The newsroom at Moscow's Novaya Gazeta does not feel like a battleground. It's a series of cramped, fluorescent-lit offices, as quiet as a library in the hallways. But behind the closed doors, there's energy. Young journalists (average age: around 30) pore over the stories and photographs that will make the next day's issue of a newspaper in a very dangerous business--being the most strident voice of opposition in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
For a taste of the paper's editorial outlook, just talk to Dmitri Muratov, its editor in chief. "Putin has created the largest, richest bureaucracy in the world, and the funds have been sucked out of society." Muratov calls the siloviki--the strong-arm factions that make up much of the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the secret police--a "business, whose only concern is hoarding money."
These are, in Russian terms, declarations of war, and Novaya Gazeta has the casualties to show for it. In 2000, reporter Igor Domnikov was beaten to death; in 2003, deputy editor Yuri Shchekochikhin was fatally poisoned; and in 2006, reporter Anna Politkovskaya, famous for her coverage of the second Chechen war, was shot to death.
The paper still relishes its role as a combatant. There is no pretext of objectivity. Novaya Gazeta may be pro-Western, but the kind of journalism the paper churns out would hardly sit well at a newspaper in, say, the U.S., where reporters are expected to see both sides. Here reporters are expected not so much to unearth news as to find information that corroborates what everyone in the newsroom already believes: the Kremlin is bad; the security apparatus is bad; the intelligentsia is good; the Westernizers and liberals are right.
In the West, there is a widespread and probably incorrect assumption that someone in the Kremlin had those journalists killed because they said (or were on the verge of saying) bad things about Putin. This belief is premised on another false assumption--that Novaya Gazeta poses a threat to the Kremlin. The paper claims a weekly readership of 1 million, but its ardently anti-Putin voice clearly has limited influence. In the recent presidential election, the main liberal candidate got 1.3% of the vote, while Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, won more than 70%. As for Politkovskaya's death, it may have prompted international outrage, but in Russia practically no one cared.
In that context, the Kremlin is almost certainly helped more than hurt by Muratov and his eager, angry young journalists. There is no better way to defend against charges of repression than to point to a fully functioning newspaper that never has anything good to say about you. Says Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov: "When people say Russia has no free media, they totally forget about the existence of Novaya Gazeta. Certainly, this paper is quite liberal, very frequently opposing the official point of view ... We can't always agree with what is being published, but this is a normal relationship between official bodies and the media." In other words, All you moralizing Westerners, our press is just as rambunctious as yours.
But even if the Kremlin deftly uses Novaya Gazeta as a shield, there is still no other voice with the same capacity to show Russian events and power players through an alternate prism.
Consider a recent issue featuring a front-page photo of Health and Social Development Minister Tatiana Golikova sporting pricey pinstripes, a jewel-encrusted cross and what looks like a chic Italian handbag. On the inside of the paper, reporter Roman Shleinov has a detailed piece (headlined super family) on Golikova; her husband, Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko; and their son Vladimir, now working at a metals outfit run by one of his parents' cronies.
That's Novaya Gazeta at its best: half-tabloid, half-investigative paper, riddled with biases--and still Moscow's premier outlet for speaking truth to power.