The Moscow Times: an island of English in
a sea of Russian still doing it daily 15 years on

By Chloe Arnold
Special to The Moscow Times

Igor Tabakov / MT
News reporters Svetlana Osadchuk and Nabi Abdullaev writing in The Moscow Times' newsroom at a former furniture factory on 3 Polkovaya Ulitsa.

Lots of cities around the world have English-language newspapers. Most are fairly undistinguished. But somehow The Moscow Times — from the day it first came off the printing presses 15 years ago to now— has punched above its weight.

From the shelling of the parliament in 1993, through Boris Yeltsin's return from vodka-soaked oblivion in 1996 to win re-election, two wars in Chechnya, a market crash, the Beslan school attack and the Vladimir Putin years, the newspaper has been informing expatriate readers about what is happening in an often bewildering country.

That is not all. By striving to be independent, professional, objective and fair, The Moscow Times has carved out for itself another role, too: telling the truth about Russia at a time when Russia's own media, for whatever reasons, have struggled to do that. At times of crisis Russians, too, have turned to The Moscow Times to get the real story.

It all began when Derk Sauer, a Dutch entrepreneur who was running a weekly newspaper called The Moscow Guardian, decided the time was right for a daily paper.

He visited the Pravda press, where the Soviet Union's biggest circulation newspaper was printed, to negotiate a deal. Initially, the printers laughed at his proposed print run of 20,000 copies. They were printing up to 10 million newspapers every day.

But Sauer wasn't discouraged. He asked the director how much he would charge to print his newspaper. This time it was the director who looked confused. "We don't have prices," he told Sauer. "We just print and get paid by the government. You tell us what you think a fair price would be."

The first copy of the paper rolled off the Pravda presses on Oct. 2, 1992. Meg Bortin, the paper's founding editor, remembers launching the paper "with a big bash at a fancy hotel and a lot of jitters."

She went on: "For two years, the paper grew, and grew some more. It was the period when foreign businessmen, and diplomats and students, were pouring into a Russia newly delivered from the Communist era. We felt it was our mission to help these newcomers, few of whom knew Russian, understand the complexities of a very complex era."

But producing the paper on a daily basis was no easy feat, said Brenda Gray, the production editor at the time. One night, when there was a picture of Lenin on the front page, they refused to print until the editor called and placated them, she said.

Igor Tabakov / MT
McChesney, back center, and other editors attending a daily news meeting.

"The printers staged periodic stoppages because they weren't getting paid by their bosses. This was usually a 2 a.m. scrum. We'd soothe them with gifts, T-shirts, vodka. Then, when that got no joy, we began paying a salary directly to the men at the press machines," Gray said.

Within a year of its launch, the paper's young staff — most were in their early 20s — found themselves grappling with a story that would reshape history. Yeltsin's opponents were holed up in the parliament defying his rule. Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire on the building.

"That week was amazing," said David Filipov, a political reporter for The Moscow Times at the time. "One day, [some colleagues] and I climbed over fences and dodged patrols to get to the White House. It was a real siege in there.

Men in swastikas

"I recall sitting with Oleg Rumyantsev, who had written Yeltsin's first draft constitution, in his unheated, dark office, listening to Dire Straits on a Walkman. He was surrounded in the halls by men in swastikas. I always wonder what would have happened had they won," he said.

For Meg Bortin, it was a frightening time to be putting out a newspaper. "Reporters were getting shot at by the Ostankino television tower, and snipers were posted on the roof opposite our office," she said. "One of the reporters had to be airlifted by helicopter and sat shaking in my office, covered in soot, as he told me his story."

Producing a paper during the crisis "also directly became a means for Russians to find out what was happening at a time when censorship had been re-imposed," Bortin said. "This was because we were able to run in English the commentaries of leading Russian thinkers whose work had been banned from appearing in the local press.

"What we ran was then translated back into Russian by the BBC, Radio Free Europe, etc., and beamed into Russia via the airwaves — a minor triumph for us," she said.

