It started with an invitation from the Foundation for Independent Radio (FNR), the partner organization with which I worked in Russia, for a chance to be in the audience during the screening of a film about the events of September 11th. Or so I thought.
I invited along a Ukrainian friend living in Moscow, and that evening, Veronica and I took the metro to the TV Center near the Ostankino television tower. It’s a vast gray spire bristling with lights and antennae, famous for once catching on fire. We got our tickets for the show, which were stamped “Svoboda Slova” (freedom of speech).
With some folks from FNR, we were to wait in the lobby for a woman dressed in white. She soon thrust herself into our circle. “Where is Julia Barton!” she demanded to know.
“Come on,” she said when my location was revealed, “we’re late. You’re going to be on our panel of experts.”
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m in the audience. I’m not an expert.”
“Yes, you are. It says on the list here,” she said as she thrust out a piece of paper, “Julia Barton, American journalist.”
“I can’t go. I can’t speak Russian well enough. I need a translator.” I practically clung to Veronica.
But the woman in white would hear nothing of it. Twitching with impatience, she suddenly switched to English. “I’ll be your translator. Now come on, we’re late.” And so I somehow found myself following the producer’s clicking heels across the lobby, down the rabbit hole.
Conversation with this woman consisted largely of my contradicting false or unfathomable statements about myself. She led me to an empty coat-rack area, where other experts-to-be also stood around with blank looks, as if waiting for a bus. “Now here,” she said, slapping her list down on the coat-counter, “it says you are an American journalist and that you speak very good Russian. So I hope you can speak in Russian.”
She continued to speak English, I guess to make sure I could understand. Then she ran away to pluck more experts from the crowd.
It was soon time for us to go into the studio. The set, I immediately recognized, was from “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” with many pillars lit various shades of green, purple and white. It had a central podium, in front of which were two chairs on raised stages, facing one another across a chasm. We were told to sit on carpeted benches in a sort of chorus-area behind one of the chairs. It was only then that I understood the format of what was to come.
We were to take the side of the man who would sit in the chair in front of us, a “hero” who would take the pro-American side. The question at issue was no surprise: Should we Russians feel sorry for the Americans, or did they get what was coming to them on September 11th?
Everyone in our group seemed randomly pulled out of somewhere for their association with America. There was Alexei, a manager at the Russian offices of a large American corporation, the name of which he asked me not to disclose out of fear of getting fired, some German couple and me (probably the only American in Moscow naïve enough to get in this kind of situation).
The audience members filled in the raised rows of seats behind the host’s podium. As they took their seats, a disembodied woman’s voice yelled from somewhere, “Okay, where are our Americanists and Anti-Americanists?”
The producer appeared, a beautiful red-head in a tight white cotton blouse, jeans, and beige high-heels. She explained the show’s new technological system. Each audience member had a little console for registering his interest in the film by pressing the “plus sign” during more interesting parts and the “minus sign” during boring parts. But first, to divide the audience into appropriate sociological groups, she asked the audience to pick which side they were on.
“Okay, all those who agree with the policies of America, press one! Those who disagree with the policies of America, press two! You got that? One for America, two against!”
A white blob appeared on the giant LCD screens to our right. This blob, after some delay, turned out to be a pie-graph. Two colors appeared: yellow for Anti-Americanist and green for Americanist. As the votes came in, the yellow chunk threatened to swallow its green counterpart at 60.9 percent anti-American.
Strangely, I had never been in a place in the former Soviet Union that felt more American: bright lights, people running around and shouting, uptight about time, uptight about image. With the exception of the beige high-heels on that producer, we could have been in Los Angeles.
Finally our host, Savik Shuster, appeared.
I saw a short, handsome man striding in to audience applause. The cameras trained on him, and a soft face filled the LCD screens. Practice shot. He smiled at us. Soon they were rolling.
“Freedom of speech means freedom of technology,” Shuster told the cameras as we applauded. “Now for our new season we have not only new studios, but some of the most advanced sociological technology available….”
The film, a British documentary dubbed into Russian, began. It was long and filled with heavyweight interviews: Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin, Pervez Musharraf. There was also footage of the Twin Towers exploding, of people falling, of planes smashing, of dust-pillars rising from the collapse. I haven’t seen that imagery in a while, and it made me want to cry. Actually, given my tension level at that point, I just wanted to scream.
The woman in white came up to me a couple of times during the film. “Julia,” she whispered in Russian, “Are you prepared to make your comment? You can say how you were there, you saw how people cried, you saw the ruins.”
“No,” I said, “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it.”
“But someone told me that you took pictures of the ruins. You are a journalist, and you took pictures.”
“I’m a radio journalist. I don’t take pictures. And anyway, I wasn’t in New York. I lived in Philadelphia.”
After the film, our discussion began. The Americanist “hero” explained why the U.S. did what it had to after it was attacked. The members of the opposing team were given the chance to weigh in.
“I see from this film how Americans make their decisions,” one squat, mustachioed guy said. “They have breakfast, then take a nap, then meet with their advisors.”
The Anti-Americanist “hero,” dressed in camouflage, declared, “This film was a sophisticated piece of political propaganda. Just another attempt by pro-American forces to consolidate their hegemony over the world.”
Alexei was the first to be given the chance to weigh in on our side. “America says it acted in self-defense,” he said. “I mean, isn’t that what our government says about the war in Chechnya?”
So there it was, the elephant in the living room. The opposing hero tried to ignore the question by stating his opposition to all war. But Shuster prompted him: “Come on, we saw President Putin in this film, agreeing with the Americans’ claim of self-defense. Now he says the same principle applies in Chechnya.”
I don’t remember the guy’s exact response because the woman in white was hovering over me with the microphone. “Julia. Julia. Are you ready?” Suddenly, I saw my face elevated to vast proportions on the LCD screen, looking mottled and bizarre. Looking away, I managed to blurt out this much in Russian:
“Hello. My name is Julia Barton. I’m an American journalist. I don’t feel comfortable speaking about my political opinions, because that wouldn’t be professional. I can just say that I was living not far from New York that day, in Philadelphia. But my fiance’s family all live in New York. We didn’t know if they had died. And of course I had to go to work. It was terrible. It was terrible to live in America that day. And it’s still terrible—even the war in Afghanistan. This film makes me sad, because I don’t know when it’s going to end.”
The green-clad anti-hero looked at me sympathetically, asking something I could not comprehend.
“Excuse me?” I said.
I sensed an embarrassed wince from Shuster. “I think our colleague doesn’t understand,” he told the Anti-Americanist, in an attempt to foster actual communication. But my time allotment had long since expired, and his producer had already moved on to the next commentator.
Veronica and I left cursing the whole thing, two writers irritated with the broadcast circus we’d just endured.
Now that I look back on the experience, it makes me think more broadly of the strange dance that goes on between Americans and Russians, people of the great, paranoid northern empires. It’s a generalization, of course, but something seems to disturb us whenever we look at one another: We see only an unbearable, uncontrollable version of ourselves. Americans, when they bother to look at Russia, see a boorish, sulky nation, filled with backward notions and crumbling infrastructure. Russians see the U.S. as a land populated by lazy, arrogant children who threaten everyone else while claiming purity and innocence.
Maybe in the back of my mind, I had some vague urge to bridge the gap when I went to the NTV studios. But in the universe of television, Russia is already America, and America is just the topic of the day. With any luck, we in the audience will be able to bridge the gap enough to throw garbage at each other. After all, nothing looks better on TV than a food fight.
KnightLine International, Summer 2003