Moscow Life: Looking In
Moscow stands out not only because of its places but because of its sheer social complexity. In a place where the population approaches 10 million, this is more or less expected. As the largest city in Russia, it also plays a hugely disproportionate role in Russian life. It is the home to Russia's TV networks and the vast majority of its financial, cultural, and intellectual elites. Although Russia is very large country, Moscow is still in the vanguard of the changes sweeping Russia -- although some trends never leave the city.
All the News that's Fit to Disbelieve
In the early 00s, Moscow had a bewildering variety of newspapers, both in Russian and English. Most were controlled by the Oligarchs, the very rich who privatized the riches of the USSR into their own pockets. The Russian press varied from being sensational (Komsolmolskaya Pravda) to pro-Communist (Pravda) to pro-business (Vedomosti, which was linked to the Wall Street Journal). Some newspapers were founded as break away publications when the original changed oligarch owners (Izvestia and New Izvestia, for example). Oddly, the most profitable newspaper was dedicated to advertising things for sale -- "From Hand to Hand", which is a type of Russian Pennysaver. This one was started by a military officer but bought out by a French conglomerate that prints Elle and Car and Driver in Asia. Although most media outlets were either oligarch or state controlled, some occasionally acted something like a free press. I canít say Moscow had a free press but I wonít say it was completely unfree either. There was pressure on journalists from the government and from oligarchs and others who might be affected by a story. However, some people published what they thought anyway.
The English language press was a mix. Most expats read the Moscow Times out of sheer desperation because it was the only almost-daily paper (there were no Sunday and Monday issues). Although they were sometimes capable of good journalism (such as with the stories about ballot rigging in the 2000 Presidential election), the Moscow Times can also badly miss the boat. They have made some whopping mistakes, such as when they took umbrage at Moscow city's war against an overpass leading to a new Ikea store. While Russian officials can be venal, there also might be legitimate reasons for them to dislike building the overpass near a major war memorial -- this one marked the closest advance of the murderous Nazis to Moscow. Imagine putting an overpass over the Iwo Jima Memorial or the Arc de Triumph. The Moscow Times also complained about those silly human rights campaigners opposed to President Putin's ongoing strangulation of the free press. A little later, NTV went off the air, ending the country's brief experiment with semi-opposition-controlled TV. It seemed the worriers were right.
Controlled by the oligarch Gusinsky, NTV certainly wasn't free or fair media but at least was wasn't all Kremlin TV all the time. Its shamelessly pro-Yeltsin coverage during the 1996 Presidential election was far from fair. Sure the Communist challenger Zyuganov was a Soviet troglodyte but being objective would have made his huge deficiencies clear to most people. Even worse, Gusinsky was not above using NTV for his own purposes. Despite this, there were some worthwhile shows such as the unbelievably long and misnamed "Itogi" or Summary, a two hour round up of the week's news. Itogi attracted the ire of the Kremlin by opposing its insanely brutal war in Chechnya. Despite its Itogi's earnestness, I'm surprised anyone stayed awake through the entire thing.
But even more despised was the savage political satire Kukli (Puppets) where every conceivable Russian politician was represented by a puppet caricature and ruthlessly satirized. In one episode, Russia's politicians were depicted as hookers while in another they were blasted into space as a New Year's present to Russia. After NTV was taken over by Kremlin allies in early 2001, Kukli was not taken off the air -- it just became shamelessly pro-Putin.
Another paper worth mentioning was the famous (or rather infamous) Exile and its Russian sister publication, The Stringer. Famous for its club reviews and extreme iconoclasticism, the Exile varies between being stupid, hilarious, revolting and brilliant. The writing was uneven but mostly read like something you would see if talented by wild teenage guys had complete freedom of the press in high school. At its worst, Exile's Death Porn section went into the gory details (with photos) of various murder or accidental death cases. If you love seeing dismembered bodies, this is the place to go. On the brighter side, much of the Exile focused on the sexuality of Russian women. Most surprisingly, it was also unafraid to report on controversial things such as slavery in Bashkortostan or to protest the U.S. war in Yugoslavia. Especially valuable were their ratings of clubs ranked by costs, flathead factor (where the thugs were more or less likely to rearrange your face) and where you were most likely to pick up someone, the so-called "Fakhie Factor". Other classic features included Russian politician trading cards and a contest for worst journalistic writing about Russia. Even better, Exile was not afraid to puncture big egos or to humiliate readers dumb enough to write them letters. Love them or hate them -- it was hard to ignore them. The fact that they are mentioned here is likely to get me skewered -- but that's all part of the fun.
Note: This is only a partial excerpt of the book, which is available on request. I will be adding photos to this page in the near future.