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The state of the (former Soviet) Union

Almost two decades after the official end of the Cold War, Russia remains a major subject of scrutiny for the Western press. While this journalistic presence invariably means scary and strange things are happening there (you don't see many foreign correspondents writing about Norway), it's made for some fascinating -- and disturbing -- reads.

This month's issue of Harper's reprints an excellent piece by UCLA history professor Perry Anderson that examines everything from Vladimir Putin's speaking style to the rise of the 'imperial novel' to the consequences of a rising China and European Union on either side of the country. One of the most disheartenings sections discusses the state of the Russian media:

For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 -- Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America. Among the educated, so despised has the medium become that Russia must be the only country in the world today where one can be regularly told, with a look of contempt at the question, as if it went without saying, that the speaker has no television set in the house.

Canadians are equally fascinated by the world's largest country as Americans and the Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon, the paper's Moscow bureau chief from 2002 to 2005, recently published a book called The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (coming to U.S. in September 2007). I haven't read the book, but I have read MacKinnon's work in the Globe and he is one the best storytellers in this country. In conjuction with the book, he's keeping a blog that keeps tabs on Russia and the former Eastern bloc.

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