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In the balance: why Russia’s independent media face an uncertain future

In the balance: why Russia's independent media face an uncertain future

Independent journalism and online media are struggling to survive in Russia’s chilly political and economic climate

30 April 2013
Elena Pakhomova

Russia’s media landscape has undergone numerous changes of late, with a number of high-profile journalists leaving their posts and several titles passing into oblivion. Online publications have been particularly hard hit. While some have ascribed the wave of resignations and closures to financial difficulties, others have speculated that there are murkier political goings-on behind the scenes. Whatever the reasons, what is clear is that independent journalism and new media are struggling to survive in Russia’s current political and economic climate.

The latest publication to fall victim to this fate is Bolshoi Gorod (Big City), a biweekly print and online magazine that has covered major cultural events in the city since 2002. Last week, Alexander Vinokurov, a former investment banker and investor in the magazine, announced his decision to make all online staff redundant without compensation. The fierce reaction and debate that has followed, mainly on social networks where Vinokurov posted regular updates about the magazine’s future, resulted in a change of heart. Although he turned down an offer to sell Bolshoi Gorod to another investor, Vinokurov has since proposed several options to settle the issue. The first was for staff to cut its monthly expenditure of roughly 11 million roubles (£230,000) by 40%, the second was to close both the print and online versions of the magazine and the third was for the editorial team to take over the running of the publication.

Last week, Alexander Vinokurov, a Bolshoi Gorod investor, announced his decision to make all online staff redundant without compensation

Although enterprising, the latter didn’t appeal to all of the magazine’s employees. Ekaterina Kronhaus, the editor-in-chief of the online publication, resigned, arguing that she was a journalist and not a businesswoman. “I’ve never taken any financial decisions nor invested in the magazine and cannot possibly take responsibility for these things,” she wrote on her Facebook page. Not all of the magazine’s employees felt the same. Alexei Munipov, editor-in-chief of Bolshoi Gorod’s online and print publication, considered Vinokurov’s proposal both interesting and generous. He also noted that it had the potential to provide a new business model for independent publications in Russia. “If we take the offer, we’ll obviously have to close the project as it is and stop publishing the print version for some time,” said Munipov. Anton Nosik, a prominent blogger who goes by the name of dolboeb, was more cynical in his response, warning of the offer’s potential pitfalls. “One should bear in mind other possible agendas such as the company’s debt after all of these years,” he wrote on his LiveJournal page.

Vinokurov, who lost his banking business as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, bought Bolshoi Gorod in 2010. Now he and his wife, Natalia Sindeeva, own holding company Dozhd (Rain), which runs an opposition television channel of the same name, and liberal news website With the rise of the protest movement in Russia, particularly in the capital, Bolshoi Gorod’s pages were increasingly filled with political discussions; attempts to return it to its former incarnation as a lifestyle magazine resulted in the resignation of the then editor-in-chief Philipp Dzyadko, who had by that point become one of the most recognisable faces of Moscow’s liberal opposition.

Only a handful of independent publications remain in Russia

It is too early to predict the outcome of Bolshoi Gorod but what is certain is that only a handful of independent publications remain in Russia. Plus not all closures and personal resignations can be so easily attributed to financial difficulties. One example is the socio-political website OpenSpace, which closed February. The online publication was headed by Maxim Kovalsky, who had published anti-Putin slogans in political magazine Kommersant Vlast (Power) during last year’s presidential election. Several media managers such as Ilya Bulavinov, editor-in-chief of Kommersant Online, and Mikhail Kotov, head of news website, also quit their jobs in protest against new strategic development plans at their places of work. Both have since joined RIA Novosti, a state-owned news agency.

What has emerged is that large, state-funded media, which continue to follow the traditional model of journalism, seem not to encounter any complications and even benefit from the closure of independent publications. “The state-owned media, meanwhile, have all the advertising, office space and distribution they need,” wrote Masha Gessen, a writer for The New York Times. Gessen, who was deputy editor-in-chief of Bolshoi Gorod between 2004 and 2005, added in an ironic tone: “They keep hiring — often from the independent media that have gone out of business or cut back — and spawning new media outlets. It’s a great business model; nothing political about it.”