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In Putin's Russia, Hell Is Other Liberals

The hard knocks of life in Russia's intelligentsia. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock. Illustration by Valery Osipov, CC 2.0.

The hard knocks of life in Russia's intelligentsia. Images edited by Kevin Rothrock. Illustration by Valery Osipov, CC 2.0.

What a difference a week can make! Last week, Russia’s blogosphere and news media were on pins and needles, waiting to learn the fate of Alexey Venediktov, the chief editor of Echo of Moscow, Russia’s most celebrated independent radio station. Venediktov’s job was on the line, after one of his top anchors, Alexander Plushev, tweeted an ill-considered joke about the recently drowned son of a high-ranking Kremlin official. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, Venediktov was able to reach a compromise with Echo of Moscow’s majority shareholder, Gazprom Media, and keep his position.

Today, Venediktov is at the center of two scandals that threaten his reputation among the same liberal oppositionists who defended him days earlier. On Saturday, November 22, he attended a birthday party for Konstantin Remchukov, chief editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a semi-respected Russian newspaper. At the party, Venediktov schmoozed with Dmitri Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, and pro-Kremlin television personality Mikhail Leontyev. There are photos. Remchukov live-tweeted them.

Many in Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia—a clique known in Russian as the “tusovka”—were indignant that Venediktov would rub elbows with the same people who a week earlier might have welcomed his ouster. Some, like politician Boris Nemtsov and Snob.ru Chief Editor Nikolai Uskov, came to Venediktov’s defense, but younger, less compromising figures have not hidden their disappointment. Arseny Bobrovsky, the co-creator of the Twitter parody account KermlinRussia, compared embracing Peskov to hugging a turd. Such mingling, Bobrovsky says, is useless social-ladder-climbing.

Lesya Ryabtseva and Alexey Venediktov, May 10, 2014. Facebook.

Then, on Sunday, November 23, Venediktov’s personal aide, Lesya Ryabtseva, announced in a blog post on Echo’s website that she is coordinating a working group to draft a set of rules to determine appropriate social media behavior for employees of Gazprom Media, which owns several Russian TV stations, including NTV and 2×2, in addition to Echo of Moscow. Ryabtseva’s blog post, provocatively titled “EchoComNadzor” (a play on “RosComNadzor,” Russia’s FCC equivalent), was poorly worded. When describing the reach of Echo’s code of ethics, she said vaguely, “The maximum task is to create general rules for everyone. For each and every journalist. For this radio station, for this holding, or for the whole country—it doesn’t matter.”

To make matters worse, Ryabtseva also seemed to take credit for the infamous “Law on Bloggers,” which earlier this year created new obligations for “information distributors” on the RuNet and introduced a government registry for handpicked “popular bloggers.” Echo’s working group will include members of the station’s editorial staff, as well as lawyers from Gazprom Media, and representatives from the Communication Ministry and Roscomnadzor, among others. “Put simply,” Ryabtseva says, “I called all my friends, with whom we made the Law on Bloggers.”

Stanislav Apetyan, a “patriotic” blogger and Russian media figure, pounced on Ryabtseva’s admission, writing on Facebook, “Now I understand who’s to thank for a law written so idiotically that Roscomnadzor can’t even enforce it in practice.” It wasn’t just the pro-Kremlin crowd, however, who took issue with Ryabtseva’s “EchoComNadzor” bombshell. Dozens of prominent liberal journalists and civic figures criticized her, objecting to any collaboration with government censors, protesting the concept of a social media rulebook “for the whole country,” and even taking aim at Ryabtseva’s age (she's 23) and her curiously close relationship to Venediktov.

Ostap Karmodi speculated sarcastically that Ryabtseva might be another “Katya Moomoo,” referring to a four-year-old sex scandal where pro-Kremlin activists lured unknowing oppositionists into the company of hired escorts, implying that Venediktov’s ties to his aide are not exclusively professional. “Before, when men hired as their secretaries such illiterate, enterprising people, the risk wasn’t so high,” wrote former Kommersant journalist Demyan Kudryavtsev.

Lesya Ryabtseva in the Echo of Moscow studio. October 11, 2014. Facebook.

In her blog post, it turns out, Ryabtseva was referring to Echo’s involvement in consultations with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov in April 2014 about the blogger registry, which was still just draft legislation. The meeting took place in public, at a busy café no less, and Echo attended along with news agencies Interfax and RIA Novosti. Even Wikimedia, Yandex, and Google sent representatives. Ryabtseva actually blogged about it when it happened, though few people took much notice. (The blog post has only 22 views, at the time of this writing.) “We gathered to discuss the future of the RuNet, and we ‘wrote the law,’” Ryabtseva told RuNet Echo. The consultations, however, had little impact on either the law’s final text or its bylaws, she says. “What resulted in the end, well, you’ll have to excuse us. We weren’t invited to the ‘final drafting’ of the law,” she told us.

Over the weekend, Venediktov was active on social media, defending himself and his assistant. When Leonid Volkov, Alexey Navalny’s former campaign manager and trusted advisor, asked on Twitter, “Which is worse: the Dima Yakovlev law [which banned American adoptions of Russian orphans] or the Lesya Ryabtseva law?” Venediktov resorted to a surprisingly nasty personal attack:

So, Leonid, how many times have you traveled abroad without any problems, when all Navalny’s comrades are either under arrest or in exile?

Venediktov also defended himself in a blog post on Echo’s website, telling readers that he won’t ask permission to meet with certain people. At Remchukov’s birthday party, Venediktov says, he was working, apparently securing interviews with Peskov, Japan’s ambassador to Russia, and trying to commission Leontyev to interview Rosneft Executive Chairman Igor Sechin.

The speed and vigor with which Russia’s intelligentsia turned on Venediktov in such a short time would be nothing short of amazing, were it anything unusual in the Moscow “tusovka.” As it happens, this kind of thing happens all the time. In fact, at the height of Venediktov’s recent job scare, Oleg Kashin published on his website a list of “12 labors” by the Echo chief editor, each one a brush with “traitorous,” pro-Kremlin behavior, like the kind on display at Remchukov’s birthday bash last weekend. Each time, the tusovka scolded Venediktov for flying too close to the nastiness of Russia’s powerful, and each time he managed to return to the public’s good graces, after they remembered his value as an independent journalist.

Venediktov’s latest controversy is a reminder of something Grigory Yavlinsky said in September last year. Yavlinsky, a perennial loser of Russian elections and another “frenemy” of the liberal intelligentsia, said, “There are few people in Moscow right now who are afraid of Putin, but nearly everyone fears their own tusovka.”

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