Russian Democracy is a Mushroom

This week The Kremlin shut down the country’s last independent television station. Once there were hundreds. They could bloom again.

Paul Greenberg


“mushroom on the roof” by hans s is marked with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view the terms, visit

The Russian journalist just wasn’t getting it. His task was to speak a few sentences to camera to lead into a feature story about the high price of milk. But he kept flubbing the line or shifting his eyes or rocking back and forth on his feet. Finally I couldn’t take it any more.

“Look,” I told the young man, “we have an expression in my country. When something’s not that hard we say ‘it’s not rocket science.’”

“If it were rocket science I’d have no problem,” replied the journalist-in-training. “I’m a rocket engineer.”

Today I recalled this story of my days training Russian journalists back in the ‘90s when the news dropped that TV Dozhd, Russia’s last independent television station, had been shut down. For those who haven’t followed the Russian media world over the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, this may seem like just the mundane progress of an autocratic regime routinely snuffing out its candles.

All that’s now underground could burst forth at a moment’s notice. When things rot mushrooms grow.

But it’s important to note that below Russia’s seemingly extinguished media surface there exist tens of thousands if not millions of independently minded voices waiting to get out. Many of them are not “professional” journalists. Many of them, like the rocket engineer I mentioned above, are entusiasti — enthusiastic average citizens with a need to know and a passion to share the truth.

These voices are like the mushrooms Russians love so much. Their hyphae are spread underground in an interconnected network designed to share knowledge. Before television and the internet was an option, those independent voices shared information through the distribution of hand-typed “samizdat” books and pamphlets. They did so through bootleg cassette recordings of banned music and impromptu poetry readings in kitchens around the country.

When Gorbachev launched his policy of Glasnost these underground hyphae suddenly…



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World