Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

2 Non-Stories to Sate West

Last year there was a story in the British newspapers about how Russian tourists were flocking to a town called Blackpool.


Now Blackpool is Britain's Coney Island -- or Coney Island as it was perhaps in the 1950s: a seaside resort full of fast food and candy floss, donkey rides and penny arcades. It has beaches and lidos and miles and miles of little bed-and-breakfasts. And everything in it has always seemed like a faded echo of the past: grandpas taking a paddle with their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchieves on the top of their heads; large women in one-piece swimsuits spilling ectoplasmically out of deck-chairs; and teenagers sulkily preoccupied with trying to find a place where their parents won't see what they're up to.


Blackpool, in other words, is a throwback to a time when "abroad" was not available to British holidaymakers with limited funds. It is both domestic and garish, and -- like most places dedicated to luring families into giving up their cash -- more than just a bit sad.


Given all this, then, the British press had a field day at the news that the Russians had arrived in Blackpool in droves. For it proved to the hacks, once and for all -- so they thought -- a number of things they had always suspected: that Russians were (a) hopelessly behind the times, (b) deeply mired in some permanent (Stalinist) 1950s, (c) vulgar, and (d) totally deluded about what constituted chic in the West.


It also allowed them to conflate into one story their own middle-class prejudices about the British working-class-at-play with their assumptions about Russians. Buried beneath all the copy produced was the notion that Russians (like the British working-class) were fat and unfashionable, noisy, rude, tasteless and generally on-the-make -- and that they therefore deserved to be corralled away from the (decent) rest of us in just such places as Blackpool.


The point of this story, though, is that none of it ever happened. A famous expatriate Russian journalist called Vitaly Vitaliyev actually went up to Blackpool -- which is something the rest of the hacks seem never to have thought of doing. And he could find not a single Russian anywhere in sight. The probable reason? The only Russian tourists anywhere in the area had by this time been snapped up by the BBC for a documentary based on this ubiquitous tale -- which, by the time it came out, had more to say about the naivete, greed and disorganization of a particular British tour operator than ever it did about the (as it happens) well-educated and patient Russians involved.


I was reminded of these matters, I have to say, during the recent elections. There was another story -- rather like the Blackpool story -- which continually surfaced at the time in the Western press. This story claimed that every single flight from Moscow to anywhere in the West that was remotely interesting had been booked for the days immediately following both rounds one and two. The assumption was that if Boris Yeltsin failed to be re-elected, every hood and biznesmen in the country had already made his plans. He would take off, join up with his money -- already stashed in the West -- and not come back until the Commies were out of power again.


Now what I want to know is: Was there any more truth in this story than there was in the Blackpool one? I mean, given that Yeltsin came out front in both elections, did the hoods etc. in question in the end stay home to celebrate, leaving ghost-planes to travel more or less empty of passengers? Or was the whole thing just another non-story, based on the (undoubted) fact that both rounds fell bang in the middle of the tourist season. Given this, the Western press could equally have said -- if they had had a mind to -- that Russians were delaying their holidays in order to vote and were therefore plainly committed to the processes of democracy.


The truth is, though, that the first explanation of this phenomenon fitted -- like the Blackpool story -- the prejudices, if not of journalists, then at least of foreign editors. It was literally too good to check; and so it ran and ran.


There was a time when Russia was thought to be a difficult, complicated place, to be found in the details. But these days, Western readers (and those who serve them) seem to require big, simpleminded stories if they are to be even remotely interested. These stories usually come in twos (with variations), until one or other of them is ousted and a new member takes over. At the moment we have "Lebed vs. Chernomyrdin" and "Yeltsin's health." When the British correspondents go away on vacation, though, we'll no doubt get this year's holiday version of "Blackpool."