Local Press Review
The eXile Gossip Guide
Let’s face it: there’s no reason why a massively downsized expat community like Moscow’s should have four English-language newspapers. When the eXile arrived on the scene in early 1997, there were some 100,000 English-speaking foreigners here, pockets bulging with ponzi-scheme-funded cash. Even so, the ever-expanding Moscow Times was struggling to break even, the lowly Moscow Tribune was struggling to give ads away for free (and failing), and we were fighting to break in.
Then the crisis hit. More than three-quarters of the expats left town, and the advertising market went with them. The Moscow Times slashed staff, wages, and pages, and still struggled to break even, while its competitor the Moscow Tribune vanished. And then things got weird.
Somehow, in the post-crash ruins, the eXile flourished like cockroaches in the proverbial nuclear wasteland. Even stranger, a new Kremlin-backed newspaper, The Russia Journal, appeared. Its publisher, a shady Indian computer trader named Ajay Goyal, bragged in an interview to the Gleb Pavlovsky-founded Kremlin magazine Sreda that over two million dollars had been invested into his newspaper. It never sold much in the way of massively-discounted ads, but if you’re the Kremlin, you don’t worry about where your next dollar comes from.
Cut to April 2001. The Tribune is back, at 24 pages thicker than ever, with just as few free ads as 1997, and one lone staff writer named Dmitry something-or-other. The Moscow Times looks like a sorry imitation of its former glorious self. The Russia Journal is shrinking faster than a coke fiend’s penis. And the eXile keeps reappearing with the painful, embarrassing regularity of genital herpes.
What’s going on? Do you, the expatriate reading public, really matter that much?
Of course not. You’re smaller. You’re cheaper. The revenue potential is almost negligible. You’ve got nothing to do with this.
What’s changed is that a new elite has taken power with new priorities. And they’re not always as clever as they think they are.
As we reported this past January, Russia Aluminum had either invested or negotiated to invest in the Tribune on behalf of Anatoly Chubais and Oleg Deripaska. VNU, a Dutch company which holds a 35% stake in Independent Media, publisher of the Moscow Times, is looking to sell its stake; interested parties are said to range the pro-Kremlin gamut from Boris Jordan to Russia Aluminum. John Helmer, who once was the public bearded-leftie face of The Moscow Tribune, is now a smiling pro-Putin columnist for Ajay Goyal’s The Russia Journal. Alexei Pankin, who founded Sreda with Gleb Pavlovsky, now publishes a weekly pro-Kremlin propaganda column in The Moscow Times, complete with a picture of himself sucking on a crack pipe.
Like Kremlinologists, we’re trying to read between the lines of the dull, bureaucratic edicts to see what’s really going on. What emerges is an almost comical behind-the-scenes struggle within the Kremlin to find a pliable local English-language partner to help improve its image abroad.
A couple of issues back, Goyal penned an editorial in which he made the seemingly outrageous claim that Independent Media had just cut a deal with his former sponsor Pavlovsky. We thought that Goyal was merely exhibiting increasing symptoms of what appear to be schizophrenic-paranoia, but sometimes even paranoiacs are right.
Only days after Goyal’s editorial, Leonid Bershidsky, former business editor for the Moscow Times and now editor of Independent Media’s Vedomosti newspaper, issued a shocking statement on the Kremlin’s Internet site strana.ru, founded by Pavlovsky. In it, he attacked NTV’s rebel staff under the absolutely disingenuous premise that journalists have no right to choose their editors. Bershidsky wasn’t so much attacking NTV as he was announcing to the world that he — and therefore Vedomosti and Independent Media — had joined the Dark Side.
At the same time, Vedomosti's partners at The Financial Times published two of the most counter-intuitive pieces of journalism we’ve seen this side of strana.ru: one claiming that not only is Russia NOT lawless but rather, it’s so packed full of fully-functioning laws that fifty international law firms piled in post-crisis (!), followed by another article this past week claiming that Russian companies are now becoming models of corporate governance, quoting at length—yep, you guessed it—Mr. Corporate Governance himself, Russia Aluminum’s Oleg Deripaska. (see p. 6 for more on Deripaska’s approach to transparency)
Meanwhile, those exceptional expats who actually read The Russia Journal have probably noticed that its page volume has shrunk dramatically since the beginning of the year. Its club guide is almost non-existent, while the restaurant guide now consists of mere microscopic address information. Judging by the sudden decline in The Russia Journal, Goyal’s increasingly hysterical attacks on rival Independent Media (including a slanderous attack on former Times editor Matt Bivens in which The Journal accused him of taking part in our horse sperm attack on Michael Wines), and Independent Media’s public cozying up to Pavlovsky’s empire, a case could be made that the Kremlin has dumped Goyal for the more polished image of Derk Sauer.
It’s no secret that the Kremlin is hyper-sensitive to its image in the West. Recently, it appointed Chechnya whitewashing-maestro Sergei Yastrzhemsky to create a department specifically designed to influence the Western media towards a more positive portrayal. So far, they seem to have had even less luck with the local English-language press than they had with the NTV takeover. There are bloody footprints leading straight to the Kremlin, but the job is getting done. Well done, boys.
As for us here at the eXile, we’re like the balding, sarcoma-covered whore on Tverskaya that no one wants. No matter how high we lift up our collective skirt, Pavlovsky’s Jeep Mercedes keeps flying right past, splashing slush on our knee-high boots. And that’s as close as we’ll probably ever get.
Stay tuned. By the end of this year, the newspaper rack at Starlite Diner may look a lot different — and thinner — than it does today.