The Russian media today would make an ideal field of research for anyone writing a history of journalism. There are newspapers and news agencies working to the very latest Western standards, but some provincial newspapers seem to be stuck in the 19th century.
The problems of Russian journalism are essentially a concentration of all the problems that have beset journalists throughout the world during the last 150 years: government pressure, insufficient advertising revenues, decreasing reader interest and articles written to order and/or for money, which newspapers are obliged to publish. Sometimes journalists are blackmailed by the authorities, sometimes they themselves blackmail businessmen and officials. But publications which try, despite the problems, to preserve their independence can always be found.
The gravedigger of socialism
It was Vladimir Lenin, himself a journalist when he was in emigration, who said ‘a newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator; it is also a collective organiser.’ These words became the clarion call of Soviet journalism while socialism was in full swing in the USSR, but during perestroika i.e. from about 1987, they acquired another meaning. Newspapers became the propagandists, agitators and even the organisers of the destruction of Soviet power.
‘Newspaper circulations are relatively small by comparison with Soviet times when they were printed by the million.’
More than most other people in the USSR, journalists grasped the problems of a planned economy and united in their mockery of the clichés of a totalitarian ideology. When control of the media was relaxed under Gorbachev, the journalists started trying their hand at identifying what they could write about and what not.
Soon there was not one forbidden topic which could not be found in newspapers and the literary journals. Journalists criticised the CPSU [Soviet Communist Party], talked about the communists’ past crimes, about the West’s free market and revealed the ‘secret’ that there was prostitution in the USSR. At the same time the newspapers started working to Western media standards: they used punchy headings, sub-divided articles into sections and made sure any interview they did was short. Readers found this all quite novel and interesting; newspaper circulation figures rose by 5, and then 10, times. People writing for most of the journals and newspapers, and some of the TV channels, became celebrities in Russia.
August 1991 was the high point of Russian journalism. The group of Politburo members – the GKChP [State Committee on the State of Emergency] – who tried to wrest power from Mikhail Gorbachev did manage to gain control of the TV.
In Soviet times Ogonyok weekly was a reliable cog in the party propaganda machine. But after the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as CPSU general secretary, the magazine’s journalists became radical supporters of his reforms. Few publications at that time did as much to give Russia a free press (photo: Iliya Pitalev, RIA Novosti agency)
For 3 days the big cities’ newspapers became the main source of information for supporters of Boris Yeltsin who refused to accept the GKChP. The ‘Transfiguration Revolution’, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn christened the events of those days [Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration 6 August], became the last revolution when information came from the printed media distributed in the streets, rather than computers or iPhones.
Restaurant and jewellery critics
During the 90s printed journalism was in crisis. Firstly, interest in politics or public life had fallen away; secondly, life for readers was harder than it had been before – if during perestroika some families subscribed to two or three newspapers and the same number of journals, now they probably didn’t take even one paper. Thirdly, television had lost all fear of censorship and was working more like Western TV.
Newspapers and journals circulation figures may have been considerably reduced, but the authority of print media remained high. For most people the journalist was someone who knew everything and had more credibility than an official or a businessman. If there was a disagreement between a newspaper and a businessman, public opinion was on the side of the journalist. Any prosecution of a journalist was represented by his newspaper as persecution by the authorities. There were, therefore, relatively few court cases in the 90s. But the contract killings of journalists had begun.
‘In the morning young Muscovites may read a newspaper while they drink their coffee in popular cafes, but they'll leave the paper with their unfinished coffee. If something interests them, they'll read it in the internet when they're at the office.’
The newspapers asserted with pride their status as the fourth estate, alongside the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. There were, of course, instances of the media abusing its power.
A press pass was considered to afford entry to any event that others had to pay for: a film showing, an exhibition or a museum. A new category of critic appeared in the papers – the restaurant critic. Sometimes a journalist would go to a restaurant and have a meal at his paper’s expense, but at other times he only revealed his status to the waiter when he was brought the bill. Then the dinner would be free, because the restaurant owner was terrified of a negative article in the press.
Sometimes the media expected owners of travel companies to organise ‘press tours’ or free trips to holiday destinations for journalists. There was even talk of ‘jewellery critics,’ usually women, who went to jewellery shops to choose items (for which they did not pay) in return for a favourable write-up.
Paid journalism, advertorials and blackmail
A free meal in a restaurant neither brings in income to the newspaper nor augments the journalist's salary. Advertising revenue was falling short of what was required. On the whole advertisers placed their copy in the specialised publications that appeared at the beginning of the 90s, because readers of ordinary newspapers pay no attention to advertisements.
Journalists tried to earn extra money by writing 'advertorials' (articles containing a hidden advertisement). A newspaper might publish an interview with the owner of a restaurant or a construction company, for instance. Editors generally tried to resist these articles, but not always. The publication brought in little money, so advertorials were effectively a bonus for the journalist. It was often the editor who ordered the publication of advertising material.
Political advertising became as common as commercial. At the beginning of the 90s any article about Yeltsin or Supreme Soviet deputies was considered to reflect the political views of the paper or the journalist. But just before the 1996 presidential election, campaign managers (usually Yeltsin's) started coming to see editors of newspapers and offering them large sums of money if they would publish certain articles. The money received did not go through the paper's finance department.
The 'war of damaging evidence' started after that. Oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky lobbed public accusations at each other via their TV channels or the newspapers they owned. Initially this was just in Moscow, but then it spread to other big (and not so big) cities with warring elites. The main victim of these wars was the standing of the media: previously readers had asked if something were true or not, now they tried to guess who was behind the articles.
