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.
In addition to Vedomosti, several Russian Web sites have become increasingly important as both sources of information and public forums. Newsru.com and grani.ru are the pet projects of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively, exiled oligarchs and media moguls who were early casualties of the Putin era. According to a 2008 Reuters Institute report on the Web in Russia, both sites “carry generally reliable and often critical information and comment.” Meanwhile, other large news sites—including gazeta.ru and the liberal-leaning lenta.ru—have expanded their presence.
For now the Web is a largely unregulated and open space. In 2007, when the FSB unofficially tried to force Moscow Internet providers to block access to a host of Web sites, including kasparov.ru, a political news site founded by Garry Kasparov, the chess legend, only a handful acquiesced. Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who is working on a study of the Internet and freedom of speech in Russia, says that even though the authorities are starting to use legal measures, such as a relatively new law against extremism, to intimidate and even silence bloggers, it is too late for them to turn the Web into a kind of state-run media monopoly. “It is technically impossible to control the Internet in Russia,” he told me. Unlike China, Panfilov says, Internet service providers in Russia are privately owned, and have largely resisted efforts on the part of the state to manipulate content.