Rules of the game

Investigative journalists are being picked off one by one in Russia. Their "crime", says Roman Shlei

European and American perceptions of Russian life are nothing if not naive. My view is reaffirmed every time I speak to western journalists, and hear the way they interpret the dangers their Russian colleagues face and the limitations imposed on free speech in Russia. It is naivety in the positive sense of the word: a real failure to grasp why Russian state officials do not resign after press revelations have directly implicated them in criminal cases; why the public does not protest when local elections are cancelled; why assassinations of journalists do not bring thousands out on to the streets or provoke questions of the authorities. In Europe, any one of these events would create a level of indignation capable of bringing down a government. In Russia, it passes unnoticed. So what is the point of Russian journalism, if there is virtually no response to revelations either from the public or the state?

For more than ten years I have worked for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper viewed in Russia as an opposition publication. Currently, I am in charge of the investigations section. The paper appears twice a week and has a print run of 500,000 copies, pretty much average for Russia. It focuses on misappropriation of power and corruption. It also reports on human rights abuses and the repression of opposition. Many western journalists discovered Novaya Gazeta through Anna Politkovskaya. One of her chief areas of interest was the human rights situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. She was highly critical of the authorities, both federal and local, for their policies in these regions. In 2006, she was assassinated in the lift of her apartment block.

For our editorial team, this loss was by no means the first. In 1994, our special correspondent Svetlana Orliuk travelled to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to look into the detention of an officer held in a solitary-confinement cell for interrogation. The officer was released and it was acknowledged that his arrest had been illegal. Orliuk died of poisoning. There was no proper official investigation into her death. In 2000, our columnist Igor Domnikov was murdered in the entrance to his home in Moscow. He had been reporting on corruption in Lipetsk Province. The culprits are now in the dock, but the people who ordered the hit are still free. In 2001, Viktor Popkov, a freelance correspondent and human rights activist, was killed in Chechnya. Yuri Shchekochikhin - our deputy editor, a parliamentary deputy and member of the Russian parlia mentary commission against corruption - died suddenly in 2003. He had received a number of death threats. A preliminary diagnosis suggested poisoning, but no official investigation ever took place. The killings testify to the fact that, in Russia, journalists have influence and are taken seriously. According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 Russian journalists have been murdered over the past 15 years. The Russian Union of Journalists estimates that more than 200 have been killed in ten years.

Appalling as it may sound, we have grown accustomed to these things happening. Anna's assassination provoked a stronger response in the west than it did in Russia. If it had not been for a telephone conversation between the Russian president and George Bush two days after the tragedy, and questions raised by European journalists, Vladimir Putin would probably not even have referred to her death. At a press conference in Germany, he emphasised that Politkovskaya's influence on Russian politics was negligible. He also blamed forces from abroad for her murder. Putin's thinking is shared by other state officials as well as the leaders of state-controlled businesses. They are, in effect, unaccountable to the public (or their shareholders); they look to their superiors alone; and they tend to interpret journalistic criticism as open hostility.

But it would be unfair to point the finger only at the authorities. Russian civil society, including its journalists, is immature, ill-developed and accustomed to being ignored by the state. Most people remain convinced that their views can have no impact. It would be optimistic to estimate that 10-15 per cent of the population is engaged with public life. The passive majority is stirred into action only when its survival or personal welfare is under threat. Russian pensioners came out on to the streets when they were deprived of free travel on public transport, for example. Car owners organised nationwide pro tests when the government attempted to stop the use of right-hand-drive vehicles. Yet when the elections for regional governors were called off in 2004, there was no sign of mass protest.

At present, most people do not consider elections as important as a car or a pension, and cannot imagine participating in decision-making. Journalists writing for publications that are not geared to entertainment or the mass market address a very small proportion of the population.

To be fair, there are signs of change. When, in 2005, the car of a regional governor rammed another at 125mph, the owner of the other vehicle - a member of the public - was deemed respon sible for the accident. With press support, a national wave of protest ensued and the verdict was overturned in March last year. This offers some hope that the public is capable of making its views heard, though the threshold of sensitivity to events remains extremely low.

Dangerous assignments

In the provinces, living standards vary a great deal and it would be a mistake to judge Russia by Moscow or St Petersburg. "The other Russia" begins just beyond the Moscow ring road, and the degree of free speech permitted there is considerably lower than in the capital. The catalogue of assassinated journalists consists mainly of people who worked in the provinces. Their names are unlikely to be publicised in Europe because they reported on local issues: corruption among governors and heads of administration, their links with crime, battles for regional ownership, and the involvement of the local security services, law-enforcement agencies, public pro secutors' offices and courts in these struggles.

Regional assignments are the most dangerous. Local authorities react to publications far more ruthlessly than federal ones. The heads of local administrations and presidents of republics within the Russian Federation have free rein in their dealings with journalists. On their own territory, they are small-time "tsars", and they mimic the central authorities in exaggerated form. The militia, public prosecutor's offices, courts and the special services are deployed to create obstacles for newspapers. Legal justifications are provided for formality's sake, but the game is poorly played and motives behind the allegations are all too visible.

