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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Editor Rises From the Red

Engineer Vladislav Starkov worked for the Soviet weather service during the 1960s and early 1970s, running the clumsy, unreliable computers there and hating every minute of it. Nowadays he hardly ever touches his home PC. Starkov is the editor and publisher of Argumenti i Fakti, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of more than 3 million -- among the most popular general publications in Russia.

Starkov found out pretty late that he wanted to be a journalist. That may be one reason why his enthusiasm for the profession is boundless to this day. "I adore everything in journalism -- writing, editing, giving advice, checking on people's work," he said in a recent interview with the weekly Kapital.

When Starkov first came to Argumenti i Fakti, or AiF, in 1980, the newspaper, by his own account, had a staff of seven hopeless alcoholics working in a basement room. The staffers went out for lunch and disappeared in local bars for the rest of the day. When they were not guzzling beer, the writers were required to produce texts that lecturers across the nation could use to push the party line to their audiences.

"It was a horrible propaganda dish," Starkov said. "We had headlines like 'The Route Toward Peace Lies Through Disarmament' or 'The African Nations' Struggle Against Imperialism.'"

Starkov wanted as little of that in his newspaper as possible. He wanted to write about things he knew interested readers more than Africans' stance on imperialism. Sex was high on his list. "We opened that subject gradually: First we wrote about how it happens in America and then we started opening our readers' eyes to the fact that this sex exists in Russia, too."

Now that the Soviet agitprop machine is dead and Starkov is president of joint-stock company Argumenti i Fakti, the headlines have certainly changed a lot. "How I Castrated My Rapists" and "The Color Red Excites: Soviet Flags Gave Rise to Unconscious Aggression" are just two examples from recent issues.

Starkov is still bent on providing his readers with what they want: a steady diet of interviews with pop stars and answers to readers' practical questions dealing with everything from dieting to law. But AiF is also a political tribune eagerly sought by ministers and party leaders: Its circulation is huge and no other publication that writes on politics reaches so many potential voters.

It should be said that the current circulation of 3.26 million is roughly 10 percent of the one with which AiF made it into the Guinness Book of World Records during the late 1980s. Back then, Russians were reading everything in sight, trying to catch up on all the information they had missed under communism, and newspapers were dirt cheap. In economic terms, the 3 million copies sold now is roughly the equivalent of 30 million back then, so one can say that despite the huge drop in circulation, Starkov has not lost his market.

AiF has demonstrated its political influence on several occasions.

In April 1995, the newspaper published a list of 56 parliament deputies who voted against a bill calling for measures to end the war in Chechnya. In the next ballot on the bill, only one legislator dared to vote "no."

But Starkov has never in my memory used his paper's obvious political weight to engage in public relations for any party or, in recent days, any financial group. "I don't give a damn about politicians," Starkov said in a recent interview with Kommersant Daily. This statement might sound like a bit of populist bombast, but I cannot find any examples to prove it untrue. When writing about politics, AiF prefers the question and answer format, and it is as likely to interview a minister as a radical opposition leader. If the "man on the street" wants it, we'll have it, the principle seems to be.

Populism these days seems to be the only effective antidote to journalistic dependence on political and financial interests. Short articles, no highbrow commentaries or Latin quotes beloved of Russia's "quality" press, lots of pictures -- the formula is well known, and Starkov credits his successful use of it to his engineering education.

The effect is clear: The company is profitable, and Starkov, who owns about 20 percent of it, is financially independent to the point where he sees no need to shill for anyone or turn over the newspaper to a media magnate like Boris Berezovsky or Vladimir Gusinsky. He seems to be happy with what he has. "I know I can spend some of my money on some little folly without borrowing a kopek," he was reported as saying by Kapital.