I would like to respond to Dmitri Travin’s demolition of my article about Valentina Matviyenko – and in so doing respond to the many, many other Russians who have objected to various aspects of the piece.
First, in general. If I had written a similar piece about a rising politician in Britain, the US, or anywhere else I have reported from, it would have been pretty much ignored or lightly dismissed as the speculation of one journalist. I was using a reasonably common device to make an article interesting and accessible to non-specialist readers of a British newspaper. No more than that. I was completely taken aback by how seriously it was taken in the Russian blogosphere.
Matviyenko: a Putin person
Now, the fact that it was taken so seriously by Russians, and for the most part negatively so, is – I actually think – positive. It means that, for all the foreign criticism of media freedom in Russia, there is a lively discussion on the internet that is quite different from the message coming through the official media. I am quite glad, though, not to be a foreign correspondent based in Russia at the moment, as this amount of scrutiny could quickly induce fatigue, and maybe incline you to look over your shoulder too much.
Valentina Matviyenko: Meet Russia's Thatcher, the chemist who could end up in the Kremlim, by Mary Dejevsky in St Petersburg, Independent, Sept. 6, 2010
Matviyenko for President? I think not!, Dmitri Travin, openDemocracy Russia, 9 September 2010
In the response to the Matviyenko article, I also think there may be an aspect of Russians looking at Western reports through their own prism. This piece was not ‘commissioned’, it was not ‘paid for’, or even encouraged by anyone, not by the St Petersburg governor’s office or by our newspaper’s Russian owners. It was the result of a question and answer meeting between members of the Valdai Club of Russia specialists and the Governor at the Smolny. Many of us found Ms Matviyenko impressive in her responses. I was especially struck by the changes since I had last seen her in action. That was the genesis of the article.
I repeat: no one commissioned it, no one encouraged it. I proposed it to The Independent’s foreign desk; neither the Governor, nor the paper’s owner, nor indeed the paper’s editor would have known about it until it appeared in the paper last Monday (6 September).
There is also a distinction, that may not be appreciated in Russia, between how British newspapers and those in America or in Russia work. Our editors expect reports from abroad to have an element of individuality and judgement. They like that. We don’t draw as clear a line as American papers do between reporting and comment. That may good or bad, but that’s how it is. So the Matviyenko piece – and I think this is clear from how I wrote it – was based on subjective impressions and judgements. It was not intended to be a rounded profile of Ms Matviyenko. You may disagree with my opinions, drawn from the Smolny meeting and from walking around St Petersburg, but what I wrote is what I found.
To the specifics
In principle nothing is impossible in Russian politics. President Putin is perfectly capable of nominating possibly not his Labrador Connie, but certainly Valentina Ivanovna Matviyenko as guardian of the presidential chair. There are, however, no serious indications that Mrs Matviyenko has any more chance of such a career leap than anyone else from the Russian political beau monde. - Dmitri Travin, openDemocracy Russia
- Ms Matviyenko has no chance of becoming President. That may be absolutely true. The idea was to point out that there were other impressive Russian politicians around, not to nominate her for President. It had absolutely nothing to do with any speculation from 2006, and the timing was completely coincidental. The Valdai Club meets in September; we were visiting north-west Russia, Ms Matviyenko agreed to meet us.
- the Gazprom tower: Ms Matviyenko was asked about this specifically and I summarised how she dealt with it. She mentioned Foster as the architect, and I checked that this was so.
The article contains serious mistakes in Matviyenko's biography. She was Deputy Prime Minister, not a Deputy Minister. The author of the article clearly doesn't understand Russian government hierarchy: Deputy Minister is such an insignificant post that it would be an impossible jumping-off point for becoming Governor of St Petersburg. - Dmitri Travin, openDemocracy Russia
- Deputy Minister: sorry. I don’t know how the ‘Prime’ word got dropped. It should have been there. But for British readers, not familiar with multiple deputy prime ministers – we only have one – this would not negate the point.
- Thatcher similarity: I’m not arguing this as a qualification for high office, but observing the fact that several female leaders have been natural scientists and began as outsiders. It’s just interesting. Independence of thought? Thatcher only became independent once she got the top job. She did not stick her neck out before that.
There are actually many more Petersburgers moving to Moscow than there are rich Muscovites buying second flats in St Petersburg. It was a problem in Soviet times and Matviyenko has naturally not been able to reverse this very obvious trend. To have any hope of job fulfillment or a career in today's Russia, a move to the capital nearer to big money and the centre of decision-making sooner or later becomes essential. - Dmitri Travin, openDemocracy Russia
- I was told (not in St Petersburg, but in Moscow, as it happens) that several thousand households moved from Moscow to St Petersburg last year. There are clearly different accounts of this. I don’t dispute that decisions are made in Moscow. That is a reason for some to move to Moscow, but it does not mean the movement is all that way.
- the contentment of people: an entirely subjective judgement. But that is how it seemed to me after visiting St Petersburg for many years. I was not comparing it with other places, but with St Petersburg before.
- corruption: I did not make any judgement about whether she had succeeded in tackling corruption. I did mention some of the measures taken, which – to me – contrasted with the hand-wringing fatalism of many in the Russian leadership.
- Matviyenko’s son. I didn’t go into this – because, as I said, this was a subjective article based on our question and answer session only. Incidentally, allegations of nepotism are hardly unique to Russia. Sarkozy’s son is another example.