July 10, 2017

The horseradish on the hamburger: Of Trump, Putin, the press, and the urgent legacy of Anna Politkovskaya

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Last week, as the G20 met in Hamburg (please use this space to imagine your own flavorful beef joke) amid raging protests, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin got to spend a little quality time together. Presumably, they talked about their hobbies — while Putin is a judo champion, animal-lover, and probable karaoke monster, Trump likes firing people, grossing you out, and rolling deep with his squad. One thing they can probably agree on is that a free press is the most mondo of bummers.

This seemed to be the sentiment underlying an aside Putin was heard making to Trump in front of a room full of reporters on Friday. Pointing toward the press corps, Vladimir Vladimirovich leaned over to his American counterpart and asked, with a grin, “These are the ones hurting you?” “These are the ones,” Trump replied.

This really isn’t funny. It’s a tough time for journalism everywhere, the US and Russia being no exceptions. Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) ranks the US in forty-third place worldwide for media freedom, in what was a downward trend even before Trump took office, and certainly hasn’t improved since. Just a few days before the incident, the president had been amusing himself by forcing spokespeople to defend his tweeting a video in which he beats the shit out of a personification of CNN.

As for Russia, RSF media freedom rankings put them at 148th. It’s a country where the assassinations of journalists amount to an epidemic — dozens over the past twenty years (most recently Nikolai Andrushchenko). To say that the joke seems ghoulish in light of this is to exaggerate the civic scruples and general compassion of ghouls.

(While in Hamburg, Trump also took the opportunity to “humiliate” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose nation is the world’s most dangerous for journalists.)

It’s also just awkward to see Putin—who is nothing if not an accomplished and composed technocrat—so totally dominating Trump, an idiot rich kid who has pissed his way into one of history’s most unfortunate political corners. The remark played brilliantly off latent power dynamics, speaking differently to discrete audiences: for Trump, it was a message of bonhomie and common interest; for the press, a clear line of demarcation; for the wider world, a statement of intense indifference to how he’s perceived. Trump, whose total lack of interest in world politics is plain, never had a chance of keeping up. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, they hurt me.” You can almost hear the inner monologue: I think I’m doing good? That sounded pretty good. This is going spectacular.

Trump and Putin shake hands at the G20 summit. Official Kremlin photograph.

Here at Melville HQ, the incident also served as another painful reminder of the legacy of Anna Politkovskaya, the prominent and revered Russian reporter assassinated in 2006 on Putin’s fifty-fourth birthday. A dogged critic of her government’s corruptions and human rights abuses, Politkovskaya is just the kind of “hurting” journalist that sticks in the imperial craw of a leader like Trump — serious, rigorous, and unafraid.

Since she’s not around to question Trump directly, here’s a 2001 column in which Politkovskaya, in her distinctive tone of good-humored outrage, details her experiences trying to ask Tony Blair a question she would surely have been even more eager to put to Herr Trump. We published this five years ago in Is Journalism Worth Dying For?, a posthumous collection of Politkovskaya’s heroic and invaluable reporting. Somehow, it seems to have grown even more relevant in the sixteen years since it was written.

The Secret of Claridge’s. What Did the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Novaya Gazeta’s Columnist Talk About Over Lunch?

London, April 30, 2001. The city was unwelcoming. People waiting for spring were still faced with driving rain, a cold, bitter wind, a never-ending twilight, an autumn that couldn’t be shaken off despite the May tulips lining the avenues in the park.

The weather was a fitting background to the task I had set myself: having flown to the British capital, how was I to get the answer to a question I wanted to ask Tony Blair, Prime Minister of this influential island kingdom? Why, for some time now, has he been on such good terms with President Putin? What are the qualities in Putin he finds so appealing?

Any Russian journalist knows that to get an interview with a head of government you need the patience of a saint. In Moscow, miracles do not happen—such is the nature of the Kremlin—but in London on the morning of April 30 I received a personal invitation to the traditional annual lunch of the London Press Club, founded in 1882, with the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Remarkably, I had not made a huge effort to get this invitation. I was just handed it. For 12.30 at Claridge’s, a grand old London hotel. So why not go?

