Yegor Mostovshikov is under no illusions about the names he and his co-founder chose for their media company, Mamikhlapinatana, and their main online news platform, Batenka, da vy transformer. Neither make any sense to the uninitiated, whether they speak Russian or English. “The name is a nightmare, the concept is a nightmare and the name of the publishing house is just fucked up,” Mostovshikov admits in an interview in Moscow, where Mamikhlapinatana is based. “We are not like other companies.”
Despite the tongue-twister name, the company has expanded rapidly since it was set-up in summer 2016, using a commercial content production studio to finance its creative projects and remain free of powerful investors or the necessity of launching time-consuming crowd funding drives. Over the last year, Mamikhlapinatana’s monthly turnover more than doubled and it has grown from a side project, which Mostovshikov and co-founder Anton Yarosh ran in their spare time, to employing over 40 permanent staff.
So-called “small media” projects like the long-form Batenka, da vy transformer have emerged as one of the few islands of truly independent journalism left in Russia after years of unrelenting pressure, which many characterise as a Kremlin-led proxy campaign to shut down critical reporting. Many significant independent media outlets are now based outside of Russia so as to shield themselves from interference.
But Mostovshikov and Yarosh both reject the label “small media”, arguing their company is destined to grow. Mostovshikov explains that the word ‘mamikhlapinatana’ comes from a dying language in Chile and is considered the most meaningful single word in the world. He says it translates roughly as “to look at each other in the hope that someone will fulfil the wish of both sides but no-one can commit to being the first” — and gives the example of the tension before a first kiss. “Our company will be the company that does this first,” he says. “Everyone wanted to do it, but it was us that [actually] did it.”
“What we are doing now is about 1 per cent of what we want to do going forward,” says Mostovshikov
Mamikhlapinatana was formed as an umbrella company for Yarosh and Mostovshikov’s Batenka, da vy transformer, subsequently merging with Breaking Mad, a website set-up by Zalina Marshenkulova that collates the most bizarre news from across Russia. But it has a bewildering number of other projects, most in their early stages. Since 2016, they have launched radio station Glagolev FM, begun a publishing house and collaborated in the creation of Riсhter, a contemporary art venue, hotel and events space in central Moscow. They also publish a literary journal, Nosorog, and run an online education platform.
“What we are doing now is about 1 per cent of what we want to do going forward,” says Mostovshikov, who describes Mamikhlapinatana as a “story-telling company.” He lists publishing more books, developing a computer game, VR, public talks, podcasts, a TV series and a new magazine as directions they want to pursue. “Our plan is to stop being a small business and increase our turnover to 150 million roubles (£1.8 million) a year and keep growing. We don’t just want to work in Russia, we want to be present on the global market and move towards the West and into English,” he says.
Recent articles on Batenka include an overview of the Japanese sex industry and an explainer on how telephone exchanges function. One of their most popular pieces ever was an analysis of the language used on internet forums for new mothers, and they caused a mini-scandal with the publication of a 4,000 word essay last year, under the rubric ‘sex’, on the romance between Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, who was jailed for her performance in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, and Orthodox activist Dmitry Enteo.
The group’s calling card is undoubtedly the quirky website Batenka, da vy transformer, which translates literally as ‘Old chap, you’re a transformer’. While beautifully designed, Batenka (as it is uniformly known) makes no effort at compromise; its lengthy articles range over a series of compelling, if unashamedly niche, topics. Chief editor Grigory Tumanov jokingly refers to the publication as “Russia’s New Yorker” during an interview in their Moscow offices in a former factory. “We have always written about the madness of this world,” he says. “We begin from the understanding that when a child has a growth spurt it’s painful for the child because its organs can’t keep up with its body’s growth. We see the modern world in such a moment. Technology and political regimes are changing so quickly that people are shocked about what’s going on. Sometimes this takes a humorous form, sometimes it’s tragic.”
The database of authors they built up through Batenka has been crucial to the success of Mamikhlapinatana, as it is these writers who are used for the content production that is now the foundation of the business
Mostovshikov and Yarosh describe Batenka as samizdat, the term used for the clandestine copies of banned literature circulated in the Soviet Union — in their case it is a reference to the self-publication feel of their site and the lack of an outside investor. Mostovshikov first had the idea for Batenka in 2007 but it was only launched in 2014. They have only recently started to pay their contributors, amassing a pool of writers and illustrators 500-strong on their reputation alone. “Journalists started to come to us who had always wanted to publish something cool but when they tried to persuade their editors to publish it were asked: ‘have you gone mad? this is not our format!’” says Yarosh. “The recipe for success was that we…gave complete freedom of action to our authors.”
The contacts of Mostovshikov (the former chief editor of Russian news portal Snob) and Batenka’s chief editor, Tumanov (a former reporter for business daily Kommersant), mean prominent Russian journalists — like Oleg Kashin, Daniil Turovsky and Olesya Gerasimenko — have written for Batenka, but they have also published texts by unknown writers from all over the country. And the database of authors they have built up through Batenka was crucial to the success of Mamikhlapinatana, as it is these writers who are used for the content production that is now the foundation of the business. Yarosh, who leads the company’s financial side, says the move into commercial production was a no-brainer. “We realised content marketing was a trend and that we could get involved,” he says.
Since its launch, Mamikhlapinatana has attracted big corporate clients including several large pharmaceutical firms, Russia’s largest bank and internet giant Mail.Ru. The revenue generated by these projects has allowed the company’s — generally loss-making — creative projects to flourish. Mamikhlapinatana will expand as fast as possible, says Yarosh: “this is just the beginning. The size of the market is measured in billions [of roubles].”
While Mamikhlapinatana fits the description of a media company or publishing house, it is officially known as a “media workshop” and, for Yarosh, this is the best way to explain the company’s vision. “Of course, at the beginning, we were poncing about. But then we figured out that it [media workshop] has a meaning, and it works,” he says. Neither of the founders make any apologies for the extent of their ambition, nor do they worry much about the possibilities of censorship or the business risks of break-neck growth. “Everyday you go to work and you understand that it could be your last day because that’s the way the world works. We know that there are many ways to fuck up, be broken, die or be destroyed,” says Mostovshikov. “We want everything at once and we’re not prepared to stop.”