They were turning away Russian reporters Thursday at the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. But when I showed up, I flashed my accreditation card and a big American smile and walked right in.
That’s because of something that rarely gets mentioned about Russia: A correspondent accredited with U.S. media here can enjoy privileges that his Russian media counterparts can only dream about.
The home of the Duma can be a surprisingly welcome, even friendly place for visitors — that is, if you're not from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or Voice of America, both of which were barred this week.
It was Moscow's retaliation to similar actions taken in Washington against Russia's RT network and news site, and another sign of the hard times the U.S.-Russian relationship has fallen upon.
Seen from only the outside, the Duma is a homogeneous collective of nationalist Russian angst, the podium from which Russian politicians rail in lockstep against the forces that they believe to be at the root of this new deep chill: a Russophobic American establishment, intent on isolating Moscow and blaming it for Hillary Clinton's loss in the 2016 elections.
These days, the Duma has plenty to rail at. On Wednesday, deputies, as members of parliament are called, were decrying what some see as an international conspiracy that led the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia from the Winter Olympics in South Korea. All week, they've railed against the treatment of RT in the United States as a violation of international norms on freedom of the press.
As the deputies barreled toward a 413-to-1 vote to bar Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, they extolled the democratic virtues of the Duma as opposed to the anti-Russian U.S. Congress, the elite and the media.
Until this week, it was still up in the air whether the Moscow bureau of The Washington Post would be tarred with the same brush. We had shown up in at least one report on a "blacklist," and the Russian Foreign Ministry kept its cards close, promising only a "surprise." For now, Russia decided to name only U.S. media that receive their funding from Congress, and not privately owned outlets such as The Post.
Having dodged the bullet so far, I resolved to spend some quality time in a body that, it must be said, is not heavily covered by foreign reporters. I had spent only two days here in the past year, to report a story in June about a plan to relocate hundreds of thousands of Moscow residents. And even that was not exactly necessary. The Duma broadcasts its sessions live on its website, and reporters, not allowed entry into the main hall, see the same thing on closed-circuit TV. I was one of only two people in the media room this week who covered the first post-Soviet Duma at its inaugural session in January 1994. Back then, the Duma was politically diverse, chaotic and hard to predict. Now, the Duma is caught up in the spirit of these bad times.
"The U.S. and Russia to some extent are in the thrall of the so-called myths about each other created during the last
20 years," Pyotr Tolstoy, a deputy speaker of the Duma, told me.
But although the animus toward the United States is the public face of the Duma, when an American reporter showed up in person, the house proved a rather accommodating place.
It starts at the door to the imposing structure, the former home of the Soviet state economic planning authority. The accreditation card that international media receive from Russia’s Foreign Ministry allows correspondents unfettered entry to both houses of parliament, as well as other government agencies, whereas Russian beat reporters have to get accredited to each body separately.
On Thursday, Russian reporters with one-time passes were turned away or allowed entry only if they were being met by a legislator. The reason appears to have been the unusual popularity of the day’s main event, a hearing on “legal and social aspects of sustainable development of agricultural territories.” (Sample quote, from Vladimir Kashin, a lawmaker from Russia’s Communist Party: “I want to clarify that grain is not something abstract. It is bread.”)
When I wandered into the media room, the handful of Russian reporters got a kick out of the fact that the “foreign agent” — even though I’m not one, they all jokingly call me that — made it in.
But the cordiality did not end with my Russian colleagues. All week, the press service made sure I made it into the events I needed, talked to the people I wanted to interview, had a good Internet connection, and felt no fear that I was going to be booted out at any moment.
Over at the Duma souvenir shop, where I perused the $85 boxes of handmade glass double-headed-eagle holiday tree ornaments, a helpful worker offered suggestions on how to pack them for the long trip home. A server at the special Duma food store laughed politely and agreed when I pointed out that the blue cheese being sold there looked suspiciously as if it were from Germany and, therefore, subject to sanctions against European Union food imports. Deputies are supposed to have preference in the line at the cafeteria, which serves hearty food at heavily subsidized low prices, but the cluster standing behind me let me go first.
The only request, voiced not just here but also by every Russian official I’ve spoken to in the past 400 days, is that I “write objectively.” And I’m trying really hard.
But how do I do that and not mention Russia's perennially poor showing in rankings of media and political freedoms, and that the country's many and often odd restrictions on civil liberties start their way into law right here?
The decision to decriminalize domestic violence, the law banning "homosexual propaganda," the legislation that targets human rights organizations, profanity in theaters, lacy women's underwear — all that was adopted by the Duma.
So I asked Tolstoy how I should write about all that and remain objective. He offered no hope.
“One should hardly expect adequacy or objectivity nowadays because there is mutual mistrust and an attempt to put responsibility for the bad things on the other side,” he said.
He also pointed out that while Congress rescinded RT’s accreditation, the Duma merely barred Radio Free Europe and Voice of America from its premises. Remember, other correspondents for U.S. media here need only the one accreditation card that gets us in when reporters for Russian outlets get turned around.
If Congress changes its mind, the Duma will let the American outfits back in, he said.
So who will win this battle of wills between the U.S. and Russian legislators?
Here, Tolstoy picked up his iPhone and TV remote and attempted to draw on the descriptive abilities of his great-great-grandfather, the novelist Leo, to make an analogy that was at once incomprehensible and appropriate.
“It’s like comparing this TV remote control and this phone,” Tolstoy said. “The phone is more sophisticated, and 300 years were spent developing it, and only 30 years were spent on this control. But if you beat one against the other, the one that is harder and stupider will win.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report gave an incorrect date for the inaugural session of the first post-Soviet Duma. It was January 1994, not December 1993.