Volume XIV Number 2 (January-February 2004)


The Splendor and Misery of the Russian Press

By Sergei Roy

Editor, Moscow News

Aleksei Pankin, a keen observer of the Russian media scene and editor of Sreda, a magazine for Russian media professionals, commented last year on the rise of a curious phenomenon he called "freedom-of-speech tourism"–an endless chain of conferences on "The Power of the Press and the Pressure of Power," "Russian Journalism: Relations with Owners and the State" and the like, at which some of the "tourists," traveling from conference to conference, paint an apocalyptic picture of the repressions unleashed by the ever more totalitarian state on free speech while others insist that the press in Russia is moving steadily toward normal market relations. (1)

One side of this "debate" is represented by the following remarks:

"Today, there is almost no free media in Russia. Intimidation, coercion, assassination of journalists, and armed raids by the security services have put most independent media outlets out of business. Beatings and assassinations of journalists recall not the new Russia but the dark legacy of the Soviet past. Those independent media outlets that remain feel forced to practice the kind of self-censorship that characterized the Soviet Union. Today, most Russians who read newspapers or tune into television or radio hear only the voice of the Russian state–as they did under totalitarian rule." (2)

How is one to react to such an approach to reality? My own reaction is totally negative.

That is not to say there is no intimidation, coercion, beatings or assassination of journalists, no self-censorship, that everything is sweetness and light in the Russian media. But to attribute these ugly aspects entirely to "Putin’s rule," to the machinations of the Kremlin, to say that there is "almost no free press in Russia" is way off the mark.

Actually, most of the pressure against journalists in Russia is exerted by two forces, both of which might be called baronial: the industrial barons known as the oligarchs, representing Yel’tsin-era bandit capitalism; and the regional barons–the political machines of governors, presidents of ethnic republics, mayors, and other administrative heads. It is these political machines, as often as not corrupt and linked to criminal circles, that are largely responsible for the violence in the media environment. The influence of these local machines is such that, when an editor is murdered in a street brawl in a provincial town (as the editor of Togliatti Review, Aleksei Sidorov, was on 9 October 2003), the entire media community automatically assumes that the crime is due to the journalist’s denunciation of the local kingpin’s unsavory affairs. It is precisely these baronial forces, intrinsically dangerous to the unity and prosperity of Russia that President Putin is out to crush.

We, who have lived under the Soviets, know a thing or two about strangulation of free speech by the state apparatus; we know what it takes. Currently registered in Russia are 22,181 papers and 12,726 magazines. To keep them in check, the state would have to cancel the appropriate article of the Constitution, the 1990 U.S.S.R. Law on the Press and the 1991 R.F. Law on Mass Media, all of which ban any type of censorship. It would have to build up again the multi-layered censorship structure thatcomprised, under the Soviets, not just Glavlit with all its ubiquitous branches that watched over every scrap of paper with words printed on it, but also the one-party system with a watchful Party bureau at the editorial offices of each paper, magazine, publishing house, radio station, etc.

Where are these structures and laws? And to say that all those hundreds of thousands of Russian journalists, many of whom joined the profession in the heady days of perestroika out of purely idealistic motives, have been intimidated into self-censorship as a result of a few sundry beatings and assassinations by local bosses’ thugs is to show contempt for them.

I, too, have worked in the media environment since perestroika. I know dozens of journalists well enough, and not one of them has ever complained about their materials being suppressed by some secret state censorship organ or anyone linked to the state apparatus. God knows we have enough problems without this nonsense. Very serious problems—like economic survival.

A look at the above figures will show that Russia is currently the world champion in terms of the number of papers and magazines (I will concentrate on the print media, where I am an insider). As there is not enough demand for those papers and magazines, not enough people to pay for the printed product, not enough advertisements to go round and make the publications economically viable, they can only exist if they are subsidized. And that is a crucial aspect with regard to freedom of the press, and restrictions on that freedom, in present-day Russia. National (in older terminology, central, Moscow-based) periodicals are funded by big money; regional and local ones, by not so big money. And none of the periodicals pay their way. They depend for their existence entirely on the section of the elite known as oligarchic clans to which they have sold their bodies and souls. That is the whole source of their splendor and misery.

