Striking Cords Across Borders

Nabi Abdullaev, Perspektivy mentor

Cross-Border journalism programme mentor Nabi Abdullaev at the first meeting with participants, Perspektivy, Moscow, October 2016

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One of the key challenges and key objectives of the Perspektivy's Cross-Border Journalism project is to achieve, well, “cross-borderness", and the more of it, the better.

In projects like this there is a risk that organisers end up with a number of well-researched, well-written but rather local stories, the ones that a foreigner might enjoy reading but that would not emotionally reverberate with him or her.

One way of trying to build cross-border bridges for the project products was selecting story ideas that are relevant for readers and for writers on different sides of state borders, stories evolving around shared history (“Churches in the Caucasus”), shared pain (“The Aral Sea residents" ENG  RUS ), common resilience in the face of others (“Small diasporas in Russia” ENG  RUS ) and common economic sense (“Cross-border shopping”). Most of my thinking on this topic was explained in my first mentor’s blog.

The next stage was to make this cross-border design actually work, and to achieve this organisers of the program go to great lengths.

We have sent participants of the project across borders to work with each other, to understand their stories’ concepts and characters from different sides, and to understand how these concepts and characters are seen and explained by those in different countries.

And it was visible as I read through their submissions, from the first draft to the last one, how this “cross-borderness” infiltrated their work.

Yulia Demyanova’s first draft report about residents of St. Petersburg going shopping into neighbouring Finland was a nicely done local story. But the story they’ve done together with Nikita Kuzmin on Kaliningrad residents shopping in Poland is a much deeper and broader effort to explain and demonstrate the motivations of their project protagonists, the contexts that are universal for people living in border areas and living off the cross-border trade, their small victories, their tricks and of course the tragedies.

Ainur Baigozha from Kazakhstan and our participant from Uzbekistan have lived through a surreal personal adventure as they travelled through the two countries along the shores of the dying Aral Sea. Their project is one seamless story that reads in one breath, and I see that in this particular one the cross-border demand of the program was met in powerful way.

Curiously, if taken separately, stories by Valentina Kerman about Gagauzs living in a village not far from Moscow and by Anastasia Kovalenko about Germans living in the remote Altai region, seem quite local. But when taken together, they find a forceful synergy, a new dimension, a stark contrast between a tale of a tiny but growing community that is full of hope, confidently looking into the future, and a sad story of a shrinking, ageing group that lives largely on memories of its past.

But the most graphic - and I mean it literally - stories related to the project on churches in Georgia and Armenia. Marta Ardashelia wrote a professional, compelling and balanced feature story on Georgians’ attitude to their national church, while Anton Yevstratov provided thoughtful interviews on Armenian churchVictoria Lomasco, a journalist who draws first and writes second, travelled to Armenia and Georgia, and her piece sews together two other stories into a colourful, intelligent study.

The process of merging individual stories, sometimes local in scope and intended outreach, into cross-border projects was not without its frictions. Some authors could be defensive, protecting their brainchildren from what they perceived as unnecessary interventions. But as we met in St. Petersburg two months after the program started, and as participants presented their projects, there was a consensus among us - we all see a bigger picture now, a picture that is not limited by borders between our countries.