2016 Scholarship Winner – Aleksandr Gorbachev

Aleksandr_Gorbachev1st Place Award $10,000

Aleksandr Gorbachev is a Russian journalist and Fulbright fellow at the Missouri School in Journalism, which he graduated from in 2016, after defending a thesis on business models of American digital longform publications.

A member of the first post-Soviet Russian generation, Aleksandr became interested in writing and in understanding the world through narrative at an early age; when he was ten years old, he already composed poems dedicated to Russian political leaders (of course, those poems were atrocious). Even before graduating from the Russian State University for the Humanities in mid-2000’s with degrees in Russian Literature and French, he became an active music blogger and was eventually hired by the leading Russian arts & culture magazine, Afisha, as a staff music writer. He spent nine years working for the publication, eventually walking all the way up from a contributor to an editor-in-chief and becoming the leading Russian music journalist. He launched the biggest Russian music webzine, Volna; he curated club residences, labels and festivals; he helped a new generation of Russian independent bands to evolve and establish themselves. Over the years, Aleksandr talked to and wrote about hundreds of musicians and bands, both Russian and foreign, including artists such as Patti Smith, The xx, Robert Smith of The Cure, Franz Ferdinand and many others.

While at Afisha, Aleksandr’s journalistic focus gradually shifted from cultural subjects to social issues. As an editor, he helped to create several issues of the magazine that were particularly resonant in the turbulent and troubling times of Vladimir Putin’s second reign; be it issues dedicated to the life of Russian LGBT community or to the Pussy Riot trial. As a reporter, he interviewed the leaders of Russian opposition, investigated the infamous government-sponsored educational camp Seliger and went on tour with a protest rapper Noize MC.

In 2014, feeling the need to further broaden his professional perspective and sharpen his journalistic skills, Aleksandr decided to leave his position at Afisha, became a fellow of Fulbright program and came to the oldest school of journalism in the U.S., at the University of Missouri, to get his master’s degree. In the summer of 2015, he also won the Muskie Internship Program and spent three months as an editorial intern at Newsweek, writing stories for the magazine and its digital version.

When he is not reporting, editing or studying, Aleksandr likes to travel, consume culture, and engage into endless and pointless conversations about the meaning of things.

Winning Op-Ed

Op-Ed: The Media and the American Presidential Campaign in 2016: In Russia and in the U.S.

Russian state media are probably upset that Jeb Bush dropped out of the Republican nomination race.

It would have been so easy to frame it for the Russian propagandist pundits who enforce the logic of the Western conspiracy against Russia and like to point out the hypocrisies of the American government. Another Clinton against another Bush; what could be more convenient? It is easy to imagine their sarcastic rhetoric: how could American officials criticize Vladimir Putin for staying in power for too long, if they had the members of two families ruling them for ages?

For better or for worse, the race that seemed inevitable a year ago isn’t anymore. Now the Russian media, both official and independent, have to get into all the insanities, grievances and escapades of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and so on. Or do they, really?

Frankly, Russians don’t care that much about American presidential elections. Maybe because, from afar, the Republicans and the Democrats do not seem that different from each other—at least didn’t, before both parties recently went berserk. Besides, the Russian audience just isn’t used to politics as show business. There, politics are about war and survival. It is amusing to compare Donald Trump to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a populist that has been promising to bring Russia “up from its knees” for 25 years, but the idea that people calling each other “liars” in the debate is major national news is practically irrelevant even to those Russians who follow international politics. In Russia, you don’t have debates. You have court proceedings. You don’t get attacked on Twitter; you get attacked physically—and, sometimes, killed. Unlike in the U.S., in Russia, the media don’t shape politics. There, politicians shape the media—sometimes to the point of unrecognizability.

Which brings us to the role that the American media have played in the current campaign. Indeed, contrary to how the Russian official press might present it, this election has been more about the media than about Putin. The media are being scrutinized, demonized and cursed. The media are being equally blamed for letting the liberals run afoul and letting the oligarchs take over the country. Each of the candidates that have been shaking up the American political system can be described as a reaction to the media. Bernie Sanders, with his persistent message and fiery uprightness, is the classic journalistic idea of “afflict the comforted and comfort the afflicted” come alive. Ted Cruz has brilliantly turned the alleged media bias into a bias against “mainstream media”: journalists are wolves in lamb’s skins pretending to be impartial observers; hence, practically any critique can be dismissed.

And then, of course, there’s Trump, the ultimate master of media ceremonies who manipulates the field to become news of the day, every day; who both courts and dismisses reporters, using their understandable bafflement and outrage to further boost his image with self-importance; who preaches upon hate and distrust, framing impudence as honesty and demagoguery as courage. Trump takes the idea of the political horserace, so hated by media scholars, to its limits and transcends them; he turns the presidential campaign into a reality show—the wilder the merrier. Trump epitomizes a curious paradox of Americans being dismissive about the media while not being able to stop consuming them. He is all about spin, not substance; in a way, he is himself the American media at their worst, the most sensationalist and, well, the most popular. Instead of a traditional spiral of silence, he is creating a spiral of noise—and it is unclear if anyone is able to get out.

By now, the only thing that seems inevitable in this election is that everybody will have to face the consequences of what happens in 2016. Be it the parties, which will have to redefine the relationship between the establishment and the actual voters. Be it the political strategists, who will have to try to develop some new system of checks and balances in order to return to business as usual. Or be it the media that will have to accept the fact that they got fooled into playing their own game. To deal with it in the right way is hard, but important. In Russia, we saw how, in 1996, the media voluntarily made a deal with the government and sacrificed their freedoms in order to stop the alleged communist comeback. They were never able to get them back. You don’t want that to happen in the U.S.