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The Frequency Exclusive: A Russian Correspondent Observes The American Election

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In the two weeks leading up to the American presidential election, Russian journalist Valery Nechay worked in the WFAE newsroom to produce stories and report back to Russia. Nechay’s news organization, the Echo of Moscow radio station, is one of a dwindling number of Russian broadcast outlets that is able to develop content independently. For this special Frequency extra, we spoke to Nechay on Election Day about his experience reporting out of Charlotte.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are your thoughts about being here on Election Day?

It was interesting for me, of course, because the election scene in the U.S. is completely different from the Russian one. In Russia, all kinds of political advertisement is prohibited on the day of the elections, but also the day before elections. I spent about an hour at the polling station trying to find someone who voted for Trump and I couldn’t do that. Almost everyone told me that they voted for Hillary or for the third-party candidate. Someone told me that he wrote in someone. So I had to go to another polling station and I found some Trumps, but they weren’t very open to sharing their opinions.

So how is the Election Day here different from the Russian one in other ways?

I mean, timing, of course. In Russia, it starts at 8 o’clock, not so early as in the U.S., and the polling stations in Russia close at about 8 pm. Here I saw a lot of people who were in queue trying to get into the polling station, and in Russia that doesn’t happen. I can barely remember when I saw a lot of people trying to vote. Also, in Russia we have only one type of voting: just using paper and choosing the person you want to vote for. Here I saw machines.

Why did you come to North Carolina?

I came here because it is a battleground state, and nobody knows what the results of the elections here will be and I’m covering the elections as a reporter in the U.S. There are several reporters here, but one of them is based in New York and one is based in California. Speaking for myself, I’m happy because the results of the elections there are clear, but nobody knows what will happen here.

What are you looking for in your reporting?

During my interviews, I just have street talks with people, trying to get their opinions about the elections and how they’re going to vote. I also found some experts and pundits who could explain what happens here.

I have also a program called, well in Russian—it’s difficult to translate it into English, but in Russian it’s like, “Museum Chambers”—but it is generally a program about museums. So I went to Levine Museum and created a program about their exhibit, Nuevolution. It’s telling people about Latinos in the South of America, and in Russia there is a huge problem with migrants who are undermined completely and they’re underpaid, just like Latinos. There are some patterns, some common things.

I’ve heard that Mexican food is to us is what Uzbek food is to Russians.

Yeah. I really like Uzbek food. I mean, I’m a big fan of food, any type of food. I suppose that I can eat everything.

What have voters’ reactions been to being interviewed by a Russian journalist?

I was quite afraid since I’m from Russia and I couldn’t avoid saying that. But they were open, generally. Trumpsters weren’t open, but not because of my nationality or my place of work but because I’m a journalist.

What have you been most surprised by, in general?

I’ve been here more than two weeks and I’m still trying to get used to the way of life here. I spent about a year in London and a lot of time in Dublin, so it’s completely different to the European style. And I can’t understand it at all. I mean, the food is different. Completely different. Breakfast is different, completely, and language. It’s American English and not British English at all.

Has it been different than what you expected?

Well, I didn’t have enough time to expect something. Frankly, I didn’t like New York at all. I can’t explain that. But I do love D.C.—it’s one of my favorite cities.

When you go back to Russia, how will you tell your friends what America was like?

[Laughs] That’s funny. I haven’t thought about that. I think that I should think more, but I’m going to spend about four days in Washington, DC again, just trying to understand what it is. It’s good. It’s a good country! I mean, nothing bad at all.

What book would you say sums up current events?

Oh, boy. I mean…it’s a guy from Prague. He lived in the beginning of the 20th century and he wrote a book about a trial. But the main thing is that when you’re reading this book, you understand that you can’t imagine what will happen the next day. I’m trying to remember. It’s actually called The Trial. Franz Kafka!

But speaking about the U.S., a book I read completely explains the idea of the United States. It was written by Ilf and Petrov, two Russian authors in the 1920s. They were sent by the Soviet government to the U.S. They visited about 20 states and every day they wrote some notes about that place and it’s very interesting. [Translated into English as Little Golden America.]

If you were going to recommend a piece of Russian literature to Americans who don’t know much about Russia, what would you suggest?

I mean, I’m still trying to understand what Russia is. About two or three years ago, I reread a book by Dostoyevsky called The Devils, and I found out that nothing has changed from that time. Or, for instance, when you read Anna Karenina, sometimes you find yourself in the same situation. That’s what classics mean.

I do love one new Russian, well he’s not new, but current. His name is Dmitry Bykov, and his books are translated in English.

Living Souls by Dmitry Bykov book cover

Do you have a favorite of his books?

Yeah, but I don’t know how I can translate it in English. Because it’s called, in Russian, ЖД. [Translated into English as Living Souls.] It’s an abbreviation from a railroad, but it also sounds like a Jew, but in a bad way. When you want to undermine someone, you say something like that. So it’s a word game, actually. I mean, he didn’t say anything about Jews, but when you’re reading, you understand that it is a text about a nation that is divided into two groups and one of these groups doesn’t like another one. It’s interesting and very powerful, and it describes the current situation in Russia also.

Speaking of favorites, what’s been your favorite thing in Charlotte?

It’s funny. I hate Starbucks—I hate them—but I go to Starbucks and I have a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin and I read a book, and I spend about two hours just reading a book and having coffee.

Do you have anything else to add—about either the U.S. or Russia?

I’m still trying to understand what’s happening in Russia. That’s my idée fixe. Because Russia is much better than usually people think. That was one of my headlines, that Russia is much better than people think. I wrote this essay for an international magazine in December, 2013, and then in January we annexed the Crimea. At that point, I thought I had f----d up.

And speaking about this relationship between Russia and the US, or the outside world, the main channel of communication should be culture, and I hope that we will have something in common. When you travel or when you start learning other languages, something happens inside you and your mind is broadened by something, I don’t know by what.

I’m excited to go back to Washington, DC. And I hope I change my opinion about New York.

This is a Frequency exclusive. For additional exclusive content, plus the latest local news, event previews, and more, subscribe to WFAE’s email newsletter, The Frequency.