“There is Nothing Outside the Beast”: A Conversation with Kevin Rothrock

I recently spoke with Kevin Rothrock, Senior Editor at the English-language edition of Meduza. Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is reproduced below. Thanks very much to Marlene A. Artov for all her help in transcribing this interview.

MV: How did you come to work for Meduza? What trajectory led you to that point?

KR: Back when I was studying at UConn, I was also Project Editor for a website called Global Voices, where we were reporting on Russian-Internet-based news stories. The timing for me was kind of fortuitous, this being the beginning of all that draconian Internet legislation in Russia. We would also write about different subsegments of Russian Internet culture. I really liked it. I had a beat, essentially, kind of unintentionally.

At the time Meduza launched, I’d been with Global Voices for something like two years. Somebody at Meduza knew me, and by December 2014 I was already doing some trial work, and then I was part-time for about a year and a half. After that, I worked as an online editor at the Moscow Times for six months before returning to Meduza full-time. The timing of that offer was again fortuitous, because it came just as the Moscow Times was being gutted. So it worked out well for me.

MV: Can you describe a day in the life of Kevin Rothrock as Meduza functionary?

KR: I usually wake up at four or five, and then I scan the various news sources that I follow, starting with Meduza itself, to decide if there are any breaking stories that I can translate. My guiding star is always, “is there something that doesn’t already exist somewhere else in English or isn’t so top-level that Associated Press writers will have it in twenty minutes?” The stories I’m translating are wacky enough that nobody else is going to write about them, because they’re too granular. Most of the English-language publications, with the exception of a few specialized ones focusing on art or culture, or that work on disinformation, are not going to be covering the nitty-gritty of Russian domestic politics, or certain aspects of Russian culture. So that’s kind of the bread-and-butter of what English-language Meduza is. It’s the granular political stuff and the granular cultural stuff where we can be useful. So that’s what I focus on when translating stories, or reading them in Russian and re-writing them in a shorter, punchier, English way.

MV: That all sounds like blogging.

KR: Well, it’s what I have experience in. I went to Global Voices from blogging. Before any of that, I worked for about two years at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the conservative think tank.

MV: Please explain!

KR: After I dropped out of Berkeley with a History MA, I moved to Baltimore, where I figured I would try my hand at the think tank world — it seemed like something to do. And AEI was the first and only place that responded to me and said “yes, we are looking for a research assistant to work with our Russia scholar.” So I took that job. While there, I started blogging anonymously, because I was so angry about everything I was seeing. I don’t recommend it! It could have easily gotten me fired or backfired in some other way, though I managed to do it without losing my job. And then, I was able to take that momentum and continue blogging. The AEI experience is what got me the job at Meduza — and here I am, so many years later.

MV: That’s an amazing story. You’ve seen the belly of the beast!

KR: I suppose. Тhis might just sound like a standard lefty complaint, but there’s not a whole lot of debate within the Russia expertise community in the United States. So as grim a reputation as AEI has when it comes to Russia policy, they are not that different from anybody else who is advising about Russia. That was true then, and it’s still true now. Even though Trump occasionally says nice things about Putin, everybody in his Cabinet is very hawkish. The Democrats are now more hawkish than ever. “The belly of the beast” is not wrong, but everything is the beast. There is nothing outside the beast.

MV: Since you brought up Trump, I want to ask: has anything changed since he was elected? Have you experienced different rhythms in your work?

KR: Well, for one thing, Americans are now more interested in certain Russia stories. But that interest is fueled by partisan hopes that there’s this smoking gun against Trump. And that’s basically it — it’s not like people actually care about Russia.

Again, I look for the granular stuff, because I am, by training, a Russian Area Studies person. So I want the stories that seem to capture something of the essence of what makes Russia special. Those stories are the ones I want to read, and they are also the ones I feel are most useful to translate and publish. But those are not the stories that most Americans, or newcomer Russia watchers, care about. They just want to read anything related to Trump. They want to know if there is some dirt that shows he committed the felony that could get him out of office. Beyond that, they don’t care. It’s a perfectly legitimate interest, but for my purposes it’s annoying, because it’s not what I’m trying to do.

