The launch of an online magazine dedicated to translating Russian-language news articles, editorials and blogs seems at once long overdue and well-timed. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Russia has undergone such a frenzy of noteworthy developments that the Western press has often struggled to keep up with them, much less make sense of their backstories, motivations or tragicomic details.
The idea for The Interpreter came wholly from Russians who believed that journalists, policymakers, analysts and interested laymen, not just in the United States but in Europe as well, would benefit from a kind of “Inopressa in reverse,” delivering Russian content unfiltered and unexpurgated. In this sense, The Interpreter, a special project of the Institute of Modern Russia, hopes to complement the scholarship which that think tank publishes.
The past year has heightened the urgency for this type of project. The crackdown on Russia’s civil society sector has been, in the words of Human Rights Watch, “unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.” New laws force foreign-funded NGOs and those that engage in “political activities” to register as “foreign agents,” a Stalinist-era term that denotes conspiracist subversion. Accordingly, the state’s definition of treason has also been expanded in such a way that human rights advocates are now at risk of falling afoul of it. Libel and slander have been re-criminalized. The fine for organizing or attending “illegal” protests has been increased to an amount close to the average Russian’s annual salary. And the Internet, for years the purview of unhindered expression and debate about Russian politics, is now subject to regulation on the pretext of combating “extremist” content.
Opposition leader and prominent anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny is currently on trial — even though the verdict is already known — for “embezzlement” and could face ten years in either prison or the gulag. (His real crime, as not even his state enemies publicly doubt, is his exposure of a raft of questionably enriched Russian officials with offshore real estate holdings.) Navalny’s fellow activists in the anti-Kremlin protest movement, such as the newly sentenced Konstanin Lebedev, are now being put through a legal Thermidor orchestrated by the Kremlin and carried out by Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin. All this, in a national climate in which more than half of the population agrees with Navalny’s designation of the ruling United Russia party as one of “crooks and thieves.”
In international politics, which is really inextricable from domestic politics, Russia is once again finding its way above-the-fold, much to the satisfaction of the governmental elite. April’s devastating terrorist attack in Boston has been linked to two men from the Caucasus, prompting new questions — and criticisms — about the efficacy of U.S.-Russian security cooperation. The Syria crisis, now well into its second year, is still largely reliant on Putin’s machinations toward Damascus and the United Nations Security Council. America’s newly adopted Magnitsky Act, which imposes visa bans and sanctions against human rights-abusing Russian officials, has been met in Moscow with a hysterical suite of retaliatory anti-American policies — the first in history that purports to equally protect orphans and arms dealers.
Too often, the heart of these stories lies in the parts that are reported in Russian but then overlooked or marginalized in the space of a 24-hour English-language news cycle. The logic-defying absurdity of some public servant caught with undeclared properties or bank accounts offshore; the bald-faced threats issued by Interior Ministry cops against those they’re meant to be impartially investigating; or the latest state-backed conspiracy theory as to who “really” was behind the latest atrocity in Syria or Massachusetts — this is what The Interpreter hopes to relay in real time.
Occasionally stepping out of our role as mere dragoman, we will offer our own interpretations (as it were) and commentaries on the material we translate. These will include pieces of reportage, interviews, and special reports that analyze broader trends or themes. Our stable of monthly columnists consists of Russians residing in four key cities — London, Washington, Paris and Moscow — where the everyday effects of Kremlin decision-making (or Kremlin lobbying) may be most keenly felt.
If the last year in Russia has been eventful, the coming months and years, we think, will prove even more so. So with that in mind, we invite you to follow The Interpreter online, tweet, Facebook and otherwise pass on all things wondrous, grisly, fascinating, entertaining and sad out of modern Russia.