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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Big Picture Behind a Small Disaster

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Everyone is talking about the letter. Nine staff members of Moskovskiye Novosti, the flagship newspaper of perestroika long relegated to the rank of small-circulation weekly, wrote a letter to their editor asking him to resign. In retaliation, the editor fired most of them.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, the editor in question, Yevgeny Kiselyov, is one of the biggest brand names in Russian journalism. For another, the paper now belongs to Menatep, the company that once belonged to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's most famous inmate. Kiselyov's appointment coincided with the purchase of MN by Menatep 15 months ago, and was widely seen as an attempt to breathe new life into what had been an ailing paper for a while. Instead, though -- as the letter, which has now been published widely, shows -- Kiselyov has done nothing to advance the paper and has, it seems, caused it nothing but grief.

But still, so what? What makes this more significant than any other bitter labor dispute? It's not the fact that the principal owner of the paper is in exile in Israel while his partner faces a show trial in Moscow. It's not even that Kiselyov has been at the center of more media scandals in the last four years than most journalists see in a lifetime. It's that the destruction of yet another publication in this city seems part of a process that's bigger than any of its participants, who are helpless to turn whatever their intentions may be into anything constructive. It's what an insurance company might call "an act of God" -- and the rest of us would simply call a disaster.

Kiselyov was the co-founder of NTV, Russia's first private nationwide television network. He hosted the channel's weekly analytical news show. His show wasn't a hit with everyone, but it was well watched. The team of journalists working at NTV was the best Russia has ever known. This wasn't entirely Kiselyov's doing, but the fact that NTV assembled the country's most talented editorial managers and trained its best young reporters was certainly to his credit. Then, in 2001, NTV was taken over by the state, after its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was driven out of the country. After a standoff that lasted several weeks, Kiselyov left the channel, taking a large part of the staff with him. They were soon given refuge at TV6, a small entertainment network that belonged to another former oligarch, Boris Berezovsky. But this is where things got less than constructive. Kiselyov was no longer starting a project from scratch: There were people working at TV6 already, and they were displaced by the arrival of Kiselyov's team.

The state didn't leave Kiselyov alone. TV6 was shut down, and the Kiselyov project that followed, TVS, was also killed. Each time, Kiselyov lost members of his team, so that by the time he arrived at MN, he was alone. Kiselyov is no angel. The letter from MN editors and writers is damning: Even one who is loathe to take sides can see that Kiselyov has done a terrible job at MN. I'm not going to argue that it's not his fault -- only that it was inevitable.

Every person has good and bad qualities. Most people, I think, find places where their best qualities are used, simply because this is the way to succeed. When people are propelled into circumstances they didn't choose, their worst qualities come into play. They become a destructive force: in effect, an instrument of the force that displaced them in the first place. A chain reaction ensues. A list of all the editorial teams that have been displaced and the television channels, newspapers and magazines that have been destroyed would take up more than the space allotted to this column. And media is not the only area in which this is happening. Every time the state starts to reshape another area of business after its own image, it sets off a process that will ultimately affect every person working in that area. Which is perhaps why the story of a small-circulation weekly and its agony is drawing more than its fair share of attention.

Masha Gessen is deputy editor of Bolshoi Gorod.