A translation of an article called The Kingdom of Broken Mirrors, from New Times, a journal which is published in Moscow. It details the destruction of free media in Russia.

Front pages of Russian newspapers. Photo: bbc.com

By Denis Vardanyan 03/13/2018 The original, in Russian.

For the media, Putin’s past term has become a turning point. For six years, the “fourth power” has gone from ptinted censorship to almost total control by the state.

In recent years, “It has become very difficult to work, Putin is increasingly being asked to be praised, and it’s less and less possible to be ironic,” one of the journalists of the Kremlin pool sighs in a conversation with New Times . This is logical, the president is increasingly called a “king” in the officialdom, respectively, and in public he can be positioned only as a supreme being, notes the expert who works with the presidential administration.

Obsequiousness has recently become an almost obligatory element in the coverage of Putin’s work. “That’s how every day the president of Russia coughed into a handkerchief, and many politicians in the West and NATO generals probably threw in a heat,” in such expressions, for example, described the president’s latest message to the Federal Assembly “Komsomolskaya Pravda.”

 “(Putin) is already a person – a national idea,” TV host Irada Zeynalova claimed, referring to his nomination for the fourth term in the NTV program “Weekly Results.”

Such epithets seem to be mandatory now, but not so long ago the situation was not so similar to the Brezhnev era press. Until early 2010, the position of the authorities was tough, but it had its limits: the authorities strictly controlled federal television; in other media, pluralism was allowed.

This pluralism also had limitations: the authorities periodically punished overly independent journalists (editor-in-chief of Izvestia, Raf Shakiro was forced to leave his post in 2004, because of photos the paper published of children killed at School # 1 in Beslan). But in general independent print media, online media, radio stations and even channels with a small audience were tolerated by the authorities.

The situation began to change at the end of 2011, when Putin decided to return to the Kremlin. After the Duma elections in December 2011, which showed a decline in the rating of Putin’s party United Russia, Kommersant-Vlast magazine published a photo (disapproved by Putin). The editor-in-chief Maxim Kowalski was immediately dismissed.

Aram Gabrelyanov, the general director of the newspaper “Izvestia”, recalled, in the memoirs of one of his colleagues, that Putin had gathered leading journalists and warned them that the newspaper would have to “take a patriotic position.” Gabrelyanov eventually fulfilled his promise and turned the newspaper into a battle sheet of power.

When protests began on Bolotnaya Square (note: a big public demonstration that took place in 2012), television still tried to demonstrate some objectivity. On December 10, right after the rally on Bolotnaya Street, NTV host Alexey Pivovarov announced that he would refuse to go on the air  if the channel did not cover the protests in the country.

After that, for several weeks, representatives of the opposition (Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Ilya Yashin) were regularly shown on  federal TV. And Ksenia Sobchak, in early February, a month before the presidential elections, was given a show on the MTV channel, popular with young people, “State Department”, in which the opposition leaders took part. True, the channel refused to transmit the next broadcast, with the participation of Alexei Navalny, but it was shown on another channel, RBC TV .

Repressions against editors-in-chief, and even quite loyal media, began shortly after the December 2011 parliamentary elections. New Times magazine wrote at that time: “According to sources, deputy head of the presidential administration, Aleksey Gromov, compiled a list of 5 main editors who needed to be stymied.” The list included the editor-in-chief of Kommersant-Vlast magazine Maxim Kovalsky, the editor-in-chief of City-FM Alexander Gerasimov, the owner of the television channel Dozhd, Natalia Sindeeva, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow Alexei Venediktov and the head of RIA Novosti Svetlana Mironyuk. Gerasimov and his deputy Igor Zimakov were dismissed on December 14. Cause? Coverage of Moscow protest rallies.

Two days later,  days – Maxim Kowalski lost his place. The previous day, problems began with the state news agency RIA Novosti, which broadcast television from a banned rally on Triumfalnaya Square on December 6. On the twelfth minute of the Mironyuk broadcast, sources in the agency say, Alexei Gromov phoned. He said, “Turn off everything,” according to an agency employee on condition of anonymity.” But Mironyuk, according to sources, managed to fight back. “She played a fool and said that this was just a mistake.”

