September 26, 2021

Follow the Money

Follow the Money
A man browsing a newspaper posted in St. Petersburg. pthread1981 on Flickr

In recent months and years, Russian journalists, media outlets, bloggers, and YouTube stars have been coping with a crackdown on media freedoms. Some have even been dubbed “foreign agents” to signify that they have received funding from Western organizations. It is the latest wrinkle in Russia's struggle since 1991 to iron out what it means to have a free press.

Since the late 1980s, Mikhail Ivanov, former editor (1995–2003) of Russian Life, has been involved with a variety of Soviet, Western, and post-Soviet publications, including Soviet Gosteleradio, Russia’s TASS news agency, Kommersant, and now Tennis Weekend. He has always worked from Russia.

Mikhail Ivanov (left) and Paul Richardson
(right) in Russia in 1997.

When Ivanov first struck out as a reporter in the late 1980s, it was considered prestigious work: “Not just anyone could be a journalist,” he said. After one of his first pieces was published, Ivanov said he kept a clip from Komskomolskaya Pravda he wrote under his pillow for a week.

Misha, as he prefers to be called, joined Publisher Paul Richardson at the very start of Russian Life, in July 1995. The two had been working together for several years before Richardson's company acquired Russian Life and Ivanov says he was asked to be chief editor “out of the blue.”

Ivanov witnessed the collapse of the system of Soviet journalism through a period of chaos, opportunity, freedom, and increased risk as great economic transformation swept Russia.

Some Russians, especially younger ones, watched the dissolution of the Soviet Union with awe, swept up by the promises of Boris Yeltsin. They viewed the “time of opening, a very romantic time” through “rose-colored glasses,” Ivanov said. At some point, he explained, all young people were infatuated with Yeltsin’s anti-corruption fight.

The “opening” allowed for unheard-of information to be broadcast across the former Soviet Union. Whereas in the Soviet Period, you would only read the synopsis of a political discussion later, Soviet citizens were suddenly able to watch full discussions between political figures, such as mayoral debates, on television.

pravda newspaper
A Soviet soldier reading the newspaper Pravda (Truth), founded in 1912,
sometime well before the internet. | Cassowary Colorizations on Flickr

The 1990s also saw an influx of fantastic journalists working for outlets like Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta, who were young and wrote about things like stocks and the economy. Ivanov named Sergei Parkhomenko, who founded Russia’s first current affairs weekly Itogi (Results), as one of the era’s greats. Parkhomenko has since been active in civil society, organizing Moscow rallies, founding an award to support independent journalism in Russia, and creating a civic campaign to help combat election rigging.

In the Yeltsin era, it also became possible to do muckraking and investigative journalism, which would have been unthinkable in the Soviet era. Of course, this profession did not come without its risks: Ivanov related how, in 1994, the Russian investigative journalist Dmitriy Kholodov, who had criticized Boris Yeltsin and then Defense Minister Pavel Grachov, lost his life in his own office to a booby-trapped suitcase bomb.

Russian journalists had far more opportunities simply because they existed outside of the old political system. In Soviet times, if you wanted a good career with Gosteleradio or TASS, for example, you had to become a Communist Party member. “It was a pain in the ass to get there," Ivanov said. So many young journalists, Ivanov included, were quite pleased with the shift. In 1989, reporting for TASS, he met with members of Motley Crew, along with Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, and others who arrived for a festival in Russia on a private jet. It was unheard of. "I wanted to pinch myself," Ivanov said.

reading the news
A  young woman reading Russian news |
pthread1981 on Flickr

Despite ideological transformation and new access to information, the early 90s were financially devastating for Russian media, and this had an impact on how media ownership changed.

Private Western conglomerates purchased some media outlets from the Soviet government, and foreign ownership meant that some media that were not making a profit could afford to survive the economic difficulties of the 1990s. Other media conglomerates were purchased by oligarchs, who at one point controlled an estimated 50% of Russia’s economy.

Times were hard for many journalists in the early 1990s, Ivanov explained, although it, of course, varied depending on the business. For a publication like Kommersant, everyone was paid and paid well, he said. Some publishers, however, could only afford to pay two or three staff more than a living wage, whereas the rest would be working paycheck to paycheck, or “at least [did] not prosper,” he said.

In early 1990s, many journalists were paid in dollars under the table, often while having a symbolic, modest ruble salary through a friendly firm or partner organization, to ensure that one was still officially employed and paying taxes. Western outlets could therefore pay fixers and reporters in cash, not having to worry about social insurance taxes or nasty things like labor regulations. Local media outlets, of course, could not do the same.

moscow times
The Moscow Times, founded in 1992 | whatleydude on Flickr

However, Russia soon moved from a dollar-driven to a ruble-driven economy. As the Russian media privatized, many Western publications, such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, GQ, and Playboy, opened offices in the country. Ivanov explained that they were launched as franchises under Russian licenses, and the journalistic market developed from a kind of black market to a more formal field, where people were paid in rubles.

According to Ivanov, “after the chaos of the early 1990s,” those who seemed to land the best-paid positions were those who took work with foreign titles. Once these publications became popular, “$1000 or even $2000 a month in black cash [paid under the table] was no longer a good salary.” He clarified that television was of course different than print publication, and even today news announcers and talk show hosts can be quite rich.

In “Losing Pravda,” scholar Natalia Roudakova explains that, because it was so difficult for many Russian outlets to learn to support themselves in the shifting economic climate, publications increasingly turned to practices such as the publication of paid advertising or promotional material that was labeled “editorial opinion or news produced by advertisers.”

Such ordered editorials, also known in Russian as “dzhinsa” (jeans), still exist in the Russian media landscape (indeed, they also exist in the US, where they are called advertorials or sponsored content, though normally they are explicitly labeled as such, which is rarely the case in Russia). The practice generally involved writing an “article” that a businessperson or perhaps politician has ordered placed in some newspaper.

Roudakova found that some journalists felt as though they were “having to ‘spread themselves under’ a politician or a businessman” while others related “living with a sense of being bought.”

newspaper vending in russia
A woman ordering a newspaper at a vending machine | James Cridland on Flickr

Ivanov approaches the subject with charm: “It’s a plague we have to deal with,” he said. He explained that, while the phenomenon is of course not ubiquitous, it is now a cultural phenomenon, and “a Russian CEO would love to see his face on the cover of a magazine rather than pay for an ad.”

While Soviet journalists did not need to think of money, the jobs of Russian journalists in the 1990s and 2000s began to require certain professional concessions to bring in a salary high enough to support a home or family. Generally, senior journalists might have had more freedom in what they could write about, and even the occasion to turn down pieces requested by superiors. However, it was the new employees with families to feed who would normally write paid material.

The run for money has been both a cause for what we in the West view as corruption, and also, according to Ivanov, the death of certain standards.

Russian TV in Paris
Russian television in Paris | Jeanne Menjoule on Flickr

He said he sees a lack of depth, a lack of culture, and a lack of professionalism in modern Russian media. There are endless talk shows on Russian television discussing who slept with whom, who betrayed his wife, and this environment of entertainment has destroyed the legacy of well-researched Soviet long-form writing.

The modern media system in Russia, of course, still rides the same ripples that the economic changes of the 1990s brought to the country’s media landscape. In a climate where money drives all and the Russian government runs the majority of television stations, it is nearly impossible for an independent press to exist.

There is a Russian idiom that may well sum up the journalist's lot best – and not only in Russia:

Кто платит, тот и заказывает музыку.

"He who pays the piper calls the tune."


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