Chief Editor of Point & Counterpoint and Commentator
Maria Lipman discussed her career from working at one of Russia’s fledgling post-Soviet news publications to editing leading Russian policy journals. She gave a firsthand account of President Putin’s assault on press freedom and her view of US-Russian relations today. Lipman’s encyclopedic knowledge of Russian politics and affairs provides for a unique insight into Russia’s present and recent past.
What was it like establishing your first publication, Itogi, in 1995 in post-Soviet Russia?
Itogi, the Russian word for “summing up”, was the first weekly publication in Russia that followed the format of a news magazine. It was established in the mid-90s, and at the time many people in the media aspired to do something different from what had existed in the Soviet era. Emulating the best western formats was very common: NTV, the first ever national privately-owned television news channel, emulated CNN, while the newspaper Kommersant sought to emulate the New York Times. In both cases those who launched these outlets were quite explicit about having American models in mind.
Itogi had a formal cooperation agreement with Newsweek, and our professional, editorial standards were pretty much borrowed from them. Of course, on Russian soil, there were differences to the US partner publication, but primarily we aimed to create a high-quality weekly news magazine that would cover a broad range of topics from foreign policy, to domestic politics and policy, to society, art and sports. Under this agreement, we had to run a few translated articles from Newsweek every week, but that was never more than one or two articles, so it was certainly a Russian publication.
Between my editor-in-chief Sergey Parkhomenko and myself we had a lot of enthusiasm about creating something new. The climate in the newsroom was amazing, and even though we worked crazy hours and there was barely any time left for families, people loved to do it. And we had a good audience, never a very large one - which was a problem - but there were a lot of good connections between Itogi and the readers.
At that point, the Russian media and the reporters who were part of that media body were emerging from an era of mass censorship. How did you find writers and new voices to write for your publication which adopted much more robust editorial standards and formats?
There was a lot of enthusiasm at the time from young people who wanted to be reporters; those who did not have the experience, but were eager to learn to be reporters, and there were also several people with journalistic experience from the late Soviet and early post-Soviet years who we had lured from other publications. Sergey Parkhomenko, the editor-in-chief of Itogi had a background in journalism, and in the early years of post-Communist Russia he was a daily political reporter and columnist; in my opinion by mid-90s’ he evolved as the best investigative political reporter in Russia.
By the time we launched Itogi there have already been a few years of editorial freedom, by which I mean that the first post-Communist Russian government did not interfere in editorial policies (whether because they were true believers in editorial independence, or just too weak to interfere, or both). President Yeltsin was a strong proponent of a free press and other elements of democracy. Besides, he saw independent media and journalists as his allies against communist opposition.
In our magazine, just as the editors and journalists of some other new post-Communist media, we prioritised editorial independence, high-quality writing standards, objectivity, reliance on different sources, and accuracy.
How did the election of President Putin affect the liberal media outlets in Russia?
Itogi launched in 1995 and in 2001 we fell victim to a vicious campaign of the Kremlin under the new government led by President Putin. Itogi was owned by business tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, who was arguably the first among the early Russian magnates, to understand the importance of media business. Before he decided to launch a news magazine, he owned national TV channel NTV, a radio station, and a daily publication. In the second half of 1990s his media holding was rapidly expanding. During the parliamentary campaign of 1999, he did not support the party that was instrumental in bringing President Putin to power. This was a major miscalculation because as soon as President Putin was elected the Kremlin turned against him. The campaign against Gusinsky ended in a takeover of his media holding by the state-controlled giant Gazprom, and he was forced to flee abroad and never came back.
Did the Kremlin deliberately target Itogi?
The Kremlin was not after Itogi, we were too small for that, but they were after NTV, the national television channel. Putin would not tolerate a television channel that did not support him and he wanted all national television channels with news coverage under the Kremlin’s control. Itogi was “collateral damage” in the takeover of Gusinsky’s media holding. In Spring 2001, all of Itogi’s staff, about 80 people, including proof-readers and fact-checkers, were fired by the manager appointed by Gazprom.
What happened after that?
After we were all fired, we launched a new weekly publication called Ezhenedel’ny Zhurnal. which no longer had Newsweek as a partner. By that time, the atmosphere was changing for platforms using our editorial standards; our audience was smaller than in Itogi and overall producing that magazine was no longer as much fun as it was at Itogi. Both Sergey Parkhomenko and I quit soon after the launch.
That same year, 2003, Carnegie Moscow Centre, the Russian branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, invited me to run a policy journal called Pro et Contra, which was quite a different media genre because it was more modest in terms of outreach and less in the limelight. It was a bi-monthly journal, and later switched to quarterly, and I had three and a half employees (one person was part-time) on staff. I would describe it as a semi-academic publication because we published long, serious articles by political experts and academic scholars. It was an entirely different format. This was what I was doing until very recently.
In 2014 Pro et Contra was closed by the Carnegie Endowment. For the next three years, I produced a similar online journal called Counterpoint published by George Washington University’s Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (IERES), but Counterpoint project was also closed in the summer of 2018. I recently joined an IERES effort to launch another online publication, Point & Counterpoint, which is in its early stages.
