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How this DIY magazine is making space for taboo topics in Russia

Under conditions of growing self-censorship, small media can often raise questions avoided by Russia’s national media – but of real concern to readers. RU

Juliana Lizer and Pavel Nikulin. Photo: Artur Davletshin. Russian DIY journal moloko plus appeared in 2016 and immediately attracted interest – not only for its medium (print only) but for its content (the first two editions focused on drugs and terrorism) and mission. Speaking to the current crisis of professional journalism, the journal’s manifesto states that “in Russia today, and perhaps across the world, the combination of experience in journalism, basic ethical and political principles and a generally logical perception of your own worth has turned into a curse. We didn’t choose this trap.”

Since then, the third edition of moloko plus (titled: “Revolution”) has been released. In July, Pavel Nikulin and Sofiko Arifdjanova, journal coordinator and writer, traveled to Krasnodar to present the journal, where they were subjected to an anonymous chemical attack. The day before, several unknown plain clothes police officers, who introduced themselves as members of the criminal investigation department, arrested Arifdjanova in connection with “a criminal investigation”. At the same time, Krasnodar Interior Ministry seized copies of the magazine “in the interests of preventing extremism”. On 12 August, seven journalists involved in moloko plus reported that there had been attempts to hack their email and Facebook accounts.

In April 2018, I interviewed the journal’s founders, Pavel Nikulin and Juliana Lizer, as part of our “Unlikely Media” rubric on new media startups.

Tom: moloko plus is full of excellent texts – you don’t see this level of quality often. It tackles both unusual subjects and publishes serious essays. Let’s start with a simple question: it seems to me that your journal occupies a particular niche in the Russian media sphere. Why did you set it up and what is its mission?

Pavel: I think there are three questions here. The question “why” should be addressed to me, as I’m the person who set the whole ball rolling. The question “how” – the journal’s quality and its mission – is for Juliana to answer. I’ll tell you quickly why we did it. I didn’t know why I should do it, I just knew that if I didn’t do something and just went on with my boring work, covering the city news and other routine stuff, I would either go mad or kill myself. And I didn’t have any idea what would come out of it. When I began, I had no idea who would support my idea, and when I sent out my first post about collecting money for it, I didn’t at all expect the feedback I had from friends in bookshops: “We’ll sell it, we’ll give you a platform for the launch” and so on. There was no original “why?”. It was a thing in itself, for itself, a kind of punk rock – any journalist can make a magazine.

Juliana: The second question was about our mission. At the start, it was all about us, our self-development. We wanted to do things that we weren’t managing to do any more, or had nowhere to do: write things, talk about subjects that I, for one, had been interested in for years. It also turned into a learning curve: many of the things we had to do I only knew in theory from a course at the journalism faculty where I did my degree.

In Russia, there is an established media consensus that this agenda – violence, terrorism, drugs – is marginal. But our audience is quite young and well aware of the fact that the media lie

With the magazine, I could turn a lot of this theory into practice.

Doing editorial work, for example. It’s one thing to be just a reporter – everything’s set up for you. But here, you need to make everything work and you carry all the responsibility – both for the print version and social media. And the mission behind all this is, in the first place, about information and education. And entertainment, to some extent: we write about music and films as well, of course.

But we have another mission as well: to try to bring together in one place everything we know about a given issue, look at it from every angle and produce something coherent, holistic. So that people who want to find out about that issue can at least have something to start from – a kind of mini-encyclopaedia on one subject. And it’s good that it won’t all disappear: something that is printed is tangible, and no matter what happens with the internet, with the power supply (we know how sites get closed, how texts just disappear) anything that’s printed can’t be destroyed. So that’s also a kind of mission as well.

Note from the Editors, "Drugs" edition. Source: moloko plus. I am someone who came of age in the culture of the 1990s-2000s, when books were still a material object. The books of Alexander Shulgin, for example, may be banned in Russia, but I have them at home. And so do some other people. Knowledge doesn’t disappear. And knowledge has to be preserved and multiplied in every way possible.

