It meant a lot to us that long-form international journalism made in a non-traditional tone could get that kind of recognition.
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Generation Putin Wins Big
Growing up, Sarah Stuteville and Jessica Partnow were fascinated by the Soviet Union. Partnow even had a Soviet pen pal. They became journalists with an emphasis on South Asia and the Middle East, yet their interest in all things Soviet endured. So when they were invited to pitch a radio project for Public Radio Exchange (PRX), they proposed an audio documentary about young activists in the former Soviet Union. The result is Generation Putin, an hour-long radio special that received the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in October 2014 in the audio documentary/online news organization category.
“It meant a lot to us that long-form international journalism made in a non-traditional tone could get that kind of recognition,” says Stuteville, an artist in residence in the UW Department of Communication. She and Partnow, also an artist in residence, made the documentary under the auspices of the Seattle Globalist, a UW-based international news site that they cofounded.
Generation Putin began with what Partnow describes as “the dream call.” PRX had received funding for international reporting from the Open Society Foundation and wanted to fund something ambitious and unexpected. The general manager called Partnow and Stuteville, asking them to propose a story. “That was at a time when [the controversial Russian band] Pussy Riot was in the news a bunch, and other young activists in Russia were catching the imagination of Americans in our generation,” recalls Stuteville. “We were fascinated by where the former Soviet Union was going politically and thought other people in our generation were as well. It felt like a political moment. It turns out, in retrospect, that it really was.”
Partnow and Stuteville spent two months in the former Soviet Union, talking with young activists and others in Moscow, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. In each country they worked with a “fixer” who provided contacts and sometimes served as a translator and driver. The journalists also made connections themselves, finding people eager to talk everywhere they went. They spoke with artists and factory workers and shopkeepers and teachers. They even visited Partnow’s former pen pal, Sasha, who still lives in his childhood village, now part of Ukraine.
“It was a huge luxury,” says Partnow of their two-month deep dive into the post-Soviet psyche. “We felt like we were able to do exactly what we always dreamed of doing in journalism but never had the support for. When we’ve done international reporting in the past, it’s tended to be tied to specific smaller stories—more typical news articles. So this was a huge amount of freedom, and an hour was a huge amount of time for us to have for this type of project.”
Their conversations with locals explored a range of issues, from gender rights to Soviet nostalgia to Vladimir Putin, focusing on the generation raised in the post-Soviet era. “Putin came up often as a character and a catalyst,” says Stuteville. “He just looms so large in the political consciousness of so many of the people we spoke with. Just a powerful, powerful figure and a polarizing one to be sure.”
Over two months, the pair amassed more than 100 hours of material, which had to be crafted into a one-hour audio documentary upon their return. Their goal was to inform but also entertain. Simply put, they wanted to create something their friends would want to listen to. “That sounds obvious and maybe even a little glib, but actually it’s challenging to get people to care about the political realities of folks in countries thousands of miles away in contexts that are completely different than ours,” says Stuteville. “We were trying to go in there and ask the questions we thought our friends would want to ask, and explore the tangents we thought they’d be interested in. Sometimes that meant going to a punk rock concert in Kazakhstan instead of talking to a talking head about the political history of the capital there. And I’m glad we did that. It gave us a much stronger sense of the atmosphere of the place.”
The documentary was delivered to PRX and picked up by dozens of radio stations across the country, including Seattle’s KUOW. Stuteville and Partnow’s friends listened, as did many others—including the selection committee for the Edward R. Murrow Award. “We got a positive response all along, but the Murrow award was confirmation that it was a really good idea and it worked,” says Partnow. “It was very satisfying.”
Excitement about the award is tempered by the knowledge that people they met in Russia and Ukraine have been profoundly affected by recent unrest that has gripped the region. Many of their fixers and interpreters have moved away, and towns they visited, especially in Ukraine, have been devastated by bombings. (Pen pal Sasha’s village is in a less affected area.)
“You hear about people and violence in other places and you think, ‘Not me, not us, that happens to people in other places,’” says Stuteville. “But the fact is, when you go to those places, they are places like any other with people like you. Before that chaos and violence breaks out, it feels just as distant as it feels now to us.”