Moscow: somewhere between independence and service-provider
When Vladimir Putin came to power, he made haste to gain control over the main TV channels: for almost 10 years after 2002 Russia had no independent TV.
Putin and his cronies didn't consider control of the printed media so important for maintaining their grip on power, so publications like Novaya Gazeta, Kommersant and Vedomosti were able to continue working independently of the Kremlin. Loyal papers like Argumenty i fakty and Komsomolskaya Pravda are able to publish criticism of Kremlin actions that no central TV channel would risk.
The Kremlin often pays for space in newspapers to publish articles written to order. Alexander Malyutin, former editor of Izvestiya, says that this was usual practice. Editors of big newspapers have no list of forbidden names or topics, but most of them know that, though th
Soviet times when they were printed by the million. Komsomolskaya Pravda, which has placed itself in the tabloid bracket, has a circulation of 650,000; Izvestiya, a paper loyal to the Kremlin, prints 160,000 and Kommersant,an independent, 130,000. Editors are often thought to talk up their circulation numbers.
‘The Provincial Gazette… covers all the local news, and often central news too; it criticises local officials, but only if they're below the rank of deputy governor. The governor himself, like Putin, is sacrosanct.’
In Russia, as everywhere else in the world, print media is being edged off the scene by internet portals. In the morning young Muscovites may read a newspaper while they drink their coffee in popular cafes, but they'll leave the paper with their unfinished coffee. If something interests them, they'll read it in the internet when they're at the office.
The regions: Provincial Gazette and Red Peasant
The situation is different in small towns more than 100kms away from Moscow. Journalism there seems to have stood still at some point in mid-20th century, if not earlier. Newspapers often print articles in a block – enormously long, not sub-divided with headings, with no illustrations and frequently containing moral deliberations. Many people living in these provincial towns like this kind of newspaper. They watch federal i.e. central TV channels, rather than local TV, and the internet is not yet very popular there.
If we look at a typical regional centre in Northern Russia, we find there is a daily paper called The Provincial Gazette: the layout is up to date and it has its own site, which has about 20 regular readers. The newspaper covers all the local news, and often central news too; it criticises local officials, but only if they're below the rank of deputy governor. The governor himself, like Putin, is sacrosanct. The Moscow opposition is subjected to fierce criticism, but the paper keeps quiet about the fact that their region has its very own opposition.
Diametrically the opposite of this publication is Red Peasant, a newspaper which has been in existence since Soviet times. It is considered the unofficial voice of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the only party which is represented in the local parliament – except 'United Russia,' of course. Each page has two or three comments on, for instance, price increases and local communist conferences. It also has a huge article denouncing the bourgeoisie and Trotskyism. But this old-fashioned newspaper has a decent following and sometimes publishes tough articles about corrupt practices in the regional administration.
The governor resents Red Peasant, but the authorities are afraid to close it down because people are accustomed to it.
Stay alive, keep out of prison and keep your hands clean
Journalists in Russia regularly encounter danger. Loss of life is one – the classic case was Anna Politkovskaya. Over the last 20 years Russia has consistently been first in Europe, and one of the first in the world, for numbers of journalists murdered. The official version often differs from what the press community knows, as happened with the death of the Novaya Gazeta journalist, Yury Shchekochikhin. But deaths are not always revenge for a journalist's work. The Petersburg journalist Yan Travinsky died during an election campaign in Irkutsk: he was acting as a financial courier, transporting a large sum of money.
“I am a journalist. Head of the Investigative Committee Bastrykin threteaned my colleague Sergei Sokolov. I demand an independent investigation.” Anton Popov, editor –in-chief of the business monthly RBK, was one of the many journalists who set up pickets following the scandal involving one of Russia’s top judiciary officials (Photo: Russian blogger web site)
There are almost no incidences of journalists being put behind bars in Russia. They can get sent down for blackmail, though. In the regions a journalist might demand about 50,000 roubles [1,540 USD] a month, but in Moscow the sums are in a different league. The best-known case is Oleg Lurye, who specialised in investigative journalism. He was arrested in 2008 for blackmailing the wife of the notorious senator, Vladimir Slutsker. According to the court verdict, Lurye was demanding that Olga Slutsker pay him 50,000 USD to stop him publishing compromising articles. He was arrested and sentenced to 8 years in a maximum security prison. The appeal court later reduced his sentence to 4 years.
Alexey Smirnov works for a press agency specialising in investigative reporting. He thinks the blackmailer is not only risking his freedom, but his life as well.
'If we're talking about serious incriminating evidence, then prison is by no means the more dangerous option. One of the basic rules of an investigative reporter is that the greatest danger is material he has collected and put in a safe. There's less danger of revenge after publication, unless another article is promised, so dishing the dirt on a government official or a large corporation is not only one's duty to society, but proper consideration for one's own safety.'
‘Over the last 20 years Russia has consistently been first in Europe, and one of the first in the world, for numbers of journalists murdered.’
The biggest danger, though, is selling one's soul down the river by taking orders what to publish and receiving money for it. Not everyone agrees to do this. This kind of journalism, like blackmail, ruins a reputation for ever.
Despite polemics between publications, there is still professional solidarity among Russian journalists. When the head of the Investigative Committee [Russia's main federal investigating authority], Alexander Bastrykin, threatened the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Sokolov, journalists from various publications set up a picket outside the Investigative Committee office, demonstrating that they are still a group with influence, albeit less than at the time of perestroika.