What was the environment like for journalists in Russia during that time?
The environment for journalists was deteriorating. Until 2011, publications pursued a reasonably independent editorial line and catered to smaller, niche audiences (what happened to us in 2001 was that we were not specifically targeted, rather we were “collateral damage”). Outside of the mass-audience outlets, such as with national television channels, there remained a reasonable degree of freedom (as long as you stayed within your limits). Access to government sources was, of course, a problem for such outlets.
What the Kremlin was concerned about was that niche, liberal publications would stir undesired sentiment or activism among the general public. The Kremlin was fine with these publications preaching to the converted, so it was not a bad life for those working in journalism during those years because they could do what they believed in, had loyal audiences, and economically as the price of oil was increasing, advertising budgets were growing as well.
Was there investigative reporting at that time?
There was some. The problem was that the Kremlin extended its control over politics, including the legislature, the judiciary in politically sensitive cases, and political parties. So if you had the ambition to do investigative reporting, you were operating in an environment in which the entire political system was monopolised and centralized. All you could do was report news, but there was nobody who could turn that news into political events, there was no political opposition to speak of, and no functional checks and balances. You could produce news that was probably of interest to a limited number of readers or listeners, but your impact was negligible.
When did the Kremlin start to target smaller, independent publications?
In late 2011, the rigged parliamentary campaign resulted in mass protest rallies in Moscow and other large urban centers. After that, the reasonably peaceful life for liberal publications was over. Those non-government publications that were previously left alone, that pursued independent editorial lines and were guided by something other than trying to please the Kremlin, now came under assault. Several publications were closed or re-formatted. However, it should be pointed out that the Kremlin never expressly closed down any publications; ownership of these publications were mostly secured by people who were loyal to the Kremlin. Therefore, if the Kremlin wasn't pleased with the publication’s reporting, it could rely on the owner to fire the audacious editor or re-format the publication. On the surface, the Kremlin had nothing to do with firing editors or closing down newspapers or magazines, but people lost their jobs. No one went to prison or got into trouble with the government, but it was not about that, it was about the fact your publication was no longer the same as it used to be, or it was closed altogether.
There were two instances where brilliant editors chose to leave Russia and start new publications abroad. One of them called meduza.io based in Riga, Latvia and the other is called thebell.io which is in the United States. Being a journalist is still seen as a good job for young people, but the realm of reasonably independent news media is physically and tangibly shrinking. Some of the talented reporters who worked in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s have either chosen to do something else or moved abroad.
One shouldn’t believe, however, that the media scene in Russia has become a scorched earth. Though the space is shrinking, there are still publications that are doing a good job.
You have edited publications funded by an American university and contributed to the Washington Post and the New Yorker. Do you ever find it difficult to tell the Russia story to an American audience, who are often biased or hold pre-conceived notions about Russia?
That question is even more relevant today than it used to be.
The anti-Russia bias among Americans was a legacy of the Cold War. After the Soviet Union collapsed, some American observers believed that Russia was no different from the Soviet Union, while others thought Russia should be embraced as a newcomer to the realm of democratic nations as more and more countries pledged allegiance to the ideas of democracy. Yet, Russia never joined the ranks of democratic nations.
Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, foreign observers were growing disappointed of Russia's development. The disappointment about how Russia was evolving (regardless of whether the foreign expectations were realistic) informed the American public's perceptions of Russia. My goal was to try and provide a more nuanced picture of what was going on in Russia. It wasn’t about pretending that everything was fine, because it wasn’t. But I tried to convey my understanding of my country for American readers.
Today’s coverage of Russia in the American mainstream media is strongly affected by the deepening confrontation between Russia and the United States. Telling the Russia story to the American audience has become much harder than before.
How do you view the United States’ media portrayal of Russia?
The American mainstream media increasingly uses Russia as a battering ram against President Trump, and I find this really disappointing as more writing about Russia, especially among opinion writers, is reduced to Russia bashing; the writers don't care about what other opinions or knowledge exist. Over the past two or three years, I’ve seen growing disappointment of the American press, which some Russians journalists used to regard as the model, and an important institution with a long time tradition of accuracy and objectivity. These days, writing about Russia in the United States infrequently distinguishes between allegations and facts, and reporting is mostly limited to the exposure of Russia’s evil-doing.
What advice would you have for a young writer or journalist who is living in a country where the regime is restricting free speech and the media?
I would say to those young Russians who may be tempted to engage in professional reporting and journalism, to do it! This may not be rewarding in terms of public impact, but it is an interesting and exciting career. It is very important to keep the fire burning so that the trade doesn't die. And maybe in the future there will be more freedom of press and more opportunities for these people to fulfill themselves. I would strongly emphasize that the impact is very, very limited now, so an aspiring young reporter should not have unrealistic expectations, but it is certainly worth doing. As long as non-government media still exists in Russia, I hope the reporting profession will continue attracting young people.