Olga seemed simultaneously awestruck and wary as she ran her fingers across the envelope. The sender seemed to be important: the "Presidential Administration." Was it mail from the Kremlin? "But the envelope felt strange," says Olga, who is secretary to the editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
When she finally opened the envelope, she felt something cold and leathery inside: the severed ears of a donkey. "One needs strong nerves here," she says. Four of the newspaper's journalists have already been murdered, and one of its attorneys was shot dead in broad daylight.
The donkey ears were followed a few days later by a bloody piece of meat. This time there was no return address on the envelope. And then a peculiar man offered the editor-in-chief a bribe.
When the paper investigated the matter, it discovered that an activist with a group called Nashi was behind the mysterious acts. Nashi, a Kremlin-controlled youth organization, had previously staged protests in front of the paper's editorial offices and launched a campaign against Novaya Gazeta. A short time later, President Dmitry Medvedev made a point of giving the paper an interview.
The situation is unclear. On the one hand, the newspaper, which is published three times a week and has a respectable circulation of 270,000, is the object of the wrath of Moscow's powerful elite, which finds itself repeatedly criticized in its pages. On the other hand, Novaya Gazeta is suddenly enjoying protection from officials at the highest levels of government.
What exactly is the role of Novaya Gazeta, which is now Russia's best-known newspaper abroad? Is Novaya, as its readers call it, a bastion of democratic free speech? German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the center-left Social Democratic Party's chancellor candidate in Germany's September elections, has announced plans to visit the editorial offices this week. And there is even a chance that US President Barack Obama could look in on the paper in early July.
It is shortly before noon when Sergei Sokolov, sounding like a drill sergeant at a military barracks, yells "editorial conference" into the hallway. Once, while on vacation, he sent a postcard to his colleagues with the words "I'm swimming with sharks" written on it. The postcard was pinned up on the bulletin board in the editorial offices. Next to it, someone wrote: "The poor sharks."
Sokolov is the ideal second-in-command. He channels the flow of ideas coming from editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov without challenging his authority. When Muratov distributes story ideas to his 60-member editorial staff, it can sound like a conspiracy to bring down the government -- or at least a few cabinet ministers.
One of the newspaper's articles revealed that an executive with the state-owned bank, as well as influential ministers, had allegedly built luxury villas along the Moskva River -- in a nature reserve where there was in fact a ban on construction. In a recent issue of the paper, Roman Shleinov, one of the stars in the paper's collection of exceptionally talented and daring journalists, exposed a network of companies that he claimed represented a connection between a mafia group and relatives of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.