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov accused RIA of supporting “swamp performances.” This, in the end, cost Mironyuk work. Natalia Sindeeva, co-owner of the channel “Rain,” which was included in the packages of almost all cable operators, including regional ones, was then summoned to the Kremlin. It also happened to others: on January 18, 2012, the editor-in-chief was invited to Novo-Ogarevo to meet with presidential candidate Putin: “It was a very hard conversation,” Konstantin Remchukov, the editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reported. 

In early 2013, the Russian leadership was preparing for another round of confrontation with the West. This policy required a fight against the “fifth column” inside the country that would not allow even a formal criticism of Putin. At the end of 2012, the “Law of Dima Yakovleva” (“law of scoundrels”) came into force, banning – in response to the adoption by the US Congress of the “Magnitsky Act” – Americans to adopt Russian children. At the same time, the authorities began a real attack on the media on all fronts.

On federal TV channels, this resulted in the destruction of even harmless humorous formats.  “The Cartoon of Personality” which came out before 2013 on the “First Channel” is an analog of the famous program of the old NTV puppet show “Kukly”, but is completely loyal to the authorities. Basically all the jokes concerned foreign leaders or minor officials. However, by that time Putin’s idea of broadcasting any a ridiculous character had become, in the opinion of the Russian leadership, inappropriate.

The symbol of change was the new presenter of the main final program of the channel “Russia”, “News of the Week”, – from the end of 2012 he became Dmitry Kiselev. “Putin, admittedly, is perhaps the most competent head of state on the planet, if not the most competent, ” he said in one of the shows. Others who tried to look neutral, left the federal channels definitively, as did Alexey Pivovarov at the end of 2013.

In 2014, the last independent program of REN TV “The Week with Marianna Maksimovskaya” was closed. And in the same year, the  “Rain” channel was on the verge of destruction and was removed from the cable networks, using as an excuse something objecitnabe about the blockade of Leningrad.

At the end of 2013, the liquidation of the RIA Novosti news team that covered the protests  was announced. The new managers of the agency, with a new name – MIA “Today” – became Dmitry Kiselev and Margarita Simonyan. The latter was called the favorite of the Kremlin curator of the information policy of Alexei Gromov. Another state agency, ITAR TASS, got back its Soviet name – TASS.

Gradually, the authorities took  print media under close control. This was most clearly manifested in Kommersant holding. The journal Kommersant-Vlast, which once attracted the fury of the Kremlin, was actually liquidated, the director general of the Kommersant Publishing House Demyan Kudryavtsev was dismissed, the Kommersant-TV project was closed, the management of the radio Kommersant-FM was replaced, and the well-known once- strictly paper was censored. As a result, sharp materials ceased to appear in the newspaper, while the newspaper’s management began to remove published materials that contained criticism of the country’s leadership and the mention of Alexei Navalny.

The authorities did not stop there, but went on to establish control over the Internet media. If Gromov was engaged in the sweep of the channels, then another high-ranking official, the Kremlin curator of internal policy, Vyacheslav Volodin , had to “tidy up” the Internet.

By 2013, there were two obvious leaders in the Internet media market, producing unique content: Lenta.ru and Gazeta.ru. They were merged into one holding company and transferred to the management of loyal entrepreneur Alexander Mamut. In September 2013, the management of Gazety.ru was replaced, and in early 2014, the editor-in-chief of Lentee.ru, Galina Timchenko, was dismissed (most of the editorial staff withdrew): instead of Timchenko, a manager close to the Kremlin, Alexei Goreslavsky, was appointed. In 2018, he officially moved to work in the Kremlin administration and, according to some reports , may in the future lead the president’s office for public projects.

In 2014, after the accession of the Crimea, a new stage in the life of Russia arrived. The Duma parties began to vote unanimously on all issues, and the media almost unanimously praised the president.

But there were still a few publications that could afford to conduct investigations and objectively, without self-censorship, to analyze the situation in the country – business publications of RBC and Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta and New Times . Initially, they did not have to destroy their work, bu it was necessary to just enter them into the Crimean consensus, to place them under emergency control, says a New Times source close to the Kremlin. 

As for New Times , the magazine was saved for a long time by the phrase spoken at one of the meetings by Putin and related to the owner of the journal by Irena Lesnevskaya. “She spends her money – well, let her spend it.”

