Let’s do some samizdat!

I was spending this academic year at Stanford trying to answer the question “How might we secure financial sustainability of independent investigative media in Russia?” This post is the third in a series “Creating a new media prototype” (here you can find the first and the second ones).

Now I’m happy to announce the launch of a new investigative Russian-language media, called “Project”. This was the result of the long efforts of the team of like-minded people, as well as the advice and support that my colleagues, fellow fellows and friends at Stanford had given me. Thank you all for this!

In the next post I’ll talk more about the model and the first results of “Project”, and now I will explain why I consider this important.

This is paradoxical, but the situation in the Russian media is deplorable and encouraging at the same time. Why it is deplorable, is clear. The reasons for hope are somewhat more complicated. I’ll try to explain.

In the last 30 years of the existence of the Soviet Union, in my homeland there was such a thing as “samizdat,” which literally means “self-publishing.” In my opinion, it should enter into foreign languages ​​on a par with the words “sputnik” and “perestroika,” because the global importance of this phenomenon is extremely large. Thousands of people throughout the Soviet Union, at their own peril and risk, at their own expense and overcoming considerable difficulties, typed and sometimes rewrote by hand, forbidden books and articles, copied and distributed songs and films of artists and directors who fell into disgrace. Others produced de facto clandestine media, extracting news, in particular, by secretly listening to “foreign voices” — radio broadcasts of Western stations banned in the USSR. Probably, there was no person in the USSR who would not have encountered “samizdat” in one way or another. Even people who were the most apolitical and loyal to the Soviet system listened to the forbidden bootleg albums of the singer and poet Vladimir Vysotsky, read the “lists” of the “Gulag Archipelago” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn or the “Children of Arbat” by Anatoly Rybakov. I remember how my parents, resolutely apolitical people, kept a collection of Vysotsky’s poems “Nerve” reprinted in “samizdat” (the book was first published abroad, but in the USSR only after the author’s death).

The risk that the authors and distributors of samizdat dealt with was not abstract. Hundreds or thousands of Soviet people went to prison or for compulsory psychiatric treatment (this was a “popular” punishment for dissidents) for such activities. The words “samizdat” and “dissident” in general can only stand side by side, like “Gagarin” and “cosmonaut.” Lyudmila Alekseeva, perhaps the most famous human rights activist in the USSR and Russia, began her work as a “samizdat” typist.

It is difficult to say with historical accuracy what role samizdat played in the collapse of unscrupulous Soviet censorship, but I would suggest that its role was outstanding. Despite that, in Russia today there is censorship again, but fortunately we can still freely read the “Gulag Archipelago” or “Yawning Heights” because of the past efforts of the thousands of brave men and women who previously reprinted these books secretly from the KGB.

It seems to me that now we are back in the era of “samizdat” and it’s good!

A decade ago, the Russian media market was run by major players — state, private, even foreign. Since then, a lot has changed: Foreign publishers were simply expelled, the large oligarchs were either forced out of media ownership or forced to swear allegiance to the government. However, all of them — thanks to the development of new technologies — have lost their exclusive rights to the audience. In Russia there is a joke about who wins in the struggle for the minds of a common citizen — TV set, computer or fridge. In other words, it is a dispute about what will prove to be more important to a person — the propaganda that he sees every day on Russian television, news that is so far more freely recognizable on the Internet, or the deterioration in the quality of life, which is expressed, among other things by the poorly stocked fridge of most Russians. Already now, “TV set” and “computer” are at least equal: In 2016 five large web sites (Yandex, VK, Google, Mail.Ru and YouTube) each exceeded the audience of the country’s largest television channel, “First”.

This fact made possible the appearance in Russia of a considerable number of new, sometimes extremely small, sometimes niche media and quasi-media. Most of them repeat the principles of “samizdat” or are similar to that approach: They are registered abroad, far from Russian control bodies, or are not registered at all; some of them are anonymous; most of them are trying to work with the most active, young audience. TheBell, Meduza, MediaZona, Mel, Open Media, Colta, Arzamas, InLiberty, VDud (and other journalistic You Tube channels) and many others — all of these initially small projects started in recent years and have already created their audiences and recognizable names. And they all became possible — here is the paradox! — due to the fact that the Russian authorities were attacking the freedom of speech, shutting down or intimidating one big media after another. (The founders and leaders of most of the media I just listed used to work in large, traditional Russian media, but were forced to leave their posts as a result of pressure from the authorities).

Or another example: Do you know what is one of the most popular news sources in Russia is now? These are news Telegram channels, which in most cases are anonymous. You can talk for a long time about whether they are real journalism or not, whether they comply with the requirements of professional ethics — or not. Indeed, some of them have some troubles with professional standards. But what is important is that they are an attempt to make media in conditions under which the authorities make such an occupation almost impossible.

Why do I think this is an encouraging trend? First, thanks only to new small projects Russian journalism is testing new business models and new technologies of audience engagement (crowdfunding, native advertising, non-profit models, work with social networks and messengers). Large state-owned media do not do this — they do not need it, since they are entirely dependent on the state budget. Secondly, the existence and emergence of new media startups shows the presence of a sufficient audience and its growth. Finally, like “samizdat” in the past, new small media projects in Russia perform the most important social mission — they do not participate in hiding the truth 100 percent, but leave it free to breathe for at least some part of society.

And most importantly: Even if some of the new “samizdat” projects die, this is in some sense a boon. Errors are an integral part of normal business, they help others to learn and move on. Sometimes — and in Russia, now especially — sometimes it’s better to just start rather than to wait until you are sure of success.

So, maybe, it’s time for another samizdat Project …?