Let me cite some examples from personal history: For a couple of years I was deputy editor-in-chief of Moscow Magazine — the first (bilingual) glossy magazine in the Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, government money ran out, and Derk Sauer, the Dutch publisher, dropped the magazine and went to found a media empire of his own. After tottering for a few more issues on advertising money, the magazine collapsed. This story was repeated countless times with other magazines: They would scrounge enough capital for a few issues, sometimes just one, then disappear from view for good.

Or take VremyaMN, a sister paper of Moscow News. It was a good daily run on money the source of which I will not divulge under torture—except to say that it had nothing to do with any government agency. Then its editor, a highly competent and knowledgeable colleague of mine, changed allegiance and went over to another, probably richer source, slightly changing the logo to VremyaNovostey, whereupon VremyaMN instantly expired. Not for long though: Another source of funding materialized, VremyaMN was revived with a new staff, and it was again a very good paper with a big enough following, but the moment this other source decided it had played enough with this particular toy, VremyaMN expired again, just a few months ago.

There is a sad moral in this. As time goes by, the realization dawns on various sections of the political and business elite that the existence of countless subsidized publications just does not make economic sense. The media business lives in Russia, as everywhere else, by the same laws as any other kind of business: Big fish eat little fish. But the closure of any of these publications is accompanied inevitably by loud howls about an onslaught on the freedom of speech, in which the free-speech "tourists" lustily join.

There is room enough for such antics, as Russia still has literally thousands of cheerless papers and magazines that merely provide income for their journalistic staff and tickle their sponsors’ sense of self-importance. All of them will close down sooner or later, but "clamping down on the press," will not be the cause. Press distributors and other mass media market agents will.

So far, so good. Natural market forces are at play in the industry, and they are leading inevitably to the creation of media conglomerates. The same forces, however, bring about certain deplorable results, like the divvying up of practically all the significant media outlets among the country’s biggest financial and industrial corporations, headed by individuals known as oligarchs. Because of this, the media are now seen by the public as totally dominated by the interests of narrow groups, the top elite, whose members are at loggerheads with each other for the most sordid reasons, and who use the media as handy instruments in their fight over the more succulent chunks of what used to be, or still is, state-owned property.

That is the biggest blot on the Russian media at present. Of course, readers buying certain papers orto base reasonable behavior strategies, as there are plenty of journalists true to their ideals of public service and professional pride. But the public is also aware constantly of who owns the paper, and why. Many readers have become quite adept at identifying zakazukha — a dirty word for paid-for materials slipped in along with bona fide journalism. And, as every professional knows, there are other ways of influencing the reader apart from outright zakazukha — slanting, selection of topics, dead silence about certain subjects, choice of wording, and so on.

Let me make myself absolutely clear. The greatest ill afflicting freedom of the press in Russia is the fact that there are no independent, self-sustained media outlets left around. All the media have been bought, they cannot exist without huge subsidies, and they do the bidding of their masters. If the masters are intelligent, they permit their "organs" a measure of editorial independence, since media outlets with a claim, however spurious, to impartiality are more effective P.R. instruments than servile, absolutely predictable sheets. If they are not—you get a scandal like the one that surrounded the firing in 2000 of Vitali Tretyakov by the fugitive tycoon Boris Berezovsky. Mr. Tretyakov, absolutely the top journalist and political scientist in Russia, used to run the Berezovsky-owned Nezavisimaya gazeta, which under Tretyakov vied with Izvestia and Kommersant for the laurels of Russia’s best daily. With its numerous supplements and first-rate crew of journalists, it was a favorite with the politically—minded public, and a highly influential paper. Until, that is, Mr. Berezovsky decided that Vitali Tretyakov had grown too independent and so would have to be replaced. Since then, NG’s influence–and circulation–have gone into an irreversible decline. It isn’t the "totalitarian state" that is to blame for this decline: NG is currently almost as anti-Putin as Novaya gazeta or, for that matter, the far-left, Communist-owned Zavtra.

