Russia Reviewed in 2017, pt. I of II

2016 – which shall henceforth be known as the Year of the Raging Russia-Watcher on this site – is finally over. (And thank goodness for that.) Before I turn my attention to the uncertain future of Western-Russian relations in 2017, it’s time to reflect upon the progress Russia Reviewed made in 2016. To everyone who took the end-of-year survey: thanks for providing me with such interesting feedback. I appreciate your support and intellectual investment in this blog. I enjoyed picking your responses apart.

My commentary on the survey takes up the bulk of this post. I’ll report results, work through possible explanations for certain findings, then propose solutions. And of course, I’ll share my thoughts. In the last part of the post, I’ll put forward plans for Russia Reviewed in 2017. This post might be tl;dr for some of you. If you think that’s the case, click here to jump right to the New Year’s plans.

The Survey

A note on readership. The majority of respondents (about 78 percent) read Russia Reviewed on a weekly basis, and the rest read it daily. People read posts primarily off the site itself, but also from the WordPress reader and email notifications. Respondents found my blog primarily via my comments on other blogs, blogrolls, Goodreads, or direct recommendation.

Onward to the bulk of the survey results.

Overall, readers are satisfied with the quality of Russia Reviewed. Two-thirds of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with the blog’s overall quality and one-third marked “satisfied”. Opinion is split into thirds over frequency of book reviews: 33% are very satisfied, 33% are satisfied, and 33% are neutral. The survey recorded exactly the same results for book topic variety. In regards to reposted articles and their variety, 60% of respondents reported satisfaction, 20% are neutral, and 20% are dissatisfied. 60% of respondents are very satisfied with the quality of reviews, 10% are satisfied, and 20% are neutral.

-Well, looks like I’m doing *something* right! For a relatively young and inexperienced blogger, such high satisfaction ratings are very encouraging. But your neutral and negative replies interest me slightly more than your positive ones. I’m always looking for ways to improve. Let’s first address the neutral attitude towards the frequency of book reviews. On Russia Reviewed non-review posts outnumber actual reviews, which tend to be spread out and irregular. Do I need to increase the frequency of reviews? Create a regular release schedule? Set concrete deadlines for my reviews instead of being spontaneous? I could try any one of these things, but it might be hard considering I’m a student first and a hobbyist blogger second.

-Regarding book topic variety, I believe I know why one-third of respondents are neutral. Let’s be frank: while I’ve tried to include a nice mix of topics, reviews are overwhelmingly skewed toward political themes, and even within the politics category, most reviews concern Russian domestic politics. Seems I need to mix things up a bit: shift away from Ruspol and delve into history, travelogues and Russia-centric fiction. Maybe even those loosely-connected-to-Russia romance novels that keep clogging up my Goodreads recommendations page. It might be fun.

-Not only did variety of reposted articles elicit the first dissatisfied responses, but also the highest level of dissatisfaction. Again, I know why. In October I discontinued weekly Reading on Russia Roundups. Since the end of RoRR, I’ve seldom reposted articles, but when I have, they’ve typically been from either the NYU Jordan Center, Irrussianality, or Patrick Armstrong. Apparently some of you miss Roundups and aren’t happy with the limited outside material that’s risen to replace them. Perfectly fine; I need to know these things. At the same time, 60 percent of respondents are satisfied with reposts in their current form. So the most I can propose at the moment is: let’s improve variety in 2017, shall we? Even I’m growing sick of the Jordan Center’s “analysis”.

-So far so good on the quality of reviews, but I need to find out what’s going on with the neutral part of the readership (20%). I know I’ve been slacking a bit with reviews recently. In the past three months, studies and reports really pulled me away from both this blog and the books I wanted to review. Russia Reviewed‘s seen a slew of quick thoughts posts, bulleted lists and short reviews. I’m not too pleased with those formats myself (reviews like Midnight in Siberia and Post-Imperium are more to my taste), but it’s a style bred not by choice but by limitation. Maybe the second half of the academic year will bring a lighter workload (and therefore more time to spend on reviews).

-I’m pleased to see that all respondents are satisfied to some degree with my original writing. So, not much to improve upon there. Interestingly enough, no one commented either way on reactionary Rage Pages.

Regarding reader likes and dislikes, it’s Mission Accomplished – to the extent Russia Reviewed has a mission. Respondents cited book reviews, conciseness, my POV, design, and everyday creative writing (yay) as their favorite things about Russia Reviewed. One respondent called it a “very polite and intelligent attempt to fight against the tide of Russia’s demonization”. That’s what I’m going for – polite and intelligent.

