To him, life in Russia isn't a bear


Daniil Dondurei is a man with a message. And it's one that's not often heard in these gloomy times.

Dire stories of the financial crisis, poverty, and hunger with a bleak winter ahead are familiar to Russia's 147 million people, who seem to accept that nothing can change the situation. But not Mr. Dondurei, the country's self-appointed custodian of good news.

One of his favorite clippings in a growing "good news" file is a tiny article about a motor factory in the town of Samara. The plant beat out European competitors for a tender to manufacture engines for American space shuttles.

"Positive thinking" is the answer, Dondurei declares, smiling emphatically as though to press his point.

"Russia needs upbeat information."

And so this sociologist has made it his, some say quixotic, mission to compile statistics, facts, snippets, quotes, articles, and anything else he can get his hands on to prove that some things do go right in Russia, even at the worst of times.

"There is an exaggerated feeling that life is an abyss. If you analyze the evening news, you can point with a black pen to planes falling, hunger, women raped," he says.

"But lots of things have changed for the better, such as more private property and freedom of speech."

Dondurei is a film critic, trained as a sociologist with a specialty in mass psychology and culture. His pursuit of the affirmative began a year ago when he grew exasperated with what he saw as the media's obsession with bad news.

Since then, he has published several series of articles in leading newspapers and journals and is widely quoted.

TV's 'brainwashing' bosses

His pet peeve is television bosses, whom he accuses of "brainwashing" akin to the censorship of the Soviet period.

"The private mass media are giving our people the perverted impression that things are going from bad to worse," he says.

To prove that there can be a silver lining to all the clouds, Dondurei sits at his desk late at night scouring the back pages of journals and newspapers for buried facts.

Dondurei ecstatically rattles off statistics that he says illustrate Russia's increased wealth since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union:

* "In July 1998 there were 16.8 million cars versus 7.9 million in January 1992. That means more than one-third of Russia's 45 million households have a car!"

* "There are 10,500 tourist agencies. Some 4.5 million people traveled abroad last year!"

* "Millions of square meters of new apartments were built in Moscow last year! Fantastic!"

Too much of a bad thing?

Dondurei's positivity campaign has stirred debate in Russia, with a series of commentaries published in both highbrow journals and popular newspapers, including Izvestia.

His David versus Goliath struggle against what he terms "the colossal propaganda machine" may seem like folly, especially to those he criticizes most, such as the big television channel NTV.

"Our principal task is objectivity and truth," was the stiff response from an NTV spokeswoman, who declined to be named. "An event is valuable in itself, whether it is good or bad. It should be represented the way it is in real life."

Dondurei's fans, however, have written letters to show their support - including ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who extols him as a "real patriot."

Not unique to Russia

The debate over bad news and good news is not unique to Russia, and Western media have long debated the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.

But Dondurei asserts that there is a particularly exaggerated sense of tragedy in Russia, tracing the tradition to great writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

As for the here and now, how does he find a bright spot in the financial crisis that prompted Russia to seek foreign food aid?

Dondurei pauses and stirs his cup thoughtfully before looking up cheerily.

"Sure, we keep reading that the grain crop this year was the lowest in 45 years at 48 to 49 million tons. But everyone glosses over the fact that last year's harvest was 89.5 million tons, well above what was expected.

"This will help us survive this year," he says. "You don't read much about that, do you?"

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