The ties that bind politics, big business, and the press in
Russia are uncomfortably tight these days.
One recent tale of just how tight began with a brief hunting
trip by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the old style of
Bulldozers cleared about 1-1/3 miles of road and a helicopter
landing pad in the woods of the Yaroslavl region. Squadrons of
bodyguards, police, federal security agents, a medical emergency
team, a mobile dining room, and professional hunters prepared the
way. Dogs flushed two cubs and a she-bear found in their winter
cave, and the prime minister himself killed one of the cubs.
When this story appeared in two Russian weeklies, Mr.
Chernomyrdin was not amused. Officials in his office persuaded a
Moscow bank to freeze the credit of the offending weeklies, the
magazine Ogonyok. They had plenty of clout with the bank, since
holding accounts for government ministries is a major source of
income for Russian banks.
As a result, an official in the Ogonyok publishing office told
the magazine's staff that no salaries could be paid for the next
All because of the bear story.
The magazine's editor, Lev Gushin, was in Davos, Switzerland, at
the World Economic Forum. When he got word of the bank's action, he
went to see another Russian in Davos, Boris Berezovsky.
Mr. Berezovsky called the bank, and the decision was reversed.
After all, he is not only the deputy head of the Russian Security
Council, a senior Kremlin post, he is also one of Russia's
wealthiest businessmen - with major interests in the auto and
energy industries - and a media magnate.
His companies are key owners and sponsors of the main Russian TV
channel, which is still 49 percent state-owned, a Moscow daily
newspaper, and the weekly magazine Ogonyok.
"He reacted immediately," saying that it was improper to link a
published article to a journal's funding, says Mr. Gushin.
This was a close shave for a magazine that expects to live on
credit for another year or so before turning a profit, but Gushin
says he will publish stories like the bear-hunt piece again.
"I have a long experience from the communist period in
publishing articles that leaders don't like," he says. "Then you
risked more than losing your funding. You could go to jail."
Such independence is not so common in Russian television these
days. The only completely private channel, NTV, made a name for
itself with its bold and unblinking coverage of Russia's failures
in the Chechen war. …