Like many of her generation, Simonyan started her career at a young age. After doing stories for the local newspaper, she was hired at eighteen to work at a local television station while studying journalism full-time at nearby Kuban University. This arrangement, repeated by students across the country who have any amount of ambition, is especially common in fields that did not exist in the Soviet era, like advertising, finance, and media, in which there is still a huge personnel vacuum. Moreover, these are fields for which Russian universities, still not fully up to speed, cannot adequately prepare them. Many of these ambitious “provincials” eventually come to Moscow, where as hungry outsiders they quickly outpace their less-driven Muscovite peers.
By 2004, then, twenty-four-year-old Simonyan was already in Moscow and working as a correspondent in the Kremlin press pool for Rossiya, the number two state television network with an audience of 50 million. To be picked for the Kremlin press pool is an honor but also a sign of trustworthiness. The pool is a place for the most loyal of the loyalists. To be assigned to cover the Russian president, especially for television, a reporter has to be absolutely reliable in his docility, and in his ability to ask softball questions. A year later, RIA Novosti tapped Simonyan to head Russia Today.
After three months of around-the-clock rehearsal, Russia Today went live on December 10, 2005. The format, which has changed little in five years, began with a half-hour news block at the top of the hour, followed by features—culture, sports, business—in the bottom half. Three satellites beamed stories to Europe and the United States. Mostly, it was news about Russia, but there also were frequent reports about how badly the war in Iraq was going for George W. Bush, or how deeply Ukrainians and Georgians regretted their revolutions. There also were the more extreme features that would come to define Russia Today in the West, such as the prophesies of fringe authors who predicted a 55 percent chance of civil war and the dissolution of the United States into six distinct territories by July 2010.
From the start, Simonyan presided over a staff that wasn’t much older than she was, and today the network still has the feel of a high school newspaper with more money and considerably higher stakes. “We look for young people and educate them on the job,” says twenty-nine-year-old Irakly Gachechiladze, Russia Today’s news director. Native-level English is a must for presenters (in high school, Simonyan spent a year on an exchange program in Bristol, New Hampshire), and early on the network had a predilection for posh British accents. Brits made up the vast majority of the initial seventy-two foreigners RT recruited, through advertisements in The Guardian and other British papers.
Most of the foreigners were quite green. They were typically just out of one-year journalism graduate programs and had little practical experience. They were aggressively wooed, with a package that included health insurance, free housing, and hands-on experience that would have been impossible with the entry-level jobs available to them at home. And the money was good; foreign hires with little to no experience were paid in the low six figures for working five days out of every fourteen.
For many, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “They put me in a correspondent shift right away,” says one former Russia Today presenter whose contract did not allow her to speak on the record. “Within the first week, I was sent to several locations in Russia. I had just graduated with a master’s in journalism and I was super eager to get my feet wet.” It was an exciting place to work. “There were lots of young people,” the former staffer says. “The mood was very eager, very fun. It had a real start-up feel to it.”