A Very Foreign Paper
Does the departure of Vedomosti’s veteran editor pose yet another threat to Russia’s already embattled independent media scene?
In the newsroom of Russia’s most respected business newspaper, editors and reporters are in a tense face-off with the paper’s owner Demyan Kudryavtsev (who also publishes The Moscow Times). He has just announced the name of their new editor-inchief — an appointment that should reflect the paper’s editorial standards. But the mood is sour.
Why bring in someone from outside the newsroom? Why someone from state television? What guarantee will there be of editorial independence? “Do you realize what the headlines will be?” one emotional staff member asks. “‘Vedomosti is going to be led by someone from Channel One.’”
On the one hand, Tatyana Lysova’s successor was always going to face a newsroom of skepticism. The veteran editor spent more than 15 years meticulously curating its salmon-pink pages. To her staff and readers, she was a lone beacon of editorial independence in an increasingly hostile environment.
To many, her replacement is a symbol of that hostility. Ilya Bulavinov was head of Internet broadcasting at Channel One, a television channel that many consider a prime example of Russian state media’s flexible attitude toward fact and fiction.
His appointment might seem unusual for a paper that pioneered Russia’s transition to a free press after the fall of the Soviet Union. But it fits into a broader trend of recent ownership swaps, legal battles, and staff reshuffles at Russian media outlets—in what some see as a Kremlin campaign to silence critical voices.
Not business as usual
In a landscape where government and business interests held sway, it took an outsider to found Russia’s first independent business paper.
Dutch entrepreneur Derk Sauer had come to Russia in the nineties and set up the successful publishing house Independent Media, which printed several titles, including The Moscow Times.
Sauer saw another niche that needed filling: business journalism unbeholden to external interests.
With Russia’s hungry transition to capitalism came a new class of entrepreneurs who wanted to stay informed. Besides, Russia’s only other business newspaper, Kommersant, was broadening its coverage, leaving room for a hard business paper. Kommersant had also been bought by Boris Berezovsky, Russia’s kingpin oligarch, who, like many of his peers, saw the media as a tool of influence.
Sauer named Vedomosti after Russia’s first newspaper, an 18th century bulletin founded by Peter the Great. “It had to sound as if it had been around for hundreds of years,” he says. But the Moscow billboards announcing the paper’s launch in 1999 spoke of a sharp break with the past: “Any oligarch can buy our newspaper — at a kiosk.”
Rather than act as the Soviet regime’s propaganda tool or an oligarch’s playtoy, Vedomosti would promote a novel idea. “The message was: we’re independent,” says Sauer.
To establish Vedomosti’s brand in Russia, Sauer partnered up with international journalism behemoths The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times.
“We felt we were part of a certain tradition,” says Leonid Bershidsky, Vedomosti’s founding editor, now a Bloomberg columnist. “And that mattered. We read their rules and saw how they stuck to them.”
Vedomosti used this new playbook to train a generation of Russians who had limited access to international standards of journalism. The paper’s outgoing editor — who guarded those standards for over 15 years — was among them.
Lysova came to journalism by accident. After training as a mathematician, and working as a software programmer, she began at Kommersant as a self-proclaimed “terrible journalist with no writing or communication skills.”
But after several scoops covering Russia’s evolving energy sector she carved out a name for her accuracy and fearlessness — traits that would come to define her tenure at Vedomosti. “If you think something is right, then you have to fight for it. No matter who’s in charge,” she says.
After the 1998 financial crash, ethics in Russian journalism became murkier . Many publications began producing “plugola” for companies and business figures in return for large payments and gifts.
Lysova admits to writing one such article—but the “client was very unhappy,” she laughs. “An editor once said I was one of two journalists in Moscow who would not accept money, calling me a fool.”
Kommersant staff eventually left the paper over claims that its owner was trying to influence his staff’s coverage to benefit a bank he had ties to. But when paid articles also became the norm at the magazine they subsequently launched, called Expert, Lysova left for Vedomosti in 1999. “It was an international brand and I thought I could learn something,” she says.
Within three years, she was chief.
First came the oligarchs...
Vedomosti’s editorial independence did not go down well with the oligarchs.
“Within two days of the launch, I had a rabid Pyotr Aven on the phone,” recounts Sauer. “We’d written something about Alfa-Bank that he didn’t like.” Other attempts to pressure
Publisher Derk Sauer (left) and founding editor Leonid Bershidsky (right) demonstrate the first issue of Vedomosti on Sept. 1, 1999.
“Vedomosti represented a Western approach to journalism — like an embassy — on Russian soil,”— Vasily Gatov, media analyst.