Maxim Sokolov, 41, hardly looks the part of a Russian TV journalist. The stocky, bearded writer looks more like a 19th century Russian kupets who you can picture calling out to a waiter in the traktir, “Hey, man! Bring twenty bliny! And don’t forget the salmon!”
Sokolov laughs at the vision and smiles, stroking his mustache, “A shto? Delo khoroshee!” (“Well, why not? It’s good stuff!”).
But Sokolov is a journalist and a very good one. His language is bright, colorful and original and he speaks and writes with the same gusto as a kupets devouring bliny. It has been that way since 1989, when Sokolov was a columnist first at Kommersant, then at Russky Telegraph and now finally at Izvestia. Through it all, his witty observations on Russian domestic and foreign politics always garner attention. So much so that ORT political commentator Mikhail Leontiev invited Sokolov to be his coanchor on the popular prime time commentary program Odnako (“However”).
Sokolov took the offer but no one at ORT could get him to shave off his beard. “So,” Sokolov said, chuckling, “when I fell asleep from fatigue in my armchair, these guys seized the moment and trimmed my beard with scissors.”
Even though his job on TV means he must tailor his commentaries to a broader, less intelligentsia-type audience than with his writings for Izvestia, Sokolov does not stoop to cheap colloquialisms or the kind of pulp Russian favored by so many TV journalists. Instead, Sokolov’s commentaries brim with well-aged Russian idioms like “predavatsya prekrasnodushiyu” [literally, “to indulge in pretty soulfulness” — i.e. to remain lax and naive”].
Sokolov’s erudition and wit makes short work of Russia’s contemporary politicians. In 1999 his best articles were collected in the book, Poetic View of the Russians on Their History, which won a special award from the Russian Press Ministry in early 2000.
“In Yeltsin’s time we had so many colorful figures in the spotlight,” Sokolov recalls. “Take Boris Abramovich [Berezovsky] alone, or Yeltsin’s bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov. Or such a figure as Tanya Dyachenko [Yeltsin’s daughter].”
But today, Sokolov says, almost wistfully, Russian politicians no longer commit such “homeric stupidities” as when Yeltsin conducted a German band during the withdrawal of Russian troops from Germany.
Today, Sokolov says, political life here is following “a rather calm, bureaucratic course.” It may be tougher work for satirists. But he admits that “it is better for the country.”
And yet, there is always something to laugh at in Russian politics. For instance, “the unreasonable fans of the West,” like the leader of Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, who lately has taken to claiming that Russia is turning into “a corporative state.” Sokolov scoffs that the politician doesn’t know of what he speaks: “Yavlinsky’s improvisation on the theme of a big corporation is like saying that a conservative party consists of graduates of the Moscow Conservatory named for Pyotr Tchaikovksy ...”
When Right Force party leader Boris Nemtsov daily spins out radical political plans (like his recent idea of splitting Chechnya in two parts — mountains and valleys — separated with a well-protected border), Sokolov notes that “our right discredits the very idea of a right political force.”
What is the “right” political ideology to this journalist? Sokolov said he feels that “any irreproachable ideology is inhumane,” but said he gravitates to more traditional, pragmatic views which he boils down to “God, Fatherland, Family, Private Property.”
This of course puts Sokolov at odds with Russia’s Reds, the Communist Party. “... Comrade Zyuganov [the Communist Part head] hasn’t treated us to anything new,” Sokolov observes. “The Communists want to create a shadow government. Well, they have been creating one for five years already. On the one hand, the Communists find themselves vis-a-vis the Powers That Be in an ‘irreconcilable opposition,’ on the other hand, they are in a sort of ‘reconcilable opposition’ ...”
Of late, Sokolov has given approval to the current Kremlin leadership’s affinity for more conservative, pragmatic values and policies. “The people understand that, without bringing more order to Russia, without Russia standing by her national interests, the country won’t reach a state of well-being,” he explains.
“One shouldn’t be afraid of a healthy, strong Russia,” Sokolov adds. “Of course, a normal, strong Russia can be a competitor. But, on the other hand you can’t keep the country in state of disarray for too long — in so doing we create the foundation for a ‘not so adequate reaction.’ We faced such a ‘not so adequate reaction’ in Germany in the 1930s and we all remember how it ended up.”
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