The other Russia, the one you don't see on TV
April 16, 2007
It is a sad truism of foreign reporting that what a nation's inhabitants see on their TV screens, and what the resident foreign press sees, are often two entirely different countries.
That was never so clear to me than last Saturday when, by being in the right place at the right time, CBC was the only foreign television crew to film the forceful arrest of Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov.
A CBC cameraman, a producer and I were journalistic flotsam in the violent surge of demonstrators, citizens and riot police, all roiling down Tverskaya Street, the principal avenue leading to the Kremlin.
We were watching a small political movement called "Other Russia," which accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of turning Russia into an authoritarian regime, as it was trying to hold a rally and march. But some 9,000 riot police were waiting for the marchers on Pushkin Square and neighbouring streets, arresting anyone who looked like they might be a demonstrator.
In the melee, journalists were pushed and hit with nightsticks, old ladies waving the constitution were manhandled and young activists were shoved into waiting police wagons.
Kasparov, famous as a chess grandmaster who habitually crushed his competitors with sheer intellectual power, now had to face brute physical force. This was a match he could not win.
Tell your leaders
Police spotted him before he could say anything in public, then pulled him out of a café where he had taken refuge to throw him into a police wagon. I happened to be standing next to it.
I knocked on the window. It slid open and a man escaped, falling to the ground. Kasparov yelled out: "Tell your leaders that this regime is criminal, it's a police state… they arrest people everywhere."
As if on cue, riot police moved in and shoved us all away. We got it all on tape. We also took the precaution of changing the tape in the camera and hiding the cassette.
Later in the day it turned out no other foreign TV had pictures available of the arrest. We gave them to Associated Press Television News (APTN), the world television news agency. CNN, the BBC and other international broadcasters all gave big play to our sound bite and short video sequence, often leading their newscasts with it.
Russian TV newscasts on the other hand gave scant coverage to the demo and arrests, although our images were available to all networks that subscribe to APTN. Although I may have missed something, it appeared that Russia's main channels buried the clash, and the police charging Kasparov with "incitation to disrupt public order," under other news.
Some channels highlighted a pro-Kremlin youth rally nearby at the same place and the same time. It went peacefully, even if few of the youths seemed to know why they were there, or what their well-financed "Young Guard" movement represented.
The state-owned channel Rossiya did show some violence involving Putin. It opened its broadcast with the Russian president at a judo match (he's a black belt) alongside Belgian film star Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Later in the program some pictures of the aborted protest were shown, but with no sound bites of what the Other Russia people had to say.
So the crackdown was highly visible on all the world's television screens, but not in Russia itself. In this country, it just flickered out somehow, as if someone pulled the plug on the TV set.