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A severed dog’s head and a broom

Standfirst_Ivan the Terrible Eisenstein.jpg

Ivan the Terrible had the feared Oprichniki to keep the silence. Men in black; their insignia was a severed dog’s head (to sniff out treachery) and a broom (to sweep the traitors away). In today’s Russia, the state has other, more or less, fearsome means to keep the people from talking.

Oliver Carroll
25 April 2013

When I return to Moscow every few months, I am hit either with a sense of exuberant optimism or outraged despair, sometimes combined, never much in between. I quiz myself about it a lot: is it a reflection of that peculiarly Russian state of being; the battle between the inner idealist and the outwardly cynical realist, egged on by a predilection for the strong stuff? Is it the depressing manifestation of genetic disorder found in all Russian journalists’ DNA — creative, thrusting, and simultaneously frustrated and politically impotent? Might it not be just a reflection of the Byzantine twists and turns of Russian politics? More likely, this soulful condition is a combination of all three heartaches.

Over the last eighteen months or so the journalistic twists and turns have been tortuous: controversial dismissals (Maxim Kovalsky from Vlast); unexpected resignations (Filipp Dzyadko from Bolshoi gorod); closures (openSpace and Russkaya zhizn); the shocking spectacle of a deputy editor being marched into a forest and threatened by the country’s lead prosecutor; the unexpected sight – even for Russia – of mainstream Moskovksy komsomolets newspaper becoming the target of attack from the country’s lawmakers. And, above all, the goings on at mighty Kommersant, owned by Russia’s reluctant answer to Rupert Murdoch – Alisher Usmanov.

Myth busting

Russian media is indeed being tortured, but not with the overtly painful, turn-the-screws methods one might imagine if all one had to go on were the inaccurate inanities of so many Western commentators — and they do so love their myths. Well, how about a touch of myth busting before we go back to the torture chamber?

Myth no. 1: There are just one or two independent media titles in Russia: Novaya gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, TV Rain – that’s all that there is, right?

No. While Novaya gazeta’s courageous journalists do merit our respect and attention, they are only one end of a spectrum of independent publications (and arguably the legacy end). TV and tabloids aside — these being lost to the dark side years ago — Russia has any number of bold, independent publications: Lenta.ru, gazeta.ru, Slon, Forbes, Bolshoi gorod, Russian Esquire, Vedomosti, Kommersant and TVRain lead the way. And this is not to mention the emergence of some regional publications, where, historically, things have been much more difficult.

Myth no. 2: The Kremlin manages news output in a way that Alistair Campbell could only dream of, exerting direct daily pressure on editors and journalists, vetting news articles and overseeing appointments.

TV, government and mass audience media aside – agreed, that’s a big aside – my conversations with career journalists tell me that such interventions are rare. Comprehensive oversight would require a level of sophistication not ordinarily attributed to the Russian government. Staying on the Kremlin message is more ordinarily achieved by a combination of self-serving managers, self-censorship and economic self-interest; and when direct interference does occur, it is usually reactive rather than active.

Myth no. 3: The situation has been getting worse with every terrible year of Tsar Putin’s reign.

This myth is more complicated. As an editor at Russian Esquire in the mid 2000s, I remember the efforts required to find interested and talented correspondents to write on social or political themes. Young Russians were not becoming journalists. Today, there is a new generation of motivated and professional young correspondents. The journalistic profession is moving on from the previously underhand and corrosive processes of paid-for journalism. Ethics and vocation are the new watchwords, taking over from the hunger-led corruption of the 1990s, and complicit pragmatism of the early 2000s.

Myth busting, then, helps us to understand better the grey tones of a situation many had thought was black and white; and yet it also sets up new questions: yes, there is pluralistic independent Russian journalism; and the quality is improving; yet the Kremlin is also now showing much more interest in what we might call the ‘intelligent media.’ This new conflict of interests is having an effect in all sorts of ways.

