MOSCOW – On April 23, the editorial staff of the business daily Vedomosti took the unusual step of publishing an editorial that accused the paper's own acting editor in chief, Andrei Shmarov, of undermining the values of professional journalism that underlie Vedomosti's reputation.
"If we lose our reputation, Vedomosti will become just another dependent and directed media organ, the purpose of which is not to meet the readers' demand for accurate news and high-quality analysis but rather to advance the interests and ambitions of its official and unofficial owners," the article concluded.
The Vedomosti story is an apt milestone as President Vladimir Putin begins his third decade governing Russia. As the world marks World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Putin's government continues to oversee the dismantling of independent journalism in Russia.
When the press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders launched its World Press Freedom Index in 2002, Russia ranked 121st out of the 139 countries rated. In the 2019 version of the same index, Russia ranked 149th out of 180 countries, trailing countries such as Pakistan and Venezuela and just edging out the Democratic Republic of Congo and Bangladesh.
"Over the last five or 10 years, the situation with major media has been like a game of musical chairs [for journalists]," journalist and media consultant Ilya Klishin told RFE/RL in an interview in March. "In every round, you find one fewer media outlet. The number of remaining possibilities gets very small."
Vedomosti was founded at the dawn of the Putin era, in 1999, as a three-way joint venture between Dow Jones, Britain's Financial Times, and The Moscow Times, a Dutch-owned, English-language daily. In 2014, however, Russia adopted a law restricting foreign ownership of media to 20 percent. The following year, Vedomosti's foreign partners sold out to entrepreneur Demyan Kudryavtsev, former publisher of the Russian daily Kommersant. Kudryavtsev took over The Moscow Times at the same time.
On March 24, the 64-year-old Shmarov was named Vedomosti's acting chief editor. A former Soviet-era economist in the state planning agency, he was a founder of the 1990s business magazine Ekspert and also worked for Dozhd TV and the website Snob.
The appointment came among reports that Kudryavtsev had struck a deal to sell Vedomosti to Konstantin Zyatkov, the owner of the patriotic, pro-Kremlin newspaper Nasha Versiya, and businessman Aleksei Golubovich, a former manager in Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos oil company who became a key prosecution witness in Khodorkovsky's fraud and tax-evasion trial.
"In just three weeks, the new chief editor has managed to seriously undermine the position of the country's leading business daily," the column's author, economist Konstantin Sonin, wrote on Facebook on April 23.
He added that the scandal around the removed column had done more to harm Sechin's reputation than "all the columns and articles that could be written about him in Vedomosti over the last 20 years."
"If Rosneft had a decent public-relations office, they would have done all they could to remove Shmarov and end the assault on the newspaper," Sonin wrote. "But Rosneft's PR is run by such incompetent people -- the same 'dilettantes from the 1990s' from which Shmarov sprang -- that I don't expect them to let up."
In an interview with RFE/RL, Sonin said "this battle will end with the defeat of the Vedomosti team."
"This scam by Sechin, [former pro-Kremlin television commentator and current Rosneft press spokesman] Mikhail Leontyev...and Shmarov, who previously worked with Leontyev, was conceived from the beginning as the destruction of Vedomosti," he said.
The average liberal Russian journalist or activist posts and reposts his grievances on social networks in a show of solidarity that has become almost as routine and meaningless as brushing one's teeth in the morning."-- Ilya Klishin, journalist and media consultant
The day before the scandalous Vedomosti editorial, Ksenia Boletskaya, media editor at Vedomosti, posted on Facebook that Shmarov had ordered staff not to cite the findings of the Levada Center, a reputable independent polling agency. He also banned any criticism of a controversial proposed constitutional amendment that would effectively "nullify" Putin's first four terms as president and allow him to run for two additional ones. Employees that violated these orders were purportedly threatened with dismissal, Boletskaya wrote.
Commenting on the situation at Vedomosti on April 24, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin has no knowledge -- "and cannot have any knowledge" -- of what is happening within Vedomosti.
"We hope the situation will work itself out," Peskov said. "We are interested in having Vedomosti continue its work on a high professional level as has been the case to date."
However, an anonymous source purportedly involved in the deal to sell Vedomosti told Meduza that "Shmarov cannot be removed because his appointment was agreed to by the presidential administration and a new editor would also have to be approved."
It is now uncertain whether the deal to sell Vedomosti will be consummated. Golubovich has reportedly said he is considering withdrawing from the deal, in part because of the scandal over Shmarov and in part because of his "assessment of the actions of [Kudryavtsev] over the last three or four weeks." However, the cancellation of the deal has not been announced, and such statements could be posturing.
You have to pay respect to the journalists of Vedomosti for still wanting to revive their murdered publication. Although I don't believe they'll be successful, I'd like to wish them well..."-- Journalist Konstantin Eggert
The Vedomosti scandal has been accompanied in Russia by a sense of fatalism born of two decades of Putinism.
Of course, such events have been entirely eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic, but in addition "a kind of emotional numbness has set in," wrote media consultant Klishin in The Moscow Times. "The first time the authorities silenced an independent media outlet, it caused an immediate outcry. But then it happened again. And again. And again.
"The average liberal Russian journalist or activist posts and reposts his grievances on social networks in a show of solidarity that has become almost as routine and meaningless as brushing one's teeth in the morning," he added.
Aleksandr Polivanov, a journalist at Sports.ru, posted a brief note of support to the Vedomosti journalists on his Facebook page as well, prefacing it glumly by writing: "I don't believe in Change.org petitions or hashtags and I don't know how such things are done. But I can't be silent either, so I will begin...."
Journalist Konstantin Eggert wrote in a long post on Facebook: "You have to pay respect to the journalists of Vedomosti for still wanting to revive their murdered publication. Although I don't believe they'll be successful, I'd like to wish them well in their noble cause if only because scoundrels...should suffer."
Like many other social-media commentators, Eggert recalled similar battles fought and lost in the post-Soviet period.
"Like many of my friends, I lived through the death of Izvestia at the end of the relatively civilized epoch of [President Boris] Yeltsin," he wrote. "The practice of turning 'the country's main newspaper' into toilet paper began at that time. For me, it began when the owners asked me to remove one person's name -- it doesn't even matter now whose name -- from an article.
"Of course, I send wishes for success and rays of solidarity to my colleagues at Vedomosti," Eggert concluded. "The fact that the team is not going down without a fight deserves our respect."