How Putin Muzzled the Moscow Times

Put yourself in Andrew McChesney's shoes.

You're the American editor of the Moscow Times, a newspaper published in Russia in English with a miniscule print circulation but a website that is ranked by Technorati as one of the most linked sources of specialized information about Russia in the world. Funded by foreigners, you have a long, proud history of employing Russian reporters and issuing blistering editorial and news content documenting and criticizing anti-democratic moves by the Kremlin. And now, the Kremlin is in the last stages of a final crackdown on the last vestiges of critical media, a crackdown that nobody in the West seems willing to do too much about.

You have two choices. Keep holding the Kremlin's feet to the fire and get snuffed out like a candle in the wind (but a blaze-of-glory kind of candle) or tone it down and see how long you can last, figuring that even a little real journalism is better than none in a neo-Soviet dictatorship.

What do you do?

Like a turkey on Thanksgiving morning, you look across the barnyard and you see Farmer Putin sharpening his axe. On June 5, your own pages report that the Kremlin is moving against an obscure little English tabloid called the eXile, an odious little screed that supports itself by hawking Russian mail-order brides to sweaty, pimply, prepubescent readers and trades in self-congratulation, topless women and silly, bitter attacks on anything and everything American (because the paper's American editors hold the country where they couldn't quite make it -- hence their exile to Russia -- in rather low esteem).

And you realize the horrible beauty of this move. You see that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin understands nobody cares in the least what happens to the eXile. In fact, the world will actually be better off without it.

The eXile attacks the Kremlin's enemies far more often than the Kremlin, so if the Kremlin shuts it down how can anyone complain about a crackdown? (For instance, one of the eXile's more childish, idiotic and ludicrously self-important contributors, himself an avowed Marxist and atheist, recently ran a pathetic hatchet job on the brilliant work of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in documenting the failures of the Putin administration, a smear that might as well have been paid for by the Kremlin itself. No matter that the New York Review of Books and the Carnegie Center, to name just two eminent sources, have praised Nemtsov's work to the sky. The real truth is to found in this off-color Russian comic book!)

It's like when Chief Justice John Marshall grabbed the power of judicial review by using it for the first time to rule in favor of Thomas Jefferson. How could Jefferson complain? And what could he say a few years later when that power was turned against his presidency?

On June 11, the MT reported that the eXile had bit the dust. It quoted Mark Ames, the editor/publisher:

"'The paper is dead, unless a miracle happens.' The newspaper missed an issue this week after its financial backers ‘got scared away by the government focusing its attention on it,' and now The eXile is very likely to cease publication all together.'"

There's probably no harsher critic of the Putin regime in the world than me, but even I have to take my hat off to the KGB spymaster on this one. No matter how hard I try, I can't get too worked up about the closure of the eXile. It's as if the National Enquirer were written by frat boys at a community college in Daytona Beach, a seedy masturbation club for nasty anal retentive children with nothing better to do. Russia will be better off without it. The world will too.

The same can be said for Eduard Limonov's freakish National Bolshevik Party, a gathering of racists and nationalists whose leader routinely publishes tracts in the eXile's pages along with a coterie of other ragtag losers and weirdos. Putin has already liquidated the formal aspects of the Party, and nobody shed a tear -- nor should they have.

Except of course when these actions are seen philosophically as stepping stones, precedents for totalitarian extermination. No sooner had the NBP gone the way of the dodo, for instance, than Putin purged every other political party that opposed his policies from the Russian parliament and from the presidential elections. And, I believe, no sooner will he strike down the eXile then he will turn his Evil Eye, like Sauron from Rohan to Gondor, toward the Moscow Times. To the extent there's any blowback over the eXile -- and there probably won't be -- he'll simply take that into account when carrying out his next attack. To the extent there isn't, he'll feel free to do his worst.

Russia's new "president" Dimitri Medvedev has spouted some rhetoric recently about protecting the media and freeing the judiciary from influence. But as Russian journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov (booted off the airwaves after stepping on too many Kremlin toes) wrote recently in the Moscow Times:

Perhaps Medvedev is simply taking a page from Putin's book, however. After all, in his first term Putin also spoke nobly about the need for the rule of law (albeit with a Russian twist, introducing his "dictatorship of the law" model). But in the end, far from creating an independent legal system, Putin created a judiciary that applied the law selectively to eliminate his political opponents.

