— Maria, you have recently visited China to meet with your counterpart (Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying — News.ru). I know that this is not your first trip of such kind and you have visited other countries with a similar goal before. What are the usual topics for discussion?
— I participated
Visiting Chinain consultations on information issues that were held in Beijing this time. This is a traditional form of interaction with our colleagues from other foreign affairs agencies. At first, we reaffirm the fundamental agreement of the exchange of views, then we implement it in the framework of the inter-MFA consultations. The meetings are usually held to exchange experience or study the international problems in the information field: we share our thought on building the work of press services, responding to certain challenges and implement joint projects. We also touch upon problematic issues. There are a lot of such issues given that Russian correspondents work abroad and there are foreign correspondents in Moscow. We discuss such topics during our meetings and come up with some solutions.
— What problems can Russian journalists face when working abroad?
— There are many problems. Often, our journalists complain about double standards. The problem is not that it is the Russian press, but the way relations develop with ceratin journalists. It happens that the local authorities say that Russian journalists violate accreditation rules. Technical and sometimes even day-to-day problems pile up and need to be addressed. There are differences in legislation, traditions and sometimes technical questions arise. For example, the use of drones regulations. It is legal in some cities and countries and one does not need special documents, but it is not like that in some other countries. This also applies to restricted facilities and military facilities. Different problems might appear and sometimes it’s just some sort of misunderstanding but we must discuss them and find some solutions.
Some situations arise from today's dramatic state of international politics. I am talking about the squeezing of Russian media presence and the Russian news content from the global media context in a number of countries. This is done through visa and accreditation denial and public accusations of propaganda. In a number of countries, unfortunately, there is a practice of literal blocking of the accredited Russian media: we are talking about blocking bank accounts, social media accounts, unofficial talks done by government agencies, sudden checks, revoking of the license, and so on.
This time, we have focused on a very special topic with our Chinese colleagues which is related to the use of information technologies used by other countries, in particular, the USA, as well as those countries that are part of NATO and the EU, to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. We exchanged experience in recognizing and fighting such forms of interference and came to the conclusion that we most often use identical methods. We react differently and at different levels, but the number of tools actively used by the collective West while meddling in Russian and Chinese internal affairs is very similar in many respects, practically identical.
Social networks and requests
— You are active on social networks, post on your Facebook page. Have you considered other media platforms, for example, Twitter?
-I write posts on Facebook and Instagram. These are my personal pages, they are not a part of my job. I got them before I took the position and run them myself, share my impressions, but at the same time, I act as an expert. The understanding of media and media activity has changed with the development of social networks and the spread of new information means, new means of communication. Even 20 years ago it was possible to say clearly where the line between professional and personal life lay. But how can this line be drawn now when we are in the information field 24 hours a day, one way or another, even when we do not want to? For example, every day I see people tagging me on Instagram. It turns out that even without being active on Instagram for some time, I am still present there.
We have repeatedly touched on this issue at various media conferences and forums: it is impossible to ask a person to choose a role he plays in social networks. Therefore, on my Facebook page, I express my expert opinions. Of course, this in no way replaces official resources — the Foreign Ministry has its own accounts. I have no other plans to expand my presence on social networks if we talk about those platforms that are well known to the Russian user. But at the same time, I have a desire to expand my geography.
— Random people send you private messages on Facebook. What do they usually ask you about?
— Do not even ask me this question. You would not believe what they tell me about or what they ask for or what do they offer. I think I have already received all kinds of offers and requests. There are funny messages, tragic, calls for help, and insults, of course. There are all sorts of messages. I can give you some examples. There were requests from the authors of the books to read the manuscript. The books could be about pretty much anything: from a healthy lifestyle to historical, analytical notes. The authors often ask to discuss it. Sometimes people try to draw attention to a problem, for example, a regional one, up to the point that they write: «look, here’s what is happening in my street ...», completely missing the point that I am dealing with foreign policy issues.
