MOSCOW -- After the entire politics department of Russia's prestigious Kommersant newspaper resigned on May 20 in solidarity with two colleagues fired by its management over alleged censorship, Artem Galustyan says he saw it coming.
In a telephone interview, the paper's former features editor recalled a tense atmosphere during his own four-year stint at the publication, which ended in 2016 with his resignation.
"Everything that's happening now at Kommersant started a long time ago," he said. "With the start of a period I call its half-decay."
In February 2016, Galustyan quit following the dismissal a few months earlier of chief web editor Andrei Kornyakhin, officially part of a broader shake-up of the digital team. Kornyakhin's dismissal came shortly after he had authorized publication of an interview with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
"While this was taking place with my colleagues, I couldn't sit by and watch how they treated my boss and the team I was part of," Galustyan said. "So I left."
Galustyan alleges that for the past three to four years, articles slated for publication in Kommersant would be read regularly by the paper's shareholders, many of whom were close to the Kremlin. "Often there was a reaction before the article went to press," Galustyan said.
Several years later, a reaction to another article has rocked the paper and provoked claims of censorship.
On April 17, a Kommersant piece jointly authored by five journalists quoted anonymous sources in the Russian government as saying that Federation Council Chairwoman and staunch Kremlin ally Valentina Matviyenko would be demoted.
On May 20, news emerged that political reporters Ivan Safronov and Maksim Ivanov, two of the article's authors, had been fired. Both had worked at the paper for around a decade.
In the aftermath, 11 journalists -- three editors and eight reporters -- publicly announced their resignations from the newspaper, and issued a joint statement with almost 200 of their colleagues denouncing Safronov and Ivanov's dismissals. They called them "entirely groundless and disastrous for our newsroom" and "an open attempt to repress free speech in Russia."
The demand for Safronov and Ivanov's firings was made personally by Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire owner of the publishing house, they alleged.
But on May 20, a spokesman for Usmanov denied the claim, telling Vedomosti that the tycoon "does not interfere in editorial policy and does not make decisions regarding the firing or hiring of journalists." The oligarch "had played no role" in the firing and "he learned of [it] from media reports," the statement said.
Kommersant Editor In Chief Vladimir Zhelonkin did not immediately respond to calls and e-mail requests for comment from RFE/RL. He told Vedomosti on May 20 that "editorial standards were violated" in the April 17 article about Matviyenko, though he reportedly declined to elaborate or comment on the possible involvement of the paper's shareholders.
The journalists who came out in support of their colleagues allege that Safronov and Ivanov were pressured to reveal the names of sources quoted anonymously in the April 2019 article.
Deputy Editor Gleb Cherkasov, who was one of those who quit, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on May 22 that he believed his colleagues' firing was "a decision of a political character."
"Representatives of the administration [of the publishing house] allege mistakes in professional conduct, but I think there's more involved here," he said.
He declined to comment on Zhelonkin's statement or his conduct, saying only that he didn't agree with it. "I wouldn't want there to be problems at my former place of work," he said. "I care about Kommersant too much."
"The general situation for the media is miserable," he added. "Producing propaganda is simple, but acquiring and confirming information is getting more and more difficult."
Kommersant is a long-running business newspaper and one of Russia's most respected publications, regularly producing in-depth reports and occasionally investigating issues sensitive to the Kremlin.
But it appears the mass resignations may significantly affect its work, at least for the time being.
"Kommersant's staff feels an obligation to notify our readers that Kommersant will, for an indefinite period, be unable to inform them about Russian politics," the daily's staffers said in their public statement. "The publication's readers, partners, and advertisers will be deprived of high-quality, unbiased coverage of numerous domestic political events, and we do not know for how long this situation will persist."
Galustyan believes it marks the end of the paper's famed political department. "Kommersant is a syndicate, including a radio station and a website," the paper's former features editor said. "And the departure of the politics department is a huge blow to the entire publishing house."
"I'm sure there will never again be a politics department at Kommersant."