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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Net List Balances Views on Russia




David Johnson is the person you go to for the other side of the story.


Since 1996, Johnson has spent hundreds of hours of his free time putting out an e-mail newsletter called Johnson's Russia List, a broad -- make that very broad -- spectrum of opinion, journalism and scholarship about the motherland for 2,300 serious Russia wonks on both sides of the ocean.


Johnson's guiding principle, he explained during an interview last week in Moscow, is to include a wider range of views to counterbalance what he sees as simplistic, disrespectful attitudes about Russia among the U.S. establishment.


"Russia is a very important country, very important to America," said Johnson, 55, who was making his first trip to Russia since 1985. "But my feeling was that Americans really were not paying attention, and in some respects had a very limited understanding of Russia."


He started sending out the list during the 1996 presidential race, when he felt that U.S. news media were exaggerating the threat of a Communist resurgence. "So I started this as a reaction to the oversimplified coverage of Russian politics," he said. "And the intention was to provide a more balanced, broader perspective, a wider range of views."


And so his list includes writing from all over, from big and small and right and left: The New York Times rubs shoulders with the Hindustan Times; those on the right, such as historian Richard Pipes, with those on the left, such as Katrina Vandenheuvel of The Nation; the play-it-straight wire services with the partisan Pravda.


The list, sent out free of charge, has also attracted contributions from heavyweights in the field of Russian studies, such as Pipes and Murray Feshbach, a leading U.S. expert in Russian and Soviet demography. Occasionally, the participants engage each other in debate, moderated loosely by Johnson.


Johnson, who holds a master's degree in Soviet studies from Harvard, describes himself as a liberal Democrat and works as associate director of research for the Center for Defense Information, a Washington institute that keeps a critical eye on the U.S. military. After working during the Cold War years to monitor what he considers the excesses of the U.S. defense establishment, he wants to help prevent another lapse into poor relations between the two world powers by making sure Americans are better informed about Russia.


At first, Johnson wrote his own articles, criticizing, among others, The New York Times and Pulitzer prize-winning author David Remnick for what he saw as excessively anti-Communist bias. After the election, however, he stopped acting as a contributor and now serves as more of an impartial editor "trying to ensure broad coverage, getting things that weren't in the mainstream out there."


"I think because I sort of play an editorial role, some of the more wasteful exchanges that take place on the Internet are prevented," he said. "A lot of Internet newsletters have a lot of noise, a lot of wasteful, antagonistic back and forth."


Issues that have drawn heated responses in recent weeks include press criticism by The Exile, a Moscow-based alternative weekly, and the deteriorating relations between Latvia and Russia.


Johnson hopes to come back to Russia regularly from now on to soak up the zeitgeist and meet journalistic contributors such as Fred Weir of the Hindustan Times, Vanora Bennett of the Los Angeles Times, and David Filipov of the Boston Globe.


"Just about everybody I had never met," he said. "It was kind of a breaking of the ice."


To subscribe to Johnson's Russia List, send an e-mail to davidjohnson@erols.com