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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Farewell, Vladivostok News




The Vladivostok News was the first employer that ever failed to pay my wages for three months straight. It is the only place I have ever worked where bosses twice asked me to help create a rival paper to compete with my own.


Certain oddities about the Vladivostok News will always stay with me: the way the cigarette butts were piled 6 centimeters thick on the windowsills of our old building's stairwell. Or the way the landlord shut off the water for six months in an attempt to drive out a communist editor who was collecting rent from tenants and chopping down the doors of those who refused to pay.


The Vladivostok News was the kind of workplace that caused most employees to flee town screaming in less than a year, socks tumbling from their suitcases as they scrambled up the airplane gangway. I held out as editor for three years. I loved the Vladivostok News, and I hated it. And now, at last, I have left it.


Two of our three employees - deputy editor Nonna Chernyakova and I - resigned Friday to pursue freelancing. Our reporter, Anatoly Medetsky, will remain as editor, possibly assisted by some American Mormons whom the publisher may bring on board as volunteer copy editors in exchange for web space. Naturally, this will take the paper in new directions.


As for me, three years is enough time to devote to a struggling weekly that now exists on the Internet only. Besides, our work has taken us to Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and many parts of the Russian Far East. And it didn't hurt to figure my taxes this month and realize my total 1999 salary amounted to $1,200.


The Vladivostok News was launched in 1993, when a Russian daily, the Vladivostok, decided to launch an English biweekly in this formerly closed port city. It lost money for seven years. It is now almost painful to recall, in the midst of the Far Eastern Primorye region's economic collapse, but the publisher was confident that the region would boom and draw thousands of foreign investors.


The Vladivostok News has been fortunate. We were editorially independent - not something to be taken for granted in Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko's Primorye. Because we have published in English (and, since the 1998 ruble crisis, on the Internet only), we were free to report on matters that might have gotten other newspapers closed.


While our parent paper had to cheer on Nazdratenko, we covered stories damaging to the governor; yet we hastened to point out the folly of his arch-rival, former Mayor Viktor Cherepkov. Alone among local papers, we devoted two articles to Nazdratenko's gift of an endangered tiger's skin to the autocratic president of Belarus. We reported on the alleged crime connections of ranking members of the regional administration. We wrote about Cherepkov's cutting off of funds to orphanages, psychiatric institutions and maternity homes.


We were one of the few Primorye papers to report last summer that thugs had beaten up Yury Stepanov, a Radio Lemma journalist who persisted in interviewing the governor's critics. I remember the terror in his eyes as he lay gasping on the couch of his apartment, suffering from concussion and broken ribs, his face purple like an eggplant. And we were there in November when acting Mayor Yury Kopylov sent armed police to shut down Stepanov's station in defiance of the Russian Constitution.


Yet we tried to be fair and report the good news: When Nazdratenko announced that a mysterious French baron had given him a million-dollar award as "World Aristocratic Governor of the Year," we hastened to inform our readers.


The Vladivostok News' editorial independence was not a testimony to the courage of our staff, but to the unevenness of the regional administration's censorship of the local media. It was as if we were ghosts, existing in a parallel realm. But it gives me hope for the future of a free press in Russia: If any reporter wants to criticize regional politicians in Farsi or Urdu, I am confident he will not be kidnapped, strung from the ceiling, beaten and burned with cigarettes, as happened to a local reporter several years ago.


Whatever the future of the Vladivostok News, these past seven years were not in vain. In creating an English weekly, the Vladivostok's editors brought something new to the company: a taste of freedom that they themselves could not experience. We thank them for that. It matters that a straight-jacketed newspaper gave a few English speakers the means to report the truth, as best we knew how. I hope we have lived up to the privilege.