Letter From the Editors

Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film Rashomon is perhaps most famous for demonstrating how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be. Called to testify in a trial, various witnesses give conflicting (and often self-serving) testimonies. That sort of unreliable narration is becoming a common occurrence on the geopolitical stage. Take, for example, the heated debate about NATO expansion and Russia’s “red lines.” This week, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden held a virtual summit amid continued tensions surrounding Ukraine and Russia’s troop movements near the border.

Following the meeting, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said: “There was a lot of give-and-take.*** But the president was crystal clear about where the US stands on all of these issues.” Apparently, it was made clear that “if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through [the Nord Stream 2 pipeline], he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.” Moreover, Biden’s proposal to hold a summit of the leading NATO states to discuss Russia’s “red lines” and the alliance’s security issues came as a surprise, said expert Dmitry Trenin. Nevertheless, Moscow and Washington are likely to stick to their guns – and their own interpretations of the overall security situation in Europe. For Moscow, that means presenting the current crisis surrounding Ukraine as a domestic one, and accusing Kiev of derailing the Minsk agreements by refusing to implement their political part. For Washington, it means telling the world that the Russian troop buildup is a “deeply concerning” provocation.

Similar discrepancies came to light in US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan’s interview with RBC. When asked to comment on Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov’s remarks that the US’s refusal to extend visas for Russian diplomats is tantamount to an expulsion, Sullivan took exception (of course, all the while sticking to diplomatic politesse and calling Antonov a “close friend” and a “professional”). Rather, the measure simply brings US policy in line with the Russian one – because while Russian diplomats used to retain diplomatic privileges even after their “tour of duty” in the US expired, their American counterparts had no such perks. Sullivan also clarified that problems with issuing immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to Russians are not due to the American side’s intransigence, but rather staff shortages. For instance, US consulates and embassies are no longer allowed to employ locals for nondiplomatic work.

But when your own testimony isn’t enough, the next step is to gag your opponents. By all indications, that’s exactly what the Russian authorities are doing by putting “their man” in charge of VKontakte, Russia’s largest social network. The new handler is Vladimir Kiriyenko, son of first deputy presidential chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko. This continues the trend of the authorities putting regime stalwarts at the helm of major media platforms. But one loyalist is as good as another, right? Not in this case, argues Republic’s Andrei Pertsev. That’s because the previous handlers, while loyal to the regime, were still fairly independent figures, like oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who took over Kommersant. What’s more, as businessmen, they always had their eye on the bottom line and ran the publication as an asset. Making such management a family business means that loyalties will now be to the regime alone – not readers or even shareholders. But at least it guarantees no conflicting testimonies in Russia’s media space.

Despite its dark take on human nature, Rashomon still ends on a hopeful note. When the protagonists find an abandoned baby by the city gates, one of the “unreliable” and unwilling witnesses, the woodcutter, decides to adopt it despite already having six children of his own. Similarly, Novaya gazeta’s Dmitry Muratov affirms the sacrifices that journalists make. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he said that his wish is for “journalists to die old.” But he also added that their dogged pursuit of the truth will continue. Their job is “to witness. To prove. To see it with their own eyes.*** This is their mission.” By all indications, that isn’t about to change – in Russia, or anywhere else.