WASHINGTON — An influential listserv devoted to Russia has come under scrutiny as its American founder has increasingly veered towards the Kremlin's interpretation of the news, especially the conflict in Ukraine, including in a blistering Twitter account that has now been shut down.
The listserv, called Johnson's Russia List, was founded by David Johnson in 1996 and is currently hosted by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.
The institute's director told BuzzFeed News he stood by the listerv and said Johnson's inclusion of pro-Russian content and Russian state media provided a welcome antidote to the U.S. mainstream media.
"In regards to the composition of the articles that David Johnson includes, I think what he's doing, and in this I agree with him, he's trying to give a voice to those opinions that are not represented or hardly ever represented by the mainstream media," Peter Rollberg said.
The "mainstream media have become increasingly simplistic" about Russia and its aggression toward Ukraine, Rollberg said, "reducing the issues to a good versus evil, goodies versus baddies dichotomy."
"A more differentiated approach is necessary," Rollberg said.
"In this regard, Johnson's Russia List and our values, our priorities that we stand for as an academic institution coincide, and coincide completely" with Johnson's project, Rollberg said, while noting that his institute is "not responsible for the content" of Johnson's List.
Johnson's Russia List began in 1996 and was for a time the only important Russia-focused listserv for people who worked in Russia-related matters. A New York Times profile from 1997 describes its founder David Johnson as an "obsessive Russia-watcher" who "began his list during the blustery, tense period before last year's Russian presidential elections. His was a self-proclaimed E-mail crusade against the mainstream press, particularly The New York Times, which he thought was 'demonizing the Yeltsin opposition.'" The piece adds that "Mr. Johnson's left-leaning political agenda is what rankles and lures his readers. He gives priority placement to people like Fred Weir of The Hindustan Times, a Canadian journalist whose coverage of Mr. Yeltsin's Communist opponents was far less critical than that of most foreign journalists."
Since the start of the current geopolitical crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the list has increasingly included content from Russian state media and other sources sympathetic to the Russian version of events. Johnson's personal Twitter feed, which has been deleted or removed since BuzzFeed News started reporting on this story last week, has been particularly combative. In one cached post, he called the journalist Anne Applebaum a "silly obsessed woman" for warning that the West may have to prepare for military conflict with Russia. He often criticized journalists for seeming to side with Ukraine: "Russia bad, Kyiv good. Is this the story you report?" he tweeted at two journalists covering the story this month. In another tweet, he accused well-regarded Guardian correspondent Shaun Walker of making "uncertified claims" about Russian designs on the eastern Ukrainian town of Mariupol.
"I stopped reading [the list] because it was like receiving 20 of the best articles of Russian propaganda a day in between Reuters articles," said British journalist Ben Judah, the author of a recent book about Vladimir Putin. "Then he appeared on Twitter and started trolling me."
Judah said the list was still very influential among European policymakers; "When I joined the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank, as a Russia analyst in 2009 I was told immediately to sign up to this as 'Everyone in Brussels does,'" he said.
Johnson declined to speak with BuzzFeed News for this story, saying: "Many years ago I stopped doing interviews."
The list used to be a project of the World Security Institute until that organization closed in 2012.
Rollberg declined to say how much it costs to keep Johnson's List running but said that it receives funding from "a variety of foundations" such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Open Society Foundations, George Soros' grant-making organization.
Its membership "has remained steady but I think that the interest that it attracts has increased because of its representation of views that you would normally not find in the US mainstream media," Rollberg said.