this podcast is improving russian-american relations better than trump

'She's in Russia' is run by two best friends — one in Brooklyn, the other in St. Petersburg.

by Alexandra Weiss
19 June 2018, 7:23pm

For the last few years, it seems like everyone has been talking about Russia. There was Pussy Riot, then the presidential elections; and let’s not forget Putin or fashion world royalty, Gosha Rubchinskiy. But it’s two best friends, Brooklyn-based Smith Freeman and St. Petersburg-based Olivia Capozzalo (who is lovingly referred to by Freeman as Lily), who are taking the Russia discussion and opening it up. With their weekly podcast, She’s in Russia, the duo tackles everything from politics to Russian rap in an effort to expose what’s really behind the Iron Curtain — and the answer is: a whole lot.

“With everything that’s happened over the last couple of years, Americans in general have just been sort of inundated with this reductionist, sensationalist portrayal of Russia,” says 26-year-old Capozzalo. “That simplification of Russian culture has made it so people don’t really realize that normal people actually exist, and it’s not just Putin and these sort of mystical villain characters.”

Through meticulously researched yet casual conversations, Smith and Capozzalo are introducing Americans to a more nuanced view of Russian culture, one that goes far beyond shirtless Putin photos or the “troll factory” reports we’ve been reading on the news. In some episodes, like a recent one on Victory Day, Olivia hits the streets of St. Petersburg to let locals share their own stories; in others, Smith interrogates Lily about her dating life in Russia, or the duo shares their love for the banya (side note: New Yorkers can experience this at the famed Russian bathhouse in the East Village, though, Smith and Lily promise it’s not nearly as good).

“For us, it’s really about humanizing an entire country,” says Capozzalo.

“And also, filling this void,” adds Freeman. “So, if the view of Russia is still filled with these tired stereotypes of criminals and spies, we want to provide a much fuller image, of everyday Russian life.”

Below, the duo sounds off on everything from Russian cheesecake to the lasting effects of the Cold War.

Tell me about She’s In Russia . What was the impetus for starting the podcast?
Smith: Well, obviously, we’ve had the whole Russiagate thing that’s been going on, and that was a big part of why we started the podcast. But Olivia has lived in St. Petersburg since she graduated, so coming up on around four years. We we would talk on the phone, and even before the 2016 election, she was talking about how much the reductive image of Russia in Western media bothered her. Originally, we talked about starting a blog, but it never really materialized, and then at some point [a podcast] just kind of seemed like the natural conclusion. Like, ‘Oh we’re talking all the time on the phone anyway, and we both have this kind of deeply held belief that something is askew about the image of Russia in Western media. So, maybe our kind of unorthodox, casual approach that isn’t just politically focused can give more complete understanding of what it is to be in Russia.’ Because, you know, Olivia is actually there.

Olivia: Yeah. Americans in general have just been sort of inundated with this reductionist, sensationalist portrayal of Russia, particularly in the past couple years. So, the overall idea of the podcast is to try to give a fuller image of Russia, Russian history and everyday life and culture to a non-Russian audience.

The format of the podcast is just you two talking to each other on the phone about different subjects. So, I’m curious — how did you guys meet and become best friends?
Olivia: We met in college. We were just randomly put together on the same dorm floor.

Smith: It kind of took us a while to become friends, but we lived together our junior and senior years and that like really solidified the partnership.

Where did your fascination with Russia come from?
Olivia: For me, it’s based in Russian language. It started in high school when I first heard spoken Russian in real life, and I remember being really intrigued and really into it on a phonetic level. Then, of course, Russian literature. The summer before I started college I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the images of St. Petersburg just really stayed with me.

But what inspired you to move there, Olivia?
Olivia: I studied abroad there when I was in college, and the whole experience was just so formative for me. I know Smith remembers this, but as soon as I left, I was sure that I’d go back.

Smith: Still, when you first moved back there after we graduated, I really thought you’d come back to New York. Honestly, for the first two years, I didn’t take it super seriously. But then I think actually doing the podcast and her being there for almost four years, I just came to accept it. For me, though, my fascination with Russia is totally arbitrary in that Lily is my best friend and she lives there, so I just wanted to be able to participate in that in some way.

How do you choose the topics you want to cover each week?
Olivia: We do it in different ways. Sometimes it depends on actual world events, and things that are happening. Recently, for example, it was Victory Day in Russia, which is a celebration of the end of World War II. On that day, people in St. Petersburg and all over Russia celebrate on the streets. So, I decided to just go to a bunch of these events and see if people would talk to me. Well, I didn’t really talk, I just let them tell their stories about their families, and the war, about surviving these really horrible episodes in Russian history, and tell these first person accounts that were incredibly valuable.

