Press Freedom in Russia The Newspaper Loved in the West, Hated at Home

By in Moscow

Part 2: 'No Story Is Worth another Life'


"Lebedev became interested in Novaya when he went into politics," says one of the magnate's colleagues from his days working for the foreign intelligence agency. When he took over the National Reserve Bank in the mid-1990s, Lebedev recruited some of his top managers from the intelligence community. The head of the bank's administrative board, an old friend of Lebedev, is married to the sister of Anna Politkovskaya, a star reporter for Novaya Gazeta who was shot dead in October 2006. Lebedev offered a reward of more than €700,000 ($980,000) for information leading to the arrest of the murderers.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gives an interview to Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov on April 13.
AFP

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gives an interview to Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov on April 13.

One of his former colleagues from his days in intelligence, who insists on remaining anonymous, remembers working with Lebedev at the Soviet Embassy in London in the late 1980s. In those days, most Soviet diplomats wore baggy suits and horn-rimmed glasses. Lebedev, however, treated himself to a pair of Cartier glasses for his birthday, and then proceeded to explain to the others why appearance matters. "He was far ahead of the rest of us, and he was constantly coming up with ideas," says his former KGB comrade. Lebedev still has a soft spot for London, where he acquired another newspaper, the Evening Standard, in January.

His real rivals are at home, especially his archenemy Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow. Lebedev once published a pamphlet in which he listed all of Luzhkov's broken promises.

But there are few overly critical words written about Luzhkov in Novaya. The building that houses the paper's editorial offices, for which it pays a low rent, belongs to the city. It appears that even Novaya has its limits when it comes to exposing the foibles of the powerful.

Seeking to Change Reality

Nevertheless, no other Russian newspaper makes life quite as uncomfortable for the country's power elite. And no one symbolizes this David-and-Goliath struggle more effectively than Elena Milashina. She is 31, a diminutive 1.59 meters (5'2") in height -- and she has already caught the Russian government in a lie. She has also boldly confronted a US president.

After an awards ceremony to commemorate the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the young journalist took advantage of a reception given by former US President George W. Bush to explain to the president why she considers Vladimir Putin to be "a criminal." She had done some research on the Beslan hostage crisis.

In September 2004, the Kremlin had its forces storm a school in Beslan that was occupied by Chechen terrorists. But Milashina found information suggesting that the terrorists did not set off the bomb they had installed. Rather, ricochets coming from the guns of the Russian special forces apparently triggered the catastrophe. In addition to 31 terrorists, 334 schoolchildren, parents, teachers and soldiers died in the Beslan incident.

After the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000, Milashina spoke with 53 officers and experts, including 27 admirals and rear admirals with the Russian fleet, until, as she says, she "could have led a tour through that nuclear submarine with my eyes closed." In the end, she was able to prove that a few of the 118 sailors trapped in the submarine 108 meters (354 feet) below sea level were alive for three to four days -- not just a few hours, as the government had insisted in an effort to justify its claim that a rescue mission was impossible.

Milashina was 22 at the time. "Novaya is the only place where I can truly practice journalism," she says today. "We help people in very specific ways." The paper's editors seek to change reality, instead of merely describing it. For that reason, some of the journalists occasionally abandon the role of observer and make themselves into part of their stories. This was one of the criticisms of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, both in Russia and in the West. She evacuated retirees from the embattled city of Grozny and placed them in Russian retirement homes.

Politkovskaya was no isolated case. Her colleague Vyacheslav Izmailov, a veteran of the Chechen war and an expert on the Caucasus region, helped liberate more than 170 hostages from the Chechens. He uncovered evidence linking despotic Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to torture, and he is convinced that the trail in Politkovskaya's murder leads to Kadyrov and his cohorts.

But Izmailov's story hasn't been printed yet, perhaps because the supporting evidence is not yet conclusive enough. Of perhaps, as Muratov says, "no story is worth another life."

Muratov, Lebedev and Gorbachev make up the triumvirate that protected Novaya in bad times, when the newspaper almost went out of business, or when inaccurate reporting shook the credibility of its editorial team. In a famous blunder, the paper ran a story on the head of the Russian nuclear program, who had apparently been accused of embezzling international aid money and seeking US citizenship. The only problem was that the story wasn't true, having been concocted by a Moscow-based English-language satirical publication.

Such fiascos are all the more painful to the trio because the three men have known each other for the past two decades. Twenty years ago, Gorbachev was still president and the general secretary of the Communist Party. One evening, during a visit to London to attend a summit of industrialized nations, where he was fighting for a loan worth billions, he was unwinding at the embassy. Everyone praised Gorbachev who, in his typical manner, asked the guests for their criticism. A slim embassy secretary stood up and explained that the loan would lead the country into a debt trap and was more beneficial to the lenders than to Moscow. The man was Lebedev.

"The rest of us held our breath. A young diplomat was contradicting the leader of the Soviet Union," says Lebedev's former KGB colleague.

Novaya Gazeta represents a continuation of that encounter. Gorbachev uses it to fight for his life's work, and to ensure that at least some vestige of glasnost, openness and democracy is retained in the Putin era. Gorbachev, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, once donated $300,000 (€215,000) from his book royalties to the Novaya editors so that they could buy computers. He sits in his office today, a portrait of his late wife Raisa on the wall behind him. She too had a special relationship with the paper: In the 1990s, she gave the editorial staff its first mobile phone.

And Lebedev? He is still capable of playing the impudent anarchist today, just as he once did at the Soviet Embassy in London.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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