Late last summer, Ilya Barabanov, a young Russian editor, posted a laconic message on his Web site under the heading, “A Long Story.” A couple of weeks earlier, Russia’s Constitutional Court had ruled, unsurprisingly, that Barabanov’s wife and former colleague, Natalia Morar, could not re-enter the country. “In all honesty, I don’t know and won’t try to predict when Natalia will return to Russia,” Barabanov wrote. It was the final chapter in a case that had begun in 2007, when Morar was detained at a Moscow airport after a reporting trip to Israel. A Moldovan citizen who had lived in Russia since 2002, she was sent, without explanation, to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. There she was told she had been denied entry because she was a threat to the security of the state.
Morar was deported not long after publishing a series of articles in The New Times, a weekly Russian newsmagazine that specializes in long-form investigative stories, and which spares little in its criticism of the Kremlin. Based on anonymous sources within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the articles portrayed an elaborate money-laundering scheme that included some of Russia’s top banks, high-level officials, and the Austrian Raiffeisen Zentralbank. She also alleged that the 2006 contract killing of Andrei Kozlov, head of Russia’s central bank, was tied to his ongoing investigation of the very same activities—an assertion that the Austrian Interior Ministry later said could not be ruled out.
The story touched a nerve. Morar said that after it was published she received a warning from sources close to the FSB, Russia’s security and counterintelligence service, who told her, “There is no need to end your life with an article—someone might simply wait for you at the entrance to your apartment building, and they will not find a killer afterward.” This was a good summation of what has happened to several investigative reporters in Russia, including Dmitry Kholodov in 1994, Paul Klebnikov ten years later, and Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
In a last bid to attain citizenship and return to Russia, Morar married Barabanov in Moldova and the couple flew to Moscow together in February 2008. They were detained for three days at Domodedovo airport, until Morar was again sent back to Moldova, where she still lives. On his blog, Barabanov said that they would continue to appeal the decision. He ended on a note of optimism, saying that Morar had not given up journalism and that he was certain she would return to Russia someday.
Barabanov is the twenty-four-year-old political editor of The New Times, which was launched in 2007, not long after the killing of Politkovskaya. It has taken on highly sensitive stories, from the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko to the murder of Kozlov, the head of the central bank, to the Russian-Georgian war. He has a barely visible goatee and blond hair that falls over his eyes, and looks more like any number of Moscow’s young students than the husband of an exiled dissident. A recent graduate of Moscow State University’s journalism school, he’d intended to be a sports reporter. But he started working for the well-known opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, during college and went on to one of Russia’s largest news Web sites, gazeta.ru, before becoming a correspondent at The New Times.
When we met last year, Barabanov took me to a T.G.I. Friday’s on Moscow’s busy Tverskaya Street, which happens to be in the same Soviet-era building that houses the offices of Izvestia, a fiercely pro-government paper at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Izvestia was relatively independent throughout much of the 1990s and had a wide readership among the intelligentsia. It published Yeltsin’s dramatic appeal to the citizens of Russia to oppose what he called the “reactionary” and “anti-constitutional” coup that removed Gorbachev from power in 1991, and was openly critical of the government during the first Chechen war. In many ways, it followed the arc of several post-Soviet papers that went from being Communist Party organs—Izvestia was launched in 1917—to liberal pro-democracy newspapers.
Yet today, of Russia’s many dailies, and there are more than four hundred, Izvestia, with its 235,000 readers, has come to symbolize the failure of the Russian press and its co-option by the Kremlin, a kind of return to the Soviet model. It is owned by a long-time friend of Vladimir Putin and is slavishly loyal.