Still, when I think about what my life would have been like had my family stayed, I know I never would have had certain opportunities. Even if I'd become a journalist, I would not have had the same freedom to write what I want, to do what I want. I found out only when I began studying journalism in college that my mother, too, had wanted to be a journalist. Growing up during the Brezh-nev era, she listened to my grandfather's advice to find a more objective profession--something straightforward, safe, and far from the dangers of the political world. She became a mathematician.
Journalists in Russia today are not as handcuffed as before. They can ask Putin controversial questions, write about his answers, and cover anti-Putin (or any kind of antigovernment) protests. But in my effort to report in Moscow, I found that access is much more difficult and transparency much more elusive than I expected. Guards at the state Duma at first turned me away when they saw my American passport, despite a previously arranged pass to attend a briefing. Vechernaya Moskva(Evening Moscow), a city newspaper, is partly funded by the government. During a newsroom tour, I asked a spokeswoman how that aid affected its coverage. She told me simply that the paper has a "government page," and that if something controversial happens, reporters just wait until the issue is resolved to write about it. In another newsroom tour, the politics editor of Komsomolskaya Pravdasaid that the paper's "position" is to support Putin. "It's just like The New York Times supports Obama," he said. The coverage does seem largely independent, but a massive photo of Putin in dark shades hangs over the paper's conference room.
During Putin's press conference, one question came from a journalist who had been shot twice in the head because of a story he had reported. He asked Putin what can be done to make his case less common. The Russian leader promised to look into the issue but told the reporter that journalism is a rough industry and that people should know what they're getting themselves into. My exchange had aimed to disabuse Americans of the idea that journalists in Russia are in danger or don't have the freedom to write what they want or should. Yet there was the country's president, giving credence to the idea. Although there are plenty of ways for Russians and Americans to understand each other better, sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason. As I returned to Sheremetyevo airport at the end of my trip, I realized why I could see those tropes at a distance. Russia had become, for me, merely a place of origin. Now I was going home.