In the old days, back when I worked for a different Moscow newspaper, I used to be visited by a lanky, chainsmoking Azerbaidjani named Fakhrid Tairov. Tairov dressed in cheap ties and sport jackets, which he hid under a huge gray down overcoat that looked like a ski jacket stretched for a giant Cat-in-the-Hat puppet. The jacket was also good for hiding a huge ream of folders; Tairov was a dealer in kompromat, or compromising information.
The material Tairov used to show me was unbelievable. He had stacks of documents showing budget money and property deeds moving out of state hands and into the pockets of dozens of high-level officials. He seemed to know everything and have something on everybody.
Tairov wanted to be paid for his information, which showed his contempt for the Western press. Word came back to me later that he offered information to Russian papers for free.
An example was a Komsomolskaya Pravda story which alleged that a gang of former Gorbachev administration officials had contrived to purchase the Olympic Stadium complex from the state for $16; Tairov had showed me the bills of sale on that same deal.
Tairov had great information but also had horrendously bad breath, making him, as a friend of mine once put it, “a net minus overall.” I never used his stuff; it made me nervous. But other people did and still are. And Tairov isn’t the only one of his kind; there are hundreds of people like him running around Moscow every day, planting stories in the laps of journalists and making sure that prepackaged kompromat, and not independent investigation, remains the engine behind the modern Russian press.
The potential benefits for a western reporter given a stack of kompromat to publish are relatively abstract, limited generally to the temporary titillation of his professional vanity. But Russians have much better incentives to sell out. The Tairovs of the world bring them money and fame and, perhaps most importantly, the krysha of whatever shady figure his personal Tairov happens to represent. In short, kompromat dealers are pimps, linking journalists who want to become whores with the johns in power who will buy them.
Pick up any Russian newspaper on any day and you can find prostituted reporting. Everyone notices the obvious plants: the recent spate of aluminum industry reports linking deposed deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets with the notorious Cherny brothers, the slavish pro-Chubais coverage by NTV during the Korzhakov-Barsukov “coup” last summer, the anti-Luzhkov “Snow Falls in Moscow” reports in Rossiskaya Gazeta during the fight for control of Most-bank in 1995. But many of the smaller stories are planted as well, making the printed landscape more of a hall of mirrors than a clear reflection of anything at all. Media prostitutes make reading newspapers in Russia these days an inexact science-a mystical experience, like reading cigar ashes or palms. The truth is there to be found, but only for the gifted, the extraordinarily sensitive, the insane.
“You have to be clever, and educated about who you’re reading, to know what you’re reading,” said analyst Andrei Piontkovsky. “Journalists come in two basic types these days-those who are outright prostitutes, and those who are just easy. You need to be able to identify them.”
“People coming in and out with kompromat is routine for most Russian journalists,” said one prominent Moscow journalist and recent beating victim, who declined to be identified. “It’s just a question of how you do or don’t use the material that defines the quality of your work.”
One of the best ways to find out who the real whores are is to identify the johns. Your freshman course in reading the Russian press will teach you in the first week that Segodnya is run by Most-Bank, Nezavisimaya Gazeta controlled by Boris Berezovsky’s LogoVAZ, Kommersant Daily by Stolichny Bank, Literaturnaya Gazeta by Bank Menatep, and so on (eXile is too mature to mention the Moscow Times‘s association with Menatep). Knowing who those organizations are in bed with will go a long way towards helping you decipher your news.
But often knowing the source is not much of a help. Last year, for instance, Most-Bank and its celebrated president Vladimir Gusinsky were clearly backing Chubais when presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov was ousted after his agents arrested Chubais cronies Sergei Lisovsky and Arkady Yevstafyev for leaving the White House with $500,000 in cash.
That night, NTV-another part of the Most-Bank media empire-came on the air in the middle of the night with the inexplicable report that a “military coup attempt” had been quashed and that the villain, Korzhakov, had been ousted. Later that morning, Chubais reappeared out of political purgatory to give a triumphant press conference explaining the situation-a clear manipulation of the press if there ever was one.
Gusinsky seemed to reaffirm his Chubais ties last month when NTV reporter Asim Yusupov came out with a series of “investigative reports” detailing corruption in the aluminum industry; the reports damaged the anti-Chubais forces of Korzhakov and Alexander Lebed, who reportedly had been using aluminum money to fund their political activities.
Now, however, it’s difficult to say where Most-Bank stands. Recent embarrassing reports by
Novoya Gazeta’s lovable Alexander Minkin, which suggested that Chubais avoided taxes, have since been reported to have been kompromat handed to Minkin by-guess who-Vladimir Gusinsky. Coupled with other rumors (i.e. the suggestion made in this newspaper by Alexander Makarov that Korzhakov’s recent election to the Duma had been rigged by the Kremlin), this suggests that Chubais is now not only busy plotting intrigues against Lebed and Korzhakov, but is coping with intramural struggles in his own power base as well.