-On the dislikes question, respondents mentioned the lack of Russia Roundups and an irregular posting schedule. The latter’s actually a pretty important point. Russia Reviewed went through a “realm of unpredictability” – a half-hiatus period meant to ease my RL fatigue – from October to December. Posts were shorter and sporadic. After I resumed “regular” blogging in late December, I didn’t set up any kind of regular schedule, so while posts became more frequent, they remained sporadic. Hmm. I remember back during the summer I stuck to a 6am M-W-F weekly posting schedule. Maybe I need to reinstate that?

And again, I have to point out that no one mentioned Rage Pages here. I guess they’re not nearly as annoying to you all as I imagine they are.

Reader consensus also points to “MOAR FEATURES!”  In fact, on the “additions” question only one respondent suggested I leave the blog the way it is. This question allowed multiple selections per person, and so I received a myriad of interesting combinations.

Let me just get this out of the way. Respondents voted overwhelmingly for more opinion posts, giving it the highest number of votes overall. I’ll return to that in a minute.

The second most popular suggestion was “a series or theme week/month”, closely followed by “guest reviewers”. Spots #4 and #5 were taken by “more on Russian language/translation” and “review more Russian-language books”, respectively. People also mentioned bringing back Russia Roundups or adding forum-style discussion posts (like the McLaren Report board).

The majority of respondents suggested I not remove any feature from RR, though two wanted reposted articles to disappear.

It’s clear readers want more features. And you know what? I’m not against expanding. I’ve been playing it safe with content so far – it’s mainly been reviews, Roundups, and reaction posts. Nothing extravagant. I didn’t think it was a good idea for me (as a new blogger) to start out with multiple complex features. However, it seems that Russia Reviewed‘s matured enough at this point to try branching out. Holding something like a theme month would be a welcome diversion from chronicling the usual doom-and-gloom stories about Russia in the news, and maybe the RR community could select the theme. It might be neat to invite guest critics to Russia Reviewed too – for instance, a Russian-speaker could cover the newest Pelevin novel, which I can neither find nor understand in the original language.

While I find the above features appealing, I’m quite reluctant to add more opinion posts to the blog. On the one hand, I’m happy many of you appreciate my POV and want to hear more of it. On the other hand, the reasons I laid out in Why I don’t do Russia analysis are still effective. I only write opinion pieces when the spirit really moves me (when I’m very passionate about the issue at hand). I created Russia Reviewed with the sole intent of connecting readers with informative books about Russia. While I’ve strayed a bit from my “mission” in the months since (more on that later), Russia Reviewed is not meant to become a column akin to what you’d find on an alternative news site (or many other Russia blogs). Making RR a book blog was a very conscious decision on my part. I have neither the time nor the authority nor the will to provide regular commentary on current events. That’s not to say I have absolutely no articles planned for 2017: I’m looking to write about American college Russian studies, Russian book curiosities, and “Putinfiction” sometime during the summer. But I’ll be arguing against Russia’s demonization via the subtext of book reviews for the foreseeable future.

Respondents reported no tech or display issues while browsing Russia Reviewed. Hooray! Full credit goes to WordPress for simplifying page customization and HTML.

I also caught a glimpse of the Russia Reviewed community makeup. I’m glad most respondents are forthcoming about their non-CIA agent/Kremlin shill status. But should I be concerned about the two people who said it was none of my business and the one guy on Bat’ka’s salary?

Plan for 2017

Now that I’ve examined the survey results, it’s time to propose changes for 2017. Below is the blueprint for the “new” Russia Reviewed, which I’ll build upon later. Remember, the best thing about a plan is being able to change it as you go along. At least that’s what Oleg Kashin told me in Fardwor, Russia.

First, I’m going to establish a fixed schedule. RR will likely update on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6am EST. I’ll also aim for two reviews per month.

Second, I’m returning to regular reviews. No bulleted lists or quick thoughts. If a book only gives me enough material for a reduced review, I’ll cut it from the lineup entirely. The goal is to revert back to the review style from the early days of RR. (Insert obligatory “make X great again” joke here.) Of course, that means putting more time into each review, so expect a decrease in my productivity.

Third, a series might be on the horizon. While writing out this post I came up with several ideas:

Fourth, I’m going to learn how to add multiple contributors. And draft some guidelines/recommendations for prospective guest critics.