Tom: This is an enormous topic and one which we underestimate these days. I work pretty hard at our online platform, but I never know what will come out of it – perhaps nothing. So in this sense I admire your mission. Your journal often covers issues such as violence, terrorism, drugs. Why do you find it important to write about these subjects? You said that you need to write and publish on these topics otherwise it could all disappear.

Pavel: In Russia, there is an established media consensus that this agenda – violence, terrorism, drugs – is marginal. But our audience is quite young and well aware of the fact that the media lie. We are more idealists than cynics: we decided not to provide our readers with a concrete answer to the question of how to live, and instead to return them to asking questions.

As to the first two topics, terrorism and drugs are the most convenient targets for any propaganda: you can’t lose, you can’t win and you can hold society in a constant state of anxiety, scared that their kids will either turn into heroin addicts or blow up the Metro tomorrow. This constant stress means that they no longer know either the reasons for, or the complexity of, these issues. And when we hear the word “terrorism”, it’s important for me to know who is talking and about whom. The use of the term often tells you more about the person talking than the thing they are talking about. If somebody says that the “Workers’ Party of Kurdistan are terrorists”, it tells you more about the person talking than about the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan. Or if someone says that “weed is a drug”, it tells me more about that person than about cannabis.

There are questions, there are interests. We have decided that we won’t write about what is right or wrong, but about, to a greater or lesser degree, what we know, from both the outside and the inside.

At the start, it was all about us, our self-development. We wanted to do things that we weren’t managing to do any more, or had nowhere to do

Juliana: To sum up, we’re doing it to encourage people to think for themselves. These days, you can’t take anyone at their word, because the public and the media love to hang labels on people: “terrorist”, “drug addict” and so on. These labels already carry negative connotations, even though they describe things that have always existed in human society and have always been very complex. It’s like we’re trying to demonstrate this complexity by saying to people: “Hang on, please, and think about how it’s not just about labels: it’s more complicated than that.”

Tom: I had that impression when I read your article, Juliana, about left-wing radicals in Greece. And I did start to think about it. As an outsider, I have a question about so-called “marginal” phenomena in Russia – obscure stories about drugs, terrorism, violence. Why do you think this subject so popular in Russia?

Juliana: Because there’s a lot of it. A lot of people have seen something, experienced something and want to find out about it. Take serious alcoholism, for example. It’s a pretty marginal phenomenon, you must agree – but in Russia it’s very widespread. It has affected a lot of people and families. And of course people like reading about it, even if it’s absolutely horrific – people killing one another while “under the influence” and so on.

As for drugs, they are theoretically a no-go area, and everybody’s interested in what’s forbidden.

Pavel: In the last year, I’ve twice been stopped on the street and searched for drugs in Moscow. This “stop and search” trend among the police has become so common that the hipster city press has started writing about it. Everyone has either been searched themselves, or their boyfriend or girlfriend has. People want to know what’s going on, but no one has the complete picture. Someone may know how the Russian Darknet works, and how drugs are bought and sold in Russia.

In Russia, the police are everywhere. You can hear the word “terrorism” ten times a day – all you need to do is use public transport. People in the Metro, on escalators, in railway stations and airports are always talking about the terrorist threat. They want to know what the threat is. In effect, the state has hyped up the subject completely.

Some individual journalists involved in their own small projects are more ethical and enjoy more trust than the big corporations. It’s no surprise that they believe us

Juliana: For example, I go into my block of flats, and my neighbour is standing in the hall and there are two packages lying on the floor. I thought they were hers, but she’s asking me if they’re mine. I look around, but don’t touch anything (there are signs telling you not to everywhere in the Metro). They contain glass jars. She says, “who can we phone: the main thing is to avoid an explosion.” This reaction has been spreading among people over the years, in one way or another.

Pavel: It’s the same with drugs: there are signs everywhere forbidding people to buy and sell them. I wanted to give a foreign acquaintance a glimpse of typical Russia, and took him to a Moscow suburb, Biryulyovo – not the capital’s most prosperous suburb. I told him that people live in high rise buildings, often without any space around them, nowhere to go for a walk. The walls of the buildings are plastered with warnings about drugs, but in every district there is a church going up – there’s an official church-building programme in operation. He didn’t believe me. And then we come out of the suburban train and he saw the tower blocks, he saw that there was nothing to do there, he saw hoardings advertising some online shop – and the fence round the space where they were building the church. He also saw bottles used for smoking weed in every hallway, although there were fewer syringes than there used to be. And there was absolutely no way of getting any information about anything.

