Mikhail Khodorkovsky on trial in Moscow. Photo by Misha Japaridze/The Associated Press.
To get a better idea of our options—when it came time for us to decide how to report on the two verdicts against dissidents—imagine The New York Times Magazine with which our magazine has many similarities, at least in its format. Bolshoy Gorod (Big City) opens with four back-to-back columns, followed by two or three long feature pieces, a photo story, then a personal-finance section, a style section, an entertainment section, and we close the magazine with two more columns.

Essentially, we were left with two choices for covering these verdicts. Either we’d do a large feature piece or a column. But there were two complicating factors: The party in question, the National Bolsheviks, is an organization with a checkered past and an odious name; in addition, this would be our first redesigned issue, and it would be coming out more than a month after the verdicts—meaning that our decision to cover them would be a noticeable statement. And it was a statement that seemed important: The verdicts were a major milestone and, in positioning our publication, it was important for us to show our readers that we’d noticed.

Weighing the Idea of a Column

“Fear and Self-Censorship in Vladimir Putin’s Russia”
– By Masha Gessen
The option the editor and I initially favored was asking the leader of the National Bolshevik Party (NBP) to write the opening column for this issue. The column’s standing title is best translated as “Sensations,” and in it authors are asked to examine a feeling or use a small incident to illustrate a larger truth of our lives today. We envisioned the party leader perhaps describing what his day had been like as he called the attorneys for 42 young members of his organization currently in detention and awaiting trial, 10 of whom are underage. There were two arguments in favor of assigning this column. First, the leader of the NBP is Eduard Limonov, one of Russia’s most accomplished and best-known writers, who was the author of many bestsellers long before he began his unlikely political career. Second, because of Limonov’s fame as a writer and his increasing notoriety as a politician, the column would attract a lot of readers.

Other editors on our staff—there are seven of us altogether—disagreed, and their main reservation concerned Limonov’s reputation. He’d made some extremely nationalist pronouncements in the past, and though now he seemed to tout a strictly pro-democracy line, his name and his party’s still make many people uncomfortable. And in a time when the political lines were shifting, Russians were back to that uncomfortable situation in which all who oppose the regime have to stick together, regardless of their individual political views. But our fear was that by erring on the side of solidarity we would send the wrong message—if we did this, it would seem as though we were willing to own Limonov’s reputation as well as his words.

As we talked more about our approach to this story, it became increasingly clear that this shifting political landscape—and the place the NBP held in it—was what we needed to focus attention on. This awareness became the solution to our dilemma. For this issue, I ended up writing a piece on the National Bolshevik Party and how it fit into the ever-changing environment of Russian opposition politics. The story ended up exploring what is so wrong with Russia today that allows the National Bolsheviks to embody the role of the government’s strongest opposition.

Letters to Khodorkovsky

Reaction to the piece was just what we wanted. People talked about it, and a lot of them clearly felt uncomfortable with it. There was no indication the article irked anyone close to the Kremlin, yet I felt we’d done a very good piece of journalism.

Of course, before long, another dilemma surfaced. We came up with the idea of making the jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky—perhaps the world’s most famous and wealthiest inmate—a regular columnist in the magazine. We didn’t want him writing biweekly political manifestoes (although he has published a couple in other publications). Rather, we’d grown fascinated with the new phenomenon of thousands of people writing to Khodorkovsky in jail. Most simply write to express their support, yet hundreds of women have declared their love for him in their letters, and many people ask his opinion on a variety of topics. In a sense, he has come to symbolize a kind of higher wisdom: People seem to believe that someone who had it all and has lost it and is now alone with his thoughts, yet seems to have held it together and kept his sense of humor, is possessed of a knowledge we all would like to possess.

We approached Khodorkovsky to ask if we could publish some of his correspondence and also start routing our readers’ letters to him. He agreed, and we started to fashion a sort of Khodorkovsky advice column. To say this idea made managers of our publishing house nervous would be a significant understatement. One of them threatened to resign if we went ahead with the plan. The fear was that advertisers would flee, distribution would collapse, and the Kremlin would squash us. In the end, though, we were able to convince our publishing colleagues that no disaster was in the offing. No one quit, and we started running the column in mid-April.

Readers’ reaction has been good. Letters to Khodorkovsky are pouring in. But on the production side, the new column is a nightmare. Each letter, and each edit, requires a ridiculous number of steps to complete. But the biggest problem so far is Khodorkovsky has not turned out to be a very good writer. He gets wonderfully written letters, asking him, for example, to reflect on how many lives he has had, and responds in the stilted manner of a politician running for office. We are hoping he’ll relax after a while and hit his stride.

We are also mindful that there is something very wrong with this editorial decision if we are publishing the words and thoughts of a bad writer simply because he is in jail. But the most significant lesson so far has been that in today’s Russia, most of us can get away with just about as much as we dare to get away with. The trick is not to rush to censor oneself.

Masha Gessen, a 2004 Nieman Fellow, is deputy editor of Bolshoy Gorod, an independent magazine based in Moscow.

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