Sunday, January 02, 2005

Stasi Story

Masha Gessen, writing in the Boston Globe about being muzzled in Moscow.

Earlier this year, I reported a story that I found both ridiculous and very, very sad. The Russian edition of GQ, the men's magazine, had run its traditional "Man of the Year" contest. Some 26,000 readers had voted, and the winner was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon, philanthropist, and political activist whose Yukos oil empire has been expropriated and who has been in jail for over a year on charges of tax evasion that are widely seen as politically driven. His well-publicized trial has sent a message to all Russian entrepreneurs, warning them that they will suffer gravely if they ever happen to displease the Kremlin. The publisher of Russian GQ banned the publication of Khodorkovsky's name in connection with the contest, forcing his editorial staff to falsify the results. According to staff members, someone actually had to fly to Italy, where the magazine is prepared for printing, to replace the offending page.

One remarkable aspect of this story is that the magazine's publisher, Bernd Runge, is a German national who has little to fear personally from the authorities: He doesn't even spend much time in Russia, since his turf includes other Conde Nast publications in Germany and Africa as well. But Runge has an intimate understanding of how the new Russia works. He hails from East Germany, and he went to college in the Soviet Union. Earlier this year, two major German magazines published multi-part exposes showing that Runge served as a Stasi (the East German secret police) agent during the Soviet period. Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, issued a statement affirming his confidence in Runge and calling the revelations "irrelevant" to today's realities.

As it turns out, though, the instincts of a former Stasi agent are very relevant indeed in today's Russia. I am not yet sure how we will solve the problem of covering the two verdicts (we have until mid-January, when our next issue goes to press, to make up our minds). I do, however, know that just a few months ago I would have considered the very question of a story's potential risks, whether to myself or the publication I work for, a deeply offensive one. But I have a personal stake in the decision: If I lose my job because I write or assign a story that gets the magazine shut down, I may never work in this country again.

Read the whole thing.

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