Elena Rodina on the Determination of Journalists in the Caucasus

Image from Molodezh’ Dagestana website, a major newspaper in the Republic.

By Emily Tatum

The Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies concluded its Colloquium lecture series on “Russian Media Strategies at Home and Abroad” Monday, April 22, with guest lecturer Elena Rodina, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University and formerly a print journalist in Russia. Rodina discussed the nature of print journalism in Dagestan and Chechnya and outlined the ways in which social media benefits populist leaders.

Rodina began by giving a brief history of the Northern Caucasus, which she framed as the “strategic backyard of Russia.” She focused on two republics in the region, Chechnya and Dagestan. Rodina argued that the two republics, despite sharing a border and a similar history, have created sharply different journalistic environments.

Rodina explained that Dagestan does not have a strong history of journalism. Yet, despite the lack of formal structure, Dagestani journalists built grassroots activism and strong practices. Rodina explains that “you can write whatever you want there” as there are “no limits” on journalism. Dagestan also benefits from its position as a multilingual, multiethnic republic. The main challenge is trying to acquire the readership in its now-competitive media market.

By contrast, Rodina posed the Chechen media environment as autocratic and largely state controlled. There, journalists face a more homogeneous culture and a state-controlled media system led by the Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. Chechen state media primarily consists of rigid, structured reporting. Rodina joked that even Kadyrov would not read the state news due to its dry nature.

Rodina then focused more on Kadyrov’s personal strategy as his actions have differed from the traditional state media forms in Chechnya. Kadyrov developed a large following on Instagram and would frequently share a mix of political and personal posts, including the famous post about his lost cat, which John Oliver parodied. Due to Kadyrov’s following at the time, Rodina suggested that Kadyrov’s Instagram served as “the main media of Chechnya.” Kadyrov extensively used Instagram until September 2017, when he was kicked off of the platform.

Kadyrov used his Instagram as a way to directly connect with citizens, promote his own self-image, and maintain control of his civil society. In regards to the last usage, Kadyrov would micromanage the actions of his civil servants through Instagram. He required that workers post photos of their completed projects or tasks to be posted to Instagram. If Kadyrov was satisfied, he would like the post. To which, the civil servants would send a response back, “Cпасибо за like! (Thank you for the like!)

Because of the overall authoritarian environment, Rodina views many independent journalistic efforts as activism in Russia. She raised an initiative that was run by journalists in Dagestan called #паркнаш (#our park). The city government was trying to create a new Russian history museum in the main public park in the capital city of Makhachkala. Journalists wanted to create a protest but could not receive government approval. Instead, the journalists created an “organized guided tour of the park” and ultimately halted the construction of the museum.

The future of journalism depends on sharp, passionate print journalists like Rodina. As a former journalist, Rodina sees the ways in which independent journalism finds ways to survive and thrive in the Caucuses. Because in a time of growing populist discourse and social media usage, print journalism has become ever more vital.

Emily Tatum will graduate in Spring 2019 with degrees in International Studies, Political Science, and Latin American Studies.


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