Fifth – and this is uber important – I’m actually going to seek out good books about Russia (or rather, thought-provoking ones. I don’t have to agree with every argument). Exaggerated accounts of the Russian Threat are a dime a dozen these days, but there’s some promising stuff on the market too. It’s time I reached out to those books, instead of picking up a random one and merely hoping it’s informative. (Or worse, gravitating toward books I know will be heavily opinionated and mucking my way through them. That’s pretty much been my strategy so far…hence the large number of one- and two-star reviews.) Some of you are probably tired of such frequent low ratings. I know I am. Reviewing’s not as interesting when you can predict a book’s rating in advance.

***

Don’t expect a revolution, but the evolution of Russia Reviewed is set to continue in 2017.

[to be continued.]

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5 comments

  1. …and the one guy on Bat’ka’s salary?

    …Arkady Renko series

    Ugh! Way back, several months ago, when we talked here about the review of the first AR novel (“Gorky Park”) I made a very, very unwise decision to look up what’s been written in the series about the “Modern Russia”.

    Why, oh, why?!

    Short answer – new stereotypes meet the old ones, and the books are nearly entirely overflown with thermonuclear klyukva. Instead o writing any review on M.C. Smith’s “Stalin’s Ghost” you might just post this pic:

    and put on ushanka, drink vodka, play balalayka, dance cazachok with AK-47 within your BTR, sing the Red Army’s anthem, and shout “Ай эм рашн пэтриот!” three times be done with it.

    “Some of you are probably tired of such frequent low ratings.”

    Not at all! At least *I*’m not tired of such low (justifiedly so) number of “stars”. But I can undersand why someone might be tired of such low quality books.

    Like

    • You were that guy, weren’t you?
      I can’t have foreign agents commenting on my site! Begone!!1!

      On the Arkady Renko series
      Yes, that’s why the theme’s nickname is ‘The Ring of Fire’ – because I know reading each spy novel will cause me great pain. But only the fires of god-awful thrillers can cleanse me now
      If I do decide on TRoF theme, I can always swap Arkady Renko for the Alex Leksin series.

      ‘Not at all! At least *I*’m not tired of such low (justifiedly so) number of “stars”. But I can undersand why someone might be tired of such low quality books.’

      Thanks. Choosing Russia books is like picking between cornflakes and homemade oatmeal for breakfast: both are edible but only one provides real substance. (And in my case, the other gives me a headache.)

      Like

      • “You were that guy, weren’t you?
        I can’t have foreign agents commenting on my site! Begone!!1!”

        J.T.! You included this answer option herself! Surely you *knew* that somene will click it, no? 😉

        Besides – the pay from Byelorussian KGB (yes, they are still KGB) is good – sacks full of potatoes, spare parts for the Minsk fridge and even legendary and world famous Byelarussian Baltic Seat oysters (which became a rage after the food sanctions):)

        Just to come clean – I also spied for Mossad (they were keep telling me to come to their regional HQ to take my salary on Saturdays… they were closed every time…), Cranberry Jihad and Greater pan-Mongholian Kuriltai. I also devised a sinister plan how to bring down the US via spreading of corruption (because there is no corruption in America, and only filthy foreigners and enemies of Freedom cause it!) via teaching the art of embezzlement and kickbacks to whoever kids would be tasked with collecting the money and organising the prom in their schools.

        ” I can always swap Arkady Renko for the Alex Leksin series.”

        OTOH – I distrust the practice of “ripping the plot from the headlines”. More often than not, the end result just shows author’s biases in the form of “what if?” scenario where, different from reality, everything is rather illogical and turned up to 11. Yes, I read book’s description of the site. I’m pessimistic that anyone (foreigner, that’s it) can really write any normal fiction book about modern Russia without screwing up. As we can see – even our so-called “intellectual elite” and “creative class” is more often than not is not up to the same task.

        And if the books turns out to be full of klyukva little less than entirely than surely any reviewer has the right to recoup some lost sanity by mericlessly mocking the… thing.

        Like

  2. “J.T.! You included this answer option herself! Surely you *knew* that somene will click it, no?😉 “
    Yeah, it was a joke question. I wanted to finish out on something lighthearted after such a serious and businesslike survey.

