Echo Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov is head of one of the few Russian media outlets that can give an independent point of view. He is both friend and foe to Vladimir Putin; constantly falling out of favour with the president as he, and his contributors, face harassment for their less-than-flattering critiques of Kremlin policy.
So how did it come to be that a man who simply vents his spleen on the airwaves, and in public, now has to be accompanied by bodyguards? Mr Venediktov came to London to explain why to the Chatham House think tank.
In Russia, media freedom is a commodity as hard to come by as the imported French cheeses that due to tit-for-tat sanctions and a Kremlin edict, are being gleefully burnt at the frontiers by border guards who are getting rather a penchant for Camembert-flavoured bonfires.
In addition to these Federation fondue parties, there is a clampdown which also continues on the airwaves meaning that truly open debate has migrated online. Even there, it is still under threat which is why it is fortunate that the radio station Echo Moskvy is still considered one of the last bastions of freedom in a media landscape dominated by domestic toadies and foreign useful idiots.
“We know that president Vladimir Putin listens to Echo Moskvy, however discretely,” Venediktov said, with more than a hint of pride. A decade and a half at the helm at one of the few remaining media outlets that airs opposition views, Venediktov’s unruly grey hair is well-known to the Russian public, his avuncular image far removed from the slick propagandizing Kremlin media bullhorns whose funding have increased significantly over the last ten years.
Venediktov recounts a complicated, but not unfriendly, relationship with the Russian president, himself keen to know what the ‘enemy’ is thinking.
Addressing journalists, academics, assorted Russia watchers and military worthies in a roundtable discussion at the Chatham House think tank in London, Venediktov came across as a rather unlikely gadfly to the backside of Putin’s regime.
He meets with the Russian leader often and has recounted how Putin can do business with him but you can’t help feel than one cannot exist without the other.
“He (Putin) dressed me down recently and I said: ‘you were probably reading the transcripts’. Then he criticised the advertisements so it means he must be listening.
“Obviously the fact that we still exist could be explained in that we act as an alternative information source for him.”
More than that, Echo Moskvy is possibly the only way the Putin’s cabal can really find out what is going on. In the Alice in Wonderland world of Russian politics, there is what is officially stated, and what actually goes on.
This has been going on since Soviet times, kitchen debates in homes in the post-Krushchev era elicited ‘vodka-with-a-gherkin chaser-fuelled discussions over the foibles of the regime. Echo Moskvy is a continuation of that great tradition and works as a kind of valve that occasionally lets out a bit of pressure, a bit of steam, through the wireless.
That is not to say that being head of the outlet Russian liberals revere and the Kremlin fears does not come at a cost. The battles between his station and the Kremlin are constant. Recently, an edict came from the General Prosecutor calling on Echo Moskvy to delete a piece on its website about why Russian tourists should not go to Crimea.
“I said we need to receive a formal order from a state body. We got the order at 2am, and in accordance with the law, we did delete the document,” he said.
However they published the government order online and left up the user comments. Compliance as well as defiance.
With more Russian journalists being harassed, Venediktov, says that his profession is fraught with peril.
“I am witnessing a mass exodus of my colleagues either from the profession or from the country.
It’s a dangerous profession but it does not affect my editorial capabilities.
“Over the last three years, there have been 67 amendments to laws to restrict the media which he has described as ‘repressive’ and are “limiting the opportunities to disseminate information. It is difficult, but no one promised us an easy life.”
The war in Ukraine, the stand-off with the West and the invective on both sides of the debate has turned many people in Russia off.
“In one year, we lost 10 per cent of our audience. People do not want to listen to what is unpleasant, they start to feel uncomfortable. When a war is going on the level of aggression jumps and people try to stay in their comfort zone.
“Some of my colleagues suggested a correction of our editorial line, it is a business after all. I said: ‘I would rather give you up than give up my editorial policy’.”
However he has had to fend off accusations that there has been a shift in Echo’s editorial policy.
It follows several top commentators such as the renowned novelist Boris Yakunin, cutting ties with the station due to anti-opposition blog posts by Venediktov’s personal assistant. It doesn’t help that his personal assistant Lesya Ryabtseva is 23 and writes provocative blogs that have the insight of someone roughly 10 years her junior.
On the air, she stated that she thought Russia’s population was 8 million. After being scrambled, Russian demographers were stood down, and were satisfied that, despite the country’s rapid depopulation, it had not in fact lost 136m people overnight.
However her pieces have generated considerable web traffic and some analysts have even suggested that with Putin enjoying 86 per cent support within Russia, Echo has changed its editorial policies to reflect that views of a changing society.
This is something Alexei Venediktov denies.
“It is impossible to put pressure on me regarding editorial policy. All the people the presidential administration insisted I sack last year, they are still with me. Their broadcasting time has not been cut by a single second.
“We still broadcast about the Russian losses in Ukraine. Boris Yakunin, well I hope to meet him and explain that he has deprived the audience of his blogs. He left of his own accord and he is always welcome back.
“If they stopped criticising me, I will think I am either dead or I am doing something very wrong.”
While he considers the war in Ukraine to be ‘a mammoth mistake’, he says that the West fails to take into account that Putin’s policy is ‘done with great sincerity and conviction’, which the Russian-state media is reflecting.
“Propaganda is playing an important part but it is not everything, it is not all-defining.
“If you neutralise the propaganda, the problem will not go away because the propaganda has found a fertile soil among those people ready to accept it.”
Venediktov has interviewed many powerful figures but also has some powerful enemies.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov dubbed him as “the mouth-piece of anti-Islam” and since January, he has doubled his number of bodyguards.
It is just another part of the job whose pressure has increased since the seizure of Crimea, and the civil stand-off in Russia on Ukrainian-Russian territory.
“Everybody wants Echo Moskvy to become the party voice, to toe the official party line and somehow use our reputation to their advantage, both the official parties and the opposition.
“We shall never become the voice of any party. We are a platform for debate and discussion,” he said.
With his eccentric look, you could consider Venediktov as being from the Russian tradition of the Holy Fool. He can speak truth to power and Putin quite likes him for it. After all, the only person who could tell Ivan the Terrible the truth without ending up a head shorter, was the Holy Fool, and that was because he pretended to be mad.
It is not mad to tell the truth, but the complex ownership structure of Echo Moskvy, where state-run Gazprom effectively bankrolls it, raises the possibility that this division between the station and Putin could all be bluster. Or, it could be very real. The complex corridors of mirrors in the Russian media world got just even more kaleidoscopic. In any case, let’s hope that Venediktov can continue to say what is on his mind.