Medvedev hasn't called for Kiselyov to be put back into a position of prominence on national TV, and a recent piece in the New York Times documents how, in fact, the Kremlin's foes are still being aggressively purged in that forum. When the article was translated into Russian and published on a Russian website, a reader responded:

There is room on TV only for those who work to strengthen the country. If your actions are destructive, i.e. you do not support the unidirectional progression of your country, then there is no place for you there. I really want to say: write in newspapers and on the Internet, but TV is too strong a tool to hand over to everyone. TV should be for propaganda.

Indeed, Putin is better positioned today to carry out an escalation of this crackdown than he was a year ago. Now, he has a puppet "president" to blame when the blowback comes, a luxury he didn't have when he was on point. He can conveniently retain all the power of the presidency (he recently made a state visit to France and was received by Nicolas Sarkozy just as if he were still Russia's prime ruler) and deflect all of the blowback for a draconian new round of oppression.

This is some pretty impressive stuff from Mr. Putin, a bravura performance worthy of the highwater period of Soviet cloak and dagger. Even Grampa Joe Stalin never managed to populate the corridors of Russian government with so many KGB spies (and he wasn't one himself).

Just as in the time of Stalin, it hardly matters if, on balance, like the eXile, you're actually friendly to Putin and hostile to Russia's "enemies" in the West (including their basic standards of professionalism for journalists). That won't save you from being shoved onto a train to Siberia along with folks like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Take, for instance, Khodorkovsky critic William Browder. Head of a large investment fund with heavy commitments to the Russian market and a strident advocate of Putin who approved the Khodorkovsky arrest, Browder recently found himself facing exactly the same kind of attack that sent Khodorkovsky to Siberia, and is now exiled from the country. The fact that, today, you might profess loyalty to the dictatorship means little to Putin; what matters is how much influence you are generating independent from the Kremlin, influence that makes you a theoretical threat tomorrow. That's what motivated Stalin, and it's what motivates the neo-Soviet chip off his block.

Remember now, you're McChesney. And don't forget that the Kremlin hasn't hesitated to go much further than merely shutting down offensive journalism outlets. As the tragedy of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Khlebnikov reminds us, the final solution is always on the table, too.

So, what do you do?

I'm afraid the decision has already been made. When opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky was recently arrested to prevent him from participating in a protest against Medvedev's inauguration and the first meeting of a new shadow parliament organization, he was sentenced to an outrageous two weeks in prison where he launched a hunger strike. The Moscow Times didn't report it (other than a one-sentence reference in a wire report.)

When, from behind bars, he published the lead op-ed in the Washington Post, including a photograph of himself in the clutches of Putin's goons, the Moscow Times website didn't carry it. Instead, it ran a column from a Kremlin sycophant announcing a meeting in Washington DC funded by Russian state-owned propaganda network Russia Today designed to drum up support for Putin. The Moscow Times has recently redesigned its website apparently to downplay and bury any content that might be offensive to the Kremlin. And to all appearances it has stopped publishing critical letters to the editor (it's quashed not one but three of mine in the last two months).

I can't be too tough on McChesney. He's got a staff of Russians with families that don't want to see them unemployed, much less in prison, and the paper is still a beacon of truth in Russia, though it is flickering. McChesney tells me he sometimes has problems getting permission to put material from big American papers on his website, and that's an outrage. But there's nothing to stop McChesney from generating original editorial material from sources like Kozlovsky, and he's just not doing that. To repeatedly feature those who are directly confronting the Kremlin would be dangerous, and it doesn't seem he wants to run that risk.

Still, though, the problem doesn't ultimately lie in Moscow, but in Western capitals where our leaders are collaborating in the rise of a neo-Soviet state in a manner that seems little different from the actions that facilitated the rise of Hitler. If we won't provide the leadership, how can we expect to have any followers?

The Moscow Times is the canary in the mine shaft. If we let it drop without a fight, we'll pay a heavy price later on.