Life and death of an independent newspaper in Oryol

In 2004, some local journalists in Oryol founded an independent newspaper ‘for those who want the truth’. Although it sold well, members of staff were subject to threats, bribes, attacks and arson. Still, it lasted four years.

Elena Godlevskaya
1 March 2010

The Oryol Oblast is one of the smallest in Russia.  It’s in the central part of the country and has no natural resources, so is of no interest to Russian oligarchs or serious foreign investors. Life here is quiet, even boring. An ecologist friend of mine once said that even if a nuclear bomb were to explode in the Oryol Oblast, no one except the ecologists would notice.

Oryol oblast on the Russia's map

The Oryol oblast is one of the smallest in Russia

But it turns out there are more frightening things for the authorities than nuclear bombs. In April 2004, a small group of talented journalists joined forces to create a newspaper that was independent of the local authorities – “a newspaper for those who want to know the truth”.  It was called Orlovskie Novosti  (Oryol News). There was no intent to start a “civil war” or become the opposition. In an address to the readers in the first issue, we voiced a point of view that is completely normal for a democratic society: “Our work will be guided by the law and your demand for objective information about what’s going on around us. Our aim is simple – to give people in Oryol the opportunity to exercise their right to information about significant events affecting them, and in this way to ensure their right to freedom of thought and speech”.  

After three issues had come out, however, the first deputy governor of the Oblast Vitaly Kochuev (recently sentenced to eight years in jail for major embezzlement of state property) invited the founder of Orlovskie Novosti in for a talk.  In exchange for closing down the paper, he offered her a position in the Oblast administration or ownership of a local enterprise. 

Orlovskie Novosti: “a newspaper for those who want to know the truth”

A day before the eighth issue of the weekly came out, there was a call to the editorial office. An unfamiliar male voice introduced himself as an employee of the Oblast administration.  He “urged” the removal from the already formatted issue of information about the questionable appointment of the daughter of the regional governor Yegor Stroev as a senator representing the Oblast in the Russian Federation Council, and also a piece about the real state of affairs in the regional economy. This “request” was refused, so the authorities resorted to other means of persuasion. After the newspaper came out, two unknown assailants attacked the newspaper’s founder in the entrance hall of her apartment block and dealt her several blows to the head.  As was only to be expected, the assailants were never found.   In private conversation, however, employees of the prosecutor’s office admitted they had identified the perpetrators, but the trail of people who had ordered the attack led up to high-ranking regional officials, so the case was closed. Soon the private printing works where Orlovskie Novosti was printed announced that it was unable to continue working with the paper, despite its need for orders. Local entrepreneurs were threatened with bankruptcy if they placed advertisements, and retail outlets were forbidden to sell the newspaper in kiosks. Street sellers were dispersed by people in police uniform.

Why were the authorities so intimidated by independent journalists? What secrets and conspiracies had they uncovered? Paradoxically, the biggest secret turned out to be the truth about real events in the region. To be honest, initially we ourselves didn’t realize the full extent to which the authorities were fooling their own people. For the anniversary of Orlovskie Novosti, I wrote: “At the beginning we didn’t aim to be‘affiliated with anyone’, to be ‘for’ or “against’. We simply wanted to be truthful, and we still do. We ourselves were probably unprepared for the lies, things only half said, half thought even that we discovered everywhere, lurking behind various decisions.  It's hardly by chance that simply setting out the facts about how state organisations or commercial structures work is regarded as akin to membership of an opposition movement!  But truth will always be in opposition to lies”.

What did we write about? This is easy to understand even from the newspaper headlines:

“Human rights activist finds 17,000 ‘extra voters’ ”

  • “Things are in a bad way – land is being taken away from the farmers, and the authorities don’t intervene”
  • “A fatal refusal. Why don’t doctors want to help patients?”
  • “What the hell do we need a prosecutor for?  There’s nothing to be gained from observing the law.”
  • “Much Ado. And we get nothing. The mother of a Beslan victim is impoverished and drowning in official indifference”
  •  “If you want to live, learn to give bribes!”
  • “Gravy train for the select few”
  • “Son of chief of police takes joyride in stolen Mercedes”
  • “Slaves from New Village. Farmers get their teeth knocked out for disobedience”…

To explain the conditions surrounding the publication of our independent newspaper, I should probably say a few words about the local Oryol authorities. The head of the Oblast was Yegor Stroev. By that time, he had been in charge for about 25 years, although his position had had different names: Secretary of the Communist Party Regional Committee, Head of the Regional Administration, and Governor. A domineering, cunning man, a master of intrigue and neutralizing his opponents, he not only managed to stay in power as the head of the Oblast and concentrate almost unlimited power in his hands, but also become a trusted friend of such dissimilar presidents as Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin.  25 years is an entire biological generation, several generations from the viewpoint of information at the social level. People were born under Stroev, grew up under Stroev and worked under Stroev. There were drastic changes in Russia, and changes of parties in power, presidents and reforms. Only he, Yegor Semyonovich, remained unchanged. 15 years ago he was called a genius, the best of the best. Soon, with the help of his circle, he became the main asset of the Oryol Oblast, and even the “main mineral of Oryol”. The village of Dudkino, where the future governor was born, was renamed Stroevo.  This immodest inscription appeared on the statue of the world-famous Russian writer Ivan Turgenev in Mtsensk: “The land of Turgenev and Fet is warmed by the love of Stroev”.  A park was named after him in the Pokrovsky district and his name can even be seen in several churches!