There are requests to help people in difficult situations not only abroad but also in our country. People ask to study the situation and to provide some kind of assistance. So you would understand, one of the daily requests, rather an ordinary one, came from the Donetsk animal shelter. Indeed, when the internal Ukrainian conflict leads to the fightings that affect the whole region and we see a large number of refugees and displaced people, the people who are left homeless, we see also a problem of the pets that are left in the street for a number of reasons. When thinking about the nearby shellings, we primarily think about people, but the problem with animals also exists. And it becomes the problem for people. These are needs that should be addressed like animal vaccination, maintenance, medical treatment. The shelter asked me to provide information assistance and so we did. I take this opportunity to ask for your help as well. We help them, but maybe someone would also like to join in.
— Tell us how do you prepare for your weekly briefings.
— These are not mine but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ briefings. I do not personally work on them. There is a briefing department that prepares materials on current international affairs, on topics that explain Russian approaches or steps taken by Russia. Of course, we take into account the questions that we receive during the week and the day before. There are also questions that are asked by the audience. We never know what questions will be asked, but we can predict the topics that will be interesting for the journalists. We answer questions not just once a week during the briefing or at the ministry’s heads’ press conferences but we also do it daily. Every day we receive dozens of requests. They help us understand what topics are of interest to journalists. But still, it is more like roulette.
— Are there any questions during the briefings that you personally find difficult to answer?
— Oh, sure. These are questions that sound more like statements. People come not only to get the answer but to speak, to make a statement and hold some kind of performance. Often these are long questions, usually based on a biased judgment. Sometimes this is not a question at all: a person needs to express himself, to make the point. Many, by the way, also video record themselves. The special case would be when people come and record their own questions in the form of a video statement, but as soon as my answer starts, they turn the recording off. They are less interested in the second part, they already got what they wanted. It’s really difficult to deal with such questions. But in 99.9% of cases, questions are asked by the journalists who truly want to learn something and follow international politics. They need to clarify the details or get a broader answer from a global perspective.
— You are sometimes presented gifts during the briefings. I remember there was even given a traditional Bulgarian costume. What do you think about it?
— I believe this is not that much a manifestation of personal affection but more of a desire to pass a «virtual greetings» from their country, from the people. Many foreign journalists accredited in Moscow are perceived as envoys of public diplomacy by their audience. They receive letters with the requests to ask something, to pass something, including an invitation. Many people invite me to come to different cities, pass me some petitions, even invitations from foreign regions during the briefings. I’m really happy to see people’s attention. It’s very nice to receive such gifts. Though I do not keep them. We have an exposition of the gifts received during the briefings and one can have a look at them.
— Where is it?
— We keep it in the press center and we exhibit a part of the collection. Currently, we are working on a permanent exhibition. We have shelves and cabinets in which we will display everything.
— What is the most memorable gift?
— The gift presented during the briefing? It is probably a Bulgarian national costume. There were gifts related to bilateral relations. One journalist brought a picture created by foreign correspondents. They portrayed themselves at a briefing and me. This is a big picture and it is in my office.
— You often take notes on the phone during briefings. What do you write?
— I do not use the phone for notes, I just write them down in the briefing folder. I read the messages sent by our monitoring department about something that has just happened, some latest news. It also happens that I ask them to clarify whether the thing that I was just asked to confirm actually happened. I do not want to leave questions unanswered. It’s actually very difficult to speak and write at the same time especially when you are live. Sometimes my colleagues who follow the briefing understand that I do not have some information yet. So they send it to me if the matter is urgent. But I have neither a teleprompter nor a news ticker.
— Have you ever considered switching whom a paper folder to a tablet?
— No. Modern technologies allow you to introduce any technical novelty, but I find the folder to be more convenient, I’m used to it. Paper is best when you want to underline something. There are times when I get the information at the last moment and it is not always possible to edit it quickly on the computer, change paragraphs, but you can always write it down. Besides, I had a negative experience. There was a moment in my life when I came for an interviewed. It was one of my first interviews and at that time I had the latest voice recorder that worked on small disks. I took this recorder with me, had a terrific conversation with a very interesting person which lasted two hours. After that, I realized that either I didn’t quite understand how the recorder works or the batteries were not charged but something happened and our conversation didn’t get recorded. This taught me that the devices should be reliable, should not fail and you should have several of them. There is nothing more reliable than a paper folder and an electronic device for recording and a quick search of information.
