Get To Know Two Young And Smart Podcasters Who’re Recording Their Conversations About Russia

“For anyone who is listening to our podcast, we want to not only clarify these tension points — like Crimea or the inditement — we want to create a fuller image overall of Russian culture.”

She is Olivia, an American living in St Petersburg, while Smith, her best friend, is holding it down in Brooklyn. Together they broadcast this radical idea that Russia is perhaps not exactly the way we might imagine it after reading hyper news pieces that talk about the country in mostly alienating ways: to-the-point political, or Western-aimed @lookatthisrussian, or even the idealised world of Gosha Rubchinskiy.

On their podcast, She’s In Russia, they’ve nailed the environment that all good podcasts do — the one where you, as a listener, feel like you’re hanging out in the room naturally tuning in to their conversation. This is because their long-distance phone calls to each other, after Olivia moved from New York to Russia, are the main drive for the show. The conversations they have on air are the exact same ones they’d normally be having privately. Perhaps only with a little more research time — which includes looking at both the American and Russian perspective — and the occasional guest. They talk about politics with realistic language, but they also fill episodes with really normal Russian ideas like banja culture, vodka, rap and memes. It’s for the curious, from all different angles. And it’s really fun to get to know them.

How did you both meet each other and become best friends?


Smith: We met in college, we were on the same dorm floor freshman year. So we started being friends and then we lived together in junior and senior years. We were pretty much best friends by the time we lived together, but once we started living together we were literally doing everything together. We would pack one salad and then eat it together at lunch — like really intense.

Olivia: Oh my god I forgot about that!

Smith: There’s that kind of partnership stuff and I think that’s part of the reason why Olivia being in Russia doesn’t feel as distancing as it could. We just have this pretty intense partnership, so whatever new thing she picks up in Russia, she communicates those to me. Now especially, with the podcast, I’m thinking about Russia all the time.

How does hosting from different countries work?


Olivia: Before we started doing the podcast, and one of the motivations for it, was the fact that we speak a lot. We would talk on the phone quite a bit. And I had been wanting to produce some form of content that described my life in Russia. To be able to share with people outside of Russia what my experience was. I didn’t like the first mediums that came to mind — a blog, or being really active on Instagram. I wasn’t motivated by them. But Smith had the brilliant idea — one time when we were on the phone, we were discussing the political atmosphere in the US, around the elections and the anti-Russian sentiments — and she suggested that instead of having these conversations between the two of us, we did a podcast where we similarly just casually talk like we’re used to doing. So since that’s the way the podcast was born and the fact that we’re in two different places is part of it’s inception, it feels very natural.

Your mission statement is essentially about destroying this phobia Americans in particular, but also lots of the world, has of Russia. How’d this come about, is it purely a result of the elections?


Smith: We definitely had an interest in this before the elections. What we’re seeing now is a revival of Cold War rhetoric that has existed for 50 or whatever years. Because of that, you’ve got manifestations of anti-Russian rhetoric even before it really picked up within the election itself. I think, particularly, the way that manifested was in these mundane, inaccurate descriptions of Russia. And Olivia would note this a lot. You know, just articles in the New York Times where the person is writing about Russia but it’s clear that they either don’t have a good understanding of day-to-day Russian culture, or they don’t care, or they’re using some sort of superficial characterisation that was inherited from the Cold War. That was a discussion we were already having, this lack of nuance around the Russia topic and then that got put into the mainstream with the discussion around the Russian meddling in the election. The combination of that and the conversation we were already having made it clear that we actually have a good take on this and we possess or are part of a demographic that might be more open to ideas and we’re already having these conversations. So we pick a bunch of topics that we think are interesting and we talk about them in a way that’s more humanising and creates a more nuanced and careful imagining of Russia in the American imagination.

Your podcast isn’t singularly political, but politics plays a big part. Have you always be into politics? Do you have background education there or are you feeling it out as you go?


Olivia: We both really don’t have a background in politics at all. Not even a little bit. Not even a minor. I studied Russian literature and language in college and a little bit of history — though we didn’t have a Russian history department at all. But I took one history class in St Petersburg when I studied abroad. It was a soviet history class. But other than that, we were in a liberal arts college and I took linguistics and other history and anthropology but literally no political science. First of all I didn’t even know about contemporary Russian literature, I didn’t know about contemporary Russian anything in college, let alone politics. And I wasn’t particularly interested. It wasn’t until studying abroad and moving back that I started to slowly become interested. But the interest in high politics — politicians and policy — was only motivated by the tension between the US and Russia. I wasn’t particularly involved and now I’m just paying more attention.

Smith: Yeah, I studied biology so I’m not politics focused. I generally have a baseline interested in politics where I read the news but I don’t target it by any means.

I sometimes feel like I’m not informed enough to back my self up in political conversations, do you ever feel nervous broadcasting your understandings or opinions?

Smith: I would say with the political stuff, I don’t just try to sound off willy nilly, but when we do approach a political topic we do a thorough job of researching it and trying to understand. So when we come to record and have opinions, they’re founded in actual evidence and in that case I don’t feel nervous.

Olivia: So what’s fun about this, since we’ve been doing it I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable expressing “political” opinions because they’ll be based in something specific – like it’s not just having a canned left-leaning response. What’s cool about the podcast is that it gave us the opportunity to take really specific issues — for example the inditement that just happened with 13 Russian nationals and I think three corporations named, and indited for interfering with the elections. The company being the so-called troll factory in St Petersburg. That’s a big deal that that happened and we’re about to do an episode on that, and you ask about fear… maybe I would have been, if I didn’t prepare for it and read everything and research responses from Russia and the US. In a way it feels like an academic project. We did the same thing in an episode of the annexation of Crimea. You hear all of these back and forth opinions and you can have an immediate opinion on that, like, “That’s bad!” But instead of doing that, we read all of the extremely legal documentation — with back flips and loopholes — and obviously we’re not lawyers, but we’re not idiots and we were able to come to our own conclusions. And that’s cool.

Politics aside, you’re also discussing social and cultural aspects of Russian life — rap, cryptocurrency, even self care — why do you think these conversations are important coupled with the political stuff?


Olivia: It’s important for creating a nuanced image in the non-Russian imagination. For anyone who is listening to our podcast, we want to not only clarify these tension points — like Crimea or the inditement — we want to create a fuller image overall of Russian culture. At least with what we have access to. For us that means talking about things that are not at all obviously political. We did a holiday themed one around Christmas and New Years, talking about the history of the tradition of the Christmas tree in Russia.

Smith: So when you just talk about politics, you’re not getting the full picture of an average Russian person. Across the globe, so few people are politicians, so talking only about politics might not paint that full picture. So when we’re doing these more culture ones — like the rap one, or when we went to Brighton Beach, which is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and we interviewed people there that are of soviet decent — it’s coming back to the point where we’re trying to give this nuanced picture of Russia. What happens with this revival of Cold War rhetoric is you get a bit of dehumanisation of the people. So these episodes where we talk about people going to the banya or vodka houses are our way of rehumanising individual Russians in this broader anti-Russian sentiment that’s happening.
Olivia: In addition to these topics, I try to share anecdotes from my life and sprinkle them throughout. On a lot of the episodes I’ll tell a story about me going to the grocery store and being embarrassed from buying a too-expensive sponge. Or trying to buy alcohol after 10pm and having a scene with the person working in the shop. At this point, I have these anecdotes, I experience them and live them, and sometimes I just don’t tell Smith over the phone because I want to tell her on the podcast, so she doesn’t have to hear it twice.

You’ve done something like 40 episodes so far, what have you most loved researching and talking about?


Smith: I really liked doing the Russian rap one a lot. I like listening to American rap quite a bit, but Russian rap hasn’t quite broken out internationally yet, so it’s hard to research in English. But Olivia being able to do that in Russian was really nice because I got to listen to a bunch of artists I’d never listened to before. I really enjoyed the one where we went to Brighton. We just went around and interviewed people in cafes and shops, and learned a lot about soviet immigration patterns. A lot of people, around the 70s and 80s, moved to Brighton. And it’s not just like people of Russian ethnicity — there’s people of Central Asian and Georgian, Turkish people — and that was really interesting. You go to Brighton and the signs are in Cyrillic and people are speaking Russian, the grocery stores are full of Russian imported stuff. It’s a cool mix of Russian culture mixed with New York culture. 
Olivia: One of the ones we did recently is with a Russian journalist, Igor Belkin, who talked to us about the Russian internet — the Runet — which is the internet that’s in Russian language. That was really cool because he gave us insight into internet humour or Russian meme culture. I’m fairly aware of it, but also not. And this person is a specialist in that, and he pointed out different types of humour and also talked a lot about LiveJournal as an internet platform that was huge in Russia. Another favourite is, and this is going to sound egotistical, but I really enjoy the ones where I am telling the story. I just hate when Smith talks!
[Both laughing]
Olivia: No. But an example is the Khrushchevki one — it’s called ‘Khrushchev and His Apartments’. It was one of our earlier ones and it’s about this particular type of architecture from midcentury Soviet Union. I know a lot about that time period so I was telling Smith the history and story of that. Also the same with the episode we did of Rasputin, the infamous figure from Imperial Russia, who was this doctor/mystic/prophet of the Royal Family.