Police raid the "Typography" establishment, where a presentation of moloko plus was being held, in Krasnodar, 15 July. Source: Alina Desyatnichenko. On the one hand, it’s good that the younger generation have a certain distrust of the authorities, but on the other hand, the distrust is total. People don’t believe either Wikipedia, or their friends, or the friendly local cop, or the doctor, whether they’re good or bad. But they want information. They want the facts, so that they can draw their own conclusions. That’s why we haven’t tried to write pamphlets, telling them whether that’s good or bad.

Juliana: We refuse to give people value judgments, on principle. We need to inform, to talk about a subject from the start, clearly and in a way that’s easy to understand.

Tom: Do you get feedback from your readers on your attempts to inform? Has anyone said: “I hadn’t thought about that, but I’ve started to think about it now after reading your stuff”.

Pavel: Yes, we do get feedback. Sometimes people want to debate an issue with us, sometimes just say “thank you”. After reading their first issue, some people tells us they want to contribute to the second.

Juliana: I believe that there are people like that, and we sometimes have negative feedback as well, but from a particular type of people. When the National Bolsheviks (a political movement in the 2000s that combined elements of radical nationalism and Bolshevism – ed.) wrote a post on social media about us, it was very funny. There was one guy who came to the book market we had a stall at, where we were selling our first and second issues. He bought a copy of both, took them home, leafed through them and wrote a scathing post on social media which was, of course, only seen by his followers. For some reason what he didn’t like most was the people who bought the journal. He kept writing to us about spotty girls with ugly backpacks.

Pavel: Nevertheless, I couldn’t care less about the fact that a person near 30 can think exactly the same way as we do, and that our work holds nothing new for them. A friend said to me: “I read the second issue, but why did you write it? I didn’t learn anything new from it.” If we gave the first issue to political analysts who are experts on Ireland or Greece, they would also say: “We know everything about that”. Our mission is more educational: to inform people about that this or that thing exists and that they can get in on the act; not to tell them how the world works in 100 pages.

There are two traditions in Russian media: one’s about punk, culture and then there’s samizdat, which is political, about “we cannot remain silent any longer”

Juliana: Another thing about making people think: an indirect sign that people start thinking about something after reading the magazine is the fact that copies are always being passed around. I don’t know how much this happens, but I know that it does. These magazines have a certain life of their own.

Pavel: It is, of course, a bit of a niche market, but it works, and some people set up their own distribution networks: it has even reached the States, Israel and Armenia.

Tom: These days, and especially in connection with moloko plus, there’s a lot of talk about the rise of small media in Russia. Journalists and editors know where the demand is coming from. On the one hand, texts are removed and blocked online; on the other, people want to do something for themselves, for self-fulfilment. How do you perceive this problem?

Juliana: There are small media outlets of all kinds. There’s a terminological question here: what do we consider an example of the small media sector and do we not? If we include anything that isn’t a media corporation, a mass media title, then we have to acknowledge all the video-bloggers with more than 100,000 hits, since this is a good number of hits, but technically they can and usually do it themselves with their own resources.

Pavel: Important nuances arise when a small media project is created by journalists. The point of licencing media outlets used to be that they would then be subject to the law and ethical code (which was practically the same thing). But now people who don’t register their outlet feel they have more freedom, including the freedom to protect journalistic ethics. Some individual journalists involved in their own small projects are more ethical and enjoy more trust than the big corporations. It’s no surprise that they believe us.

Juliana: You know where we’re at, and where the (state-owned) “Russia -24” channel is. We’ve never had any desire to compete, and never will.

Pavel: A little aside, but systematic – small media want, of course, to be noticed, but look at the recent attack by Rossiya 24 on the Batenka journal. It’s clear to me that they made a second report not because they didn’t like how it delivered information, but simply out of envy. They realise that samizdat is believed by the people who will be a very large (and paying) audience in ten years time.

