at it seems to be as relevant as ever.