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.
The Web is also becoming an increasingly important platform for print media. One of Russia’s most promising publishing ventures, both online and in print, is Bolshoi Gorod (Big City), a city paper devoted to art, culture, and politics. Owned and published by Afisha, a successful arts and entertainment weekly, Bolshoi Gorod is openly liberal but far less antagonistic than The New Times. When I visit, Bolshoi Gorod’s small, one-room office resembles the post-production space of a college newspaper or literary journal, with half-empty coffee cups on every surface and a foosball table covered with old issues. Munipov says the paper’s founders imagined Bolshoi Gorod as a kind of Moscow Village Voice: a free, black-and-white weekly. Nearly eight years later the paper, published in an oversized art-house format, comes out every two weeks, in color, and costs about forty rubles (about $1.30), and is accompanied by a simple, appealing Web site.
Alexey Munipov, at thirty-two the oldest editor at Bolshoi Gorod, says that the publishers are generally supportive of what they do—long-form narrative journalism—but would prefer if they focused more on lifestyle issues. “Nobody tells you that you cannot write something,” Munipov says. “But you know that if you write about certain things, there will be problems.” Yet it has its journalistic triumphs.
In August 2008, two weeks after Russia’s war with Georgia came to an end Bolshoi Gorod published a striking twenty-four-page collection of first-person accounts of the conflict that Munipov says people still reference. He doesn’t feel the issue was particularly dangerous, nor was it overtly political, but it challenged the monochromatic view of the war that the Kremlin put forward on state-run television and online through its own army of paid bloggers (a relatively new phenomenon). According to Thomas de Waal, the author of two books on Chechnya, it provided some of the best eyewitness reporting on the war.
The paper’s editor in chief, Philip Dzyadko, is twenty-seven, and its style and content reflects a youthful sensibility. Like Barabanov, Dzyadko is part of the first truly post-Soviet generation of journalists; they’ve come of age under both the rise of Vladimir Putin and the Web.
“They definitely are in conflict with the older generation. They’re in conflict with both the Soviet approach and the corrupt, paid-up-to-the-gills, nineties approach,” Michael Idov, the former Russia! editor and a contributor to Bolshoi Gorod, told me. “And this is why I’m really optimistic about magazines like Bolshoi Gorod. What they do is they tell individual stories instead. A mosaic of what Russian life is really like does gradually reveal itself from the stories that they tell.”
In a recent column, Forbes Russia editor Maxim Kashulinsky wrote that, “The dynamics of Russian media are hard for outsiders to understand.” He was referring to the dichotomy that has emerged between the increasingly powerful state-controlled media and the handful of independent newspapers, magazines, and Web sites that usually publish without interference. There is little to suggest that this imbalance will change soon, but Kashulinsky remains optimistic.
“There’s nothing we can’t cover,” he told me in his small office on the outskirts of Moscow, which he shares with two deputy editors. “We can write about Putin’s friends, thank goodness. As long as we have the evidence, we can write about it.”