Apart from NG, Mr. Berezovsky also owns the Kommersant Publishing House, which he bought from its founder Vladimir Yakovlev, son of Yegor Yakovlev–the man who made Moskovskiye novosti the flagship of perestroika. Vladimir Yakovlev started Kommersant-Daily in 1992, specifically for the consumption of the first cooperators who then began to form a cohesive social group, the Russian version of the middle class. "When our readers began to think for the first time which foreign-made car was better or how a Jacuzzi worked," said Vladimir Yakovlev in an interview, "we launched the magazines Avtopilot and Domovoi (House Spirit). When the population began to open bank accounts, we launched the magazine Dengi (Money). And so on. Our objective is to give the reader exactly what he or she needs right at this moment." And that is precisely what it is still doing.

Boris Berezovsky had sense enough not to interfere too much in the running of Kommersant and its offshoots (except for the rumored attempt to sell the Publishing House in 2000). For Kommersant, there is just one "zone forbidden for criticism," as the Communist-era phrase goes, and that is the personality and doings of Mr. Berezovsky himself. Any investigative reports into the LogoVAZ fraud or the Aeroflot-related financial scandals involving Berezovsky, to name just two episodes, are plainly unthinkable in Kommersant. If the Kommersant people write about the tycoon–as they did about his recent P.R. stunt, a flying nocturnal visit to Georgia on a false passport and under an assumed name–it is in a sycophantic, Soviet-style manner, aiming to build up their hero. Which does not fool anyone, of course, but merely diminishes the paper’s stature in the eyes of its readership.

I have already mentioned Novaya gazeta. It used to belong to Vladimir Gusinsky, another refugee ex-oligarch, but is now mostly referred to as "Berezovsky’s mouthpiece." It is not easy for me to write about this paper, since it is produced by the person, or the same kind of persons, with whom I used to march through Moscow’s downtown streets back in, say, 1990, in hundred-thousand strong demonstrations yelling "Doloy Kah-Geh-Beh!" (Down with the KGB!). So much time has passed, the romantic period of the Russian revolution is long over; the biggest rats have won the rat race started in 1991, carrying away the fruits of that romantic period in full compliance with what looks like immutable laws of history–and these persons still keep yelling the same things. Only now they are well subsidized with oligarchic money for their denunciations of the Putin regime (and before that, of the Yel’tsin regime) and know exactly on which side their bread is buttered. Dmitri Bykov, one of the brightest wits in the Russian media, once commented dryly that in 1999 you could find a sea of anti-Yel’tsinarticles in Novaya gazeta but not a single anti-Luzhkov one (2)–for the simple reason that Mr. Gusinsky, the paper’s owner, was then hand in glove with Moscow’s mayor.

I was also delighted to encounter in Mr. Bykov’s article a feeling that I myself had had for some time–that there was nothing, in terms of bigotry or sectarianism, to distinguish between Gusinsky’s Novaya gazeta and the Communists’ Zavtra. It is sectarianism that makes both papers unreadable–one-hundred-percent predictable in content and pompous-ass in style.

As a relief from this one-sided journalism, or pseudo-journalism, consider Izvestia, a daily paper that in 2003 celebrated its 85th anniversary. With a circulation of 235,000, it is just as influential and authoritative as Kommersant but targets a broader public, not just the business-oriented strata. Until recently, Izvestia’s main stockholders were Russian major companies LUKoil and Interros, but since the middle of 2003 Interros (which is to say the oligarch Vladimir Potanin) has had complete control of it. Potanin actually bought more than 40 percent of the shares in Izvestia as early as 1997 (through Uneximbank and the oil major Sidanko that he owned) in preparation for a tussle with a couple of other oligarchs, Berezovsky and Gusinsky, over the extremely juicy chunk of state-owned property, the telecommunications giant Svyazinvest. This is not the place to go into the behind-the-scenes shenanigans and media wars of 1997, except to say that ever since that time the public’s attitude toward private-owned media has become tinged with skepticism: Private did not mean independent, as it had seemed when every honest journalist had dreams of throwing off the Communist Party yoke. Rather the reverse: Private means a handy, shameless tool in the hands of greedy oligarchs.