For a long time, the authorities hesitated about getting involved with such independent-minded publications. When it was still a marginal affair, what was the point? Besides, Novaya gazeta and Ekho Moscow had good propaganda value – to show the foreigners how critical voices still had a say in Russia.

‘They ruined Comrade Vlad’s party’

Today, that political calculation is not so clear. Putin’s team, visibly rattled after last December’s electoral embarrassment, has decisively rejected Vladislav Surkov’s clear-cut ideological manipulations – an ideology of confidence – in favour of something much more blunt and craven. The intelligent media are more numerous today, more listened-to and influential than they were a few years ago. There is another factor too: mutual resentment and anger. Putin was reportedly livid with the events of last May, when on the day of his inauguration, demonstrators dared to attack (were provoked by) OMON riot police on Bolotnaya Square. The enduring image of that day was the split screen coverage on TVRain — juxtaposing hyperactive police truncheons, and Putin’s motorcade blissfully cruising down emptied highways.

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The enduring image of May 7 2012 — TVRain's splitscreen coverage of Putin's inauguration motorcade and riot police at work on protestors. Photo: TVRain

‘They ruined Comrade Vlad’s party, and that won’t be forgiven’, says Maxim Kovalsky, former editor of the political magazine Kommersant. Vlast (from where he was dismissed) and openspace.ru (project closed) ‘We might live in vegetarian times now, which means not everyone will get sent to the Gulag. But anybody who is ideologically aligned, anybody who publishes in support of protesters... these people will get their comeuppance.’

'There is another, economic, truth at work in Russia. Before, the Russian media was economical with the truth; now they have to be truthful about their economic situation.'

There is another, economic, truth at work in Russia. Before, the Russian media was economical with the truth; now they have to be truthful about their economic situation. Amid falling, post-crisis print advertising revenues (not to mention increasingly timid advertisers), independent media is struggling to find sustainable business models; and honest journalists are struggling to lead normal professional lives. This is not a million miles away from the problems that independent titles face in more democratic countries. But in Russia the media sector is particularly warped, with serious media caught between oligarchic vanity projects on the one hand, and a heavily subsidised state sector on the other.  ‘How can I hold on to leading staff when the competition is offering 120,000 roubles, and I can only offer 40,000?’ asked a leading independent broadsheet editor, when I met him recently.

The Russian media market is not a market of competing opportunities; there are not that many media groups competing to keep talented people at work. Faced with a moral quandary, many independent journalists understand there is no other job to go to. Some take PR jobs; others, like my former boss at Russian Esquire, Filipp Bakhtin, make the decision to leave the profession and start a children’s camp. A third option is to mope around in a depressed state. No problem, however, to find a post in the state sector, if one can stomach the compromise of professional ethics.

Viewing the independent Russian media market as both economically dysfunctional and morally challenged, rather than simply politically repressed, one starts to get a better understanding of some of the sparks that erupted last year. No doubt, some of the claimed ‘economic’ closedowns are more complicated than presented. Elena Nusinova’s CitizenK, which produced some good and radical journalism in the run up to last year’s protests, was conveniently closed by publishers Kommersant in the middle of the production process, with advertisers already signed and printing already paid for. Maxim Kovalsky’s openSpace political journalism project was also shut down abruptly ‘for economic reasons’, reportedly incurring substantial contractual penalty clauses. Both publications had sluggish readership, and perhaps the only unambiguous lesson we can draw from these episodes is that loss-making independent media are easy to close.

But perhaps not every media shake-up indicates overt Kremlin manipulation. When Alexander Vinokurov, the likeable investor behind hip weekly Bolshoi gorod (and also socio-political portal Slon.ru and TV station TVRain) tells me that controversial changes at Bolshoi gorod are driven by economic considerations, namely huge losses, I think that we must believe him. Nevertheless, Vinokurov’s actions, first to ask editor-in-chief Filipp Dzyadko to write less about politics and more lifestyle pieces (after which Filipp, a good friend, resigned); and then, last week, to close the web operation — have certainly split the Russian journalistic community. Some accuse Vinokurov of cowardice and weakness in the face of Kremlin pressure. Perhaps, but the bottom line is the bottom line.

