And in recent years, it has declined further and advertising revenue has plummeted. In the last year alone, daily papers in Russia lost 17 percent of their readers, and a recent TNS Gallup survey showed that less than 10 percent of the population bothered to read dailies between December 2008 and April 2009. (In most European capitals the same figure is closer to 50 percent.)
The legacy of a “pay to play” model dating from the oligarch-dominated era of the ’90s, in which newspapers and magazines accept money for “articles,” has further weakened public trust. Called dzhinsa (Russian for “blue jeans”), the practice has become institutionalized; newspaper managers or editorial board members are often paid directly. “Newspaper type has become the weapon of the banker and the politician,” a journalist wrote in the mid-1990s. “The journalist has been transformed into a mouthpiece.” The public has become so suspicious of placed articles that reporting or reviews are often assumed to have been paid for. Maxim Kashulinsky, the thirty-six-year-old editor of Forbes Russia, says he still has to persuade people that Forbes doesn’t sell entries to its list of Russia’s one hundred richest businessmen.
Perhaps worse has been the state’s gradual domination of print publications. First, over the course of Putin’s presidency, a number of large-circulation dailies, including Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kommersant, and Izvestia were sold to Kremlin-friendly business groups, including the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom. At the same time, state subsidies for newspapers gradually became tied to content and ideology. Until a few years ago, Russian newspapers received uniform support from state and local budgets for print costs and distribution, regardless of size or political orientation. In 2005, however, a new law changed the funding system; money would be distributed through a competition for grants administered by the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications. The grants were not based on objective criteria, but on the kind of stories publications printed—whether they were sufficiently sympathetic to those in power.
This has created a vicious circle: opposition papers don’t even bother to compete for state funding, so the pool of applicants has decreased; thus the loyal large-circulation dailies get an ever-larger sum of federal money, which ultimately allows them to undersell their competitors. And the resulting wider circulation means they’re more attractive to advertisers. The Kremlin’s approach to print media is simple, Richter says: “If the press wants to help us, we shall help them. If the press doesn’t want to help us or it’s against us, let them die.”
Meanwhile, access to information and sources within the government has greatly diminished. This is particularly true with the intelligence community. Andrei Soldatov, the founder of the investigative Web site agentura.ru (modeled on Steven Aftergood’s Project on Government Secrecy), has covered the FSB and national security issues for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, he says, intelligence agencies feared that they would be disbanded, as happened to the East German Stasi. In an attempt to preserve their power, they established press offices to deal with journalists and the public in the name of transparency.
But under Putin, a career intelligence officer and head of the FSB from 1998 to 1999, those fears subsided and “the FSB just decided to forget about this filter,” Soldatov said. Today, the FSB gives out an annual award for the best book or film about the security services and has been behind the production of at least one major movie, Countdown, that was little more than propaganda. According to Soldatov and others, the FSB’s Center for Public Communications refuses to answer media queries, despite a 2006 law that says they must.
Soldatov, who covered Beslan and the Nord-Ost theater siege for various Moscow papers, confesses that over the last couple of years he has found only a few new sources within the FSB. At the end of our interview, in a noisy café not far from the offices of Novaya Gazeta, where he once worked, Soldatov takes out a copy of James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory, a 400-page history of the U.S. National Security Agency from 9/11 to the present. When he reads books like this, based on a rich archive of documents and sources, he says, it makes him jealous. Nonetheless, Soldatov and his colleague Irina Borogan are working on a book about the Russian security services to be published (in English) this year, titled The New Nobility, a phrase coined by former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev to describe leaders of the newly empowered security service after Putin came to power.