As today’s media becomes increasingly politicized, polarized, and privatized, cultural journalism has taken a step back. The Trump-era news cycle has dichotomized the reading experience into an all-or-nothing approach. Many either find themselves inundated with ever-increasing political entanglements or become so overwhelmed that they tune out altogether. With new headlines emerging every day, little space is left for music, museums, or movies. With so much else going on, writing for the arts section of, say, The Phoenix, can feel unnecessary, even counterproductive. Not so for Maria Stepanova, Russian cultural journalist and poet who came to talk to Swarthmore on Wednesday. Addressing us students, most of whom had never experienced censorship beyond the occasional swear word, she described slowly and earnestly the pathway of tightening media control in her home. Amidst these state-controlled propaganda mechanisms, Stepanova has been attempting to create a space for independent media. In a climate of division and oligarchy, she connects to the public through cultural journalism — a form of activism in itself.
“I don’t know how or what to start with,” Stepanova begins her talk. So too goes the story of Russia, a story with several beginnings, complicated enough to pause even Stepanova, a teenager at the fall of the Soviet Union. Born in the 1970s, Stepanova is uniquely able to register the media changes under Putin’s tightening control. In her talk, she described the current state of journalism as informationless, “pleasant noise,” purely symbolic propaganda that signals democracy. She outlined two different ways that the state controls media. First, innumerable laws limit freedom of the press through the threat of jail or fines over a wide range of topics. The state wields labels like “propaganda” to describe simple reporting on the existence of minorities or gay communities and “foreign agent” for those who document innovations in other countries. By keeping these antagonistic labels loosely defined, anyone can be found guilty under the guide of democracy. Another way that the state is able to assert control is through business tactics. At their core, newspapers are businesses and, as such, require funding. At the turn of the twentieth century, many newspaper owners were wealthy entrepreneurs who controlled several enterprises. The suspicion placed on journalism for these accusations of “propaganda” discouraged businessmen from investing in media, including apolitical magazines. Newspapers were sold, mostly to powerful men known to be loyal to the state.
Stepanova and her fellow Russian journalists realized that in order for independent media to truly be independent, it couldn’t be centered around the person or the state. She has spent the last decade editing, founding, editing, and refounding different cultural media. First, she started an online site for independent journalism, aptly named Open Space, until the private funders decided to fire the editorial board to change direction. With the severance pay, she and her fellow editors founded Colta (colta.ru), a revolutionary breaking of the ubiquitous norm of politics and the state being the central structure. She realized that owners, investors, or institutions entailed censorship, and as a result, all of their funding comes from the public, and became an experiment in the unknown crowdfunding movement before the days of Kickstarter or GoFundMe. She described it as the first truly public media, a “horizontal standalone structure financed not by a single person, not a single institution.” Rather than thinking of her work as a job, Stepanova finds it to be more of a lifetime volunteer position, saying “media stops being a business, but becomes something else.” Beyond just journalism, Stepanova and her colleagues delved into another form of public media: festivals. Using donation funds, they put on several festivals dedicated to the Russian 1990s, Russia’s most important decade in cinema, music, art, literature, and hopefulness. During this decade, says Stepanova, media was elevated to the level of art. In these festivals, over 25,000 people took part in the arts: watching movies, perusing old magazines, attending rock concerts, and poetry readings. Again, this was all funded by the public. Through the so-called apolitical arts, Stepanova and her colleagues could allude to political dilemmas, the culture of two decades prior creating a stark contrast to the current day and age.
Stepanova hasn’t always thought of herself as an activist. The first time someone used the word to describe her, she was surprised. It didn’t occur to her that journalism entailed activism. She soon realized, however, that it was correct. In Russia, she told us, “any human activity, however basic, is becoming a form of activism.” In focusing on culture, Stepanova could create Russia’s first truly independent and public media — paid for by the public and aimed to the public. After all, culture is a universal interest. Even in a country with tightly controlled speech, arts media can hint at political issues without overt suspicion. This has held true even for Stepanova’s widely-acclaimed poetry. Many of her solemn, soulful, and anguished poems have multiple voices or interwoven narratives. Both her content and form reflect Russia’s current state.
In her talk, Stepanova repeatedly used the word “bizarre” to describe the situation of both Russia and the globe. Years prior, she believed that the Russian experience was unique and came from specific circumstances, a “rare disease” that the world could dissect. But recent years have proved that this “disease” is spreading. Considering the reasons for this global trend toward conservatism, Stepanova mused, “[it has] something to do with the ’90s. But that’s another story.” She described the familiar story of intellectuals, both liberal and conservative, as confined in their insular discourse. Perhaps a focus on cultural journalism isn’t counterproductive to the national political conversation after all. If anything, we should encourage writing on the arts even more in times of political division.