To Moscow With News

Twenty years ago this week, The Moscow Times was launched as Russia’s first independent daily newspaper in English. As the daily’s first editor, I’d like to share some memories of what it was like to start an independent paper in the Russia of those days, and some thoughts about what it means to edit a newspaper in a place where the Kremlin continues to cast a long shadow — even if censorship has theoretically ceased to exist.

In the autumn of 1991, when I was first approached about the editing job, Moscow was still the capital of a country called the Soviet Union. The Communist Party was in power in the Kremlin and newspapers were censored, as they had been since the days of the czars.

But things were changing rapidly. On Dec. 25, Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down and Russia emerged as an independent country under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Censorship began to fade. Derk Sauer, a Dutch publisher who had come to Moscow in 1989, made plans to turn a small, twice-weekly paper he was producing into a world-class daily.

By the time I returned to Moscow in May 1992 (I had been there from 1986 to 1988 as a Reuters correspondent), Sauer had moved his publishing operation — which, as Independent Media, eventually grew to almost three dozen magazines and three newspapers — to the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel.

The Moscow Times, previously the Moscow Guardian, was still coming out twice a week, its editor working out of one hotel room. In the cubicle next door, I began hiring the young editors and reporters with whom we would launch a daily.

But starting a daily didn’t just mean hiring a staff. The Internet did not yet exist; we needed news agency copy, and to receive it we needed a satellite dish. I cannot remember how many hours I spent on the roof of the Slavyanskaya working on this problem, but eventually it got solved. More or less.

We couldn’t receive the Associated Press by satellite for some reason, so one of our interns had to walk about half a mile to the AP office every day, returning with giant paper rolls of copy. The dispatches the editors chose then had to be typed into the system.

But first we needed a system! We achieved this by wiring our computers together through the walls of our hotel rooms to create a virtual newsroom.

Of course there were tensions. Everything had to be ready for our launch in early October. The good news was that when it all got to be too much, we could freshen up right in our offices — this was no small deal in the Moscow of the time.

“That was the funniest thing about working out of a hotel — everybody had their own showers,” Eric Jones, a young American who arrived to design the daily paper, recalled recently.

When the first issue of the daily Moscow Times came out on Oct. 2, 1992, no one could have imagined the impact the paper would have. Within a year our tiny editorial staff had grown to 50, and the paper was being quoted both in Russia and the West as a primary source of news and opinion.

We played an important role by giving space to Russian commentators who, despite relaxation of controls on press freedom, couldn’t always find a Russian-language venue for their articles.

The importance of our role was brought home around the time of our first anniversary when anti-Yeltsin forces occupied the Russian Parliament and censorship was revived. Russian newspapers came out with large blank spaces on their front pages where articles critical of the authorities had been suppressed. The writers of those articles came to see us. Published the next day in English in The Moscow Times, their articles were quickly picked up and beamed back in Russian by the BBC and other foreign radios, defeating the censors.

This independence was the strength of the paper then — and still is now, 20 years on. It explains why The Moscow Times has remained an essential newspaper not just for Moscow’s foreign community of diplomats, business people, students and journalists, but also for many independent-minded Russians.

As a member of the original editing team, Chris Klein, put it: “The common thread is how honored we all feel to have been part of something that was new and important and that made a difference. We go into journalism to tell the truth and make a difference, and to do so in such a challenging environment was especially meaningful for all of us.”

The question for the next 20 years is whether the paper can retain this independence. For those of us who worked in Russia in Soviet times, it is difficult to read the news from Moscow these days without thinking back to those repressive years.

The current challenge is greater than the one I faced in October 1992, for Russia appears to be at a crossroads. Will it embrace democratic values or backslide into authoritarianism? Will it buttress freedom of expression or intensify the current trend toward censorship? And through all of this, will The Moscow Times continue to tell the truth and make a difference?

I hope and trust that it will.

Meg Bortin, a former editor at the IHT, is a journalist based in Paris.

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