Russia-24 broadcasts an expose on Batenka journal, March 2018.

Juliana: They’ll die out by themselves, they have begun to realise that. I have a theory, that you don’t have to believe in evolution and progress, but if you believe in these things they will happen in society whether you like it or not. If you offer the public something that is out of date, sooner or later you’ll have to go. And that means today’s state-owned TV, its ways of working with information and its presentation style.

My first job was in TV, when it was still normal, and I saw how it changed in front of our very eyes. People who have realised how it all works will leave.

Pavel: At the start of perestroika, cooperatives appeared. It was believed that people involved in co-ops knew the demands of their audience better, although they couldn’t churn out as much as big, industrial TV companies. They did, however, work with the audience and the market around them.

It’s the same with small media companies. We know exactly what our target audience likes and we know how to supply it. National publications fly so high that they can’t see individual readers and viewers and their national status separates them from their audience.

I get messages on Telegram. One reader made us spend two hours looking for mistakes in a text. I knew I had already done that, but I psyched Juliana and myself up and we went through it again together.

Many colleagues in journalism are scared that if they leave a media outlet, they’ll lose their audience. But they completely forget that they’re the ones that bring the audience in the first place

Juliana: I checked every document that I had already fact-checked, because I was absolutely sure that everything was fine (we were right). But it’s important to do that, because our reputation hangs on it.

Pavel: It’s hard to imagine how big media do it. Small ones are ok.

There are two traditions in Russian media: one’s about punk, culture and then there’s samizdat, which is political, about “we cannot remain silent any longer”. But these two are joined. Even Batenka magazine has started to annoy people close to the authorities.

Tom: Does your work also provoke negative reactions, envious one?

Pavel: If you like doing what you do, then go work for federal media, publish information on bankruptcies, write about which public official didn’t give you a comment, go to the Duma, where parliamentarians grope female journalists and don’t have to answer for it.

Juliana: It’s not that you don’t have to do that, that’s necessary work. You have to do a journalist’s job, go to all those places.

Pavel: But only if you like it.

We’re ready to risk our reputation and careers, but at least we know that we living for a reason.

Juliana: In 2011-2012, Russian society suddenly discovered that we have problems with elections – and democracy in general. This was in the air, everyone understood this, and so demand for propaganda texts emerged, to hush things up. On TV, journalists began doing strange things (e.g. not reporting on major protests, or if they did, then with incorrect numbers or negative framing). I asked why they were doing this: “I need to feed my family.” And it’s clear that that person most likely won’t find another job. This is tragic.

Pavel: Many colleagues in journalism are scared that if they leave a media outlet, they’ll lose their audience. But they completely forget that they’re the ones that bring the audience in the first place and that you don’t need any outlet to say what they say.

Tom: My suspicion is that people who work in big media, prestigious media – for them it becomes important after a time that that they work somewhere important.

Juliana: I’d probably agree. Most of the journalists I’ve met have this attitude: “I’m part of something bigger, I’m part of the team. And this is what we’re called.” And then you meet a group of these people and the first thing they ask is where you work. And you answer: nowhere.

I’m still surprised by this. Perhaps it’s connected with a human’s psychological traits – to define themselves through something else, to perceive themselves through that. Meanwhile, it’s comfortable to work on articles that disappear instantly, without any understanding what happens to it. I don’t like it when I don’t understand why decisions are made, who makes them and why I have to subordinate myself to that.

There’s a lot of stereotypes now that are directly connected to capitalist values – which are relatively new for our society (this began like an explosion in the 1990s, and in recent years has taken completely barbaric forms). Still, it’s clear that the value of being successful has embedded itself in our society. You need to have enough money, to need to work somewhere decent, and you need to have a decent job. And through all of this, you show everyone else that you’re not a marginal.

Pavel: It’s a kind of career, only this is a career inside society rather than corporations. I have a lot of fellow students – they’re all interested in different things, but somehow they all fit into a single generalised personality. They wear nice clothes, they have the same interests (which are, it should be said, all sold under the rubric of individuality). A person who goes to a public event thinks that only they have the right to be there, because they’re special.

 


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