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A new magazine tells chilling stories from Russia's remote regions

Mountain road in the Republic of Khakassia, Russia. Photo by James Zwadlo for Holod Media. Used with permission.

Holod is possibly the coolest thing on Russia's independent media scene today.

The independent online magazine, whose name translates as “coldness”, has captivated Russian audiences with its deep longform stories from far-flung regions, which are often covered only superficially by federal media. These stories are appropriately chilling, seeking to raise awareness of manifold social and economic inequalities in the world's largest country.

Holod shot to fame in August 2019, as a mini-site featuring one article about a murder from Khakassia, a region in southern Siberia. A man from the regional capital of Abakan killed four local women and raped many more, under the nose of law enforcement. He was known to police, but evaded punishment for his crimes.

Taisia Bekbulatova worked on the story for three months after she left Meduza, an independent publication where she had worked as a news reporter for two years. She was previously a political correspondent for Kommersant, a national business daily.

Bekbulatova has since assembled a small team of professional journalists and editors. Over the year since it was founded, Holod has already won three prizes from Redkollegia, one of Russia’s most prestigious journalism awards.

I spoke to Bekbulatova about Holod's goals, outlook on Russia, and her hopes for the project's future.

Maxim Edwards: Your project, as you've described it, is inspired by “Russia as our fatherland, an icy desert on which a dashing person walks. These are big stories about Russia and the dashing people who inhabit it.” Could you elaborate on this, and explain the publication's name?

Таисия Бекбулатова: Это название так долго жило в моей голове, что я даже не помню, как оно возникло. Холод — это ощущение от России, со всеми ее бескрайними просторами и безысходностью. У Георгия Иванова есть стихотворение про Россию со строчкой «И не растают никогда снега». Оно похоже по духу на те истории, которые мы пишем.

Taisia Bekbulatova: I've had that name in mind for so long that I don't even remember how it came about. Holod refers to a sense about Russia, with its endless expanses and despair. Georgy Ivanov has a poem about Russia with the line “And the snows will never melt”. It's similar in spirit to the stories we write.

ME: Holod's first story was about a serial murderer from Abakan in Khakassia, a region many Russian readers are probably unfamiliar with. It seems to me that Holod is trying to reinvent regional-focused journalism in Russia, a trend which other sites such as Meduza, TakieDela, and Batenka have also followed. What's the state of reporting on Russia's regions, and what could be done better?

ТБ: Россия — огромная страна с сотнями историй, которые любой хороший журналист должен бы быть рад осветить. Но у нас почти уничтожена качественная региональная журналистика (за исключением нескольких отличных изданий), и они остаются без должного освещения. «Холод» пытается бороться с этой ситуацией. Я изначально решила, что писать только на темы, которые интересуют москвичей, в такой стране просто глупо. Но получился интересный эффект — москвичей, как оказалось, тоже очень интересуют истории про остальную Россию. К сожалению, несмотря на усилия нескольких качественных федеральных медиа, которые интересуются жизнью регионов, их проблемы все равно во многом остаются без внимания. На мой взгляд, решить эту проблему нельзя без развития сильных региональных СМИ.

TB: Russia is a vast country with hundreds of stories which any good journalist should be happy to cover. But with the exception of a handful of excellent publications, high-quality regional journalism has largely been destroyed here. Holod is trying to fight that tendency. From the very start, I decided that it was simply stupid to only write stories which interest Muscovites. However, it turned out to have an interesting effect — it turned out that Muscovites are actually very interested in stories about the rest of Russia. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of several high-quality federal media outlets which do show an interest in the lives of people in the regions, their problems largely remain ignored. As I see it, that problem cannot be resolved without the development of strong regional media.

ME: You don't shirk from covering depressing and often disturbing stories about the reality of life for many people in Russia today. It seems that you are not just motivated by “stories about dashing people”; you've published about sects, transgender rights, domestic violence, alcoholism, and incels. There seems to be a social sensitivity here, about inequality, injustice, hopelessness, and perhaps hope. What drives your work, and are there specific areas of focus?

ТБ: Мы делаем медиа про реальную Россию, и это невозможно делать, не освещая те тяжелые истории, которые в ней происходят. Россия — страна бедная, с высоким уровнем насилия и крайне ограниченными свободами. Невозможно это игнорировать. Мы стараемся писать про тех, кому не хватает силы голоса, чтобы громко говорить о себе самостоятельно. Это ситуации несправедливости, равнодушия, опасного неравенства человека и государства. Вместе с тем наше внимание привлекают и другие темы — в первую очередь, это интересные общественные феномены и истории отдельных отчаянных людей: от инцелов — до человека, который 30 лет изучал белых медведей, и от сект — до полицейского, который выбросил свои награды, возмутившись насилием со стороны ОМОНа по отношению к протестующим.

TB: We're a media outlet which deals with the real Russia; that work is impossible without covering the difficult stories which come to pass here. Russia is a poor country with high levels of violence and extremely limited freedoms. That's impossible to ignore. We try to write about those who lack the power to speak loudly about their problems by themselves. These are situations of injustice, indifference and the dangerous power imbalance between the individual and the state. At the same time, other topics do attract our attention — interesting social phenomena and the stories of desperate individuals. We've written about everybody from incels to a man who studied polar bears for 30 years, from sects to a policeman who threw away all his service medals. We've written about the appalling violence used by riot police against protesters.

ME: Holod is also known for its success with podcasting; Route 161 has proven to be incredibly popular. What is the role of podcasts in the Russian media landscape today?

ТБ: Российская аудитория пока не открыла для себя в должной мере подкасты, даже очень популярные подкасты слушают, как правило, несколько десятков тысяч человек. С миллионными прослушиваниями на западе это не сравнить. Пока производство подкастов остается во многом имиджевой историей. Мы сделали «Трассу 161» в первую очередь потому, что нам самим хотелось попробовать создать качественный тру крайм подкаст — в России этого жанра почти нет. Мы не ожидали такого успеха. Зато сейчас вышел уже второй сезон — «Объездная дорога» — на этот раз про ангарского маньяка, который убил больше 80 женщин.

TB: Russian audiences have not yet discovered podcasts to the fullest extent. Even extremely popular podcasts are usually listened to by tens of thousands of people. That cannot be compared to those in the West, which have millions of listeners. So far, podcast production in Russia is largely seen as a way to improve the brand. We launched Route 161 chiefly because we wanted to make our own, proper, high-quality podcast. We didn't expect it to be this successful. But now we've already released our second season, called The Bypass, about the maniac in Angarsk who murdered more than 80 women.

ME: What success has Holod had with crowdfunding and other methods of self-sufficiency, and are there lessons for other Russian independent media here?

ТБ: Поддержка читателей нам уже очень сильно помогает. Пока содержать редакцию на эти средства невозможно, но мы уже можем организовывать за счет них командировки, платить гонорары авторам и иллюстраторам и т.п. Мы планируем перейти на полностью краудфандинговую модель в скором будущем. Мы видим благодарную реакцию аудитории, и рассчитываем на ее поддержку.

TB: The support we already receive from readers helps us a lot. However, for the moment it's impossible to fully support our newsroom with these funds, but they do help us organise business trips, pay fees to authors and illustrators and so forth. In the near future we plan to move to a fully crowdfunded model. We can see how grateful our readers are and we're counting on their support.

ME: What are your plans for the future of Holod?

ТБ: Не так легко строить планы, если речь идет о медиа в России. Но у «Холода» сейчас одна цель — стать главным качественным журналом в стране.

TB: It's not so easy for media in Russia to make plans. But Holod has one goal — to become the country's leading, high-quality [online] magazine.

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