You the viewer now have to take all of this into consideration when you watch NTV, because otherwise listening to Itogi anchor Yevgeny Kiselov-whom Piontkowsky calls “always available and for sale”- will not only be irritating, but meaningless as well. This past Sunday, for instance, Kiselov announced that Itogi, drawing an analogy to the Albanian situation, would soon be starting an investigation into Russian pyramid schemes, an obvious reference to Sergei Mavrodi’s MMM corporation.
The hip viewer should wonder: why now? Isn’t there enough corruption currently taking place in Russia to keep NTV investigators busy? Why dig up news two years old?
Because, of course, that’s the nature of media prostitution and the kompromat game. Lost amid the buzz over Yusupov’s aluminum reports, for instance, was the fact that most of the corruption involved was years old. When reporters receive their information from their johns, it is already fully-prepared for them- freeze-dried and shrink-wrapped, and often years old. When the aim is full-blown character assassination, information must be accumulated and carefully nurtured in the conspiratorial womb before being sent out into the world.
Take an example of a typical character assassination campaign. On February 4 of this year a car exploded in Moscow; Deputy Finance Minister Andrei Vavilov survived unscathed but was left without wheels.
Almost no one outside the government had ever heard of Vavilov, a skinny, clerkish man in glasses who looks like someone who would have been ranked fourth or fifth on his high school chess team. Why anyone would want to blow up his car was a mystery, but the police agreed early on that it must have been a “warning” from some criminal group he’d been involved with.
Within a few weeks Vavilov’s name started appearing in the press over and over again. The monthly glossy Litsa-a hard-hitting investigative magazine closely tied to Korzhakov-described Vavilov as one of the masterminds behind the notorious “loans for shares” scheme cooked up by the government in 1995.
On March 15, Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a story suggesting that Vavilov was helping divert $108 million away from a military airplane factory that was owed the money from the sale. Two days later, Novaya Gazeta reported that Vavilov had helped embezzle Peruvian debt obligations worth $400 million. Vavilov had clearly ignored the “warning.” The next step up from losing his car was a full-blown character assassination-which, in the current journalistic climate, is increasingly a threat to any Russian politician, even in the unlikely event that he’s honest.
Were any of the stories true? Who knows? Vavilov for the time being still has his job, and the only investigation officially underway is the one into the explosion of his car. The only certain conclusions you can draw from any of this are: 1) that someone is mighty pissed at Vavilov and 2) you, the reader, are for some reason being invited to know that.
The latter conclusion raises another question-why does anyone bother? In a criminal oligarchical system of government like the one Russia seems to have, where all power is concentrated at the top, public opinion theoretically shouldn’t carry any real weight. In fact, given the number of well-known officials who have survived despite barrages of kompromat, it’s reasonable to wonder, Is kompromat effective at all?
There are, of course, examples of published articles having a concrete, destructive effect on the careers of prominent men. Soskovets is only one example; another is Eduard Sagayev, who recently stepped down from his post as chief of Channel 2 as a result of Novaya Gazeta articles which alleged abuses of power. In his place stepped journalist Nikolai Svianidze, a devoted enemy of Korzhakov who seldom if ever broadcasted anything negative about Chubais. But if a story as explosive as one detailing a transcript of a taped conversation of high officials plotting to suppress a criminal case (Moskovsky Komsomolets’ Alexander Hinshtein’s 1996 “Golosui Ili…,” about Chubais, Viktor Ilyushin and Sergei Krasavchenko) isn’t enough to hinder a political career, then what’s the point?
“The kompromat game is left over from the KGB disinformation days. They use the same techniques and often the same people are involved. Whether they’re effective is another question,” said Piontkovsky. “Sometimes things are published for concrete reasons, and other times, it’s done just to satisfy vanity or aggression.”
Law enforcement officials admit that they seldom act upon information released in the press. Natalya Vishnyakova, spokeswoman for the General Prosecutor’s office, said that though prosecutions do take place, they’re rare.
“They happen. For instance, the Lisovsky-Yevstafyev case is still underway,” she said. “But obviously not every case can be prosecuted. And in general, it is not the practice of the prosecutor’s office to file charges on the basis of news reports.”
Whatever the reasons behind it, media prostitution is now so ingrained in Russia that there’s little chance that interpreting the news will soon be any simpler a task than predicting the weather. In both cases, chaos theory would tend to dictate a certain percentage of unpredictability.
“The news is now so complicated in Russia that it is beyond the abilities of most people to grasp it,” said Yasen Zagursky, dean of journalism at MGU. “It is too full of too many different gradations of truth and untruth for it to make sense to the average person.”
All of which, of course, makes reading the news an interesting challenge if you’re a foreigner and the greatest difficulty with newspapers that you’re used to is learning to tolerate “Dilbert” on a daily basis. Negotiating the labyrinthine world of the Russian press is the intellectual equivalent of walking up Tverskaya at night-with the crucial caveat of being able to watch, with a little imagination, the whores at work.
This article was publihsed in Issue #3 of The eXile in March 1997.
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