Barabanov’s New Times, with 50,000 readers, in turn, is privately financed and published by Irina Lesnevsky, who made her fortune as co-founder of REN TV, one of Russia’s last truly independent television stations. In 2005, though, Lesnevsky and her son (a film producer) sold their 30 percent holding, and the station has since been auctioned off to allies of the Kremlin in what many view as a gentle takeover. But Lesnevsky returned to the world of media and politics with a rather daring gamble: to invest in a highly critical media venture at a time when most observers are lamenting the death of free speech in Russia.
This is a common refrain and not surprising, given that serious journalism in Russia faces a sobering list of challenges, not least of which are threats, assaults, and murder. One might reasonably ask why there are journalists left in Russia willing to take on investigative stories. As Thomas de Waal, who covered the first Chechen war for The Times of London and The Economist, told me, “For every journalist who gets killed there must be twenty who decide that they’re not going to write the story that they might have written.”
Yet important stories still do get covered. And when reporters continue to face the threat of such reprisals for their work there seems to be a paradox in the claim—made by everyone from Putin to journalists themselves—that independent newspapers and magazines have become irrelevant.
Meanwhile, a rapidly growing community of online readers has made it increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to control the flow of information, even if the Web is hardly able to compete with state-owned TV. (Roughly 25 percent of the population used the Web as of 2007, close to 60 percent of Muscovites.) Financial reporting has also flourished lately. And stories that in the past would appear only in opposition newspapers—often on social issues such as hazing and abuse in the military, Russia’s crumbling health care system, and even reports from Chechnya and the North Caucasus—are not uncommon in Russia’s relatively new glossy magazines.
Although the last two decades have been deeply troubling for journalism in Russia, young reporters and independent media continue to pursue stories that matter. On the occasion of the one-year anniversary of The New Times in 2008, Lesnevsky acknowledged the almost impossible task ahead of her, and the possibilities, too. “A year has passed,” she wrote. “Everyone is alive. And we’re even celebrating.”
In Russia, circulations seem to rise and fall along with political hopes. In 1990, when the reforms of the Gorbachev era reached their apex, daily newspaper circulation in Russia was 38 million. By the time Boris Yeltsin left office at the end of the decade—when press freedom was already beginning to shrink and the economy had suffered a shocking collapse—that number had fallen to just 7.5 million. Media scholars often refer to the late perestroika years and the early days of the Yeltsin regime as a golden age of Russian journalism. Crowds of people could be seen waiting on line every Wednesday for copies of the influential Moscow News.
Moreover, the public trusted journalists. They were seen as public servants and truth tellers. According to Andrei Richter, director of The Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute, many journalists were elected to national, regional, and city offices. Argumenty i Fakty, once the country’s largest mass circulation weekly and still popular, had fourteen staff members elected to public office. In his study of media and power in post-Soviet Russia, Ivan Zassoursky, a professor at Moscow State University’s journalism school, says that in the late 1980s the concept of a fourth estate was just beginning to take hold. “It was a very exciting period,” Richter told me.
The ebullience of that period, however, was quickly offset by skyrocketing inflation. Newspapers were forced to accept state subsidies early on, creating a dynamic that has become increasingly politicized under Putin. Meanwhile, a number of wealthy oligarchs bought media outlets during the 1990s, paying journalists well and providing a measure of independence. By the Putin era, only oligarchs close to the Kremlin could survive.
The problems Western media face—from budget cuts to the impact of the Web—exist in Russia too. But in Russia the foundation was already shaky. And there is no deep tradition of long form investigative reporting, or the institutions to support it. “We failed to create a new kind of journalism” during the 1990s, Alexey Munipov, editor of Bolshoi Gorod, an alternative bimonthly Moscow paper, told me. Readership declined.