Tighter, Looser, Tighter Again

When we were publishing Moscow Magazine at the Union of Journalists, there was a censor and a woman with the key to the copy machine. Then under Yeltsin, it was “anything goes.” You could walk into the KGB building and ask for anything. I went in and asked for the files on Dutch communists. They said, “Come on in and look for yourself.” That was probably the most unbridled period of freedom of the press in history.

This could not last. In any normal organized society you have to have a couple of rules, and for media, too. But even under Yeltsin real journalism in mainstream media never took hold. There was no market for investigative journalism. In the end the media quickly became a tool — one television station was used by the liberals, the other by the communists, and so on.

But the whole idea of journalism is that it isn’t anyone’s tool. That’s why Vedomosti became such a big success. It was the first Russian newspaper that was above it all, and not in anyone’s hands. Everyone predicted that it would be a big flop, and in the first weeks people criticized it for being too dry and objective. But that was exactly what we wanted.

Now we’re in a very difficult phase. I believe it was too wild, and now in my view it’s too tight. But journalism will open up again.

The Moscow Times Today

There aren’t so many expats in Moscow now, and with modern technology, they don’t need The Moscow Times as a lifeline. But the complexity that is Russia has remained. People are very curious about the context — what is going on and why — and that is where The Moscow Times still plays a crucial role. We’re based here, we live here, we have a unique network, we understand the country better than most people and we can report stories that won’t make it to other outlets. That’s our job and our challenge.

Looking Back: Gaffes and Triumphs

We got on the internet pretty early — in the late 1990s I spent millions on a Yahoo-like portal. But the market wasn’t ready for it. And then a friend, Yuri Milner, called me and said, “Derk, I’m going to start a new company. You want to join?” The investment was about $100,000-200,000. But I said, “Yuri, you’re calling at a bad time. I just lost a couple of million. To be honest, I’m kind of fed up with the internet.” That company became Mail.ru. Milner is one of the top ten internet investors in the world, the guru of digital and one of the richest people in the world. I could have been a billionaire by now!

I’m proud of two projects in particular. One is Vedomosti, because it added something to journalism in Russia. And Cosmopolitan is an amazing story. My wife Ellen was editor, so it was great to work on it together. Apart from its amazing commercial success, it really changed the lives of many women. We organized a lot of conferences and events, and women would come up to me and say, “You changed my life. I threw out my husband!” Cosmopolitan was the first publication to discuss subjects like abortions or domestic violence. It was emancipating. I was an activist but I became a journalist.

That is my mission here — not to judge, but to inform. “To inform and inspire” — that was the first slogan of Independent Media. It’s more important to give the background, the context, the effects of something instead of judging it. I think that’s the contribution I can make here. Through all the publications I was involved in — The Moscow Times, Vedomosti, Cosmopolitan and later RBC and many others — hundreds of journalists have worked for us and many have at least been touched by this philosophy of journalism. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s better than nothing.

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Interview by Michele Berdy.

*This article is part of The Moscow Times’ 25th anniversary special print edition. To view the entire issue click here.