Smith: We also do episodes where we interview specific people. Another recent one I really enjoyed was when we got to listen to a bunch of people talk about Viktor Tsoi, who was the frontman for this band called Kino. So, we used the opportunity to talk about the Soviet rock scene. When we first started, we talked about Snowden, and the documentary Oliver Stone did about Putin — you know, the kind of immediate things you’d think about when you think about Russia. But after awhile, you start to realize that Russia is a massive country, and that there are millions and millions of things related to it. So we’ve tried to hit major cultural things like the banya, the Russian bathhouses, and the history of them, and how foreigners have interacted with them, and then we try to do more political stuff about the relationship between Russia and America.

Considering the current political climate, and all of the insinuations about Russian involvement in the presidential election, why do you think now is such an important time for this kind of podcast?
Smith: I think there are two components: on one hand, you have this Cold War rhetoric that, as soon as some anti-Russian things start occurring, it’s like, ‘Oh let’s kick that back in!’ So, you have very basic lies, like Putin being this international spy. And then, on the other hand, you have to think about the fact that these are two nuclear powers who have troops that interact a lot. So, we’re getting to the point where we have dehumanized Russia to the extent that there could be a real, physical conflict, and we’ve primed Americans to believe that it would be totally okay. I mean, obviously we’re a small podcast, and our potential to have any effect on this is relatively minimal, but I think push back against this rhetoric is incredibly important.

Olivia: Yeah, and to speak from the opposite side — the same thing is happening here. Like, in mainstream Russian media, there’s an overtly anti-U.S. stance. It’s exactly how Smith described it, but almost parallel in that it’s kind of like, ‘The U.S. will come here and we need to stand together.’ It’s almost like a form of nationalism, or a way to preserve our values from being infiltrated by America. So, we’re saying it goes both ways — that it’s not just a problem in the States.

Smith: It’s very much a larger issue, but I think sometimes, when we give this answer, people interpret it as us saying Putin is some sort of angel and all the people who work in the Russian Federal government are faultless. But that’s definitely, definitely not the case — and certainly something we don’t believe — it’s just that our podcast is focused on the American aspect, because its aimed to be consumed by an American audience. But honestly, now that we’re seeing our second largest audience is in Russia, that might start to shift. Who knows?

Right. But even aside from the Putin/Trump connection, I think there’s a very specific — and very limited — view of Russia in Western culture. It’s like, vodka and Gosha Rubchinskiy. That’s it. Are you trying to change that?
Smith: I mean, that’s certainly what we’d like to do. But it’s not like we’re the only voices of reason. I just think those more reasonable voices tend to get just completely washed away in the flood of ridiculousness that is Russiagate. And the times we’ve really been confronted with Russian stereotypes have actually been very particular interactions with middle or upper-middle class liberals.

Olivia: Yeah. I was talking to an upper-middle class white person in New York and they were basically asking me how Russian people are different from Americans. When I didn’t give them what they felt was a sufficient answer, they just decided to tell me what they think the difference is, and for them, they said that the Russians they’d interacted with ‘all signal their wealth really flamboyantly and in a gaudy way. We — as in we Americans — don’t do that.’ Honestly, I couldn’t even deal with responding to that, but the point is that this person took their very specific socio-economic status and said it represents all of America. That’s ridiculous. And as if Americans don’t signal wealth? We were in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the entire country, standing in a multi-million dollar house at the time. It was just like, ‘Oh, right. Americans don’t signal wealth. Got it.’

Do you feel like you had any preconceived notions about Russia that, since doing the podcast, you’ve changed your mind about? Or were there stereotypes about Russian culture you didn’t even realize you subscribed to until you stepped outside of the U.S. lens?
Smith: I will say — and this would probably be the case if we were doing a podcast about any country — I’ve had to really learn how to prevent my brain from ascribing specifically American paradigms to Russian phenomenon. Examples of that is anything that’s race-related, anything that’s gender-related, even politics-related, because for example, Russian political parties don’t fall along the same lines as American ones. Then when you come to something like race, the American paradigm for race is pretty much — and there are different components there obviously — but it’s pretty dominated or defined by our history with slavery, and that’s just not a paradigm that Russia has. I mean, they did have their own form of slavery in the feudal system, but you really just can’t define it in the same terms of literally black and white people. So, it’s just really been about changing the way I think and training myself. Like, when I hear a politician, for example, Alexei Navalny, who’s said racist things about people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, but is also against corruption and for free speech, it’s confusing, because those are things in America that don’t go together in the same party. So, it’s really about forcing my brain to be more flexible about those definitions.

Olivia: I was a literature student, so I just wasn’t at all focused on the kind of everyday life, and cultural or political stuff that I’m more focused on now. That has been something that the podcast has definitely helped me shift into, taking a sort of less hyper-academic look at Russia.

Smith: But you’ve definitely had a change of heart about the troll factory stuff, too.

Olivia: Yeah, that’s definitely a good paradigm shift. So, the troll factory: I remember reading about that place, also known as the Internet Research Agency, a couple of years ago in the American media. Then my mom sent me an article about it this fall, and I just remember my reaction being very like, knee-jerk disgusted with it, or disdainful. But I also think that mostly has to do with it being called “the troll factory,” which is just like, a horrible name.

