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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Covert Success of Top Secret




Artyom Borovik, publisher and editor of a Russian monthly tabloid called Sovershenno Sekretno, or Top Secret, almost agreed to sell his publication to Rupert Murdoch back in 1990. But then Borovik's wife barged in on the talks and said she would not let her husband sell out cheaply. The talks broke down the same day. At least, that's the way Borovik tells the story.


Murdoch must have thought, "These people are savages. They need a family psychologist, not a business partner." News Corp. waited until last year to cautiously get into the Russian market. Boris Berezovsky's wife was unlikely to have played a part in Murdoch's talks with her husband.


But Borovik thrived despite Murdoch's decision not to get involved. He says banks have since offered him millions of dollars for his company, which also produces the weekly tabloid Versii, the magazine Litsa (Faces) and publishes fiction. He turned them down, too.


Versii is produced in partnership with Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of the U.S. News and World Report, the New York Daily News and Atlantic Monthly. Sovershenno Sekretno, despite being a rather flimsy, monthly, 32-page newspaper, boasts a circulation of 2.3 million copies, very respectable by any standard.


Borovik is, in fact, a strange character. The son of Genrikh Borovik, a premier Soviet foreign correspondent and propaganda genius, Artyom always had a taste for sensational investigative journalism, something the Soviet system denied his father a chance to do. His stories from Afghanistan during the Soviet troop withdrawal were the talk of Moscow. And the best of them were not even published: The weekly Ogonyok refused to run stories that told of Soviet troops razing peaceful Afghan villages.


Borovik Jr. was probably the first Russian to serve in the U.S. military, when in the late 1980s Life magazine arranged an exchange with Ogonyok. Life sent a reporter to serve for a few weeks in the Leningrad military district, and Ogonyok sent Borovik to basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia.


Liberal intellectuals saw him as the exact opposite of his father: young, open-minded and adventurous, whereas Genrikh was cynical and just found smart ways to push the party line.


But Artyom could not have become head of Sovershenno Sekretno without his father's connections. The monthly was founded by Yulian Semyonov, a famous Soviet spy novelist who used KGB records to craft his Tom Clancy-like thrillers. It was logical for Semyonov to recruit young, energetic Artyom - but only considering the fact that Borovik Sr. had good KGB ties of his own.


Clearly eager to prove he made it on his own, Borovik Jr. claims his father's ties were cut off in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed and waves of officials were replaced. If that is the case, Artyom's feat has been truly impressive. He admits that 50 percent of Sovershenno Sekretno's information comes from "highly-placed sources in the Kremlin and in the government." Either some of the old people are still in place there, or Artyom has put together a bigger network of contacts than anyone in the business in just a few years.


And sometimes this information is truly incredible. The latest issue, for example, contains a story detailing advertising mogul Sergei Lisovsky's alleged tax shenanigans for which Lisovsky used a charity foundation. Lisovsky is under attack from the tax police, who have refused to give out specific information about the case. They apparently chose to leak it to Sovershenno Sekretno.


The story about former Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov cavorting with prostitutes in a mafia sauna is perhaps the newspaper's best-known scoop. It must have come from law enforcement sources, but they were never revealed, and Kovalyov was fired.


Just for that sort of story, Sovershenno Sekretno keeps a large legal staff. Borovik says he does not ask his reporters about their sources, he just asks the lawyers to go through the copy and see if it is libelous. He claims the publishing house wins nine court cases out of every 10 filed against it.


Versii, on the other hand, is a bigger-budget but tamer publication. Borovik says he originally planned it as pure entertainment for members of the middle class bored with quality publications. But the Aug. 17 crisis forced him to reconsider and start reporting more political and economic news.


Borovik now sees his weekly as Moscow's answer to the Daily News. "We are not afraid of the street," he says, citing a recent headline for a story about the state of the Russian capital's sewer system. "Moscow Will Soon Sink into Dung," the headline said.