The flip side of the coin is that you can do a lot with generous oligarchic subsidies. Located opposite Moscow News’ old premises on Pushkinskaya Square, Izvestia is a much bigger concern, in a state of permanent growth. It now has color supplements on tourism, communications, environment, insurance, realty, and special pages devoted to banking technologies, oil and gas, health and medicines, metallurgy, auditing and consulting.

Of course, Izvestia, or rather Interros, has had its troubles, especially in the wake of the 1998 financial meltdown. Interros closed its 12 month old but quite successful business publication Russky telegraf and transferred some of its journalists to Izvestia, part of whose staff was axed likewise (these individuals naturally saw the whole thing not as a merger, but as a takeover of Izvestia by Russky telegraf).

These, however, were ordinary expense-sheet-related measures that any holding company has to take now and then, as distinguished from political pressures or repressions. Anyone who knows Izvestia’s array of "golden pens" of Russian journalism–Maxim Sokolov, Alexander Arkhangelsky, Irina Petrovskaya, Oleg Bogomolov–will be aware that the very idea that these persons, all proud of their democratic credentials, all brought to journalism by perestroika for which they nobly fought, can succumb to any sort of pressure is ridiculous. The politics desk at Izvestia is headed by Svetlana Babayeva, one of a number of journalists who have over the years taken a walk from Moscow News across Pushkinskaya Square to Izvestia. There are, of course, certain zones interdites for them, too–like Potanin, Interros, LUKoil, but they go over the top and attack the country’s leaders, or whom ever they please, whenever they please.

Moskovskiye novosti (MN), the paper with which I have been associated during the last eight years, is probably the most graphic example of the ills affecting Russian printed media. Until the fall of 2003 it was the last independent, or practically independent, paper of national importance. It still wore the halo of its glory of the perestroika years, when its circulation reached 3 million and each of those 3 million copies was read by a dozen persons who sometimes had to fight for the privilege. Together with the magazine Ogonyok, MN had done much of the ideological spadework that ultimately led to the collapse of Communism–and of the Soviet Union. By 2003, its circulation had plummeted to a few thousand, but it was still the paper for the politically minded liberal intelligentsia.

Then, a few months ago, it was acquired by the Open Russia foundation that makes no secret of its close association with the Yukos oil company. The first thing the new masters did, was to kick out my colleague Viktor Loshak, editor-in-chief of the Russian edition, a holdover from those fantastic years of perestroika. No intelligible reason was given for the dismissal, but when a former head of NTV and sidekick of Vladimir Gusinsky, battle-hardened in the oligarchic free-for-all of the 1990s, was appointed in Loshak’s place, the conclusion was not hard to draw: Independence and impartiality were out.

So: If, or rather when, I am kicked out of my present position as editor-in-chief of Moscow News, this will not be due to the totalitarian onslaught on the free press in Russia. In the minds of anyone even remotely familiar with the media situation in Russia, the incident automatically will be chalked up to Russia’s oligarchs’ freedom, and wherewithal, to buy the formerly free press–and mold it to their liking.



(1) Aleksei Pankin, ‘Free Speech Tourism’ Enjoying a Boom, The Moscow Times, 19 February 2002

(2) Remarks by Senator John McCain, 4 November 2003

(3) Russky Zhurnal. Istoriya sovremennosti. Bykov-quickly: vzglyad-13 27.08.2001. sovr



Copyright ISCIP 2004
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
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