A year later, Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya, beginning a long war that would test the integrity, stamina and courage of the media that tried to cover it. The Moscow Times followed events closely: Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, who reported from Chechnya for the newspaper, would go on to write an acclaimed book about the war.

In 1996, Yeltsin ran for president in a campaign that, in the words of then-editor Marc Champion, "saw him come back from the near dead, politically and physically."

One thing Champion clearly remembers as editor was when the paper came under attack from the Russian media for editorials he had written "criticizing their willingness to abandon objectivity, hide the fact that Yeltsin was extremely sick and effectively campaign for him collectively," he said.

"We were accused of 'passport journalism,' and that stung because it was entirely right," he said. "They would have to live with a [Communist] presidency, we could leave. But I still believe that was a crucial mistake — once a government knows journalists are willing to give up the effort at objectivity, there's no hope of keeping the right to make that effort."

In any case, Yeltsin won in a second round of voting, and just as it was looking like reporting on Russia was becoming easy and a little old hat, the markets collapsed in 1998, robbing millions of Russians of everything they owned.

Jim Kennett was the paper's business editor at the time. "I'd never seen the kind of public reaction, the fear, that came out of that decision — the lines at banks, the search for bank machines that still had cash, the emptying of store shelves and the resounding sense in every shop and restaurant that the party was over," he said.

Geoff Winestock, editor of the paper during the 1998 default, feels The Moscow Times played an important role: "It was good, because the Russian business press was not as developed as it is now, and I think we were able to make a contribution to covering the story that went beyond the English-language community."

Winestock's tenure at The Moscow Times coincided with one of Russia's most powerful banking-industrial holdings at the time, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Group Menatep, buying a 10 percent stake in the paper. Sauer assured staff that the integrity of its reporting was never threatened. But the deal caused anger and anxiety among reporters and editors — a sign, perhaps, of how jealously the newspaper has always guarded its independence.

In the years that followed, The Moscow Times covered the emergence and election as president of Vladimir Putin, the second war in Chechnya, the bloody theater siege in Moscow and the even bloodier events at School No. 1 in Beslan.

But for Lynn Berry, who edited the paper from 2001 to 2006, the single biggest story the paper covered while she was in charge was the collapse of Yukos and the jailing of its chief executive, Khodorkovsky.

"It was a story that illustrated better than anything else how Russia was being reshaped under Putin, and it was one that we covered aggressively day after day. No one covered it as thoroughly, or as well," she said.

The biggest stories the paper faces today are the forthcoming elections — parliamentary in December, presidential in March. Andrew McChesney, the current editor, said that in many ways, the role of The Moscow Times remained the same.

"News coverage of Russia tends to be in black and white terms, but the story is rarely as simple as that," he said. "This is where The Moscow Times comes in. It is uniquely positioned to sift through the layers of gray."

But, he said, some changes are in the offing: "In the upcoming months, we plan to include a more user-friendly, more frequently updated web site with near-live stock information," he said, adding that the current readership was 40 percent foreign, 60 percent Russian.

Perhaps because The Moscow Times has covered such enormous stories and in such depth, former staff have gone on to work at leading newspapers and news organizations. The Wall Street Journal employs almost a dozen Moscow Times alumni, while others have found their way into Bloomberg, Reuters, the BBC, CNN and newspapers in Britain, the United States and New Zealand.

"The Moscow Times used to be the secret of English-speakers in Moscow. Now, it provides insight into a strange land for the world," said Jeff Grocott, who edited the paper's weekly business section until 1998.

"And what a strange land it was and, no doubt, remains. It was a wonderland for journalists — with political coups and intrigues, financial shenanigans and economic chaos, all against a steady drumbeat of car-swallowing holes opening up in Moscow streets, lethal icicles crashing from building tops and summers where the hot water went off just as the ankle-high pukh gathered against sidewalks," he said. "There was always something to write."

Chloe Arnold worked as a reporter at The Moscow Times from 1995 to 1998. She served as the BBC's South Caucasus reporter from 2001 to 2004 and is now Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Moscow correspondent.