Echo Moskvy: Pressure Valve or Reality Check?

From David Remnick’s long, very long, article in the new New Yorker about Echo Moskvy and editor in chief Alexei Venediktov, we get an inside look into Russia’s most interesting and unique media outlet, which some have described as the country’s last remaining “pressure release valve” (it is indeed 60% owned by Gazprom). See also more about Venediktov’s strange experience in front of Vladimir Putin over here. My only complaint about this interesting article is that Remnick makes Yevgenia Albats sound like a nutcase, which is unfair and inaccurate – at least she understands why the Kremlin still allows Echo to continue existing…

At the meeting in Sochi, Putin turned his attention—and his icy glare—to Aleksei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, criticizing the station for its broadcasts about Georgia. Many of the loyalist editors in the room were delighted as they watched Putin rough up Venediktov on a range of editorial and factual points. Not for the first time, there was the sense that Putin might shut down the station. Later, in a hallway, Venediktov protested to Putin that he was being “unjust.” Putin pulled out a stack of transcripts to underline his points, saying, “You have to answer for this, Aleksei Alekseevich!” Venediktov was shaken, but he calculated that Putin would never have invited him to Sochi with the rest of the delegation had he intended to get rid of him or Echo of Moscow. That could have been accomplished with a telephone call. “Afterward, we met one on one, and there Putin’s tone was more positive,” Venediktov told me. “But he made his point. He was demonstrating his ability to do whatever he wants with us at any time.” When Venediktov returned to Moscow, he made clear to his staff that they had best “pay careful attention” to their coverage, be sure of their facts, and get sufficient government views. But no one was fired, and it was clear that he had managed to escape the worst. “Poka,” Venediktov said. “For now.” (…)

Like her colleagues, Albats has discovered that Russian officials, including active agents in the intelligence services, listen to Echo as a kind of reality check.“Decision-makers in Russia are distant from real life,” she said. “They have money, they live far from the life of the country, and meanwhile the bureaucracy hides concrete information from them when it suits bureaucratic purposes. Information is the bureaucrat’s commodity—he depends on it for funding, for his survival, and so he exaggerates threats, say, when it suits him. Decision-makers choke on such ‘information.’ For example, the bureaucrats in intelligence, in order to get more and more funding, need to feed the fears of the decision-makers, and so they exaggerate the threat of an ‘Orange Revolution’ ”—a political rebellion of the kind that transformed Ukraine, nearly three years ago—“coming to Russia, even though no such threat exists.”Albats looked around the café and lowered her voice a few decibels. “Bureaucrats lie, and so these decision-makers listen to Echo,” she went on. “It’s a totally malfunctioning system, and we play an important role in it! People in the Kremlin are devoted listeners to Echo.” (…)Echo’s liberals, however, are not in a position of comfort. Putin made that clear to Venediktov last month. On state television, Venediktov, Yulia Latynina, and Matvei Ganapolsky—central voices on Echo—have been branded members of a subversive “fifth column.”“When you meet people from the Kremlin or the intelligence services, they always say, ‘How brave you are! We always listen to Echo of Moscow!’ ” Latynina said. “Venediktov knows how to talk to people in the Kremlin and turn a bland face to their requests and complaints. I’ve never been disappointed in him even when we have disagreed. I can always say what I want and he will always defend me.”But, while Venediktov’s integrity has proved as reliable as his political skills, his capacity to protect his people is limited. There have been twenty unsolved murders of journalists in Russia in the past eight years. When Anna Politkovskaya, of Novaya Gazeta, was killed, two years ago, three reporters at Echo walked into Venediktov’s office and said that they were leaving to pursue other careers. Earlier this year, Venediktov came to New York to collect an award from the Overseas Press Club. When he told his wife, she said, “First comes the award, then comes the bullet.” For now, Echo of Moscow remains open, vital to its audience, useful to the regime. “But no matter what we do,” Venediktov said, “no matter how clever we are, we always have to recognize that we can be gone in a flash.”