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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Talk, Big Problem

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Making my way through the giant, packed backyard of the American ambassador's residence the other day -- during the U.S. Independence Day reception, when, it seemed, most of Moscow was there -- I glimpsed an old acquaintance. He saw me too, but I was hoping it was one of those situations when two people, by tacit agreement, make like two ships passing in the night. I continued on my way, about three human clusters away from him.

Andrei Bystritsky and I used to work together at a Russian newsweekly in the mid-1990s. Now, as chief of information programming, he is the top news executive at the All-Russian State Television and Radio Company, which includes Rossia television, a new 24-hour news channel, Rossia radio and other media companies. It is the 300-pound gorilla of broadcast information, the main propaganda instrument of President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

For the last few years, whenever I run into my old acquaintance, he pulls me into a conversation the purpose of which is, it seems, a temporary absolution. He has joined me at a restaurant table to tell me how despicable the work he does is. During the 2004 presidential election, he actually came to liberal candidate Irina Khakamada's loss party and lamented her bad luck; the news service he runs had, in blatant violation of election laws, imposed a virtual information blockade on her campaign.

I tried to duck behind a couple of gray suits as I traversed the backyard. But here was my old acquaintance, his neck stretched, his reddish beard sticking out above someone's shoulders, his hands reaching for me. Escape was impossible. I smiled. He kissed me on both cheeks.

"How are you?" he asked.

"I'm on book leave," I said. "Living at the dacha, writing. It's great."

"Oh, oh, but who is going to save the motherland?" he asked, shaking his head. There are so few opposition journalists, his question implied, that I had no right to take a break.

"I'm regenerating," I answered. "I'll be back." I have no idea whether there will be any print media outlets left by the time I am ready to be back, but I wasn't going to go into that. "And how are you?"

"I am swell," he answered. "Still harming the motherland. If there is ever a Nuremberg trial, I'm sure I'll be sentenced." He laughed at his own joke. Self-deprecation sounds odd coming from a man in a $3,000 suit bought with money he has made "harming the motherland." He added quickly that, generally speaking, his work was fun and I should stop by sometime.

I felt slimed. My acquaintance had banked on the fact that I would not snub him openly. I really could not bring myself to say, "What you do is despicable, and I have no desire to talk to you, much less stop by your office or kiss you on the cheek." He had also banked on the fact that I would never print anything he tells me -- like the way he characterizes his job. He had pulled me into a trap of polite chitchat, where the payoff for him was knowing -- and, perhaps, showing others -- that I will still talk to him, which must mean he is not total scum. That may or may not suggest he still has something resembling a conscience, but that is really none of my concern.

But the thing is, I think people who make their living broadcasting lies in the guise of news for tens of millions of people to see every day are, indeed, total scum. And if they also think, or even suspect, that in the process they are "harming the motherland," that makes them even more disgusting. People like this just shouldn't bother to make small talk with me: I will print every word of it.

Masha Gessen is a Moscow journalist.