Russia: Q&A with Tina Kandelaki

Tina Kandelaki is many things. She is a Russian journalist, a TV celebrity, a co-owner of Apostol Media Group, a widely read blogger, and — more recently — a visible presence in Russian politics. Her Twitter account (@tina_kandelaki) has nearly half a million followers, and her LiveJournal blog has received more than 128,000 comments, since its creation just four years ago. Be it on the cover of Russian Maxim magazine or in her endorsement of United Russia and Vladimir Putin, Kandelaki has aroused the interest and sometimes the ire of other prominent actors on the RuNet and elsewhere. In mid-May, 2012, Global Voices’ RuNet Echo spoke to Ms. Kandelaki over email. What follows is the text of that exchange:

Tina Kandelaki. Photo by W Communications, used with permission.

Ms. Tina Kandelaki, Global Voices warmly thanks you for agreeing to this interview, and we're very excited to discuss your career as a journalist and voice on the Russian Internet.

Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

In January this year, Echo of Moscow and several other media outlets published a list [ru] of Russia's 100 most influential women, where you were ranked 28th [ru]. Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh offered commentary on your rating, saying that your “capacity for work” and your “energy” are “uncharacteristic for women” and that you “think absolutely like a man.” Do you agree with this assessment? Has your femininity been an asset or an obstacle in your professional life?

I am a close friend of Nikita Belykh, and I can honestly say that his character assessment is accurate. I have been working since a young age, and that’s why I possess some male characteristics — a certain independence and ability to stand up for myself. At the moment, I am responsible not only for my family, but for 280 people employed at my company, Apostol. I am not afraid to be responsible for a large number of people — responsibility means moving forward.

In the past six months, your public support for United Russia and Vladimir Putin have often been contrasted with Ksenia Sobchak's recent emergence as an oppositionist. Do you consider your relationship to have become a political rivalry? Whether yes or no, why do you think social commentators have identified a feud between the two of you?

Ksenia and I were colleagues and partners. At one point, I made the decision to stop working in entertainment-television and I started my own business. I was interested in educational issues, and have since become the host of “The Smartest” (Samyi umnyi), an intellectual TV-show for children. Meeting so many talented youths, I wanted the opportunity to help such children realize their potential. So, in 2009, I accepted an invitation from Dmitry Medvedev to become a member of educational commission of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation. I have been attracted to both business and public activities, and for me they have been connected. Ksenia continues working in the sphere of entertainment-media, but there is no political rivalry between us, and we have never argued because of politics. The thing is: we have different points of view concerning the best path for Russia and its future. Regarding social commentators, I can say that nothing there surprises me — the Internet is a very sensitive sphere, and Internet users pay attention to everything that happens, though they don’t always interpret everything correctly.

Your project “Nereal'naia politika” began as an Internet series and later migrated to network television. Ksenia Sobchak's show “GosDep” initially aired on Russian MTV, but it was quickly canceled and later revived as a web-based program on Why do you think these shows developed in the opposite directions, yours Internet-to-TV and Sobchak's TV-to-Internet? 

To be honest, I don’t think we can compare these two projects. In the case of Sobchak's show, “GosDep,” she simply had no choice — she would have had to close her show completely, if she did not start broadcasting it on the Internet. “Nereal'naia politika” was the first online start-up in Russia to become hugely popular on the Internet. It appealed to a large audience, and for that reason was sold successfully to a television channel.

In recent months, you have devoted attention [ru] in your blog and elsewhere to the potentially dangerous influence the Internet can have on young people, citing violent trends that promote bullying and even murder. Oppositionists often describe the Internet as a tool to circumvent state-controlled media channels, allowing the public access to unfiltered information that, they argue, increases the odds of opposition to the Kremlin. How do you think the expansion of Internet access will influence the politics of the next generation of Russian citizens?

As I’ve already noted, I have no doubts that the Internet is the future of mass media. On the Web, there is true freedom of speech. You know, in February, I was a guest on [Vladimir] Pozner’s program, where we discussed the social and political aspects of my public activity. I was surprised to find out that an extract, where I mentioned Alexey Navalny, was cut from the final broadcast. Nevertheless, the whole and uncensored video could be found easily on the Internet.