All I really know about him is that his penis is apparently on display in a museum…


Olivia: In theory, yes, but it’s unclear if it’s actually his penis or not. There was some speculation that it was a sea cucumber.
I have google image searched it before, I will admit.
Olivia: It’s rough isn’t it.
Smith: It’s pretty horrifying.

It looks like a big turkey leg.


Olivia: Yeah. So that was one where I told the story a little bit. And that dynamic — it’s not that I like it better than when we just talk, I don’t, I just do enjoy how those episodes have turned out.

And who has your favourite guest been, and why?


Smith: For me, besides the Igor Belkin one, we interviewed Olya Polyokova, she’s a St Petersburg-based activist and she came over to Olivia’s house and we interviewed her. That was a really good one because not only is she an extremely charming person, but she has a really good way of talking about activism on the ground. She does a bunch of different types of projects — she does tours of St Petersburg or she plans this day called Restaurant Day in St Petersburg — and part of that interview was her describing the time she got arrested. She was protesting in June 2017, and she’s documented her arrest pretty well on the internet. She’d had access to her phone while she was in jail and had documented her holding cell and written pieces about it and her opinions of her arrest and those sorts of things. So just being able to have her on, and have her describe her arrest in this really charming way was a nice experience.

Is there anything you have you learned that has surprised you or changed your opinion or stance on something?


Olivia: We did an example called ‘Moms in Motherland’ and it’s about a particular type f political engagement that we feel we identified with. It involves women, and particularly mothers. It’s a little bit difficult to explain because it’s not a solid, full theory, but we just did the episode to test the theory. We did it based on three very specific, tragic historical events. We looked at how women and mothers engaged with the incidents. That was a discovery. I was reading about the sinking of a submarine — Kursk — and I felt like I had identified a pattern.

Smith: I want to just jump in and explain what the three events are, because I think it will give you a better idea. So there’s the Kursk, which is a submarine that sank in 2000, and that was the first event where we thought something was going on. The first thing that happened after the sinking, where everyone dies, was that the mother’s came out and washed the surrounding area because they were worried about a nuclear contamination. That was this collective, political, family-based response. And later as that crisis gained more PR and Putin was doing a poor job of responding, the mothers and wives of these soldiers were very outspoken. The second thing was the hostage situation at Beslan. So, supposedly, terrorists from Chechnya took the school hostage in order to get certain demands from the government. And the government handled it poorly and ended up sieging the school and in the ruckus a lot of children died. From that, mothers formed a political group called Mothers of Beslan and they’re advocating for school safety and anti-terrorism, and really pressed Putin to sit down in meetings to implement policies. And the last is the Ukrainian crisis, which at the beginning of, a lot of soldiers would go missing and because they’d never been registered as being in Ukraine, because according to the Russian government at that time, the Russian military was not in Ukraine. So parents wouldn’t know that their children were there, and mothers would then collectively form groups around tracking down the bodies of their sons and pressing the military to be more explicit about where their sons were going off to war. So those three examples in this episode helped us build a theory around what makes these mothers political, and also how does their political engagement differ from other political groups.

Are there any concerns you have about podcasting out of Russia, and speaking out about things that are political?


Olivia: So the way I answer this question is just by prefacing the fact that there are two things that make me not worry: one thing is size and influence, we’re still fairly small and we just don’t have a huge mass following unfortunately. And that matters in terms of how much of a risk you’re taking as any kind of journalist. The second factor is content. Sure, we’re talking about sometimes explicitly political and explicitly about relations between Russia and the US — which is very tense, as we know — but even then, you would be very hard pressed to say that we’re anti-Russian. We try not to take either side. We aren’t being anti-Russian or pro-American. We’re trying to discuss the issues, with as much information from both sides as we can get. It’s not like we’re posing any kind of idealogical threat to the Russian government. Of course it’s real that it can be dangerous to work as a journalist in Russia, especially being an opposition journalist — meaning a journalist that is writing about a controversial topic but not taking the official line — but since we’re not doing that, there’s no reason that anyone would have a problem with what we’re doing.

Smith: They’re going to be reading these words back to you at your trial!

Images: Daria Minina
Originally published in Oyster #114

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