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Feature Story April 22, 2004
 
Lord of the Swine
Censorship in Russia: Revenge of the Disenfranchised By Mark Ames Browse author Email
 
Page 6 of 7
 
To continue refusing would have been silly -- my telephone number wasn't a secret anyway, and moreover it wouldn't be difficult for the head of the FSB to get it.

The boss of the secret department clearly noted that I had tensed up from his "intimate" offer. In order to change things, I cheerfully announced: "Okay, I'll leave my home telephone number with you, and you can then check it out, please, so that they stop listening in to my telephone conversations! Can you take that assignment under your personal control as director of the FSB?"

"They're what? Tapping your phones?!" The amazement on Putin's face looked so genuine that I unwillingly broke out giggling.

But right then I got control of myself and made a serious face: "Yes, you see, Vladimir Vladimirovich, I go to the Kremlin every day, often to the President. And I just learned that all 'important' journalists have their phones tapped...What do you yourself think -- is it true or not?"

This last question I understandably pronounced with as much of a naive voice as possible...

"You've gotta be kidding me!!! We?! You think that WE are tapping everyone's phones? [Nu chto viy!!! Miy?! Viy dumaete, eto MIY vas vsekh proslushivaem?]" Putin said in even more sincere amazement.

The flame of our mutual amazement and naivete grew hotter:

"Come on, Vladimir Vladimirovich! How could I possibly think that about you..." I said playing it up, trying not to giggle, when I saw that Putin's eyes were also laughing. True, his mask of sincerity and virginal ignorance was done much more professionally than I could do.

"Well, well," he added, deftly hiding his laugh, "it's not we who are doing it, but someone else!"

"Who then, Vladimir Vladimirovich? You're the best-informed department in the country, you should have information on who's doing this!"

"Well, probably it's some kind of competing commercial structure. You know, they all have their own little security services themselves...And by the way, our former employees sometimes work in them..."

"And so you're saying you can't control them?"

"Absolutely not -- they do whatever they please! Look -- they're even listening in on respected journalists!" And here Putin openly grinned.


The twin elites of the Yeltsin era -- the political-financial elite exemplified by the oligarchy and the young reformers, and the intelligentsia to which Tregubova belongs -- come across as so arrogant and vile that you can't help but feel a great dramatic relief -- indeed a great dramatic sense of satisfaction -- near the end when Putin begins to strangle both the oligarchy and the press. This is a bizarre thing for an opposition newspaper editor to say, which is why I emphasize that it was a sense of dramatic satisfaction. It is felt most clearly when, after Tregubova suffers so many humiliations and feis kontrol denials (such as when the whole press pool is put on a small boat to meet Putin on a warship, and Tregubova is told there is no room for her, so she stays on shore, trying to convince herself and her reader that she doesn't care as she longingly watches the cheerful boat full of lickspittles and administration bureaucrats sail away), she finally collapses into tears. It was at this moment, when Tregubova bawls into her elitny mobile phone to her mother, that I understood best why most Russians derived satisfaction from Putin's censorship of the press: it is the next best thing to hanging these vile snobs. They hurt!

It is only at this point that Tregubova suddenly discovers an interest in fighting injustice and oppression -- indeed, it is only in 2000 on the campaign trail with Putin that she first becomes indignant over dinosaur Russian factories and the tragic plight of their workers -- but her Dickensian transformation of character is woefully unconvincing. A fighter against injustice? Tchya, right. In 1997 she moved from oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Izvestia to Russky Telegraph, a newspaper she describes as an "elitnaya, intelligentnaya gazeta vliyaniya," an elite, intellectual paper of record. Nowhere does she mention how Potanin's takeover of Izvestia in 1997 represented what most believe to have been the final blow to the genuinely free press in Russia. The "free press" that existed from 1997 through 2000 was only free-ish to the extent that each oligarch-owned media represented a competing, albeit highly self-interested truth, as opposed to today's nearly uniform pro-government line. Moreover, she tries to tell the reader that Potanin exerted no influence on Russky Telegraph because "he had no need to," just as Berezovsky supposedly exerted no influence on Kommersant while she worked there, again "because he had no need to -- he already controlled so much."


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Ames
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Email Mark Ames at editor@exile.ru.
 
 
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