Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Longer Fitting Into the Picture

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

August has become an ominous season for Russian politics. This year — even though the month has thankfully so far been free of crises and catastrophes — is no exception. Two major events happened, which were closely connected to one another.

The first was President Vladimir Putin's denunciation of the country over which he presides. By not saying a single word on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup that spelled the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the creation of the sovereign Russian Federation, Putin has made it perfectly clear that he does not acknowledge those key events in Russian and global history. By extension, then, he also does not recognize the country that emerged from these events and has aligned himself with those who dream of restoring the Soviet Union. Instead of participating in the commemoration, Putin met with Russian Orthodox clerics, sending another telling message: He has found an ideology to replace Communism. Russian Orthodoxy — traditionally an official church and a pillar of support for the tzars since the mid-17th century — has long been fighting to secure the spot vacated by the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Now, it seems to have it.

A second event happened a week earlier, but sends a no less important signal. The president signed a decree establishing a powerful new monopoly — a state-owned Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network. Previously, the system had been split between two ministries. This new state monopoly, by virtue of its control over the delivery of national television signals, has the power to manage the perception of reality for the entire country. De facto, the Soviet Gosteleradio, which once controlled all national networks and broadcasting facilities, has been reborn.

The Kremlin's motivations are clear enough, in view of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Putin wants to make sure that there is no way for an unsanctioned alternative party or presidential candidate to emerge. The Kremlin remembers perfectly well that the virtual reality of the media made Putin president and created his Unity party, which is the second-largest faction in the State Duma.

However, Putin's decree, which has long been lobbied by Press Minister Mikhail Lesin — co-founder of the company Video International, which holds a near monopoly on the sale of advertising on the major channels, including state television — conceals several other layers of significance as well. It signals primarily that Putin's promises — such as the commitments to distance himself from the oligarchs, to divorce the state from business, to establish equal rights and opportunities for all players on the market and to root out the corruptive aspects of the previous regime — were nothing but populist rhetoric.

Lesin, as the new CEO of this strange Russian version of a "free press," is a pure symbol of these false promises. I first crossed paths with Lesin back in 1996 when I learned that he — the former advertising manager of Boris Yeltsin's 1996 presidential campaign who, immediately after Yeltsin's victory, was appointed deputy chief of the presidential administration — had opened a thriving private business right out of the administration's offices. He was selling videotapes containing an exclusive interview with Yeltsin in which the president first publicly announced that he would have to undergo heart bypass surgery and asked the country to prepare itself.

Soon after I wrote this story, Lesin was fired. But he didn't sink away into oblivion. Several months later, he was appointed one of the top managers at the state television and radio company, which runs the RTR channel. Lesin's company, Video International, held — and still holds — the exclusive rights to sell RTR's advertising time. Lesin denies that he still holds a stake in Video International and generally prefers to refer to himself as its "co-founder." Since that time, Lesin has become a powerful and indispensable member of what has come to be referred to in the press as "The Family."

Earlier this year, the Audit Chamber uncovered numerous indications of the misappropriation of state funds related to RTR, including tax evasion, under the table payments and the like. As a former employee of RTR, I can add a couple of other charges, including falsified contracts, cheating, violation of contractual obligation, funneling money via affiliated companies and that sort of thing.

However, this investigation was quickly swept under the rug. Lesin, who by then was already press minister, came through it untainted. On the contrary, he has emerged as the leader of an ongoing project that is called "Improving Russia's Image." Clearly, Putin has his own views of Lesin.

The next time that Lesin emerged into the spotlight was when he signed his name to the infamous "freedom for shares" deal, in which Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky agreed to relinquish his control of NTV in exchange for his personal freedom. By orchestrating the successful campaign against NTV and by eliminating two powerful competitors in Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, Lesin became Russia's exclusive information oligarch.

Lesin's next target was German Gref, economic development and trade minister and the main proponent of reforming and streamlining the bureaucracy. In violation of the concept of the law on licensing that was aimed to prevent bureaucrats from regulating businesses, Lesin has managed to preserve for his Press Ministry the rights to constrain competitors and to prevent newcomers from entering the fields where his interests lie. In August, Putin signed an abridged version of the licensing law, which is a far cry from what had originally been planned.

Combining the roles of aggressive businessman and high-ranking state official, Lesin is the embodiment of what went wrong with Russia's post-Soviet reforms. It is evident that Putin has no will or desire to put these things right. To paraphrase George Orwell, the state motto continues to be that "All oligarchs are equal, but some are more equal than others."

That is why Russia has lost its chance to become a civilized, democratic country — at least, anytime soon. You don't have to be Nostradamus to foresee what will happen over the next year in Russian politics. It will be laden with imperialistic rhetoric. A new state ideology will be institutionalized. Nationalism will flourish. A more skillful version of Soviet propaganda will dominate the airwaves and the major national newspapers. Transaction costs for small and medium-sized businesses will creep up.

I should confess. I do not fit into this picture. My self-exile to the English-speaking press has finally reached its limits as well. I have been writing this column now for nearly two years, and I loved it. But I need to take a break now in order to distance myself from the everyday of Russian politics, to think about what happened and why. I need to think about what happened to people like me, people who 10 years ago were willing to lay down their lives for democracy. I need to think about what happened to Russian journalism, to which I no longer belong.

Everyone is entitled, at least once in their lives, to retreat into monastic seclusion. I will be there until I find some other place. Or a way out.

Yevgenia Albats is an independent, Moscow-based journalist. This is her last column for The Moscow Times.