— So how did the story with the recorder end?
— That was it. I didn’t have the nerve to ask for a second interview. But the story repeated many years later when I found myself in a similar situation. It was in Crimea and I had a briefing followed by three or four interviews in a row. The longest of them went for about an hour and a half, nearly two hours. It was the last one and I had to go somewhere after that, it was already late at night. And suddenly it turned out that the journalists had not record it. If it were not for my own experience, I would, of course, say: «Guys, it just happened, let’s do it next time.» I was so tired, exhausted, I was worn out and had a splitting headache. For about a minute and a half, I had an internal struggle reassessing the whole situation. I asked myself: «Can I do it?» I remembered that story with the recorder and said: «Yes, let’s do it again.»
You can be perfectly prepared, know it all and be able to do everything but this is life and such things happen. If you see people doing their best, doing their job well, asking interesting questions, you should give them a second chance. And we recorded the interview again. It lasted two hours. I was brought back to life with coffee after that. It was a real marathon. We started working in the morning right after getting off the plane. This story has taught me a lot. There are many such stories in my life when you don’t understand why you needed some unpleasant experience, and then years later you suddenly realize that it can serve as an example for you.
Working with Lavrov and women at the Russia Ministry of Foreign Affairs
— Speaking about the experience, is there someone who you would like to be your role model at work?
— There are a lot of people I have met my life and have taught me a lot. I think number one is my family, my parents, grandparents. They raised me, gave me an unique experience. The atmosphere is very important. There were many people whom I couldn’t say I followed but learned from their experience: the teachers at school and at the university, the first supervisors at work. Speaking of role models, I am always very careful about being fascinated with someone. As a rule, this leads to regrets. There should be always space for a critical view of oneself, of circumstances, of people.
This doesn’t mean you have to be biased but we need to understand that anything can happen in life and you can’t be caught in your own illusions. Thank God, there have been many people in my life who shaped my view of the world, who shared their experience or did not even know that I’m learning from them.
— How do you find the atmosphere at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, given the fact that there are few women leaders?
— I have answered the question about the reasons behind fewer women than men at the leading positions in the Foreign Ministry many times. Women started actively applying for «Diplomacy and International Relations» or «International Law» faculties at the universities only at the end of the 80s — beginning of the 90s. The Russian Foreign Ministry was a closed, purely male kingdom until the 90s but then everything changed as women started joining in. The key factor is the lack of artificial circumstances, quotas, examples when experienced and inexperienced people would have the same chances to get the position just based on the assumption that there should be more women. There is no discrimination, we just work. And, it seems to me, that it is simply impossible stating that «there are few women because of...» with some reasoning behind it. There are a lot of women in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they proceed in their careers by just being a professional.
Yes, there are certain circumstances, many people have families, many of them choose the family, some give up their careers, some combine both, compromise. Some leave but later return after they have a baby. Obviously, there are more women now among the department heads and deputy directors of the departments.
— What is it like to work with Sergey Lavrov?
— It seems to me that this is a whole universe of knowledge and experience, a unique opportunity to watch the highest level of expertise in our profession. I got to see a person at work who is an absolute authority even for those who wouldn’t be on the list of our friends in the international arena.
Sewing, songs, and poems
— Two years ago at the Moscow Film Festival, you appeared in a beautiful green dress which was made according to your sketch. Would you want to continue cooperation with Russian designers?
-I have no such desire. I believe that you should do what you want but on a professional level. I do not think that this can be achieved without proper preparation. It always seemed very strange to me. I came up with a dress for myself, but it was just an idea that was brought to life by a Russian company. I would not want to do this in the future, no. I sew for myself. For example, I like to sew curtains, before I even made clothes. I have dresses that I made in my student years when I had neither money nor means, and in my early years at work, when I was not getting paid much but I had to wear something.
— I know that in addition to this you write lyrics, poems.
— I would not call it poetry. This is some kind of emotional story, expressing feelings, sensations that appear from somewhere.
