Alla G. Bespalova, Horst Pöttker (eds.) (2022): Mediensysteme in Deutschland und Russland. Handbuch. [Media Systems in Germany and Russia. Handbook.]

Reviewed by Jürg Häusermann

Alla Grigor’evna Bespalova was born in 1956. I imagine that she grew up reading Komsomol’skaja Pravda, listening to songs on Radio Mayak, and watching Soviet television shows. Horst Pöttker, born in 1944, was just learning to read when the first editions of the newspaper Bild appeared. He grew up in a media world that included the International Frühschoppen as well as Radio Luxemburg. In 2003, the two of them launched a joint project whose goals included a »German-Russian Dictionary of Journalism« (12). Following the Manual of Journalistic Genres, they are now presenting the result of their collaboration, a collection of essays and materials entitled Media Systems in Germany and Russia. The book is divided into the sections Media Systems, Print Media, Radio, Television, Online Media, and Agencies. Almost a third of the volume is taken up by a comparison of statistical data on the market and consumption of journalistic media in the two countries (as of 2015).

The articles in this book begin with definitions, providing a historical overview of each media format. Most of the sections also reference research. Thus, many of the contributions make great introductions to their topic. Overall, the books gives Russian and German readers an insight into the other country’s media system and its formats.

This manual is about journalistic media. As such, it does not include dedicated sections on entertainment, advertising and non-public communication, but features these topics in the sections Print Media, Radio, Television, Online Media, and Agencies. Current issues of press freedom are only addressed in passing (with the exception of a detailed article on »Media Regulation« by Marcel Machill, Nikolai Buslenko, and Anna Kapustina, see pp. 40-47).

To me, the book’s greatest value is that it constitutes a document of scholarly collaboration across cultural and political boundaries. Some sections juxtapose texts on the same topic, written from different perspectives by authors with different academic biographies. Some of the texts are joint products by Russian-German teams, offering alternating perspectives and insightful comparisons. Throughout the volume, it is evident how fruitful and creative, but also how makeshift and tedious a collaboration between these two scientific traditions and cultures can be.

That’s also what makes the six-page preface such an interesting read. As far as I’m concerned, it could have been ten times as long, because it’s not about media systems, but about the enterprise of ›intercultural scientific collaboration‹. It explains that each article required seven laborious editorial steps, which took so long that by the time a section was done, an eighth step was needed to add and update new content and data. It also offers a glimpse into the many linguistic and cultural communication issues that riddled the authors’ interactions, from e-mail and telephone conversations and shared dinners to cab rides, which gave the project a »rather rare quality of interculturality« (16) between the two countries. Brief references to »occasional misunderstandings« make the readers eager to hear more details, stories, and anecdotes to illustrate these differences in »languages, traditions, and mentalities« (12). It would make outside parties appreciate the value of this undertaking even more. We might learn more about the different academic traditions of the two countries, which have brought forth such very different fruits – at least in the social sciences and humanities. The book was published when Russia, once again, attacked Ukraine, starting a war that is still ongoing, and bringing academic cooperation to an abrupt halt. It not only disrupted scientific exchange on research in physics, but also hybrid fruits of mutual understanding like the present volume.

The introductions to the first part (Media Systems) address the basic concepts of media, the media system, media typology, media regulation, and media companies. This created insightful textbook pieces, such as »Media, Mass Media« by Horst Pöttker and Evgenij Achmadulin (pp. 24-29), where they address issues with the concept of media, summarize the development of information media in cultural history, and point out current usage of the term in everyday life and academia. Similarly, the article »Media System« by Marcel Machill and Evgenij Achmadulin works with common concepts of systems theory, outlining political and economic problems that are taken up again in later articles. Equally informative, and using a shared didactic approach, the contribution on »Media Companies« by Jürgen Heinrich and Julija Naumova (pp. 48-55) is focused on Russian examples, yet meets the overarching claim of establishing a connection with the economic and political system. The topic »Media Regulation« (by Marcel Machill, Nikolaj Buslenko, and Anna Kapustina, cf. pp. 40-47) is also presented as a systematic comparison, first contrasting the conditions in which the various media operate in Russia and in Germany, then discussing current issues regarding possibilities and limits of regulation.

