Poison Control

Much of the Russian media is toxic. Here’s how the U.S. can help the journalists who are not.

Yevgenia Albats, deputy to the editor-in-chief of The New Times magazine and Ilya Yashin, leader of Yabloko party's youth wing, wait at a Moscow airport for an investigative journalist, Natalya Morari, who is being refused entry to Russia, February 27, 2008.

Yevgenia Albats of the New Times magazine and Ilya Yashin, leader of Yabloko party’s youth wing, wait at a Moscow airport for investigative journalist Natalya Morari, who is being refused entry to Russia, on Feb. 27, 2008.

Photo by Mikhail Voskresenskiy/Reuters

When I first met Yevgenia Albats, it was the 1990s, the Soviet Union had just ceased to exist, and she was a rising star in the new Russian media–one of many. The explosion of creativity in Russian media in that era is one of the post-Soviet miracles that no one has ever quite explained. The gray and mendacious Soviet press suddenly collapsed beneath the weight of its own tedium. Into the vacuum stepped witty writers, serious columnists, and dedicated journalists like Albats, one of the first real investigative reporters in Russia. Where did they all come from? 

Equally important, however, is the question of where they all went. Despite the auspicious beginnings, almost all of the Russian media have come under direct or indirect control of the Kremlin. Most of the witty writers either learned to conform or left the country. Some stayed but were forcibly silenced. Anna Politkovskaya, one of Albats’ journalism school classmates, was murdered in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building.

Instead of wit and fine prose, much of the Russian media, but especially Russian state television, now pumps out xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Ukrainian aggression and rants against the Sodom and Gomorrah of the West. Until you’ve watched the Russian evening news, heard the ominous music, and seen the blood and violence, it’s hard to believe. But there are a still few islands of sanity left, and Albats runs one of them. The New Times, a magazine she owns and edits, faithfully investigates the news, eschews hate speech, and reports on reality for those still willing to read about it.

From her own countrymen, Albats has received email death threats and anti-Semitic slander. Last February she was attacked on the main evening news, which broadcast her photograph along with the phrase, in Hebrew, “What kind of Jew are you?” But now she has a new problem. Hubert Burda Media, a German media company which has become a near-monopoly in the Russian newspaper distribution business, has, for the past several months, effectively prevented her magazine from appearing in many Moscow shops and kiosks. The New Times can hardly be found in Moscow; newsstand sales have fallen by half. When I asked about it, Burda told me that the decision to restrict some publications’ distribution was purely commercial. But a Burda representative in Moscow told Albats something different: The Munich-based company, which publishes some 60 titles in Russia, didn’t want to risk too close an association with anyone critical of the Kremlin.

As it happens, the boss of Burda Moscow is an acknowledged former Stasi informer, and the company fired an employee who wrote positively about Ukraine on his private Facebook page. Still, I don’t think that high politics are at the core of this story. It’s an uphill battle for any foreign media company in Russia—in the face of new restrictions, CNN went off the air there at the end of last year. But Burda still thinks it can still make a profit. So it does what it takes to stay.

Burda isn’t the first Western company to make compromises with an authoritarian regime, and it won’t be the last. But its actions are more significant now, as U.S and European governments are finally waking up to the nature of the poison that Russia pumps out into its airwaves. The mass campaign against Ukrainian “Nazis,” the deliberate stoking of nationalist emotions in Russia, the “troll factories” that push out disinformation in multiple languages—all of that was designed to fuel war, and maybe not just in Ukraine.

To counter this onslaught, some now call for a new “European” television channel to project a different set of values into Russia. Others sketch out plans to build radio towers along the border. But this isn’t the Cold War, and nothing of the sort is necessary. The West should instead think about creative ways to support the generation of talented Russian journalists who have been sidelined or exiled. We don’t need to sponsor “counterpropaganda”; we need to help Russians like Albats tell their own stories in their own language.

There are multiple ways to do this. Maybe it’s time to take Radio Liberty seriously again, move its headquarters away from the backwater of Prague, and put it in a place where Russians actually live, like Riga or Kiev. Maybe we need to set up an institution that commissions documentaries and television programs for existing Russian-language stations in those cities, or a wire service that reports news rather than propaganda from Russia itself. And maybe we need to shame the Western companies that fund hate speech by advertising on Russian television—and embarrass those that limit the circulation of whatever free media still exists.