Recently, there was this sex worker who was detained in Sheremetyevo, a Belarussian citizen known as Nastya Rybka. She was in the news a lot, and Meduza got this huge spike in traffic because Rachel Maddow Tweeted a link to one of our stories. On the one hand, it’s like, “how nice, people are reading us,” but on the other hand, I feel like people only care about this story because they think Rybka has secret tapes that prove the missing link with Trump. But I see no evidence of that.

The story itself is not insignificant because, at least according to what Navalny said — and he’s the one who got the whole thing rolling — it’s evidence that Oleg Deripaska bribed current Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko by taking him on a yacht and treating him to prostitutes or whatever. And that’s a pretty interesting scandal. There’s not much substance there for the collusion aspect, but Navalny highlighted it and was able to generate an enormous amount of attention for the story. So kudos to him, but it’s annoying to see people misunderstanding the significance. And that’s typical. If there’s an explosion of American interest for a story about Russia these days, it’s usually something like that, where people are not really “getting it,” as far as I can tell.

MV: When you talk about your readers, you almost sound like the paradigmatic nineteenth-century Russian intelligent, where beyond entertaining the audience, the idea was to create the desired reader. It’s almost the opposite of the Buzzfeed clickbait model, where you cater to what people already want the most…

KR: I definitely am still guilty of some pandering. We wrote about the Rybka story, for instance, although I focused on the parts that I think make it important. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked at the headlines, because the headlines are trying to bring in readers. So I’ve used the term “sex-trainer” in every headline I’ve written about this, and I’m also throwing in “Russiagate,” because that’s what people care about.

MV: How do you reconcile those two seemingly conflicting imperatives? You want to pick the stuff that is granular and interesting and unexpected, but you also obviously want to have readers.

KR: It’s easy. The body of the text is for me, and the headline is for them. Honestly, that’s pretty much the division there. I write the text exactly as I think it ought to be. With the headline, I just try to make it interesting to people and pander.

MV: You have a podcast, and obviously you’re also a translator, and you Tweet. How do all of those things come together in your persona as a news editor?

KR: Without Twitter, I don’t think I would have been able to get involved in journalism at all. It’s a surrogate for being there. It allows me to be in contact with the traditional journalists in Moscow, or the experts and analysts in New York or D.C. or Europe. Twitter allows me to follow and share and comment on their work, and to share with them my own writing and translations. It’s a way to be in communication with that community. Without it, I probably would never have been able to break in. So that’s the value of Twitter for me.

As for the podcast, I’m hoping to incorporate it into my work at Meduza, which now itself has podcasts. The idea was to produce something similar to what I’d like to do for Meduza. I’ve pitched it to them, and they seem interested, but it hasn’t gotten off the ground just yet. Hopefully it will soon.

The other thing that the podcast does for me is this: on Twitter, the interactions you have with people are extreme. You’re either showering them with praise for their good work, or telling them to go to hell because they’re hellspawn or awful or stupid. It’s easy to become uncivil; it’s like a 0 to 60 kind of speed. But on the podcast, I’ve noticed that when I’m discussing someone’s work, when it’s someone I’ve met in person, it’s so much easier to find the right tone. And usually it’s a civil tone. But it’s so easy for me to slip into this really awful, cruel way of speaking when it comes to people’s work, because I disagree with a lot of the expertise and reporting out there. And there’s nothing mysterious about that. I have generally leftist views, or, in terms of international relations, a kind of realist or neo-realist way of looking at things. And I look at the podcast as kind of a prophylactic, a way for me to keep myself in check. Plus, it’s just fun! The people I talk to work on Russia for a living, so they typically have interesting experiences to share.

MV: On the topic of cruelty and being caustic, do you ever get trolled?

KR: Yeah, I suppose. I haven’t experienced any kind of serious harassment or anything like that. I’m not that public of a person. If I were on TV, I’m sure I would get all kinds of horrible hate mail. But the trolling I get is usually specific to a particular Tweet or a particular story. On an individual level, I don’t have any problem with people disagreeing with me. I understand why they’re doing it and I’m not angry about it. It’s not all beyond the pale. It’s just business as usual, or life, or whatever. Name-calling is a spectrum, I think. Someone calling you an idiot on Twitter…

MV: Yeah, that’s just, like, Twitter.

