In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate ‑ in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.
Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.
And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.
The local administration and power brokers simply ignore him and carry on as before. That complaint was voiced by many of the young journalists at the conference, who see their revelations treated with the arrogant disdain of silence. They have no illusions about their situation. The majority work in the provinces, and try to practice journalism in cities where the power structure, official and corporate, would often unite to squash or punish journalism that was out of line. When critical or revelatory pieces are published, they have found ‑ as has Edward Mochalov ‑ that nothing changes.
As a result, corruption still reigns. This month’s scandal in Russia concerns Alexander Provotorov, head of the state telecommunications corporation Rostelekom. Provotorov is being investigated with others over his acts as a partner in Marshall Capital, a private equity firm, and the default of one of its subsidiaries on a $225 million loan. These matters are complex, long running ‑ and puzzling. Provotorov was an ally of Putin, who in the past year has launched an anti-corruption campaign. The Russian watcher Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe picks up on the confusion in Moscow’s top ranks when he asks, “Is it an anti-graft campaign? A purge of the elite? Or the start of a clan war?”