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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: In Russia -- Just in Time!




Black humor is as vital an element of the current Russian crisis as the collapsing ruble. When your savings are gone, your friends are being laid off and your local store charges prices you don't want to pay, what do you do? Laugh, of course. It would be ridiculous to weep.


So I laughed my head off when I saw the TV commercial for the Russian edition of Vogue magazine. "In Russia, Finally!" the slogan went. Finally, I knew what the missing element was in our hilarious version of reality: Vogue.


I was not the only one giggling at that slogan. "Some situations do look like the frolics of some second-rate archangel who is in charge of coincidences up there in the heavenly bureaucracy," wrote Kommersant Daily. "The Russian edition of Vogue hit the newsstands the day the Kiriyenko government was fired, Zyuganov reveled in his triumph, and the entire middle class went to the dogs. ... The life serviced by glossy lifestyle-building magazines has deflated and is dissolving right before our eyes."


But black humor is like those Russian dolls that Western newspapers can never spell right, and so are just called "Russian dolls." As a business newspaper, Kommersant is itself in grave danger of going under, partly because of its inefficiency and partly because the life it "serviced" has all but ceased.


Just a couple of months ago, the Kommersant publishing house announced that it was for sale. Several minority investors were sought and a number of big foreign publishing houses were approached. The asking price was way too high, though, and the company was not transparent or profitable enough. The only Kommersant publication that did make a serious profit was Dengi, or Money, a personal investment magazine. At a time when a jar stuffed with dollars buried in an orchard is the best personal investment option, I'll wager that Dengi, too, will not be feeling very good financially.


So there were no takers. There are certainly none now, unless some global publishing giant takes the chance to beat down the price.


Other Russian publishing empires are in a similar fix. The dailies Komsomolskaya Pravda and Izvestia are forced to print on credit and cut the number of pages. Advertising revenues are drying up, and publications that depend on large newsstand sales cannot make any money because they have large printing expenses -- which have increased like most other prices -- and by the time distributors pay up, the money is worthless. Besides, the new banking group that includes Uneximbank, MOST and Menatep (Uneximbank controls Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, and MOST controls the daily Segodnya) has more important problems now than tending to the publishers' wounds.


Foreign publishing companies are also getting hit by the crisis. Paris Match, the French weekly magazine that has planned to start publishing in Russia next Tuesday, has now given up on the weekly format and plans to come out monthly. And then there is the Dutch-owned Independent Media holding, publishers of The Moscow Times and a glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy -- and now Yes, a glossy magazine aimed at teenaged girls that hit the streets two days after the ruble devaluation. Independent Media management says Yes is doing quite well even so, but also admits the crisis is biting company-wide as advertising slumps and the cost of printing magazines abroad climbs.


Amazingly, though, some advertisers with luxury items to sell are sticking to their guns. The assumption is that though Russia's super-rich have lost some of their wealth -- and some are moving their money and their families abroad -- they have plenty of money left for Hermes ties and Brioni suits.


And, even more strangely, some publishing companies that should logically be folding, are plodding on cheerfully. Though Uneximbank planned to stop financing the daily Russky Telegraf this month, the unprofitable paper's lease on life has been extended until December.


Kompaniya magazine, owned by the National Reserve Bank, is not only not closing but planning some expansion with new supplements. Kompaniya looks as though the main reason it is still around is black humor -- its latest issue had a black cover that said, "The Russian economy. 1991-1998." In other words, the economy is dead, but the magazine that's all about it goes on.


The long-expected shakeout in the Russian publishing industry is finally at hand, and it will be more severe than most people expected. Those who survive are likely to be more cynical and inclined toward morbid humor than the idealistic publishers who came a few years ago to conquer the market.