Dances with Bears
Foreword by Ajay Goyal
There have been just five great journalists on Russia. Greatness in that fast and frail medium of writing must be judged by the accuracy of the reporting, the sustained length of time covered; far-sightedness in prediction; and a philosophy of interpretation that time with the advantage of hindsight, and nationality and the disadvantage of prejudice, don’t make irrelevant and obsolete. Four of the five are Astolphe de Custine, a Frenchman who wrote in 1839, mostly of St.Petersburg and Moscow; Anton Chekhov in his reports on Sakhalin in 1895; Vladimir Lenin before the 1917 Revolution; and John Reed, the American who reported the revolution itself. During the Soviet period that lasted until 1991, noone qualifies according to these criteria.
Since then, Russian journalism has sunk further into the depths of mendacity and corruption than the Soviet censors were ever able to dispatch their charges. The fifth great journalist, arriving in 1989 in the last years of the Soviet Union, and writing from Moscow today, is the only credible reporter of this period – John Helmer. While he wrote on technical, mostly business topics for dozens of newspapers around the world, Helmer also produced a regular weekly column of reflection on the issues and individuals dominating Russia, as he saw it. To the series of those columns he gave the collective title, “Dances with Bears”. That was intended to echo for readers the modesty of the hero of the American film, “Dances with Wolves”, who found himself in the wild and hostile territory of the American West of the 19th century, observing sympathetically, and watched warily by the Indians, the wolves, and his own people. The title was also an echo of Custine’s observation of the Russian noblemen and influentials he encountered. “Such ill-bred and yet well-informed, well-dressed, clever, and self-confident Russians,” Custine wrote, “are trained bears, the sight of which inclines me to regret the wild ones: they have not yet become polished men, and they are already spoiled savages.”
Savagery is in what Helmer saw, not in what he used to report it, caustic though the wit of his writing clearly is. A decade after the first column appeared on February 10, 1996, The Russia Journal provided its archive of the “dances”, but the Journal, its website and archives were attacked electronically by assailants intent on preventing publication and destroying file records. Many months of careful restoration were required before The Russia Journal could reappear, and for the archives to be restored. There are more than 350 individual Dances with Bears. Here they are again, so that the reader can judge what the future holds for such a beast – and also for the reporter who dares to dance with it.