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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Far East Press Losing Fight




On a cover of Moskovsky Komsomolets not long ago was a photograph of a dead body with the words: "To live and die in Primorye."


Maybe you have to live in this far southeastern region of Russia to understand why persisting in this kind of nonsense could get a paper in trouble. In a city that is mostly devoid of campaign posters, the only exceptions have been a rather restrained series of billboards touting Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. In one, sea gulls reel over a boundless sea. In another, a windsurfer crashes through a wave in what looks like Hawaii but is evidently supposed to be a choppy day along the beach in Vtoraya Rechka, where Vladivostok's raw sewage washes into the sea. Other billboards hint at the campaign's real intent: Nazdratenko stands in a crowd of uniformed seafarers, shaking the hand of a captain.


On every billboard is the slogan of the governor's re-election campaign: "To live and work in Primorye."


The message seems to be: Are sea gulls free to circle the skies? Thank Nazdratenko. Do windsurfers cut through the waves somewhere near Waikiki? Remember whose hand sets in motion the tides and the waves. And did the governor once greet a whole bunch of sailors? Well, come on, men and women of the sea. Re-elect him.


The staff of Moskovsky Komsomolets' Far Eastern edition, however, somehow didn't get the message. What to make of a newspaper that, ignoring explicit press releases on the scoundrel character of the regional duma chairman, persisted in interviewing him? Or which reported on the local official who called in the head of the independent Radio Lemma and warned the broadcaster to cross the street carefully because a speeding vehicle might take him out?


So it became necessary to reign in the paper before it did some serious harm, such as ruin the re-election chances of the man responsible for all the sunshine and sea gulls.


Not long ago, two Moskovsky Komsomolets journalists dropped by to discuss how a newspaper with a circulation of 1.4 million in 59 regions of Russia had buckled under in the face of pressure from a distant governor. Andrei Kalachinsky is the lanky, bearded, balding editor of the paper's local edition. Marina Loboda is a reporter who always carries in her purse not only a pack of cigarettes but a jar of coffee, because you never know what swill some hostess might try to fob off on you.


Both Kalachinsky and Loboda had once worked for the Vladivostok, the paper that publishes my English weekly, but left amid an editorial regime that prohibits criticism of the governor. (My paper has been left alone.)


For a time, Moskovsky Komsomolets - like a dwindling number of national media here - reported on news that otherwise would not have seen the light of day. When a British investor, for example, claimed that Nazdratenko had threatened to jail him in an attempt to extort control of a shipping company, the paper printed the news (the governor has denied making threats).


The newspaper's persistence in printing matters that were invisible in the local media got it kicked out of its city-owned office building last summer, as also happened recently to Radio Lemma. (The mayor, a Nazdratenko appointee, has denied pressuring journalists.)


The governor's press secretary, Natalia Vstovskaya, tried to reason with Kalachinsky. She wrote a story for the Vladivostok that concluded, "Journalist Kalachinsky, stop!" He replied with an editorial that ended, "Natalia Vstovskaya, stop!"


The regional administration was compelled to discipline the wayward newspaper. On a visit to Moscow, Nazdratenko allegedly spoke with Moskovsky Komsomolets' editor. It is unknown what transpired, but the boss sent a regional editor to Primorye to sniff around. According to local staff, he pronounced the staff biased and appointed a censor to make sure that nothing negative about Nazdratenko gets printed. (Vstovskaya could not be reached for comment, despite many calls over the past week.)


In the end, Kalachinsky has been left deflated by his experience. "I defended Radio Lemma," he said. "But when they [officials] tried to annihilate me the same way, not a single paper defended me."


Loboda plans to hang on at Moskovsky Komsomolets in the hopes things get better. But Kalachinsky has already resigned. This is his last week. New horizons await him. To live and be unemployed in Primorye.