Besides, the Internet enables people to create their own content and react quickly to all news and events. This type of communication can very easily and quickly receive feedback, as well. There is another side of this total freedom, however: it gives a very broad field for the distribution of dangerous information. Teenagers abuse their classmates and post it on the Internet. Most disturbingly, these videos attract a huge number of views, creating deeply unfortunate role models for impressionable teenagers. Taking into account all of these facts, we need to take measures to control such information. We need to find balance between the freedom of speech and the control over dangerous content. On the question of the Internet’s influence on the political activity of citizens, it’s obvious that peaceful demonstrations became possible only thanks to online social networks. This kind of feedback from citizens is very important for governments because it truly reflects the needs of the people.

As citizens get the right to speak up, slowly but surely a Civil Society appears that can affect key presidential and governmental decisions to improve our country.

In a December 2011 interview [ru] with Roman Dobrokhotov, you said that “proving [election] falsification is an issue for lawyers — not journalists and bloggers.” You then added, “But [journalists’ and bloggers’] role in this process is extremely important.” What exactly do you think bloggers’ role in Russia's recent elections should have been?

The main difference and peculiarity of bloggers is foremost that they can express their own personal opinions about events. Secondly, social networks are very dynamic environments — new information can be disseminated immediately. Journalists sitting at a press-conference can post new quotes to Twitter, which instantly produces material for bloggers. The honest coverage of events by active bloggers is very important, because they can do something beyond the scope of journalists.

In that same interview with Dobrokhotov, you stated your concerns that direct elections for governors would “return [to Russia] the problem of regional sovereignization.” As you may be aware, Putin recently ordered [ru] the Ministry of Economic Development to draft a law creating a new goskompaniia to oversee the development of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Do you view this as an attempt to stem possible “sovereignization” that could result from the direct election of governors? How do you respond to critics, who claim that the new goskompaniia is Moscow's way of ‘colonizing’ the East?

You know, I think it’s too early to draw any big conclusions about the new structure. There is a certain traditional reaction to all innovations — people are afraid of them and criticize new things without even grasping their gist.

As far as existing experience goes, we have a number of very effective state corporations today that make other enterprises (some frozen for many years) more effective, as well. State corporations act as the guarantors for foreign investors and attract new technologies and money to the Russian economy. That’s why we need to look closely at how this project develops.

You were very active in the monitoring group “Za chistye vybory” over the course of Russia's elections this past March. Days before the vote, you invited [ru] several oppositionists to visit the organization's headquarters, though Georgii Alburov, a coordinator for Rosvybory (the brainchild of Aleksei Navalny), ultimately refused to come, on the grounds that “Za chistye vybory” was a “Kremlin project.” You have always denied such accusations, though your special access to state officials is well established. Indeed, you told Dobrokhotov, “One can write a lot of posts in a blog or on Twitter, but for decisions to concrete problems it is contact with the authorities that accelerates their solutions.” Why do you think oppositionists view your “contact with the authorities” as evidence of the state's control over you?

The answer is simple. Control can be implemented in two ways: through money or power. I don’t get money or influence from the authorities. I have my own business that provides a good income; my company doesn’t have any state contracts, and I am not a state official. Being a member of the Public Chamber helps me appeal to high-ranking politicians, and it helps to solve some problems faster, but it is a social role.

For instance, I worked to address an issue with the Moscow Cadet Corp, where a new building is under construction, though the process was expected to last another 13 years. 1.7 billion rubles were invested, but the building work was stalled. The head of the Cadet Corp reached out to me and asked me to help publicize this situation, and I appealed to the Moscow city government several times. During a meeting with Dmitry Medvedev, this issue was raised and a solution was reached. This is an example of my so-called “affiliation” with the authorities. I consider it a resource, and not something to fear.

On the other hand, I strongly agree with Dobrokhotov: we do need to build a dialogue with the authorities. The government is not as sacred today as it was five years ago. At the moment, the gap is narrowing: people want to talk to the authorities; people want to participate in changes to both the country and their lives; and I hope the government will be ready for that. Already, we are talking about some new innovations that — if they get enough support — will be transmitted to the State Duma. I hope that such initiatives will be implemented and that they will multiply, and that they will change the forms of social and political interaction we have today.


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