Smith: I like the troll factory!

Olivia: No! I mean, who is positive about internet trolling? Nobody. So, I had this horrible reaction to it, really based on the language of the media in which I was reading about it, which of course, was not at all about the people there, or why they would be there, but just about this sort of horrible monster lair where people were typing away these pro-Putin posts and trying to interfere with the American election. My change of heart came about when I started researching for the episode we did on Robert Mueller’s indictment of people involved with the place. I got a much better sense of what this actual company is, and why this mythical name ‘The Troll Factory’ is actually a misnomer. It’s really a much larger company that yes, includes people who make fake accounts on social networks, but that’s just like, a third of a company that also a whole suite of news websites that are relatively pro-Putin and in Russian. Of course, reading about it in the U.S., you’re reading about how these people wrote to influence American opinions, so they were writing in English. But that was actually an incredibly small part of the work. So, we were able to clarify this issue based on all of the information I consumed, and that’s kind of the point of our whole podcast: to complicate issues, and humanize issues so that you have a better — and more interesting — understanding of what’s really going on, and how Russian politics work, not just this false cartoon image of trolls in a foreign country that are trying to control us.

Smith: Another thing I’ve noticed is that people in America — and especially in recent years — have become a lot more dogmatic in their beliefs. You see it on both the left and on the right, and not just from older generations, or people who work in congress, but also from millennials, and the younger generation. In Russia — and Lily’s not going to like that I’m generalizing here — but at least from my perspective, it seems like there tends to be more of an acceptance of a gray area, or an understanding that things aren’t so clearly defined. So, with Lily living there, I think we’ve both become super resistant to the idea of dogmatizing belief, and I really do think part of that comes from the fact that she’s been living abroad, where you just need to be more flexible and open to the fact that things aren’t always so cut and dry.

Olivia: Yeah. But I think that has less to do with Russian culture being so open and flexible, and more about the fact that being a foreigner in another culture, you kind of just have to adapt. I mean, yeah, you could technically go live in another country with your own set of beliefs and just be like, ‘Why doesn't everyone think like me?’ But I don’t find that particularly productive, or enjoyable. So, I’ve subconsciously become more and more, not necessarily tolerant, but trying not to impose my paradigms on people in Russia, and I think that’s just a product of living in a culture that’s not particularly aligned with my native one.

When it comes to the sort of lack of a nuanced view Americans have of Russia, why do you think that is? Do you think it has something to do with everything that happened with the election? Or does go further back, to the Cold War?
Olivia: It has a lot to do with the Soviet Union being closed off from other cultures for so long. Because of the Iron Curtain, you have a long period of time where there isn’t much cultural exchange, plus there was no internet, so they were just really secluded. Then with the start of the Cold War, a particular set of stereotypes that were produced and reproduced by the government and via pop culture, sort of filled in the absence. So, there was no image of Russia because there was really no interaction with Russia, and that becomes these sort of mysterious images of the Russian empire, and a hazy understanding of this autocratic, vast empire land. But there’s not a lot of actual interaction with it. So, you have the production of a certain image that just fills in the void.

Smith: I’d also say that there’s just a blanket lack of understanding between Americans and other countries, you know? Like, if you live in America, you focus on America, and there’s not much reason or impetus past what you learn in elementary school to study each country individually and gain a really nuanced understanding of it. I mean, if Lily didn’t live in Russia, I probably wouldn’t have a nuanced understanding of it. You can say the same thing about China, or India, or really any other country that doesn’t have a super close cultural connection with the U.S. So, in some ways, I think it’s a little arbitrary that this is a particular problem with Russia. But then you have the added component of the Cold War, so it complicates things a bit.

In America, we hear a lot about the way journalists and activists are censored and treated in Russia. Maybe that’s just me falling into another stereotype, but doing a podcast where you talk a lot about politics, and specifically about Putin, is that something you’re concerned about at all?
Olivia: The short answer is no, we’re not scared — at least, not at this point. We’re just not a very loud voice at the moment, and definitely not in Russia. But also, being anti-Putin in itself, is not a dangerous stance. I mean, maybe I’ll take my words back later. But there are just a lot more dangerous things for journalists to cover.

What do you want people to take away from the podcast?
Olivia: I just want people to be able to leave the podcast with a much more nuanced sense of Russian culture, and learn about things that they didn’t know about, like a new author, or musician.

So, what’s one thing you think every American needs to know about, or try?
Olivia: There’s this thing called sirki, which are these little cheesecakes — I call them cheesecake bites. It’s like, a two-inch long cheesecake with a chocolate shell, and it’s amazing. And it only costs like, 60 cents.

Smith: I’m actually getting a feeling of joy just listening to you talk about them. They’re the best.

Listen to She’s in Russia and support the podcast here .

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