In the years since Patrushev spoke of a new nobility, several high-profile journalists have been murdered in spectacular contract killings, none of which have been successfully prosecuted. In 2004, just three months after the first issue of Forbes Russia was published, its founding editor, Paul Klebnikov, was shot on a quiet street outside of the magazine’s editorial offices. Two years later Anna Politkovskaya, the reporter for Novaya Gazeta who wrote about war crimes and human rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot in the elevator of her apartment building. During her trial, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a twenty-five-year-old Novaya Gazeta freelancer, were gunned down in broad daylight on a busy Moscow street (in November two suspects, alleged to be members of an ultranationalist group, were apprehended in the killing).
And those are only the most well-known cases. The Committee to Protect Journalists, whose estimates tend to be somewhat conservative, has identified seventeen journalists killed because of their work in the last nine years across Russia. In only one of those cases have the killers been convicted, and the masterminds remain at large. In that same period, at least forty journalists have been deported or refused entry to the country. According to the committee, Russia is the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, trailing only Iraq and Algeria. And it is somewhat unique. Executive Director Joel Simon says that in most countries where press freedom is deeply compromised, it is usually the result of state repression (China) or violence and impunity (Mexico). Rarely do the two merge as they have in Russia.
Yet lately the faint outlines of a new paradigm seem to be emerging. Several independent magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Forbes, The New Times, Vedomosti, and Novaya Gazeta, have survived longer than might have been expected given the circumstances. And they usually publish what they want, free of interference from the state. At the same time, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has made a point of reaching out to critics, even granting Novaya Gazeta the first full-length interview of his presidency, an unimaginable gesture under Putin.
“We live on islands in Russia,” Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion-page editor of Vedomostitells me in a quiet café not far from the subway entrance where Markelov and Baburova were shot last January. He’s referring to the large body of state-controlled media—what he calls a continent—and the small handful of independent newspapers and magazines that publish freely. Last June, Vedomostilaunched an investigative desk, headed by Irina Reznik, a leading expert on Gazprom, who writes frequently about Putin’s circle of friends. “If you do it the right way, usually you can do it and get away with it,” Trudolyubov says.
Outside of Russia, the best known of these “islands” is probably Novaya Gazeta, a thin paper published three days a week. Novaya Gazeta has a small but stable readership, and focuses largely on investigations of abuses of power and human rights, as well as corruption. Since its founding in 1993 by a group of about thirty journalists who parted from Komsomolskaya Pravda, an influential and widely read tabloid, the paper has taken a sharply adversarial tone. Four of its reporters, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed.
In 2006, the paper sold 49 percent of its shares—to pay salaries and debt—to Mikhail Gorbachev and Alexander Lebedev, a former kgb spy who recently acquired the London Evening Standard and has served in the Duma as a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. Lebedev invested $3.6 million of his own fortune in the paper. So, like The New Times, Novaya Gazeta’s livelihood is largely tied to a single investor. In May, Lebedev announced that he was unable to pay staff salaries for a week after financial problems with his German airline venture (though he had no problem paying staff at the Evening Standard). At the same time, very few tycoons are willing to risk their personal fortune on highly politicized publishing ventures. For most, it would mean the end of their business careers.
The most promising venture of the past decade appears to be Trudolyubov’s Vedomosti, launched in 1999, not long after the collapse of the ruble, with the backing of the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Independent Media, which also publishes the English-language daily, Moscow Times. “The appearance of Vedomostihas changed things and moved them forward in a way Russian journalists were not doing before,” says Arkady Ostrovsky, The Economist’s Moscow bureau chief. “Some of the reporting that Vedomosti’s done on people with Kremlin connections who have serious financial interests has been outstanding.” Vedomosti, he says, has achieved what few publications have been able to do in Russia: create a documentary record of the Putin years.