Since the merits of David Johnson and his, in my opinion, indispensable Johnson’s Russia List is such a hot topic of debate, I point readers to his interview in the Moscow News. It is rare that we actually hear what the man behind JRL actually thinks about Russia. Most of the time critics infer his views from the copious numbers of articles he includes (or doesn’t) in his daily newsletter. Here are a couple of responses that I found relevant to the debate:
MN: Once you wrote about a news conference at the Kremlin where President Putin spoke to a group of editors and correspondents. What was your impression of Vladimir Putin?
DJ: Putin was very impressive in his command of subjects and apparent open-mindedness. I think most of us at these meetings felt this. However, there were certainly critical views expressed about some of Putin’s policies. I never got to ask my question so let me do it here: How does President Putin try to insure that he has the best information and makes the best decisions? What institutions and practices does he have in place in this regard?
MN: Would you say that Russia is on the right path of development?
DJ: These days I try to avoid having strong opinions about Russia and generally succeed in this. While I was very skeptical of Yeltsin and uneasy about Putin as Yeltsin’s appointed successor, I think it has become harder to reach judgments these days than before. My working notion is that most subjects are complex and difficult to understand from the outside and that diverse opinions are inevitable. I try to make JRL a useful vehicle for exposing the diversity of views. I do feel that many people in the US and the West are rather quick to jump to the attack, just as they were rather superficially infatuated with Yeltsin once-upon-a-time.
I am sympathetic to the view that these days Putin and Russia are perhaps getting too dark a portrayal in most Western media. Or at least that critical views need to be supplemented with other kinds of information and analysis. An openness to different views is still warranted.
MN: Some commentators in the past have criticized JRL for focusing too heavily on articles that emphasize Russia’s problems. How do you respond to such accusations?
DJ: I actually would like to carry more informative, substantive “defenses” of Russia and go out of my way to get those items. I do not do translations myself and am dependent on what comes my way in this regard from Russian media. I do carry items from important Western media because it’s important to know what The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Economist, etc. are saying about Russia. It’s also important to know what’s in Novaya Gazeta and the like. If anyone would like to help me find more positive articles about Russia please do.
MN: In what ways do you think the United States could be a better partner with Russia?
DJ: I’m sure that if officials in both Russia and the U.S. look dispassionately at themselves they will find mistakes that have been made and initiatives that can be taken. Americans tend to be missionaries and see themselves as the center of the universe (As perhaps others do?). Americans need to work even harder at understanding the perspectives of non-Americans. Both Americans and Russians need to recognize that there are many more peoples and nations in the world as well.
So there you have it. The man in some of his own words. I have to say that I agree his logic on why he carries articles from the major US newspapers. The Washington Post, NY Times, and business weeklies like the Economist are some of the publications of record, not just for the US, but the world. One must intimately know the prevailing discourse about Russia if one seeks to dispel it.