There is a juicy scandal developing in Russian media that most English readers haven't heard about. Moskovskiye Novosti editor-in-chief Yevgeny Kiselyov, the long-time star of the "democratic" media, fired half a dozen leading journalists who for many years provided the core of its editorial content. The journalists launched a counter-offensive, bringing many more to their side, accusing Kiselyov of total mismanagement, and started a separate MN issue. In an open letter they wrote that Kiselyov screwed up pretty much everything. His own contributions to the weekly were his own occasional commentaries that always came late, leading to delayed issues and losses in circulation.
The scandal is quite embarrassing for the Western "commentariat." After all, Kiselyov, Moskovskiye Novosti, and its owners, Menatep's Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, belong to the camp of "democratic forces" fighting against "Putin's dictatorship." If you google "Yevgeny Kiselyov," references to the current scandal in western sources don't come out at all in the first 30 or 40 links. Compared to that, if you google him in Russian, all top-rated links in both pro- and anti-Putin media are about this affair-simply because these are the most current events associated with Kiselyov character.
This near-total absence of Western coverage is quite telling, especially considering how much hysterics there was over much lesser issues-for example, when the interview of the stupid bitch Yelena Tregubova was taken off air on the NTV last year, apparently under pressure from Kremlin. But with Kiselyov's scandal... total silence. Perhaps it shows where censorship is really more severe.
For those who closely follow Russian media there was nothing unexpected about the current MN scandal. An ugly and noisy razborka involving Kiselyov, what else is new? Mentioning Yevgeny Kiselyov can invoke a feeling of being trapped in the Road Runner cartoon. Only with a twist: imagine a fat, lazy Road Runner who, instead of being elusive, gets caught in the paws of Putin's Wily E. Coyote every time, who invariably releases him to prance around again, after Kiselyov-Road Runner squeals about "stifling the media freedom."
The story goes back many years. Throughout most of the 90s Kiselyov was on NTV, which belonged to one of the original oligarchs, Vladimir Gusinsky. His Media MOST empire was rewarded for supporting Yeltsin reelection in 1996 with national airwaves for the NTV channel, and plenty of other perks. Other oligarchs received plenty of other very valuable spoils. Predictably, it didn't take long for thieves to fall out. In the fall of 1997 it erupted in all-out media war over the privatization of the Svyazinvest telecom holding, which split the top oligarchs into two camps. Together with the spiraling Asian crisis this split triggered the collapse of short-lived boom in the Russian stock and bonds market and led eventually the default in August 1998.
By 1999 the fight for Yeltsin's legacy intensified and two groupings emerged for the crucial Duma election in December of that year. One of them was associated with the new Prime Minister Putin, the Yeltsin family and the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. The other included the former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and Gusinsky. Both sides had favorite TV anchors slugging it out over the airwaves. Berezovsky had Sergei Dorenko on the ORT channel-a brash, aggressive anchor, resembling a crossbreed between Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.
The other side had Yevgeny Kiselyov as the main propagandist. His style was different. I'll leave it to a past eXile issue to describe it, as the "silver lining" of the eventual demise of the Gusinsky's empire: "We don't have to watch Yevgeny Kiselyov on television giving long three-minute questions littered with participles, conjunctions, dangling clauses and snorts through his mustache." I still have only a vague idea of what participles and conjunctions mean (and many other things about English grammar) but my own definition of all these will be "some long-winded, convoluted profundities that Yevgeny Kiselyov might have mumbled on TV."
The Western media was overwhelmingly on the side of Gusinsky and Kiselyov. It's not that they represented the more "democratic" camp-after all Luzhkov presided over the massively corrupt Moscow city government, and his allies included equally corrupt and authoritarian regional strongmen like Shaimiyev of Tatarstan. The Western media simply had the gut feeling that Putin was going to be less pliable, more independent and difficult to deal with.
The Unity party, allied with Putin, won the 1999 elections. On the millennial New Year's Eve Yeltsin resigned and Putin became the acting president, and soon easily won the presidential vote. Much of the Luzhkov-Primakov Fatherland party meekly admitted defeat and joined Unity to become United Russia, the quasi-ruling party up to the present. But for Gusinsky and his Media MOST, the writing was on the wall. It was never intended to be a normal profitable business, but rather a propaganda tool and PR department to advance his corporate and political goals. It paid top dollars to many leading journalists, had uncontrollable expenses, and even with a free spectrum slot and other goodies given to them, ran up a massive billion-dollar debt.
In mid-2000 Gusinsky was forced to sell part of Media MOST's shares to Gazprom and then he was briefly jailed and chased out of the country by Putin. Soon Gazprom engineered a boardroom coop and removed Kiselyov, who was NTV general director. The Road Runner show began. Soon Kiselyov found himself presiding over the TV-6 channel owned by... Boris Berezovsky, who had also fallen out with Putin and joined the opposition.
