by Austin Malloy
I couldn’t believe what was happening, and that I was there, right in the center of it all. Wedged between a crowd of over 50,000 Russian citizens protesting on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidential inauguration and rows upon rows of OMON (Russian Special Forces Police) in full riot gear, I knew that my new role as a Moscow based video journalist would be filled with intrigue and excitement. In fact, the now infamous May 6, 2012 protest — my first filming assignment — was to be the start of an amazing professional journey.
In the past two years, I’ve covered stories from the Russian Far East to Western Ukraine, from St. Petersburg, Russia to Beirut, Lebanon. I’ve explored some of the finest vineyards in Georgia, traversed the mountainous North Caucasus, and interviewed Syrian refugees throughout the South Caucasus and in the Middle East. On a recent trip to Dagestan, I discussed Islam with the Imam of the mosque where the suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was known to visit. But like all the places I’ve traveled, Dagestan is a long way from where I once studied in the classrooms at the University of Washington.
It was during my tenure at the University of Washington when I developed and advanced the necessary skills and expertise to succeed as a journalist in Russia. The instruction I received at REECAS in courses such as Post-Soviet Security with Professor Scott Radnitz, Security Affairs of Russia and Eurasia with Professor Christopher Jones, and the Russian language training I received from Zoya Mikhailovna all contributed to an in-depth understanding of this diverse geopolitical region. I’ve applied that knowledge directly in assignments varying from presidential elections in Armenia to the Group of Twenty (G-20) Summit in St. Petersburg. REECAS gave me fantastic opportunities to prepare for my professional life after graduate school. But, there are a few things for which the Jackson School of International Studies can’t really prepare you. Femen, Ukraine’s topless protesting female activists, for example.
One day in Kyiv, after interviewing several members of Femen for a story on the fight against sex tourism in Ukraine, the ladies of Femen invited me back to their office to film what they described as part of their physical training regimen. When I returned, I saw that they had turned their office into an improvised workout room. As they began to do pushups and navigate a makeshift obstacle course, one of the group’s leaders stopped everything, turned to me and asked, “Do you want all of us to get topless for this?” Trying not to blush, I quickly thought about how all of the censored images might ruin the final product and answered, “No, that won’t be necessary.” Dumbfounded, the six self-proclaimed ‘sextremists’ stared at me for a minute before continuing with their exercises, fully clothed. Clearly, I gave the wrong answer.
On a more serious note, working as a journalist in Moscow has been an amazingly rewarding professional experience. I’ve had the opportunity to attend press conferences with President Barack Obama (G-20, St. Petersburg, September 2013) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (APEC, Vladivostok, September 2012). I’ve taken part in private interviews with Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili as well as leading Armenian opposition candidate Raffi Hovannisian. But the greatest reward of my work comes from the friendships I’ve gained from meeting everyday people while on assignment around the world.
There are the wrestling schools in Khasavyurt, Dagestan, where I met with dozens of energetic young athletes and their supportive fathers. In a region plagued by violence and instability, and with few economic prospects, wrestling offers hope and discipline for thousands of young men in the North Caucasus region. As a former athlete myself, I was struck at how wrestling practice on the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains reminded me of basketball practice as a youngster in my home state of Michigan.
Then there are the Syrian refugees I met who are trying to piece together their lives after escaping devastation in their home country. They offer personal experience and insight into the suffering caused by a conflict that is growing increasingly difficult to comprehend. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that Syrian kids absolutely love the camera. Try as you will, you can’t stop them from mugging it up in front of the camera lens. This August, I couldn’t help but think of those cheerful, young Syrian refugees when I saw videos of the horrific chemical weapons attack in Damascus.
Finally, the countless numbers of people that have shared their personal lives and stories in Altai and Yamal, in Sochi and Vladivostok, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and along the Golden Ring have given me a newfound appreciation of the beauty and expansiveness of the vast and diverse Russian land. As Russia continues to expand its role as a global player in international affairs, there are sure to be plenty of interesting opportunities — from human rights issues to nuclear disarmament — to come from Russia and the Russians. I’m looking forward to being a witness to developing potential of the Russian Federation and its people.
Austin Malloy is a multimedia journalist for Voice of America in Moscow, Russia. He graduated with his MAIS from the Ellison REECAS Center in 2011.