    “Besides – the pay from Byelorussian KGB (yes, they are still KGB) is good – sacks full of potatoes, spare parts for the Minsk fridge and even legendary and world famous Byelarussian Baltic Seat oysters (which became a rage after the food sanctions):)

    Potatoes and fridge parts I remember, but now oysters?! They have increased your pay since you mentioned it in the I Putin review! Good for you!
    Meanwhile, I got fired by both the CIA (citing sympathy for Russia) and the FSB (citing sympathy for America). Now I’m back to being just a student, with only occasional art commissions to keep me afloat. It’s hard out there for a foreign agent. /sarc

    On Leksin and thrillers

    Not a big fan of pulled-from-the-headlines stories myself. Take The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews, announced in mid-2016 but slated for publication later this year:
    “The dazzling finale to the Red Sparrow Trilogy from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Jason Matthews, featuring star-crossed Russian agent Dominika Egorova and CIA?s Nate Nash caught up in a blackmail scandal with Vladimir Putin and the newly elected US President. — A junior American code clerk has defected to the Russians. He informs the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service that former US Secretary of Commerce Natalie Childers manipulated US global trade agreements to facilitate trade deals for the investment conglomerate owned by her husband. Natalie is now the Democratic presidential candidate, in the middle of a vigorous national campaign.
    Meanwhile double agent Dominika Egorova is ordered by Vladimir Putin to begin work on a special operation in which Russia will inform candidate Childers that her malfeasance will be made public unless she agrees – if she is elected President – to order Pentagon budget cuts, to propose debilitating reforms in NATO, and to move toward the dissolution of the Atlantic Alliance. Refusal will result in scandal and her impeachment. When Dominika reports on her mission to her CIA handlers, Nate, Benford, Gable, and Forsyth, they know that any leak, any misstep, will trigger the Kremlin to go public, destroy the American democratic process, and discredit the country forever. But any counter to the operation moreover will expose Dominika as a CIA asset. Dominika decides they must eliminate the blackmailers: President Putin and his diabolical mastermind, the only two other Russians who know about the plan.”

    You heard that right. They’re going to attempt to assasinate Putin. Despite the implausibility of its plot and overt pro-NATO message, part of me wants to read Kremlin’s Candidate just to see if they do it. I DARE MATTHEWS.

    “I’m pessimistic that anyone (foreigner, that’s it) can really write any normal fiction book about modern Russia without screwing up.”
    I’m holding out hope. There has to be at least one person out there who can do it. Maybe they’re keeping quiet because of the current hysteria. Or maybe they’ve yet to start writing.

    Like

  3. “Potatoes and fridge parts I remember, but now oysters?! They have increased your pay since you mentioned it in the I Putin review! Good for you!”

    As you can see they no longer pay me in chainsaw “Friendship” (“Дружба”) spare parts. There are reasons for that. As for the Byelorussian sea produce – it IS a thing:


    ^Shrimps


    ^Mussels

    “Meanwhile, I got fired by both the CIA (citing sympathy for Russia) and the FSB (citing sympathy for America). Now I’m back to being just a student, with only occasional art commissions to keep me afloat. It’s hard out there for a foreign agent.”

    Try Ukrainian SBU, J.T. They are taking virtually anyone foreign these days, and will become super-servile to any American candidates. Besides, when else can you have a chance to work in the organization successor to the KGB, which the Free and Independent Western Press ™ never calls in every of its article obligatory “X – former KGB”?

    “Take The Kremlin’s Candidate by Jason Matthews, announced in mid-2016 but slated for publication later this year”

    >”star-crossed lovers”
    > “double agent [personally] ordered by Vladimir Putin”
    > “President Putin and his diabolical mastermind”

    It is so bad it must be somehow good!

    “I’m holding out hope. There has to be at least one person out there who can do it. Maybe they’re keeping quiet because of the current hysteria. Or maybe they’ve yet to start writing.”

    I think if anything, the kreakls would feel its their “civic duty” to go against the “Putin’s lapdog in the White House” or produce a veritable Alt-Hist “what if?” version of events according to their own ideological biases, which will result in Russophobic fiction/op-eds/”analytic” being cranked up to 11.

    “unless she agrees – if she is elected President – to order Pentagon budget cuts, to propose debilitating reforms in NATO, and to move toward the dissolution of the Atlantic Alliance. “

    If these were really the sinister goals of Russia, than we should have used our seemingly omnipotent hackers to prop up and getting elect Gary “Aleppo?” Johnson. It’s only fair, seeing him recognized as the official “Russian” candidate, as the West still sees Navalny and Kasyanov as the only “true” and “veritable” opposition and alternative to Putin.

    Like

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