La Russophobe has previously reported the takeover of Russia’s leading independent newspaper Kommersant by the malevolent forces of the Kremlin. Now, the paper’s editor has resigned in protest. Alexei Pankin reports and comments in his Moscow Times column, below. Note the classic Russian manner in which Pankin makes a joke out of this extremely serious situation, just the way Russians laughed off the racist fantasies of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his desires to take back Alaska from the U.S. Now, Zhirinovsky’s fantasies are reality in Russia, and if Russians don’t stand up to the Kremlin and stop these encroachments upon their last bastions of information, they’ll soon be just as blind and ignorant as they were in Soviet times. This will leave them incapable of protecting their country from the ravages of a new dicatorship that will surely cleave Russia into shards that can never be rejoined.
As recently as last Saturday, some friends and I were discussing the escalating Russian-Georgian conflict. One of my friends was flipping through a copy of the day’s Kommersant. On reaching the page containing a transcript of the talks between a Russian serviceman and a Georgian civilian that the Georgian authorities had published as proof of Russian spying activity, he asked: “I wonder if we’ll find anything like this in the next edition?”
Saturday’s edition of Kommersant was the last under editor Vladislav Borodulin. As many people, including myself, had predicted, the paper’s new owner appointed a new editor.
Borodulin, widely seen as close to Leonid Nevzlin, a major shareholder in the now-bankrupt oil major Yukos, was replaced by Andrei Vasilyev, whose long collaboration with another fugitive oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, is well known. Whoever’s men they are considered to be, both Borodulin and Vasilyev are steeped in the professional culture of the country’s first independent business newspaper, which based its ethos on the idea that the secret of success was to depend not on political tendencies, but rather the provision of complete, reliable information. Therefore, regardless of who might have been behind the editor, Kommersant was not used as an information weapon in political warfare.
Borodulin was sent packing by new owner Alisher Usmanov. The reason, according to Usmanov himself, was that he was unhappy at a front-page article about the move by the son of Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev from the security agency to state-owned oil firm Rosneft. Judging from this, Usmanov appears to be a typical oligarch with a very murky past. This leaves him open to pressure from the Kremlin, so it makes sense for him to strive to keep it happy, as he has already shown.
In the 19th century, Tsar Nicholas I took it upon himself to act as censor for Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin was lucky because the holders of supreme power in Russia were, as a rule, freer thinkers with broader outlooks than their subordinates, who feared upsetting their superiors more than anything on earth. So, direct access to the top was a positive thing.
People in the know say that Vasilyev is even more popular with Alexei Gromov, the head of the presidential administration press service, than with Berezovsky, and that Gromov approved the appointment. So even this early in Vasilyev’s tenure we can expect that his main function will be to exploit his good relations with the administration in order to get some Kremlin protection to counter Usmanov’s own attempts to keep the Kremlin happy.
There are various ways of looking at the Kremlin’s battles against former Media-MOST chief Vladimir Gusinsky, former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky, but those at least were fights against powerful opponents who wielded enormous material and information resources. These battles could instill respect, fear, or hatred — instead of derision — in those who took part in and witnessed them. There the spoils, the NTV and ORT television stations, were also impressive.
But the Kremlin’s role in editorial changes, first at Izvestia and now at Kommersant, newspapers with a combined circulation of just a few hundred thousand that neither intended to or really could be powerful opposition voices, even if they wanted to, is in the realm of the laughable.
The last thing Russia needs is to have its authorities be made into laughing stocks. But how can we help them if they make laughing stocks of themselves?