Yes, there they were: palm trees in the place where a country known for its cruelly cold winters was planning to hold the Winter Olympics. What a treat it was to feel the mild air of the Black Sea coast on face and fingers used to being stung by temperatures well below zero. In Moscow, far to the north, the thermometers touched -25ºC that week.
One of the great privileges about reporting on Russia was the travel to places well off the tourist routes. Sochi, as a popular seaside resort, hardly fell into that category, but seeing it out of season, and at the start of its bid to land the Winter Olympics, gave a rare perspective.
Russia is not always the easiest place to work as a reporter. As a foreign correspondent – I worked there for both the BBC and Reuters TV – you sometimes struggle to get access to officials and information. Stray beyond the limits set by the authorities, which are often based on Soviet ideas of controlling the foreign press, and you may find yourself in trouble. I discovered that when I was detained while making what I thought was a fairly uncontroversial documentary about warmer winter weather.
More recently, American journalist David Satter was refused a Russian visa. Satter’s situation was ostensibly due to an earlier visa infringement. But given his earlier critical reporting of Russia, the suspicion remains that the decision could be linked to his journalism.
These experiences are trivial compared to the risks which some Russian journalists are forced to run. Russia: where journalist murders go unpunished is the blunt assessment of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya – who was known for her critical reporting of the Russian government’s response to violent unrest in the North Caucasus – is perhaps the highest profile case.
My first impression on landing in Sochi that day in February 2007 was that there was a massive amount, perhaps too much, to be done for the bid to succeed. I had travelled there to cover the visit of the International Olympic Committee who were coming to consider Russia’s plans.
As the week went on, it seemed more and more likely it might win after all. In a country where looking after the press is not always an official priority, I remember a schedule free of hitches both for those of us working for international news organisations, and our Russian colleagues. The extent to which organisers went to make things work for the press suggested their bid was serious. They wanted positive coverage.
Still, given Russia’s history, whether under Tsar or Soviet Commissar, of seeking to control what can be said and written, it is tempting to conclude now that, after a brief period of chaotic freedom in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, the news media are tightly controlled.
Certainly, the recent announcement on the future of RIA Novosti shows that mainstream news organisations are under a great deal of scrutiny.
Yet in Russia, as elsewhere today, this is far from the complete picture. I have recently been conducting interviews with Russian journalists for a book chapter I am writing about post-Soviet journalism. One emerging theme is that, while there is less diversity of opinion in established news media than there was in the 1990s, the internet offers real opportunity to circumvent that.
A little historical context is useful here. Writing in 2012 about the 19th century origins of Russian journalism, Elena Vartanova at Moscow State University, wrote, “Despite severe censorship pressures, Russian journalists, who were identified mostly as writers, laid down the foundations for public debates.”
Perhaps because of its political systems, Russia has never really had a tradition of the kind of impartial journalism so widely valued in the English-speaking world. Journalists are often seen as “writers”: expected to express opinions, and offer solutions, rather than simply report.
The internet is an ideal forum for such writing to flourish. Nor does it need to come from only established journalists. The New York Times has highlighted the work done by anti-corruption campaigners in challenging official figures for the cost of the games.
So while established news organisations may feel the restrictions which come with the increased security at Sochi – CNN’s Nic Robertson recently tweeted that TV equipment could not be taken into a hotel – this will not be the full story.
Just as the presence of palm trees does not mean you’re in an unsuitable place for winter sports, among a literate and technologically capable population such as Russia’s, so restrictions on mainstream media do not mean there’s no freedom of expression. You just need to know where to look.