— I think that there are people in the Foreign Ministry who share your hobby.
— There are a lot of them. They do not just «share my hobby» but write beautiful poems. We publish a special collection. There is an association of diplomats called «Escape». It includes people who are fond of poetry and write it. They have been publishing poetry collections for many years. Some people publish under their own names and some have pen names but I am not a part of it.
— Sergey Lavrov also writes poetry. And has even published his last poem in «Russian Pioneer» magazine.
— This is not his last poem.
— Did he show it to you before publication?
— He gave it to me so I would send it to be published. Of course, I saw it.
— Do you discuss your artworks?
— With whom?
— With Sergey Lavrov.
— Not. I don’t discuss my works.
— And do you discuss his works?
— I show him some reviews when I see a certain interest in his poems. I send him the feedback: who commented on his poems, whether they said something funny or serious, whether there were critical assessments, positive feedback. There are a lot of positive comments. Therefore, I can’t say that we are discussing his work, it’s more about information flow. When I come up with something I usually show it to my relatives, friends or colleagues. And I also send it to Sergey Lavrov but we do not discuss it. I asked for his advice regarding my first song. Not just the advice but the permission, I wanted to see if he would find it appropriate. This is about my «Bring back the memory» song. I sent him a demo long before its official release and received an amazing response. He said: «Publish it, publish it faster.» I said: «It doesn’t depend on me, I’m not a music producer, but my lyrics were used in the song, it is possible that the song will be heard by the public. I wanted to ask you as an experienced poet, as a person who performs songs with a guitar.» Sergei Lavrov told me: «Make sure it is heard». That was his message.
— This is very high praise.
— True. Because everything was in it: his life experience, his attitude to literature, to poetry, to songs. I believe that my work could get different feedbacks. There will be critical and positive assessments. Overall, it was very valuable and it surprised me. I thought he would say; «Okay.» I was surprised that he used the phrase «faster and make sure.» Usually, people avoid such emotional words, but he is a very generous person when it comes to giving emotional support and help to creative people. It seems to me, that the most important thing for him is to see sincerity. I saw how people who started their journey in diplomacy, in the public service, turned to him for advice and support in some creative projects. His big soul and openmindedness surprised me. I have not met such people often.
Public transport and fame
— A little strange question ...
— I’m used to them. Surprise me!
— Do you use the subway?
— How often?
— Not often, but I use it when needed. For instance, when I see that I will spend two hours in traffic but it will take just 20 minutes by subway. I also use it when I go to the theater or to the cinema on the weekends, because it’s not only about reaching the place but also finding a parking space. I live next to the subway station, and it’s very convenient to use it in the city center. I had different experiences. I really liked how one day when I stepped into the subway car and people started to recognize me, one woman said to the other: «Why is that they started to get down in the subway?» Such things happen with me as well.
— Do people recognize you in the streets?
— They sometimes do.
— What do they say? Do they approach you?
— It is hard to understand the people who are recognized in the street and why do they act in this or that way until you become one of them. It’s not easy when you are approached, especially if you are in a hurry but a person has a serious question. And this person understands that he will have no other chance to ask you. I don’t want to offend anyone, not because I’m so diplomatic but because I simply think about myself in such a situation and understand that if I were in his place and was just as desperate, I would also come up and ask. On the other hand, I understand why many famous people try to avoid such situations, it is not easy. You have an appointment, there is a schedule that a great number of people adjust to, or you just don’t feel well, you are tired but people still come up to you. You cannot answer them without considering the question, you can’t just wave it off. You have to listen, respond to what they tell you. Same thing with photographs.
I remember there was a story with actors who said that they can’t always or don’t want to be photographed when they are asked about it. This caused a big wave of criticism: how come? For me, the human reaction is the priority, the sincere desire to be photographed with you. Perhaps a person cannot express the warm feeling he has for you in a different way. Sometimes the phrase: «Can I take a picture with you? I will show it to everyone» radiates with support and gratitude. I would never despise such a request even if I don’t like being photographed or think that I’m not ready. The only thing I have questions about is signing other people’s books. It always seemed to me that you can only sign your own books.