In 2006, a newspaper in Perm, in the Urals, permitted itself to criticise the local authorities. A police search of the editorial offices followed. Militiamen removed computers, servers, discs, flashcards, audio recordings and photographs. That summer, all members of the editorial team faced criminal charges for "causing offence" and "disseminating state secrets". A series of critical articles published in a paper in the mining town of Kemerovo prompted the governors of that province to write to the office of the public prosecutor, demanding that measures be taken against the editor. The regional office of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, told the public prosecutor's office it had legal grounds to investigate the paper. In Kaliningrad, a newspaper frequently critical of the local authorities had its entire print run sequestrated, its offices searched and computers confiscated.

Regional newspapers in any position to criticise may belong to local opposition parties (sometimes to local MPs). They may be small publications founded by business people in conflict with the regional administration, who use the newspaper as a weapon in the struggle for private ownership. Or they may be a combination of these. In such conditions, journalistic standards in the provinces are not high and editorial independence is elusive. Never theless, this may be the only opportunity for regional audiences to hear criticism of the local authorities and get access to alternative information.

Clumsy acts

Journalists employed by mainstream publications are in a less dangerous position. Criticism of the federal authorities does not instantly lead to searches, arrests and criminal allegations for one reason - there is no cause for high-level officials to perform clumsy acts of vengeance in full view of the media at home and abroad. It is far more effective to make a deal with a newspaper owner, and if a loyal businessman is persuaded to take ownership of the paper, so much the better. Alternatively, material released by newspapers with small circulations can simply be ignored. Unpleasant reports will not be disseminated widely, because central TV channels, which have tens of millions of viewers, are entirely under state control.

In conditions where law-enforcement agencies, the public prosecutor's office and the courts are compromised and the public is undemanding, the publication of even the most damning information does not bring about change. A multilayered field of protection - loyal owner, obedient television, dependent state arbiters - guarantees that no one will rock the boat. If necessary, legal proceedings can always be opened.

Novaya Gazeta's experience in this area is considerable. One example: a former nuclear energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, sued us for defaming his "honour, dignity and professional reputation". By way of evidence we offered the court copies of documents on which we had based an article about him. Adamov won. We then published facsimiles of documents containing the minister's signature, so that our readers would understand how this case had been handled. Some years later Adamov was detained in Switzerland at the request of a US district attorney general. He was extradited to Russia to face criminal charges. A case against him is now under way in the same Russian court. It rests on the very facts to which Novaya Gazeta had originally referred. From time to time, our journalists are summoned to the public prosecutor's office or to the FSB. Generally, a criminal case will be initiated in response to an article that, in the eyes of the public prosecutor or the special services, exposes a state secret. This happened when we published a list of former special service employees who had gone on to work for private business.

It is no secret that Russian state officials have strong links with business. Not long ago, we put together some material about a little-known firm, which had suddenly been granted a highly lucrative contract. After examining the facts, we turned to the company's directors and to state officials for comment. Soon after, Novaya Gazeta was offered US$240,000 not to publish the material. When we refused, we received a series of telephone calls from government employees, and later from the presidential administration. Officials tried to interfere with editorial decisions and stop publication. The material appeared nonetheless and there are now hints of possible legal proceedings.

The most common reaction to criticism of highly placed officials, however, is silence. In 2005, we published lists of criminal cases that had featured the names of President Putin and several cabinet ministers. We called upon one of the former leading investigators in the case in which Putin's name appeared. He had been forced to resign after several cases he was investigating were aborted. All the cases concerned Russian officials, and there was no hope that they would be indicted. After the investigator resigned, he brought a lawsuit against Putin as a common citizen, trying to prove that the cases had been stopped illegally. The court received a letter from the president's office saying that Putin could not be part of the process. We turned to officials for comment but received no response. Even the publication of documents from criminal cases in which the head of state's name has appeared will not bring repercussions. By the next day the public will have forgotten.

Minority interest

A journalist becomes a target not as a result of criticising the Kremlin and the state, as is often thought in the west, but after investigating how the bureaucracy in the regions really functions, where state policies are leading and who stands to gain. These were the issues Anna Politkov skaya addressed. I do not think that a Kremlin official organised her assassination, but the Kremlin is fully responsible for creating the situation in which the murder became possible.

Journalism becomes a threat and a serious irritant when it begins to influence social dynamics. Politkovskaya's reports had this effect because they were seen by foreign human rights organisations as an alternative source of information. She had become more than a journalist: she was a social activist. It is not criticism of the Kremlin itself that endangers Russian journalists, but the threat they pose to an old system of relationships that benefits a tiny minority of people. And that will not be permitted.

Roman Shleinov is investigations editor of Novaya Gazeta

Translation by Irena Maryniak

A version of this article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror