Moscow-born foreign correspondent Simon Shuster on reporting the world in the Trump era, Russian-American drinking styles, and life in Berlin.
Moscow-born foreign correspondent Simon Shuster came to California as a child and returned to Russia as an adult to start his career in journalism. But it was Berlin that gave him a family and became a home base while doing some of his most impactful reporting, from the Trumpworld dealings in Ukraine to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. He and host Nathan Thornburgh talk about all that, and about their similar life paths, from the nostalgic center of Berlin.
Thornburgh: We’ve outed you as Soviet-born already, but I have to tell the story of how I met you, which I still find totally delightful. We were looking for a Moscow correspondent for Time Magazine. This is back in 2009. I think I had been to Moscow once or twice looking and people didn’t quite work out, and then I got you on Skype from New York, and you and I started to have a conversation. I think you were working at Reuters at the time.
Shuster: I had just left and gone freelance.
Thornburgh: We were having this really good conversation and was like, all right, well, here’s an American dude who has found his way to Moscow. Somehow in the middle of the conversation, I think you said Yeltsin, but you said it like a real fucking Russian. “Yeltsin.”
Thornburgh: I was like, wait a second. Is this guy Russian? I asked you. I asked, “Are you actually Russian?” I had spent many years trying to be able to say Yeltsin like a Russian. I never even got close. You said, “Well, yes. Actually I was born in Moscow and then I moved to California.” Then, me like an asshole, I was like, “You didn’t go to Lowell High School by any chance, did you?” Which is a very presumptive question because in my blinkered worldview, every Russian who came to California in the 1990s went to Lowell High School. It’s my school, and it was fucking full of Russians. Of course, that guess happened to be right. I think you said something like, “How did you know?”
Shuster: Yeah. We did have a Russian community at Lowell. There was even a Russian corner, where we all hang out and played hacky sack, even though that’s not really a stereotypical Russian thing to do.
Thornburgh: You guys were Californians now.
Shuster: Yeah, we were. We had really assimilated at least in that sense. We did other Russian things, like wear Adidas pants with leather jackets, but while playing hacky sack. Anyway, it wasn’t a big community. There were other high schools in the area that had many, many more Russians.
Thornburgh: It’s probably just in my mind because that’s why I started studying Russian—because they offered it and it seemed cool, and they only offered it because there were so many Russian kids. That’s how I ended up in Moscow, and then it just set this chain reaction. It’s this very funny thing, where you had gone to my high school and then you went to the same college I did. You’re much younger and handsomer than I, but you came along that path, and now you’re living in Berlin, where I used to live. The fact that we are at this bar called Meine Bar where the bartender just had a baby with my high school girlfriend and they’re all really close friends of yours.
Shuster: Also the Time Magazine connection. I followed you into Time Magazine.
Thornburgh: Right. I forgot the punchline, which is you were great and we hired you, and you have since become a star of international reporting and a mainstay at Time Magazine, which I had left very long ago. You continue to do my life and just do it better.
Shuster: Just shadowing your life.
Thornburgh: At a higher level and younger with a much better ability to grow a beard.
I think it’s important to understand the style of wheeling and dealing that has worked in the Ukrainian context and the Russian context, and now in the Trump White House.
Thornburgh: We do a fairly good job, I think, on this show of avoiding Trump, which is somewhat unavoidable, but I try not to pollute my thoughts too much with all of this.
Thornburgh: However, this is one of the great laments, I think, of foreign correspondents generally these days. That it’s hard to attract American attention to overseas issues if they’re not directly Trump-related, because there’s so much visceral electric energy around the mention of his name and people either hate-read what you did or love-read it. I can’t imagine anyone for whom that’s been more true than you. Back in 2009, when you and I talked about Russia and about covering former Soviet Republics and all of the work you ended up doing, none of us imagined that you would actually be at the heart of domestic US politics on this beat.
Shuster: That’s right. I was expecting to have quite a calm year in 2016, because the US elections were coming up. I thought this is going to have nothing to do with my beat and that I could work on some long-term features and projects while most of the magazine is full of US election coverage.
Thornburgh: How important is it that Americans understand the particular style of power and governance in Russia and Ukraine to understand what the group that’s hovering around our administration is up to? It feels specifically Ukrainian and specifically Russian the way that Trump uses power.
Shuster: I think it is important to understand the style of wheeling and dealing that has really worked both in the Ukrainian context, the Russian context and now in the Trump White House. They all have this wiseguy approach to interpersonal relationships, to politics. Nothing is based on institutions. Nothing is based on rules. This is important to understand, the informality of the relationships and how these things function and how that’s allowed various players in Ukraine and Russia to intertwine themselves with various parts of Trump’s world.
The ways the Trump administration has tried to remake American government in its own image really mirrors and echoes what Putin has been doing since 2000 in Russia.
Thornburgh: That style of deal-making. If somebody comes to somebody in Trump’s world or in his administration and says, “Hey, I can make a problem go away for you,” or something, then they’re much more likely to get an audience in this administration, say, than some rather lawyerly administrations past.
Shuster: Yes. The people who have been covering Russia and Putin’s regime well before Trump came to power have seen this play out under Putinism. That is one good definition of Putinism—the informal relationships that are much closer to a mafia family than to a government or some hybrid of the two. To watch that play out in the ways that the Trump administration has tried to remake American government in its own image really mirrors and echoes what Putin has been doing since 2000 in Russia.
Thornburgh: Although, as someone who had gotten out of the Russian coverage game but had obviously lived there and cares about the place a lot, I always found it a little strange, the almost vilification of Russia as this external bogeyman that had come and brought its evil ways, either by trying to attack the electoral system, which of course they did try to, but just more generally than they are a great threat to the States.
Shuster: That has been consistent throughout my time in Russia. I moved to Moscow to work as a reporter in 2006. Even then, I was working at the Moscow Times, an English language paper, at first and then moved to Reuters, and then freelanced at the Associated Press and so on. Throughout, all the editors I worked with, both the ones who were sitting in the US and the Westerners who were editors in Moscow, had this deep fascination with the place. They weren’t just passing through because it was another posting for them if they were based in Moscow: They saw it as a powerful and fascinating society, a political context that they had dreamed of covering all their lives. That fascination, I quickly understood, was rooted in the Cold War. Most of them were of the generation that they at least lived through that. We’ve all seen the Hollywood movies depicting it, and Russia still holds this very peculiar place in the American, and in many ways, the European imagination.
The effect on me most directly, and maybe superficially, was that it was very easy to sell stories. As a freelance reporter for Moscow, it’s like hotcakes. You can sell stories that would never have been accepted from a city even like Tokyo or Delhi, things that the Moscow mayor was up to. There was this weird story about him trying to seed the clouds so that it wouldn’t rain on the victory day parade one year, and Time Magazine took a story about that. It’s a bit weird, but I think the fact that it was Russia and weird things Russians do is this particular vertical or category in the minds of American journalism that has lived on. It’s been of course amplified under Trump because of all the scandals.
Thornburgh: How objective do you have to be? Your job is to investigate and find the facts. Some of them look a little damning I guess for various parts of the administration. Do you worry about objectivity in that classic Time Magazine sense of being able to say, well, on the one hand but on the other?
Shuster: Very much so. I think that has changed in the context of the whole fake news debate that President Trump either started or accelerated. It’s affected us in a few ways. Objectivity, to me, has come to mean more to get better sources, and more of them. If you’re producing information, you got to make sure that it’s a nailed down. If you do have news, you have to present it in a very buttoned down and straight forward way and then it comes time for analysis.
Shuster: After you put the news out there in a very neutral tone, then you can go in and say, “Okay, this is what this means for Trump. This is why this is happening,” and go a bit deeper in the magazine, for example, but in covering the news, I think in the context that we’re living in now where everything is so quickly politicized, there is really something to be said for if you do happen to get some exclusive information that is relevant to the political context, you’ve got to present it in a pretty cold just the facts, ma’am, way. I support that approach, and it’s the approach that editors in DC and New York have been taking on Trump coverage especially.
Thornburgh: Because you’ll have no shortage of people who will be able to sound whatever alarm they want to sound based on what you found.
Shuster: Yeah. I think it undermines the value and impact of the information that you’re providing if you put a slant on it right off the bat.