'The freethinking Russian media’s best chance for survival is to create publications that are attractive to both reader and advertiser'

I do wonder whether such talk risks missing a bigger picture: loss-making media enterprises, be they cross-subsidised or held hostage by rich owners, are generally neither viable, relevant, nor particularly independent. The freethinking Russian media’s best chance for survival is to create publications that are attractive to both reader and advertiser. Creating such a sustainable ecosystem is a challenge for Russian journalists, editors and publishers, and it is probably as much a question of editorial content and profits as it is one of political manipulation.

The commerce of Kommersant

Vinokurov’s commendable attempts to make viable businesses out of his other media projects — and making them it a core division of his empire, rather than hostages to the fortune of other more lucrative business, is in contrast with the situation across town at Kommersant, one of the country’s two independent broadsheets. The newspaper’s hitherto strong reputation has in little over a year been undermined by more than a dozen dismissals and high-profile resignations, amid rumours of editorial interference from Alisher Usmanov, Britain’s richest man (according to the Sunday Times – a Murdoch publication), and the gentleman whose advisers edited his Wikipedia entry, to edit out his criminal record.

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Alisher Usmanov, Britain's richest man and Russia's most unlikely press baron.  Photo: RIA Novosti/Sergey Guneyev

Kommersant occupies an important position in the Russian media landscape. A newspaper for the political elite (print run 100,000, readership mostly in Moscow), Kommersant is modern Russia’s first private newspaper. Established in the last period of the Soviet Union, the founding team had the idea to create a Russian New York Times. At that time no one really understood what that meant, so the result was something of a Russian fairytale: good, literary writing, a love of the ridiculous and contempt for politicians. The newspaper pioneered a line of playful article titles: ‘Moscow City Council orders the price of meat down: meat doesn’t agree’ (about attempts to regulate food prices); and ‘one woe discusses another’ (politicians debating Russia’s road building programme, in a wink to a famous adage ascribed to Gogol of there being two woes in Russia: fools and roads.) It revelled in revelry, and it took up an almost haughty position above the political fray. When, for example, in the run up to the 2003 Presidential elections, the paper’s sponsor, Boris Berezovsky, wanted to publish critical articles against Putin, editor-in-chief Andrei Vasilyev insisted on publishing the articles in the form of paid-for advertisements.

Vasilyev took on the role of a heavyweight go-between — protecting his journalists from the Kremlin on the one hand, and Berezovsky on the other. ‘The way Andrei was brought up, he just wouldn’t allow anybody to tell him what to do’, says Kirill Rogov, who was the paper’s deputy editor during its most radical spell in the mid 2000s. Vasilyev, however, did not last long under the Usmanov regime. ‘The two men just didn’t click’, says a Kommersant insider.

‘The guys in the Kremlin asked him to do them a favour,’

We can safely assume that Usmanov never intended to become a newspaper baron; unlike Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper business in Russia represents far more risk to Alisher Usmanov’s much more important business interests in natural resources than any political kudos to be gained from having a publishing business on the side. In a Russia where crossing the tsar can lead to the loss of one’s estates and banishment, owning a newspaper must seem like a gamble on Fortune’s wheel.

‘The guys in the Kremlin asked him to do them a favour,’ suggests Kovalsky. ‘And that was where the evil began — they asked, he agreed. You can always find a pile of shit at the beginning: what follows later are the consequences.’

Usmanov’s first meeting with the editorial staff was businesslike. ‘I remember his words very clearly’ says Kovalsky. ‘He said: ‘I’m not going to get involved in your editorial affairs, to insist that you remove something, change something or so on. As long as you promise not to touch on matters relating to my business or honour.’ An interesting position for a newspaper proprietor; how do you define honour? Kovalsky understands the finer points of the Russian honours system: ‘People define honour in different ways. For some, honour can mean loyalty to the ruling clan.’

‘Putin, f**k off’

In Kovalsky’s case, honour meant publishing a picture of a ballot paper with the words ‘Putin, f**k off’ written across it, straight after the December parliamentary elections. Kovalsky insists there was an editorial reason to publish the photo: the ballot was ruled inadmissible in contrary to electoral law. Of course, it was a provocation, and he would, or should, have realised the stakes involved. In conversation, he admitted to me that matters of family pride drove him on: the photograph had been taken by his son-in-law. ‘I couldn’t show I wasn’t man enough to publish it. He lives under my roof, and he should respect me.’ In a way, he put Usmanov in a similar position.

Kovalsky was also driven by some of the decisions being made by the then managing director Demian Kudryavtsev, in particular the decision to sign a memorandum of cooperation with the (state-run) Sochi Olympic Committee. ‘I was told to write about the Sochi Olympics objectively. You can’t understand how angry this made me - that the smelly, shitty Kremlin was telling me what principles Kommersant should have! The Kremlin - a teacher of ethics!! I’ve been living ethics my entire life ...  right from the day I stole Spinoza’s Ethics from the Pasternak library!’

Problems at Kommersant seem to have emerged around the time of the post-election protests in 2012. ‘Before the protests, we lived without a problem in the world’, a Kommersant veteran told me. ‘But then, the pressure began to grow, you could feel it. It was all around - you were told that they weren’t happy with Kommersant. There were lots of complaints: “this isn’t right, that isn’t right.” We had lots of new projects — we had the radio, we were starting a TV station — and naturally the only thing we wanted to talk about was the protests. Kudryavtsev at one point just stopped coping, and the majority shareholder [Usmanov] got cross with him.’

Since leaving Kommersant last year, and taking an active role in the opposition coordinating committee, Kudryavtsev has been unable to find another job. ‘In the course of ten months, he hasn’t received one serious job offer’ says another Kommersant editor. Has someone has decided he is unemployable? ‘What you’re seeing is quite simply a professional ban. Someone up there has taken the decision.’

I spoke to a number of rank-and-file Kommersant journalists about what things were like on the ground. Officially, they have been told not to speak to the media. But those that did speak agreed on the following: a) more articles are disappearing from the final edition, sometimes without obvious explanation, b) the editor is seeing the owner more frequently than before, and c) there is an unwritten rule not to write about Usmanov and his friends (that includes Putin and Patriarch); and team spirit has been affected. There is less agreement on the cause: is it truly censorship, personality issues (e.g. general manager Dmitry Sergeyev’s inability to understand editorial etiquette), or editor Mikhail Mikhailin’s timidity and over-caution?

There is no doubt that personality issues and personal ambitions are an equally important driving force behind many of the departures at Kommersant. Some of those leaving their jobs were leaving behind poorly-implemented projects, others had simply worked there for too long, and have spoken frankly of their desire for something more rewarding elsewhere. It would seem naive to cry ‘repression’ in relation to those who left the paper — by most measures still a free publication — to join the state news agencies (ITAR-TASS or RIA Novosti). All the same, there are clearly problems at the paper, problems that are worrying the people who hold the publication close to their hearts. How far the malaise will continue is unclear, but it seems safe to assume that for as long as Kommersant has an owner so dependent on government whim for his bread and butter resources, everybody is going to be walking on eggshells.

Do we see in all this activity over the past year an effective muzzling of independent Russian journalists? Do we see them being called to heel and whipped into submission? Perhaps what is so terrible is not the shadow of the tsar darkening the keyboard, it is that the very thought of his displeasure is every bit as effective as a severed dog’s head and a broom.

Oliver Carroll, editor of openDemocracy Russia, was a founder editor of Russian Esquire. He will be speaking on Friday 26 April at the Perugia International Journalism Festival as part of the ‘Russian media and the protest movement’ round table discussion.

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