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What Tucker Carlson's interview with Vladimir Putin shows, and what it hides

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow.
Gavril Grigorov
/
AFP via Getty Images
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin in Moscow.

This is excerpted from Scott Simon's newsletter, Scott's Thoughts. Sign up here to get early access every week.

I spend almost no time watching, or getting worked up about, Tucker Carlson. The former Fox News personality has drawn criticism for his recent interview with Vladimir Putin, which took place just days before opposition leader Alexei Navalny was found dead in a Russian penal colony.

Of course western journalists should try to interview Vladimir Putin. Or for that matter, Nicolas Maduro, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un.

But over two hours, Tucker Carlson did not ask Putin about how so many of his opponents wind up imprisoned and murdered, or the warrant the International Criminal Court has out for his arrest for war crimes in Ukraine.

Yet I did see the three-minute celebration Tucker Carlson posted of the Kiyevskaya metro station in Moscow.

"One of the ways you understand a place is through its infrastructure," he declared. "What we found shocked us ... No graffiti, there's no filth, there are no foul smells ... or people waiting to push you on the train tracks and kill you. ... How do you explain that?"

"How does Russia," Carlson goes on, "have a subway station ... that's nicer than anything in our country?"

Carlson is careful to say the video is not an endorsement of Putin, or Josef Stalin, whose government built the station. But the clear implication of the video, scored with dreamy music and swelling strings, is that even though Vladimir Putin's regime imprisons and kills political opponents, and invades neighboring countries without provocation, it's all worthwhile because Moscow has an immaculate metro station. No grime! No graffiti!

And the Kiyevskaya station does appear handsome, with gold-trimmed marble pylons, and large mosaics that herald Russian-Ukrainian unity in the old Soviet Union. A portrait of Vladimir Lenin presides over the platform.

Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin.
/ From left: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images; AlexanderKazakov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
/
From left: Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images; AlexanderKazakov/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin.

Many commentators compared Tucker Carlson's enthusiasm for Moscow's metro to the boast of Italians fascists of the 1930's that Benito Mussolini "made the trains run on time" (a claim historians dispute).

But that homage to the Moscow metro reminded me of another legend from Russian history. Field Marshall Grigory Potemkin was said to have built facades of phony, idyllic-looking villages along the route that Empress Catherine II took to Crimea in 1787, to improve her view. The term "Potemkin village" now describes constructions that obscure reality.

Subway stops have been a favored place of mine to find people to interview in a great city — Chicago, New York, Paris — because you encounter people in transit from a cross-section of neighborhoods. Many are in a hurry, and shake you off. But many make time to share sharp opinions about the mayor, the president, and life in general.

I notice Tucker Carlson did not interview anyone in the Moscow metro station. They were in town to interview Vladimir Putin, but he didn't ask any Muscovites to say what they thought of their president, or the elections in March, the invasion of Ukraine, Alexei Navalny, or other imprisoned dissidents. They didn't ask anyone, "What would you like to ask President Putin?"

Even Tucker Carlson must know that asking Russians their opinions might be dangerous. Do you think there might be no graffiti in a Moscow metro station because anyone who considers spray-painting a slogan knows they could wind up in a gulag? Is the immaculate beauty of that metro station a Potemkin village glossing over the fear with which many Russians live?

Charles Maynes, NPR's Moscow correspondent, confirms, "The metro is a jewel." But he also told us that he interviews people on the street only without using their last names, for their safety. And — "if you don't talk about the war."


This first appeared in Scott Simon's newsletter, Scott's Thoughts. Sign up here to get early access on his perspective on what's in the news every week.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.