KR: Right, like, get over yourself. Be thankful that someone cares about you enough to use a word like that. Of course it’s another thing if someone sics an anti-Semitic mob on you, or looks up your address, or reveals personal information. I haven’t dealt with anything like that. The most annoying recurrent teasing or trolling that I get is people who are convinced that Meduza is funded by some terrible international conspiracy…

MV: George Soros!

KR: Or Khodorkovsky. You name it, and people think there is a chance it’s funding Meduza. Like Buzzfeed, Meduza has tons of promoted content on their site, including integrated advertising. So I have trouble understanding why this conspiracy theory is so popular. I can only assume these people don’t really read Meduza, because if they did, they’d see that it features so many ads that it’s obviously a major source of revenue. Anyway, that’s kind of the worst that I deal with, and it’s not so bad.

Twitter and social media bring out the adolescent in people. I’m trying not to encourage that in myself because it’s juvenile and stupid. But at the same time, at my fingertips are 20,000 people I can complain to. It’s often tempting. But the people I’d want to criticize are people I want to be able to…

MV: …continue to speak with.

KR: Right. Maybe I don’t like their work, but either they are fine people, or I’m hoping they could put me in touch with someone later, and so on. I’m really glad that my original blog is no longer accessible, because when I was first blogging I was basically name-calling and being very angry. It was not with great foresight.

MV: But that’s how Navalny started, too. I feel like blogging often comes from a place of righteous indignation.

KR: Yeah, I think so. A lot of his blogging and even some of his earlier political activism is rooted in ethnic nationalism. And he stepped away from that and wisely pivoted to anti-corruption work, which is more palatable both in the West and in civilized Russian society.

MV: So how does having to cultivate sources and contacts affect the kind of discourse-shaping that you do? I mean, 20,000 people is a lot.

KR: Hopefully for the better! Because I’m not sure that the things I would say if I didn’t fear for access would be these amazing nuggets of truth and wisdom. If I made all of my tweeting overtly ideological, I would just alienate people who disagree. I think that if being overly ideological is a threat to your access, you might think about stepping back. To some degree, that consideration has caused me to pivot away from more opinionated stuff. Blogging is often polemical. That’s how I personally got into it, but I find it to be kind of exhausting.

MV: Do you have an ideal reader, and what do you want that person to come away with?

KR: Every day, I’m struggling to do something that I think is “value added.” I’m not in the street; the things I write about are not stories I singlehandedly discovered. So there has to be something extra there, and with each story I publish, I have some idea of what that “extra” is. When I put it out there, I hope that readers see it too.

For instance, I recently translated a Meduza-featured story about economic inequality in Russia and how it’s skyrocketed since the fall of the Soviet Union. And there are two important angles here. First, the story that’s often told about the Putin regime is that he reined in the oligarchs and gave wealth back to the people, and that’s why they love him. But if someone reads this story, what they get is that wealth inequality has only gotten worse since Putin took over. And that might be interesting from a counterintuitive point of view. So I would hope readers come away with that.

The second angle is that worldwide inequality has grown everywhere except Western Europe, and it’s particularly bad in the United States. One of the ironies here is that Russia’s inequality has grown so quickly and so much because they have essentially adopted an American-style indifference to wealth disparity. Which is interesting because Russia and the United States are so often pitted against one another as these ideological opposites. But if you read this inequality story on Meduza, you might think, “oh, I guess that view is not quite right.” So that’s what I mean by “value added” — that kind of revision of modern thinking.

MV: My last question is this: do you have any advice for me, editor to editor?

KR: This may fly in the face of what I’ve been saying, but the imagined reader should be someone who doesn’t give a shit about what you are trying to tell them. So the flavor of what you’re writing should have a little something that holds their attention for a second longer. Maybe it’s some unexpected flourish here or there, a flash of colloquialism that feels out of place, but without completely contradicting professional norms.

MV: Estrange your reader!

KR: I try to think of myself before I got involved in Russia stuff — my 18-year-old self. And that’s who I imagine is reading my work, that younger version of myself. It’s not as though 18-year-old Kevin was without preferences and privileges and history and so on, but all the same. My imagined reader is me at 18 — some suburban bum who is looking to be entertained more than anything, but who has a guilty conscience, a feeling that he should know a thing or two as well.