Ever since 2016, America hasn’t been able to get Russia off the brain. There’s the alleged election hack, the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and now the Democratic lawsuit claiming conspiracy between Russia, Trump, and WikiLeaks. But what if we’ve been thinking, tweeting, and talking about it wrong the whole time? That’s what Lily Capozzalo and Smith Freeman say.
Freeman and Capozzalo first met at Reed College, where they quickly became best friends. But since graduation, their paths have diverged: Freeman, 25, is a software developer in Brooklyn; Capozzalo, 26, works with cryptocurrency in St. Petersburg, Russia. Together, they’re the co-hosts of “She’s In Russia," a weekly podcast that aims to re-humanize the U.S.-Russia relationship via a series of friendly phone calls on everything from Putin's presidency to Moscow's trash collapse. BUST spoke with Freeman and Capozzalo to discuss political othering, media sensationalism, and the best Russian cheesecakes you can find on Brighton Beach. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What made you decide to start this podcast?
Freeman: It's a combination of two things. With the [Russian] annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia and the West have been engaged in what is now often called the “new Cold War.” That really reached a fever pitch around 2016. We were having this ongoing conversation, and these things were happening concurrently, and then it just occurred to us on the phone one day—maybe we should be capturing these conversations.
Capozzalo: I moved to Russia in the fall of 2014, just a little after [the annexation of] Crimea. And the other dynamic that was important is that I was often complaining about how Russia was portrayed in Western media.
What bothered you about the West’s portrayal of Russia?
Capozzalo: It's a simplified approach. There's a really huge focus on the figure of Putin as this mysterious demonic all-powerful being, that has nothing to do with real people who have real lives. And so it's the "Putin controlling people" and this sort of abstraction of Russia that bothered me. It’s not just simplified, it's not just abstract, but it's negative. It's very negative. You also get this harkening back to stereotypes—very easy stereotypes—from Cold War rhetoric.
Why do you think we’re so quick to create this negative abstraction?
Capozzalo: There’s this history of it: Cold War rhetoric, and the habitual comfort of falling into stereotypes that are already prepared for us.
Freeman: The other side is that in many ways, it's politically expedient. This is the example given by people like Glenn Greenwald and Masha Gessen and anybody that's paying attention to the Russia-gate stuff, which is that there's this massive upset in that Hillary Clinton lost the election, and liberals (who we’re a part of ourselves) needed a story to tell themselves about why this thing happened. And a good scapegoat was the “demonic other” of Russia.
Capozzalo: It makes it easier, to wage this campaign. "Oh, it was the Russians, and that's why." And we're not saying that these accusations are or are not true, that's not really the point--but we are looking at the role it plays. And de-legitimizing Trump is a really important factor for the Left in general.
What do you think we should be talking about instead of election meddling, or Mueller, or Putin? What are we missing?
Capozzalo: This kind of comes back to the overall goal of our podcast, which is to give a fuller more nuanced image of Russia—of Russian history, everyday life—for a non-Russian audience. Part of the goal of this "creating a fuller image" is to re-humanize the concept of Russia.
Freeman: This is something that I'm hijacking from other people, but generally the problem with anti-x rhetoric of any country or ethnicity is that it primes the pump for people to be less sensitive to actual events of violence. With Russia, you know, we both have troops in Syria. And you can turn that corner really quickly from a Cold War—which is rhetoric and information warfare based—to a hot war where people are actually dying.
Capozzalo: Right. So the dehumanizing has a real concrete danger and threat. The most recent episode we did was covering the fire in a mall in the Siberian region of Kemervo. And one of the reasons we covered that was because it's a very horrible tragedy, and it was occupying the minds of the entire country. But that was also a way of introducing the humanity and everyday life of a particular group of people. That's the kind of thing where you get a glimpse into, via this horrible tragedy, yes, but into a smaller little window of Russia that you wouldn't otherwise.
That’s a good point. In Western media, the fire was mostly covered as “there was a fire, and people are blaming Putin.”
Capozzalo: Right. And that nicely fits our narrative—like "oh wait, this is something we can also blame Putin for.” And that's used for a very particular purpose, and off we go.
On a happier note, what plans do you have any plans for future episodes?
Freeman: We haven't done any episodes on food, so we thought of a few foods we wanted to do full episodes on that are quintessentially Russian. For example, we talk about them in almost every interview, but they're called sirki—they're essentially these bite-sized cheesecakes that are covered in a hard chocolate shell, and they're SO delicious. They've been produced since the Soviet Union times, and you can get them in Brighton Beach in New York, which we did once, and it was great. But for us it's also just about staying at it and being consistent every week, producing something. Which is in and of itself enough of a challenge.
Photo Credit: Smith Freeman
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Victoria Albert is a Boston-born graduate journalism student. She covers reproductive justice, health policy, and feminism, and has written for In These Times and Alternet. She tweets at @victoria_alb3.