The miracles did not end there, at least in the view of this citizen of the Russian Federation. At 12:20 there was nobody at the entrance to Claridge’s other than an elderly commissionaire wearing a heavy grey wool uniform and a high Dickensian hat. It is customary for the commissionaires of very expensive London hotels to be grey-haired elderly gentlemen who would have been retired long ago in Russia.

The commissionaire opened the door of my taxi and suggested that, if I was coming for the lunch with the Prime Minister, I would find it more convenient to use a different nearby door. I knew what he was up to. He was surreptitiously directing me to a queue where the British security services would filter would-be guests. They have their own, Irish, terrorists to worry about, after all.

So I marched through the main entrance, and soon realized I had got it wrong. All the aged commissionaire had wanted was to show me a shorter and more convenient route to the Prime Minister. I returned specially to my starting point to check and, while I was at it, looked around to see which rooftops the snipers were on.

There were none. Neither were there any lantern-jawed, shaven-headed security guards with searching scowls, or the bleeping metal-detector frames through which anyone in Russia is obliged to pass if they are likely to be within a kilometre of anywhere the President might show up.

At 12:45 Tony Blair arrived. At 12:50 the gong sounded for lunch. At 2:00 p.m. promptly we took our seats. My table was next to the Prime Minister’s. We tucked in to the starter, duck in aspic with milk sauce. Not bad but, to be honest, not that special either. Mr Blair was chasing it across his large plate, just like me.

The diners got on with their duck, and the gentlemen, all of them what in Russia we would call “directors of the media,” made no attempt to disturb the Prime Minister’s meal. Nobody ran up to him to ask questions while he was pretending to enjoy the starter.

At 13:19 Dennis Griffiths, the Chairman of the London Press Club, introduced Tony Blair to the guests and invited him to speak. What he had to say was intriguing, but for the most part consisted of declaring his love for the press and joking about the fact that he was wearing spectacles for the first time in his life.

A ripple of laughter ran over the tables and people clapped.

At 13.35, while Blair was still speaking from an improvised podium, orderly rows of waiters glided into the room bearing enormous plates. This was the main dish. Everybody got the same: A small piece of extremely tender braised or boiled pink salmon, with three tiny potatoes, a couple of sprigs of sweet basil, and a modest pile of kidney beans.

Donald Trump is hardly the first rich and buffoonish asshole to accede to the US presidency, but he is the first to have an openly antagonistic relationship with the very concept of a free press.

Blair, who as everybody knows recently had a fourth child, sat down and set about his salmon in exactly the way the hard-up father of four children would in Russia. The Prime Minister got through his diminutive piece of pink fish rapidly and with obvious relish.

He was now free, and I mounted my attack. The path to him was straight and clear, obstructed only by the remains of the first course and Blair’s press secretary, Alistair Campbell, a former popular columnist of one of the London newspapers. Alistair, however, was eating his fish, and everything was in place.

The response of the Prime Minister of Great Britain to my inquiry regarding the nature of his affection for Putin was brief but comprehensive. He replied, “It’s my job as Prime Minister to like Mr Putin.” And that was that. What more was to be said? The chef’s job is to cook the fish; the doctor’s job is to remove an appendix; the job of one head of state is to demonstrate how much he likes another head of state. It’s as simple as that.

At 14.10 speeches by members of the Press Club began and continued until 14.45. Blair listened politely. At 14.50 he quietly left, as had been previously announced in the program. There were no standing ovations or elaborate farewells. It was all very understated and British.

At this point dessert was brought in: tea or coffee and a piece of chocolate praline gâteau with coffee-flavoured custard. The Prime Minister was leaving but turned to the tables one last time. He glanced sadly at the unattainable plates of gâteau which the waiters, seemingly oblivious to the head of their government, were carrying past.

Everybody has a job to do, and nobody should try to stop them. That really is the British attitude. If a waiter is bringing diners their gâteau you get out of his way, even if you are the Prime Minister.

 

 

Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.

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