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Author Of Censored Putin Article: U.S. Publisher 'Was Worried'

Journalist Scott Anderson
Journalist Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson is an American freelance journalist and author who has covered several wars and written extensively for publications like "The New York Times Magazine" and "Vanity Fair." Recently, for "GQ" magazine, he looked into the apartment bombings in Russia in 1999 that killed hundreds of people.

Anderson's article, "Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power," investigates holes in the government's official explanation of the bombings and appears in the September issue. But on orders from Conde Nast, the company that owns "GQ," the article was not posted on the magazine's website and the article was not included in the magazine's Russian edition.

Elena Vlasenko of RFE/RL's Russian Service interviewed Anderson about his article and asked him what he thinks about the decision not to let readers in Russia see it.

RFE/RL: Was it your idea or your editor's idea to write about the 1999 bombings in Russia?

Scott Anderson: [My editors] approached me about wanting to do a story for them and said, "Is there anything in Russia that you're interested in?" One story that's always stuck in my mind as interesting, because no one's really ever explored it, was the 1999 bombings. So it was my idea. And I described it to them beforehand -- just kind of the broad background on the story -- and they said, "Great, go over there and report on it."

RFE/RL: So it was your idea. How long have you been interested in the topic? Had you investigated it before you started reporting on it for "GQ"?

Anderson: Well, I had been in Russia and Chechnya during the first Chechen war. I was there in '95. And I've always been fascinated by that part of the world. I remember at the time of the bombings finding it a very strange story. And there just seemed to be something that didn't seem to make sense to me about it.

And then, of course, over the years I heard different stories, different suspicions that people had of who might've been behind it, and I always just felt it was one of those great stories that had been sort of overlooked and that actually turned out to be a very pivotal moment in the history of modern Russia.

Because so much changed as a direct result of that: [Vladimir] Putin came into power, [Boris] Yeltsin left, the second Chechen war started, and I think that if you look at modern Russia, so many things changed right at that time, and I thought it was odd that no one had really examined the case of the bombings.

RFE/RL: What were your main sources of information about the bombings? Was it Russian media? Or foreign media?

Anderson: I certainly looked at everything that had been written out there, but in fact very little had been written. Considering the magnitude of the story, there's been very little that's been in the press over the years.

Certainly, I looked at both the official reports and the people who disagreed with the official reports of what happened. But really, one of my main sources -- at least for [my] suspicions that the story wasn't as people imagined -- was the former FSB investigator I met with, Mikhail Trepashkin. And I didn't rely just on his word. When he would make statements I was able to verify, or not, everything he'd told me.

I was trying to do as much original work as possible. And the one thing I found quite surprising in going back last year, was the number of people who previously had raised questions about the government's version of events around the bombings who just now would not speak to me, who clearly seemed very cautious, even frightened, to speak out.

RFE/RL: And when you called Mr. Trepashkin, he agreed to speak?

Anderson: Yes. I think Trepashkin made a decision a long time ago that -- whether it's a point of honor for him, or for whatever reason -- he feels it's important that his version of the story is known.

RFE/RL: So he wasn't your only source, there were others. But was he the only one who agreed to talk among those who raised this possibility that the Russian government was behind the bombings?

Anderson: No, he wasn't the only one; there were several others. And I did talk to another journalist there, who -- his name is in the article -- who Trepashkin had met with just before he got arrested. And he talked about his own suspicions about it. I did [also] talk to people at Memorial [human rights center], but they did not want to be quoted on the record, but they certainly let it be known that they still had questions about what really happened.

I talked to a few human rights lawyers who asked not to be identified. There are people out there who have suspicions and [who] know parts of the puzzle to this whole thing. But I did sense a general level of real concern about talking about it openly.

RFE/RL: Did the editor in chief of American "GQ" tell you why he decided not to let people in Russia read your article?

Anderson: No. I think it's an important distinction between the editors at "GQ" and the higher, corporate structure of Conde Nast Publications. I never had any indication from my editors at "GQ" that they were unhappy with the article -- certainly they seemed very excited about it -- nor did I get any sense that they wanted to conceal the article at all.

I think it was all a decision made at the Conde Nast corporate level. I know that in the memo, they never come out and specify what their concerns were, whether they're legal concerns or political concerns or economic concerns. My personal feeling is that they were worried about reprisals against their Russian-language magazines in Russia, and this article could affect their publications there.

(Editor's note: On July 23, a Conde Nast lawyer sent an e-mail to several Conde Nast executives and editors at "GQ" that said, in part: "Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of U.S. 'GQ' magazine containing Scott Anderson's article, 'Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power' should not be distributed in Russia.")

RFE/RL: But they didn't actually explain to you personally why they made that decision?

Anderson: No, they didn't. I don't want to speak for them personal feeling is that it probably had to do with economic concerns, that they were worried that if this would affect their ability to work in Russia with their magazines there.

RFE/RL: Some people in Russia, as well as in the United States, have used the word "censorship" to describe what was done.

Anderson: Yes, I think censorship, of course, can take a variety of forms. Taking things out of an article to force the writer to tone down what he or she is saying -- and again, that did not happen to me in this case at all. There's another form of censorship where bury an article that it has the same effect, that very few people see it, and so what's being said is sort of lost.

RFE/RL: How did your colleagues react to this? What did people around you say? Is this the first time in the history in the history of American media, or in "GQ's" history, that this kind of censorship has happened?

Anderson: That part I don't know. Certainly I think you can go back and look at different stories that have been toned down or just not published. I don't think this is truly unique. But I think that the [blunt tone] of the memo from the lawyer at Conde Nast was pretty shocking to people.

So among journalists here, and people in the media, I think that they were really quite shocked at just how overt the decision was to try to minimize the impact of the story. And that is very unusual. I couldn't swear that it's utterly unique, but I think it is very unusual.

RFE/RL: What are you going to do now? Are you going to take any steps to try and change what's happened?

Anderson: I don't have any plans to do anything legal. I don't even know if there's anything I could do legally. My feeling is that this campaign has rather backfired and I think that this is often what happens when you try to soft pedal a story: It gets a much bigger reaction and a much bigger readership. And so for that reason, I'm rather pleased at the way it's turned out because I think far more people are aware of this.

I never imagined that the article was going to be republished in Russia, but now of course it's been translated into Russian and it's on a number of different blogs and I gather that it's being circulated through Russia. So I'm rather pleased at that, and ultimately I'm pleased that this attempt by a corporation to try to soften, or to bury a story that they themselves commissioned, hasn't worked.

RFE/RL: Will you ever write for "GQ" again?

Anderson: (laughs) Well, I could see doing something with them again. Again, I didn't have any problems with the editors I worked with. They were very good, they were very thorough, and they never tried to get me to change in any way what I was saying or writing. So yes, I could see doing something for them again. I've talked with them since all this has happened and everything is very friendly.

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