Poems and songs were written in honour of the head of the region. In a two-volume work about Stroev with the grandiose title “A son of the Russian land”, local poets clumsily but ecstatically rhymed:

“It’s great that you’re our leader –

A leader who is smart,

We write your name in capitals.

(These words come from the heart).”

“Live, and build, and rule, Yegor,

Russia will be great once more…”

Local television, radio and newspapers devoted themselves to just one thing – publicising Stroev’s words, his speeches, promises and undertakings, all regardless of the real results. The residents of the Oblast, one of the poorest in Russia, were told that they lived in a region of prosperity and wellbeing, in a paradise called C-C-C – consistency, concord and creativity. What was carefully hidden was that under Stroev consistency had long since turned into stagnation, creativity into self-destruction and concord into a fear of having an opinion of one’s own.  I can’t forget a phone call from a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, a holder of the Order of Glory, the highest Soviet award for soldiers.   He was asking the editorial office to help to find work for his granddaughter, who had lost her job. The girl had graduated from university with flying colours, but she had no connections so she couldn’t find a job. I suggested she write us a letter, which would give us what we needed to apply to the relevant bodies.  He started crying, saying that he was afraid. “ Afraid of what?” I asked in surprise. “You can’t be, you fought in the war and were awarded the Order of Glory!” “I’m a helpless invalid,” the old soldier replied. “They’ll come and kill me simply for talking to you”.  How can you intimidate your own people like this?

And suddenly in this media swamp, in a region which five years later would be recognized as the most corrupt in Russia, a newspaper comes along which breaks all the rules of the game, and calls black black, and white white.

I’m not afraid to say that it was a social earthquake - and not only for the authorities.  Despite the bans on printing, selling or reading it, the circulation of Orlovskie Novosti reached 15,000 in the first year. If one considers that on the whole the newspaper was only sold in Oryol (population 270,000), then this was certainly success. We realized our readers were not just 15,000 supporters, but 15,000 citizens. People who wanted to know the real state of affairs in the Oblast and the city, to know their rights and how to exercise them, people who wanted to change their own lives and their families’ lives for the better and who were sick of being deceived.

We received particularly active support from children and grandmothers. They were the main sellers of Orlovskie Novosti, organizing mobile points of sale on trolleybuses and buses, outside large stores, at bus stops and by factory gates. The newspaper was also read widely in electronic form. We received comments from Siberia, the Far East, the north and south of Russia, from China and Brazil, Israel and Germany.  Russians living in the USA were prepared to buy 1,500 copies every month.   Surveys soon established that Orlovskie Novosti was recognized as the most influential publication in the Central Federal District, which comprises 18 Oblasts with a total area of 650,700 sq.km - approximately 2.5 times the size of Great Britain!

The only places our newspaper couldn’t reach were the regulatory bodies, law enforcement agencies and the presidential administration.   Almost every week we submitted to the presidential administration information on corruption in state and municipal organisations, the misappropriation of state property and fraud and abuse of office by Oryol officials.  At the end of 2008, just before Yegor Stroev was dismissed, the top brass was replaced at the Regional Prosecutor’s Office, the local Federal Security Service and the Dept of Internal Affairs.  It was only then that investigators became interested in the facts described in Orlovskie Novosti. And one by one, the former heads of Oryol and the Oblast started rolling….

But this happened later. At that time it was the newspaper that had to struggle to survive, not the officials. We tried one printing works after another, making a study of Russian geography as we did so – the Kursk, Bryansk, Ryazan and Kaluga Oblasts… We even had the idea of printing the newspaper in Finland, but we had to abandon it – we wouldn’t have got through customs.

To prevent an issue being printed, the internet was regularly cut off, there were illegal searches at the editorial office, people were spied on and threatened, even children. Naturally, our appeals to the prosecutor’s office and the police were unsuccessful. After yet another threat that we would be “rolled into the asphalt”, the district policeman told me: ‘It’s only a real threat when someone holds a knife to your back at night.  On the telephone it’s not serious.”   My 11-year old son received a “non-serious” telephone threat, which gave him serious nervous problems. The person making the threat came to the door of the apartment and my son only just managed to close it.  After that, I had to hide him away from the Oryol Oblast for over a month. Several years have passed, but the prosecutor’s office has yet to produce a record of calls to my number, to determine where the calls came from. Or perhaps they have done, a long time ago, and that’s why they are keeping quiet… To this day my dacha is in ruins, after it was burnt down one summer night in 2006 – the police were only able to determine that it was arson, rather than spontaneous combustion.

