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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pioneer Expat Leaves Russia Beat




Betsy McKay has two stacks of newspapers at home, each the height of a small child. Neatly kept in chronological order, there is every issue of The Moscow Times and the Moscow Guardian.


"When you look back at the newspaper, you see all the same headlines over the years: 'New Effort of Reforms,' 'Yeltsin Cracks Down on Corruption,' 'Foreigners Demand Changes in Tax Legislation,'" laughed McKay, 38, who started her journalism career at the now-defunct Guardian. "It's history. I'll keep it as long as it doesn't disintegrate."


After sitting for eight years on the floor of McKay's Moscow apartment, the stacks have been moved this week to her new home in Atlanta, where she will be covering the beverage industry for the Wall Street Journal.


McKay is one of a number of Russophiles who threw themselves into journalism in the early 1990s and made brilliant careers from ground zero. At 30, the graduate student in Russian linguistics became a founding editor of The Moscow Times. In April, she was part of the Wall Street Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for coverage of the Russian financial crisis.


McKay, originally from Vermont, first visited the Soviet Union in 1983, when she had to call her Russian friends from pay phones out of fear of getting them in trouble. She witnessed all the major changes that stunned Russia in the next decade.


Now, for the first time in 15 years, McKay and her husband, Niel Bainton, 38, will have nothing to do with Russia when they start a new life in Atlanta.


"It will be strange," said McKay, interviewed at the Journal's Moscow bureau a few days before her departure. She regrets having to leave before the presidential elections and thus miss the "last chapter in the Yeltsin period of Russian history."


The couple moved to Moscow permanently in January 1990, Bainton to work as a marketing director for Dupont, McKay looking for a dissertation topic. With all the political turmoil, foreign news bureaus were looking for Russian speakers to help out at the time, and McKay got a temporary job at CBS News. Then she met Derk Sauer, then publisher of the monthly Moscow Magazine. He was planning to launch a weekly newspaper.


"He kept asking me: 'Do you want the job?' They couldn't promise any salary ? everything would depend on whether the newspaper took off. But I just thought: 'How could this lose? It was such a good idea,'" said McKay, who accepted the job editing the Moscow Guardian.


There were lots of opportunities for aspiring reporters back then. "You could just show up at the paper and you'd be hired right away," McKay said.


With the same attitude, she invited her friend David Filipov, also a graduate student looking for a job, to put together a sports page.


"I became a journalist thanks to Betsy," says Filipov, now the Boston Globe correspondent.


They learned as they produced the paper, at the Guardian and later at The Moscow Times, Sauer's next venture.


"Russia tends to attract some of the best journalists in the world. I would observe them, read their stuff," says McKay. "I consider myself very lucky."


McKay went part-time when her daughter, Larisa, was born in 1994. She and Bainton also have a son, Andrew, who is two. McKay freelanced for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal, which hired her when the Moscow bureau opened in 1996.


After all this, she's entitled to an opinion on where Russia is headed.


"A few years ago an editor asked me: 'So, in 20 years, am I going to see a miracle or a basket case?' I said, you're not going to see either one, but a country in a perpetual struggle to define itself ? it will be getting by somehow. Probably things will be better than they are now," she recalls. "That's what I told him back then, and so far I've been right."