And then it happened. The Echo of Moscow Russians had come to know and cherish seemed to vanish.
Venediktov didn’t go anywhere, though. And the radio station is still one of the few outlets in Russia where you’ll find reporting and analysis that’s sharply critical of the Kremlin. But Echo of Moscow has become Russia’s liberal radio station that Russian liberals love to hate.
To be fair, Venediktov and his methods have always been controversial. His willingness to mingle with powerful people, not just ambush them with scathing questions, makes Venediktov unpopular among those who’d sooner spit in the face of Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, than schmooze him over a bottle of champagne.
And yet there’s something remarkable about the way Echo of Moscow’s reputation has plummeted in the past five months.
Less than a week after Venediktov saved himself from being fired, he was back in liberals’ crosshairs for attending a swanky party and taking selfies with state-TV anchor Mikhail Leontyev, who just days earlier had reported bogus information claiming Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 had been downed by a jet fighter, not a surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists.
In December 2014, as thousands of Muscovites prepared to attend an unsanctioned demonstration outside the Kremlin to protest what they anticipated would be Alexey Navalny’s prison sentence, Echo of Moscow aired a bizarre radio interview with an unknown “political figure” named Alexei Bozhenov, who accused actress Liya Akhedzhakova and filmmaker Leonid Parfenov of filming anti-Navalny advertisements for large sums of money. The interview with Bozhenov, still available on the station’s website, grants an odd validity to what is almost certainly a fake news story.There’s also something of a new dynasty at Echo of Moscow, which has entered the era of Lesya Ryabtseva, Venediktov’s 23-year-old personal assistant, whom he has granted an unusual amount of authority at the station, which she has at times mismanaged.
In November 2014, Ryabtseva wrote a blog post indicating that Echo of Moscow had played a crucial role in crafting Russia’s “law on bloggers”—a widely hated piece of legislation that saddles some bloggers with stiffer regulations. In January 2015, she booted off the air photographer and activist Mitya Aleshkovsky. When the conflict became a public story, she joked about her influence over the station’s chief editor, alluding to her role “beneath Venediktov’s desk.” In April 2015, Ryabtseva made a fool of herself again, declaring in a live interview that there are only 8 million people in the Russian Federation. (The population is closer to 146 million people.)
This week, Russians witnessed the latest scandal to hit Echo of Moscow, when a blog post supposedly written by a journalist named Lara Voropayeva appeared on the station’s website. Voropayeva’s text, titled Feast in a Time of Plague, savages TV Rain, Russia’s only independent television station, for supposedly receiving and wasting vast sums of government money on a recent five-year anniversary concert.
The blog post was a polemic based on accusations now working their way through the police that Russia’s Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications may have paid a handful of independent media outlets several million rubles in government grants. TV Rain says it did receive roughly $500,000 in state grants between 2011 and 2013, and there are fears that investigators might try to link the money to an ongoing criminal case against Alexandrina Markvo, the domestic partner of Vladimir Ashurkov, a close associate of Russia’s most prominent opposition activist, Alexey Navalny.
Voropayeva’s criticism of TV Rain was questionable, certainly, but what turned out to be far curiouser is the fact that Lara Voropayeva does not exist.Ilya Klishin, TV Rain’s online editor, soon discovered that Voropayeva’s record as a journalist is nonexistent, and her profile photo on Echo of Moscow’s website proved to belong to a young woman in St. Petersburg named Istora Saidova.
Not long after Klishin’s discovery, Echo of Moscow’s own online editor, Vitaly Ruvinsky, issued an apology to TV Rain, saying the blog post should never have been published, and vowed that “Lara Voropayeva” would never be allowed to author another story. (Echo of Moscow has now deleted from its website everything written by Voropayeva.)
What Ruvinsky calls a “slip-up,” however, seems to be something of a trend at Echo of Moscow, where there have been several questionable editorial decisions in recent months. Indeed, on Facebook, where Ruvinsky first apologized for the “slip-up,” writer Oleg Kashin offered to show him another dozen examples of similar phony journalism on Echo of Moscow’s website.
Ruvinsky said it wouldn’t be necessary, and promised that Echo of Moscow is doing everything it can to purge itself of phony authors publishing planted stories against the opposition.
People on Facebook seemed to appreciate Ruvinsky’s efforts, but it remains a hell of a thing that Echo of Moscow, that last bastion of the independent media, is so near to being a pariah in Russia’s free press today.