First Impressions: Talking Cold War II Because “She’s In Russia”

She’s In Russia is a nonfiction podcast hosted by Smith Freeman and Olivia Capozzalo, two friends discussing Russian-American politics. While Freeman is based in Boorklyn, Capozzalo is based in St. Petersburg, which both helps solidify the show’s credibility and also demistify day-to-day life in Russia for American audiences. Instead of being akin to story-slash-journalism shows a la This American LifeShe’s In Russia structures itself as an informal conversation between friends.

She’s in Russia currently has 13 episodes out, but as of writing, I’ve only listened to five (as usual for my First Impressions reviews), and I’ve found myself returning to the show every chance I get. At first glance, the show doesn’t have any trappings of something I might enjoy, other than social commentary. I’ve talked about how I avoid listless, conversational podcasts, and I usually avoid even semi-journalistic shows that aren’t specifically distributed by a source like PRX or NPR. Still, I find myself craving a listen to She’s In Russia even while listening to some of my favorite audio dramas.

The show’s main strengths are, almost always, the exact aspects of it I’d usually shy away from. The conversational format of the show is executed better than most networked podcasts I’ve heard–probably because the hosts actually are friends instead of the show forcing a friendship-like dynamic. The semi-journalistic and somewhat-unprofessional writing (or, I suppose, just talking) isn’t frustrating but instead relatable, making the content sound less mysterious or foreign than American media tries to convey. The run-times are long and inconsistent, but even that structure mirrors how good, genuine conversations with friends actually are.

And the content itself is, of course, both relevant and intriguing. Russia has been showing up in American press, especially in regards to politics, more and more since the 2016 election. She’s In Russia aims to give the listener the perspective of someone who actually lives in Russia versus just reporting on it. From their website, the show’s aim is explained as an attempt to have genuine conversations about Russian-American politics:

In the US, a deep-seated aversion to what ‘Russia’ represents, which lay briefly dormant since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has re-roared its ugly head, and this time its mouthpiece is Liberal. In Russia, politicians in power and State-run media more often than not hold an unabashedly anti-Western position, encouraging knee-jerk nationalism and resentment of the US, its allies, and all that it represents.

Cold War II represents and encourages some of humanity’s very worst tendencies – towards xenophobia, ignorance, falsity. Citizens of the US and Russia continue to have limited contact with each other and to imagine the other as projected by their respective Politics and Media, who provide them with little more than caricature and sensationalism.

This podcast is an ongoing attempt to push back against the above tendencies. To talk about the relationship between these two nations in a way that is nuanced, thoughtful, emotional, sometimes funny, and rooted in a healthy combination of research and real-life experience.

The show discusses everything from Russian politicians to Snowden to Pussy Riot, but it doesn’t ignore daily Russian life. The hosts discuss Russian social norms, phrases that are difficult to translate, and other facets of standard Russian life that make the more political conversation more rooted in mundane reality–something that sounds boring, but here, is effectively refreshing. The show also makes a point of dissecting a piece of propaganda each week, but not Russian propaganda. Instead, the show discusses how Americans use Russian iconography in their own pieces of media.

This isn’t to say the show is without flaws, though. While the conversational tone of the podcast is what makes it such a good listen, it could still go for some trimming around the edges and structure. The structure that does exist mostly comes in the form of the propaganda segment and a segment in which the two hosts talk about what has been going on with their bodies in the last week–something more suited for the feminist podcasts the hosts discuss starting than a podcast about Russia. While the segment does add to the conversational, sometimes silly tone of the show, it still feels out of place in the scope of the conversation as a whole. (Update: Later episodes do not feature this segment, so don’t let this criticism be something that makes you hesitant to listen.) The show also has standard setbacks in audio quality, so don’t go in expecting Wolf 359, but it also isn’t nearly as fuzzy as some networked shows I’ve listened to.

Still, She’s In Russia has proven to be a shockingly easy listen given each episode is rooted in politics. When She’s In Russia works, it works so well; when it doesn’t work, it’s usually a brief annoyance that doesn’t ultimately matter. More importantly, it’s a show that matters. It brings its listeners deep, but not alienating, conversations about Russian-American politics without the antagonism that is all too common in American media.

You can find She’s In Russia on any podcast streaming platform or on their website. New episodes are posted every Tuesday.

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