Russian journalists fired over obscenity

December 13, 2011

The Kremlin has tackled the wave of protests over alleged electoral fraud here in a way that the opposition least expected: a mild, even conciliatory, tolerance. In Moscow, there have been no arrests in the past week, no rough handling by the police, no disparaging rhetoric.

President Dmitry Medvedev has been reassuring his countrymen that Russians have a right to express their opinions. Huge demonstrations Saturday went off without incident. At a meeting Tuesday, Medvedev said, “We need to take real and more decisive steps to eliminate accumulated restraints on political activity.”

But, 20 years after the downfall of the Soviet Union and the supposed retirement of Kremlinology, the science of trying to figure out what’s really going on behind those thick red walls is prospering again.

Why has Prime Minister Vladimir Putin been so quiet? What does it mean when a former Putin cabinet minister, Alexei Kudrin, talks about creating a liberal opposition?

And what’s the story behind the firing this week of the top management at one of Russia’s more respected magazines?


The cover of the latest issue of the Kommersant Vlast weekly magazine sparked the owner to fire its editor and another media executive on Tuesday over what he called a "breach of ethics." Many media rights activists and journalists described the move as an attempt to block critical coverage of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his party. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

That last incident looked to a lot of Russian journalists like a signal. It’s not what we say in public, it’s what we do behind the scenes, the authorities seemed to be warning them. But this also could have been the initiative of a loyal member of the inner circle — in this case, the owner of the magazine — trying to anticipate his patron’s wrath and moving first. There’s a long Russian — and Soviet — tradition of that. Or, possibly, it was just because someone in power doesn’t like bad taste.

Classic Russian tactic?

The magazine is called Kommersant Vlast, and it’s owned by one of the richest and most well-connected men in Russia, Alisher Usmanov. The publication and its affiliated daily newspaper, called Kommersant, have been increasingly critical of the Kremlin in the past few weeks.

The latest issue of the magazine broke new ground. It carried a photo of a ballot on which was written an obscenity directed at Putin. When he saw it, Usmanov fired the editor and general director.

Swear words don’t appear in respectable publications here, in large type. But Russian journalists immediately began to suspect a darker motive behind the firing. They feared that those in power, whose pronouncements have been so modest in public, were finding an indirect way to deliver a telling response. That has been a classic tactic throughout Russian history.

Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo Moskvy radio, tweeted that it’s unlikely that the top managers at Kommersant Vlast would have lost their jobs had the insult been directed at anyone besides Putin. Others quickly agreed.

Then, late Tuesday, another of Russia’s richest men — Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets — said he was going to make a bid to buy Kommersant from Usmanov.

Prokhorov announced Monday that he intends to challenge Putin in the March 4 presidential election. If Usmanov was sending a message with the firings, Prokhorov seems to be sending one back.

Prokhorov has cast himself as a business-friendly candidate who can appeal to the rising urban middle class. Kommersant’s orientation toward business news would be a good fit for him. This move might also be aimed at dispelling fears that he’s secretly in cahoots with Putin to drain off middle-class opposition.

Government PR blitz

While Prokhorov was weighing his move Tuesday, the government was launching a getting-down-to-business public relations blitz. Putin, it said, will hold a question-and-answer Internet session Thursday. Half the questions will be from pensioners, who are reliable supporters.

The government also said that the new parliament will be seated next week. Although the opposition is demanding new elections, the government is making it clear that it considers the issue closed.

The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, accused the United States of illegally dispersing protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement, in unstated contrast to Russian authorities’ restraint here Saturday.

“We could see elements of unjustified cruelty and in some cases disproportionate use of force,” said Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian commissioner for human rights, democracy and rule of law.

Accusations of ‘hooliganism’

But if the government is taking the high road, Usmanov and other influential allies may be useful behind the scenes.

The 58-year-old oligarch, who is a part owner of the English soccer club Arsenal, made his money in metals, mining and lumber, all of which require close relations with the government and with the powerful state-owned energy company Gazprom.

Kommersant is not a moneymaker for him; it’s a prestige holding, which means Usmanov isn’t worrying about subscribers or advertisers. As a rich insider, the one thing he has to do is keep Putin on his side. Selling the firm to Prokhorov would not appear to be in his interest, as long as Putin remains in power.

All Usmanov has said publicly about the firings, of editor Maxim Kovalsky and general director Andrei Galiyev, is that their editorial decision “bordered on hooliganism.”

Language in the public sphere in Russia can be vulgar, but actual obscenity is usually carefully policed. When Western movies are dubbed into Russian, or equipped with subtitles, salty phrases end up as references to the devil. The photo the magazine ran was provocative, certainly by Russian standards.

“I have a strong conviction that I did everything right, and I do not regret that the magazine’s last issue was what it was,” Kovalsky, who had been at the helm of the magazine for 12 years, told the Interfax news agency.

Demyan Kudryavtsev, general director of the Kommersant publishing house, which oversees all the publications, has also offered his resignation, the Web site Gazeta.ru reported.

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