The last confession of a Kremlin stooge

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

The party’s over, and this is my last article for The Moscow News, where I spent the last 10 years. This past decade has shaped me as a journalist, and I also believe that I had a hand in shaping this newspaper.

There is always a lot of drama when journalists leave, some of it warranted, some of it less so. Recall the on-air emotional meltdown on NTV when the independent TV station was taken over by state-owned Gazprom in 2001. More recently we saw the public resignation of Liz Wahl from RT. And earlier this week, journalists at walked out en masse after their editor was fired by publisher Alexander Mamut.

My departure from The Moscow News is certainly political to a degree, and is inevitably part of a recent trend I no longer feel I need to. But I don’t really want to dwell on that.

What I want to dwell on is this seeming paradox: for years, The Moscow News had the most free-spirited editorial team that I’ve ever seen. And it was all funded by the Russian government.

I joined the paper in 2004, when it was funded by just-jailed oil tycoon and one of Vladimir Putin’s top foes, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Three years later, our newspaper joined RIA Novosti, funded by Vladimir Putin. At Putin’s behest, the paper was re-launched in 2009, and some of the best, most independent investigative reporting we’ve done as a team was on the Kremlin’s payroll. Since then, I have been derided as a Kremlin stooge and an opposition journalist in equal measure.

For years, I suspected that this could not last. The notion of writing about Khodorkovsky’s “politically-motivated” imprisonment while waiting for Putin to show up in our office one afternoon just didn’t mesh. Either I was wrong in writing about corruption and autocracy, or ours was a very benign autocracy indeed. Such phenomena – my independent reporting, Putin’s funding, and how Putin came off in my writing – just couldn’t all be true at the same time. To explain the paradox, I even entertained some outlandish theories that we were all, somehow, part of a grand plan, long before I realized that the real reason no one clamped down sooner was because, to a great extent, we were unnoticed.

Having dealt with the political elephant in the room, I want to move to the personal. Back in the 1930s, before an editorial purge saw at least two editors shot and one sent to the Gulag, the paper’s newsroom was described by one biographer as “one of the most motley collections of malcontents, misfits and peripheral journalists ever gathered under one roof.”

I don’t think that’s really changed, and that’s precisely why I’ve always felt at home here, among British and American expats who had learned the hard way that there wasn’t a “right” place just across the ocean, that everything was messed up in a complicated way, that history was not necessarily moving towards a bright, predestined future full of democracy and puppies, if it was moving at all.

Among those misfits and malcontents I’ve had a chance to work with professionals that I can only hope I’ll have the privilege of working with again. I also made the closest friends I’ve ever had.

Some of my friends will be staying on at Rossiya Segodnya, the organization replacing RIA Novosti. And I am truly happy for Rossiya Segodnya because of that.

In closing, I want to say that miracles are confined to a set spectrum of time with a beginning and an end. That an authoritarian government funded the most free-spirited editorial team I’ve ever seen was a miracle. That was why it could not last. Caesar gives and Caesar takes away.

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