#21 - JRL 2009-168 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
September 8, 2009
The Truth Russians Can’t Know
On the Tenth Anniversary of the Apartment Block Bombings in Russia, Conde Nast Offers the World a Lesson on the Drawbacks of Self-Censorship

By Roland Oliphant

An article published in the September issue of GQ magazine has caused a storm on the Internet after it became known that GQ’s publisher, Conde Nast, had launched a campaign to keep it from reaching the Russian audience. While the subject matter is sensitive, and the author himself did not expect it to be published in Russia, the apparently heavy-handed approach has turned an article in a single glossy magazine into a crisis of credibility.

It was always going to cause controversy. The article, titled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” centers around the apartment block bombings that rocked Russia in the summer of 1999, and which many believe played a key role in Putin’s rapid ascent to the presidency in the following months. The conventional narrative is that Putin’s quick and effective response to the bombings, and the success of the retaliatory war in Chechnya, won him the presidential elections the following year. Most accounts leave it there. The theory explored in the GQ article is that the bombings were organized by the FSB in order to create a pretext.

It is not a new theory – discrepancies in the investigation, especially the discovery of explosives in the basement of an apartment block in Ryazan that the FSB later claimed were “sacks of sugar,” prompted accusations almost immediately. Suspicions were so high that in a 1999 survey by the state-owned pollster VTsIOM, 47 percent of respondents blamed then-president Boris Yeltsin and his entourage for the attacks.

The case was discussed at length in the liberal media, and was later taken up by the murdered FSB officer-turned-dissident Alexander Litvinenko and historian Yury Felshtinsky in a book called “Blowing Up Russia.” It is still pursued by Mikhail Trepashkin, another former FSB man whose work Anderson’s article focused on. But these investigations have faced consistent obstruction from the authorities, and it is obviously still a sensitive issue.

So simply withholding the article from publication in the Russian version of GQ might be seen as editorial timidity, rather than conscious censorship. But according to a U.S. National Public Radio report on Friday, the company went above and beyond the call of prudence to bury what Scott Anderson, the author of the six-page article, called “the first time a major international news magazine decided to look at this issue in depth.”

“It didn't really surprise me that Conde Nast wouldn't want the article published in Russia,” said Anderson. “What did surprise me is that they would make the decision to not publish it anywhere outside the United States and, even more so, to decide to make no mention of it on the cover of the September issue of GQ or on their Web site.”

In its zeal, Conde Nast has probably drawn far more attention to the article than it would have received unmolested. The decision not to post the article online has backfired particularly spectacularly. Shortly after the story was broken on Friday, the Web site Gawker.com had scanned and posted the text of the print edition and invited volunteers to translate it. By Monday afternoon the Russian text had been replicated on blogs all over the RuNet (Russian Internet). By Tuesday, Russia’s mainstream press was running headlines like “In Russia, Putin Isn’t Written About,” (Moskovsky Komsomolets) and “A Story Planted in Russia” (Kommersant).

It is unclear what the thinking was behind the ban. When Russia Profile approached Russian GQ on Monday, a spokeswoman said that Conde Nast had issued instructions not to comment. But on Tuesday the Kommersant daily quoted Nikolai Uskov, the editor of Russian GQ, as saying that “the U.S. office has no effect on our editorial policy.” According to the NPR report, however, it was a senior Conde Nast lawyer who ordered that the piece was not to be published in any of the group’s magazines abroad.

According to Kommersant, Uskov claimed he did not run the story because it contained nothing new. “All these stories about the FSB have been known for a long time; there’s nothing sensational, for example, there’s no confession from former FSB director [Nikolai] Patrushev,” Ushkov told the paper. He added that GQ had run an interview with Litvinenko in 2005, in which he made the same claims.

Anderson described that as a cop-out. “This seems to be the party line that is being adopted by those defending the Russia government,” he said. “Certainly, these accusations or suspicions about the '99 bombings have been floating around out there for a long time, but what is new is that, for the first time, a major international news magazine has decided to look at this issue in depth.” He also rejected Uskov’s assumption that the stories were already in the public domain. “I also strongly doubt that most of the issues I raise in the article are common knowledge to the average Russian person, since very few Russian media outlets have ever written about this period at all other than to quote official government sources,” he added.

So why bury a relevant story? Anderson himself is skeptical that the publisher is reacting to a specific request from the Russian authorities. “I strongly doubt that anyone told Conde Nast not to publish the article,” he said. “Rather, I think they acted preemptively and that the steps they took to minimize the article's impact were done for a mixture of legal and economic reasons.”

Conde Nast has made a significant investment in the Russian glossy magazine market, publishing Russian versions of Vogue, Glamour and Tatler, and a furniture catalogue called AD magazine, as well as GQ. For a cautious executive, that might be a good reason to stamp on any article that might rile the wrong people.

And there is certainly good reason to believe that some people would prefer the case not to be discussed. “From the start, it seemed that the Kremlin was determined to suppress all discussion,” said Andrei Soldatov, an independent security analyst who has investigated the bombings. “When Alexander Podrabinek, a Russian human rights activist, tried to import copies of Litvinenko’s and Felshtinsky’s ‘Blowing up Russia’ in 2003, they were confiscated by the FSB. Trepashkin himself, acting as a lawyer for two relatives of the victims of the blast, was unable to obtain information he requested and was entitled to see by law,” he recalled.

Soldatov himself is skeptical about what he calls “Trepashkin’s claims to know everything,” and believes the obstruction of information reflects “paranoia” rather than guilt on the part of the authorities. But, he argues, this paranoia has produced the very conspiracy theories the government seemed keen to stamp out. That’s a mistake Conde Nast seems to have repeated.

Whether the article will affect public opinion is another question. Only about 30 percent of the population regularly use the Internet, a particularly low level of penetration, and most of those are young, educated, and concentrated in large cities – more or less the same demographic that would read GQ. “We’re not talking dozens of millions of people reading it,” said Olga Kamenchuk, an analyst at VTsIOM, “but we are talking millions.”

A poll for VTsIOM published Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the bombings found that only nine percent of Russians believe that the security services were definitely involved in the attacks (though another 15 percent believe there was “some possibility”). But when asked who bore the main responsibility for the attacks, fully a quarter nodded at the FSB (after ten years, feelings about the Yeltsin government have softened). “People might not think the special services carried out the bombings, but they do blame them for failing to stop it,” said Kamenchuk.

Conde Nast might do well to bear that in mind. This incident may not leave people thinking the publisher is a co-conspirator; but it does make it look incompetent.

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