Let's step back for a second. In the 1999 duel with Dorenko, Berezovsky's personal attack dog, much of Kiselyov's commentaries revolved around the evils of this particular oligarch, so close to the Yeltsin clan and Putin himself. Now, on the TV-6, he was defending Berezovsky as the last bastion of democracy and freedom of speech in Russia. Pecunia non olet, they used to say in ancient Rome. And it was a pretty good pecunia for Kiselyov. He was paid astronomical sums by Russian journalistic standards-upwards of $50,000 a month, plus nearly unlimited expense accounts-shilling for Gusinsky's and then Berezovsky's empires. His spending sprees in the priciest restaurants and boutiques in Moscow, London and Spain became the stuff of legends, with his credit card receipts often leaked onto the internet.
In the next few years he (mis)managed to bankrupt both TV-6 and TVS, another TV channel, where a spot was cleared for landing his increasingly fat ass in 2002. Wherever he went, monumental wastage, noisy scandals and utter disorganization followed.
Perhaps the most disgusting aspect of Kiselyov's activity was his treatment of his fellow journalists, aside from his own shrinking team, who were paid huge salaries similar to his own. The journalists and producers working on TV-6 and TVS before him were unceremoniously shoved aside, fired without explanation, their modest salaries often delayed. The only possibility for career advancement for his underlings was pledging total personal fealty, and even then they could be easily tossed overboard. For female employees it was even worse. Stories of the most piggish sexual harassment dogged him everywhere.
A couple of years ago, video fragments featuring Kiselyov in group sex scenes were splattered all over the Russian internet. It involved S&M and some dirty (and very silly) talk. Previously the most scandalous sex video in Russia featured the former prosecutor general Yuri Skuratov in the company of two whores. It was interesting to see the reaction of the "liberal media" in these two cases. While howling with outrage and corruption over the Skuratov tape, in Kiselyov's case the sentiment was subtly different: this is all, uhm, a bit embarrassing, but look how he is able to perform, many young studs would be envious!
Well, frankly, there wasn't much difference. Both videos showed fat unimpressive bodies jiggling around. This is a real national embarrassment. Russia has far more pretty babes than America. And yet, instead of Pam or Paris, the biggest stars in its most scandalous sex tapes were some middle-aged pot-bellied plutocrats seeking artificial thrills with a bunch of whores.
It didn't end there. In mid-2003, when Putin began his campaign against the Menatep-Yukos empire, Khodorkovsky's clan was suddenly in need of a solid, big-name media outlet to channel its propaganda. That's where Moskovskiye Novosti came in. MN had a long-standing tradition of quality. It was a pretty decent weekly even in Soviet times. During the perestroika years it was truly on the forefront of Glasnost, widely read from cover to cover.
In the 90's the MN struggled but remained an important paper. Its main audience was the aging Yabloko-leaning intelligentsia who didn't do particularly well following the collapse of the USSR-those that would consider 1989 the high point of their lives, when they were sitting late at night in smoky kitchens discussing the freshly published Gulag Archipelago and Children of Arbat and demonstrating against one-party rule at Luzhniki and Manezh Square.
MN was bought by Khodorkovsky's Open Russia foundation. Its widely respected editor-in-chief Viktor Loshak wasn't the most suitable to turn the paper into a direct Yukos PR tool. He was dismissed; old attack dog and perpetual bungler Kiselyov was brought in. Then the usual thing happened: in a little more than a year he apparently ran it into the ground.
It surely served some PR purposes, all right. Just one example: the Support Khodorkovsky website has a compilation of journalistic comments shilling for the jailed oligarch, which includes no less than three different quotes from Kiselyov: http://www.supportkhodorkovsky.com/support/comments_journalist.cfm. What it does not mention, of course, is that he is the editor-in-chief of the paper directly belonging to Khodorkovsky's foundation.
Each time Kiselyov mismanaged yet another channel or paper, a familiar yarn of Putin's heavy hand and repression is invoked. In fact Anna Arutunyan, one of the more astute young editors left in the MN English version, Moscow News (and, incidentally, featured recently in the eXile SIC! section) has a lively description of the whole routine, apparently popular elsewhere: "It's a common scheme. Say, you start a magazine or a newspaper. Get a big loan for it. A nice office. Then you write bad stuff about Putin. Suddenly, the loan runs out and the magazine closes. Then you can say that they closed you down because you wrote bad stuff about Putin."
There is a Russian proverb saying "Don't throw jewels before the swine." So many oligarchs kept throwing plenty of jewels for Kiselyov and at all ended up in the muck. Considering that they didn't understand the jewel values themselves-it all came too easily to them- this does not seem too unexpected, after all.