But there were also the good times. In our three years of work our paper won considerable professional recognition.  Orlovskie Novosti journalists were awarded prizes in the most prestigious journalist competitions – the Larisa Yudina International competition “Vopreki” [In Defiance ed.], the Sakharov prize, and the Artyom Borovik prize.

In three years of work the newspaper won considerable professional recognition.

Local journalists had previously complained endlessly about the lack of freedom of speech in the Oblast, but none of them risked joining the team at Orlovskie Novosti.  They wouldn’t even work with us anonymously! Orlovskaya Pravda, the main newspaper in Oryol and the mouthpiece of the executive and the legislature, began printing revolting poems and stories by anonymous authors hiding behind pseudonyms.  They made all sorts of dirty insinuations, which could only have been dreamt up by people who were sick in the head. They spared no one – the journalists, their mothers, fathers, husbands or children.  Orlovskaya Pravda finally announced that I was a spy from Munich. Later the newspaper claimed that I was working for George Bush and Condoleezza Rice, and that I shared a common goal with them – to destabilize Russia by destabilizing the Oryol Oblast.

This would all be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.  Conflict between differing points of view and concepts of what is acceptable in journalism and what isn’t led to a split in the Oryol Union of Journalists. Oryol journalists who want to be independent from the authorities set up their own union a year ago. It currently numbers 101 members. Six months ago the editor of Orlovskaya Pravda, a retired colonel, suddenly asked me to forgive him.  I asked him what he was thinking about when he published stuff in the newspaper that made you want to wash your hands after reading it.  He replied: “Well, you see, I’m a soldier”. This is how he perceives his place in journalism…

The independent Orlovskie Novosti no longer exists.  Its founder, Marina Ivashina, closed it with no explanation in January 2008. One can only guess what had prompted her to found her own newspaper in 2004. From all appearances, she had support both in the Oblast and in Moscow from a number of high-ranking people dissatisfied with the rule of Yegor Stroev.  She also had her own political ambitions. After some time she suddenly joined the social-patriotic or national-socialist party “Motherland”, which was popular at the time. Then, after the split in that party, she joined “A Fair Russia” and became the head of the Oryol branch. She ran for mayor of Oryol, but she lost to both the Communists and Yegor Stroev’s candidate. Finally, in March 2007 she became a deputy of the Oblast legislative assembly on the “Fair Russia” party list, and soon closed down the project. There were rumours that she was either promised something or threatened with something. At any rate, it was more serious than a blow to the head or an offer to become the owner of some local enterprise in 2004. Today she is an active supporter of the authorities and their party “United Russia”. 

The recent Oryol mayoral elections were recognized by many experts as being the most dishonest with unprecedented pressure by the authorities on the voters.   To everyone’s surprise, Ivashina suddenly published two issues of Orlovskie Novosti, in which she tried to discredit the Communist Party candidate, the main rival of the “United Russia” candidate. The inappropriate texts and wording were meant to give the impression that this strange newspaper was the work of the previous independent newspaper.  The majority of the staff felt obliged to distance themselves publicly from Marina Ivashina and to announce that for them this newspaper was a “project alien to them in essence and in spirit”. So, unfortunately, today we can say that the independent Orlovskie Novosti which once caused a peaceful “civil revolution” in one region of Russia, has not just been closed down – it has died the death.

There are no fewer “soldiers” working in journalism. Last year, however, Yegor Stroev was retired, so now a new governor is receiving the plaudits – Alexander Kozlov. It’s sad, but the new government seems to be happy. At any rate, they haven’t changed any of the editors who worked under Stroev.

But for four years Orlovskie Novosti, a small group of 10 people, published a “newspaper for those who want to know the truth”.  They achieved something which local analysts call teaching civic consciousness. A new word has appeared in the Oryol vocabulary – Stroevshchina, which means corruption, authoritarianism, lack of professionalism and narcissism all put together. There are now more opinions and points of view and people have stopped being afraid to think, although of course not all of them have yet gained the boldness to talk. Perhaps this is also because Stroevshchina has been replaced by “Kozlovshchina”, the name the people gave to the colossal pressure the authorities exerted on city voters during the last mayoral elections in Oryol on 14 February…

So life goes on. There is still a shortage of newspapers for those who want to know the truth, and of people who want to speak that truth.

Elena Godlevskaya is a journalist in Oryol and former editor of the independent newspaper Orlovskie Novosti

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