The magazine was actively read in the presidential administration, but it was strictly forbidden advertise to give in the magazine: “It will die by itself.”

In early 2013 Lesnevskaya left the magazine. For the next four years, the magazine lived on a tight monetary diet, which became almost hunger, when the the opportunities for distribution of magazine were almost blocked . Kiosk operators posted an announcement: “The New Times magazine is banned by the Russian government.” It was not true, but it worked: distribution networks refused to take the magazine. The magazine was delivered to subscribers in brown packages – so that the concierge and neighbors could not see the name of the opposition newspaper they were reading.

At the beginning of June 2017, the paper version of the magazine was terminated and remains – so far – only on the website.

A bigger blow got RBC. By 2016, this publication had conducted several of its own investigations into the family of President Putin. This caused the fury of the Kremlin. As a result, the leaders of the holding company were replaced by people from TASS.

The leadership and RBC-TV was changed- Gromov’s protege Aleksey Abakumov became the director for development. All this became possible due to a change of ownership – shortly after the searches that the FSB (heir of the KGB) conducted in the office of the owner of RBC Mikhail Prokhorov and his other companies, and subsequent problems with the sale of his Russian assets, Prokhorov agreed first to replace the leadership, and then sell media to the owner of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Grigory Berezkin, who is also close to Gromov, .

To replace the management of Vedomosti, the Kremlin was helped by a separate law adopted in 2014.It forbade foreigners to own more than 20% of the shares of Russian media. The initiator of the law was Vyacheslav Violin, at that time the first deputy head of the presidential administration, in charge of domestic policy. As a result, a consortium of foreign owners sold the newspaper to Demyan Kudryavtsev and his partners (there are still rumors that the real buyer, or one of the real buyers, Dmitry Bosov, is co-owner of  Siberian Anthracite and a partner of Rosneft Igor Sechin, and one of Russia’s richest men. Shortly thereafter, the editor-in-chief Tatyana Lysova left the post, and Ilya Bulavinov, who previously directed the site of Channel One, came to replace her.

The same thing happened with the Russian Forbes magazine. After the adoption of the law, German Axel Springer was forced to sell the magazine to the glossy publisher ( of L’Officiel, SNC, OK !, etc.) Alexander Fedotov. He immediately stated that there was too much politics in the magazine. In the journal the editor-in-chief was replaced, and many key journalists left. Soon there were suspicions of censorship – in the next ranking of salaries of top managers, the magazine’s management decided not to indicate the income of VTB head Andrei Kostin.

The changes also affected the “Novaya Gazeta” (it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – congratulations to colleagues!), Which released several resonant investigations – in particular, about Putin’s cellist friend and, as it turned out, millionaire Sergei Roldugin. Last year, the Novaya Gazette editor-in-chief was replaced. Instead of the founder of the newspaper Dmitry Muratov, the post was taken by its general director Sergei Kozheurov. The decision was preceded by rumors circulating on the market about the new investor of the publication: his name was finally named by Ksenia Sobchak: Sergei Adoniev, co-owner of Yota Devices, convicted and serving time in the US and, as they say, entering the orbit of Putin’s influential colleague in Dresden, “By Sergei Chemezov. Adoniev became one of the sponsors of the presidential election campaign Sobchak.

By and large, there is practically no one left to close now, so the Kremlin breathed a sigh of relief, says a specialist close to the presidential administration dealing with telegram channels. According to him, the biggest concern of the authorities now is the channels in Telegram (note: a cloud-based mobile and desktop messaging app with a focus on security and speed). The Kremlin is actively trying to enter this market.

It is easy to work with the rest of the media – they can either be ordered, or – under emergency circumstances – block relevant materials and links by decision of Roskomnadzor (note: the government agency in charge of supervising communications). This happened with a loud investigation of FBK about the walk of Oleg Deripaska and vice-premier Sergei Prikhodko in the company of Nastia Rybka and her friends. Obviously, a lot of headache is delivered to the Kremlin on the youtube channel by Alexei Navalny “Bulk Live” , which has 462 thousand subscribers, and its individual issues look up to 3.5 million people. On February 19 in the same place, on YouTube, Leonid Parfenov’s channel “Parthenon” started. What will be the response steps of the Kremlin – we will see in the next six months, most likely, after the completion of the World Cup in 2018.