In this chapter, you really get the feeling that people sat down together, compared their ideas, and then crafted them into a joint text. We won’t find out how this process took place (and which media they used) and what else they may have discussed; but since the piece does, for example, contain critical references to the ownership of Russian media, signed off by both the German and the Russian author, one can imagine how some of this process may have gone down.

The reader is also led into lesser-known gardens of the other culture and its media science, for example in Alla Bespalova’s text »Media Typology« (pp. 34-40). The classification of periodicals according to publisher, target audience, functions, tasks, and depiction of reality (topics) is reminiscent of the meticulous efforts to classify objects in other domains of the humanities, such as linguistics. The article »Types of Newspapers and Magazines,« for example, makes a distinction between »supranational (global), pan-Russian, regional, and local newspapers and magazines« according to their area of distribution (p. 68). Even the word »pan-Russian,« which Western Europeans would just call »national,« speaks volumes, reminding us that in Russia, »national« would refer to ethnicity and thus also imply centuries of struggles. The classification is further divided, not only into »country, city, district, and village publications,« but also »corporate publications,« such as magazines published by farming collectives and other large enterprises – another hint at the worlds of difference that lie between the two media systems.

Some of the essays on individual media were written in teams, while others are juxtapositions of a German and a Russian text on the same topic. For example, all contributions on the topic of »Radio« are collaborations (by Bernd-Peter Arnold, Vladislav Smirnov and Tatjana Lebedeva, cf. pp. 110-145). These texts alternate between presentations of German and Russian conditions and their history, even if the comparison may not be entirely complete (for example, under the title »Radio Program,« cf. 116-123, the topic of »format radio« only addresses Germany). The section on »Online Media« (cf. pp. 186-211) was also written by a team (Klaus Meier and Vitalij Viničenko), which is why a cohesive concept of public communication is apparent throughout the piece, guided by the question of how various actors interact in the information process.

In the sections that feature two consecutive articles which merely share the same title, it is not always apparent whether the authors coordinated. For example, Mike Kortsch wrote a very clear piece on the various genres of »Television Journalism« (cf. pp. 176-178), also citing examples, while Roman Černov (cf. pp. 180-184) writes mainly about journalistic television jobs. In this and certain other cases, I would have liked to see at least some form of facilitation to reveal the overarching objective of the two texts.

All articles are printed in both German and Russian. The editors emphasize that their goal was to preserve the unique style of each language in the translation. That endeavor, however, sometimes turned out to be too much of a good thing – for example, when a German sentence has no verb just because Russian grammar allows it. Word choice could also have used the critical eye of a proofreader. For example, on page 156f. a »rough distinction« is translated into Russian as a »fundamental difference« (glubokoe različie). Even some of the headlines leave the reader perplexed. Why would you use »Technical Terms« for the German title of a chapter whose Russian counterpart is entitled »Key Words« (ključevye ponjatija)? Why are the German language titles »Distribution and Dissemination« translated into Russian with the same term twice (rasprostranenie – »dissemination«)?

Of course, this also highlights the pitfalls of cooperation across geographical and linguistic borders. But some it could have been avoided by a little more careful editing – especially since throughout the book, the authors’ efforts to reach a mutual understanding beyond cultural and political differences are so apparent.

It may be a long time before Russians and Germans find a common approach to the topic of »Media Systems«. But this is exactly why it is so exciting to have a book that shows us how such mutual rapprochement might look – and proves that, despite everything, collaborative work is possible.

About the reviewer

Jürg Häusermann, Dr. phil., studied German and Russian language and literature in Zurich and Moscow (USSR). He has worked as a radio and print journalist and served as Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tübingen from 1993 to 2017. In addition to journalistic textbooks, he has published texts on media language and media rhetoric, among other things.

Translation: Kerstin Trimble

This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 28 Febuary 2023, accessible at

About this book

Alla G. Bespalova, Horst Pöttker (eds.) (2022): Mediensysteme in Deutschland und Russland. Handbuch. [Media Systems in Germany and Russia. Handbook.]From the series: Journalism International, vol. 9. Cologne: Herbert von Halem, 364 pages, 34,- EUR.