MOSCOW, June 10, 2009 -- 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.
Swimming with the Sharks
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.
Shleinov has also sharply criticized the machinations of energy giant Gazprom, and he has even described the kidnappings and blackmail of business leaders by officers of the FSB, the Russian domestic intelligence agency. The revelations were remarkable, but the reactions? Practically nonexistent.
"We could print a photo that shows Putin accepting a suitcase of cash. No one would be interested," he says. Shleinov is a Sisyphus of investigative journalism -- a Sisyphus under pressure.
Gaining access to the news is not a problem in Russia the way it is in China, for example. Although television is largely state-controlled, the range of opinions in newspapers and on the Internet is broader than, say, in Germany. The country suffers from a completely different sort of affliction: Even the biggest, most scandalous exposés lead to no consequences whatsoever.
Free and influential media ought to be an important tool in fighting excessive corruption. But in Russia the media lack the necessary powers. Boris Yeltsin, as Russia's first president, compelled the attorney general's office to respond within 10 days to corruption charges brought by the media. His successor Putin promptly revoked Yeltsin's order shortly after taking office.
'Find Out Who's Involved'
Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Muratov is looking at one of his senior editors, who has just received word of a spectacular accident on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a street that leads to the Kremlin. A 20-year-old has crashed his new Ferrari while traveling at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph). The father of the young man is apparently a member of the executive board of a group of banks.
For Muratov, the story is yet another example of the excesses of what he calls "an elite that places itself above the law." "Find out who's involved!" he tells his editors. "And I'll ask Lebedev."
For a moment, it appears that Alexander Lebedev, a former member of the Soviet foreign intelligence service and a 30-percent owner of the national airline Aeroflot, is just another of Muratov's many sources within the establishment. In truth, however, the banking magnate is something of a cash machine for Novaya Gazeta.
He has supported the paper since the 1990s. In June 2006, he and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acquired a 49-percent stake in Novaya Gazeta, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time. The employees owned the rest.
Lebedev bought the employees' shares for about €1.5 million ($2.1 million). Since then, he has injected millions into the money-losing paper every year. No one buys advertising; everyone is fearful of incurring the Kremlin's wrath. "As long as I have money, I will help," says Lebedev, in the opulent reception room of his luxurious mansion near the Foreign Ministry. He is wearing jeans, a designer vest and stylish black sneakers.
The magnate praises his "team of fantastic, courageous journalists," says that his goal is to make the paper the "opinion leader in Russia," and quotes the poet and Stalin critic Osip Mandelstam. He likes to see his editors as part of this tradition of resistance to the throne, and himself as a shining light of press freedom.
But politicians, media executives and journalists in Moscow often have other things to say about Lebedev. For one, they say that the entrepreneur, who lost bids to become the mayor of Moscow and Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, keeps the paper to promote his political ambitions. They also claim that, in the Moscow game of power politics, he has been chosen to keep the inconvenient newspaper under control on Putin's behalf.
Lebedev and Gorbachev reject such claims as "absurd." "Just take a look at the stories in Novaya," says Lebedev. For example, he says, Putin's press czar, Alexei Gromov, was furious when the paper disclosed his alleged business interests in digital television.
'No Story Is Worth another Life'
"Lebedev became interested in Novaya when he went into politics," says one of the magnate's colleagues from his days working for the foreign intelligence agency. When he took over the National Reserve Bank in the mid-1990s, Lebedev recruited some of his top managers from the intelligence community. The head of the bank's administrative board, an old friend of Lebedev, is married to the sister of Anna Politkovskaya, a star reporter for Novaya Gazeta who was shot dead in October 2006. Lebedev offered a reward of more than €700,000 ($980,000) for information leading to the arrest of the murderers.
One of his former colleagues from his days in intelligence, who insists on remaining anonymous, remembers working with Lebedev at the Soviet Embassy in London in the late 1980s. In those days, most Soviet diplomats wore baggy suits and horn-rimmed glasses. Lebedev, however, treated himself to a pair of Cartier glasses for his birthday, and then proceeded to explain to the others why appearance matters. "He was far ahead of the rest of us, and he was constantly coming up with ideas," says his former KGB comrade. Lebedev still has a soft spot for London, where he acquired another newspaper, the Evening Standard, in January.
His real rivals are at home, especially his archenemy Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow. Lebedev once published a pamphlet in which he listed all of Luzhkov's broken promises.
But there are few overly critical words written about Luzhkov in Novaya. The building that houses the paper's editorial offices, for which it pays a low rent, belongs to the city. It appears that even Novaya has its limits when it comes to exposing the foibles of the powerful.
Seeking to Change Reality
Nevertheless, no other Russian newspaper makes life quite as uncomfortable for the country's power elite. And no one symbolizes this David-and-Goliath struggle more effectively than Elena Milashina. She is 31, a diminutive 1.59 meters (5'2") in height -- and she has already caught the Russian government in a lie. She has also boldly confronted a US president.
After an awards ceremony to commemorate the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the young journalist took advantage of a reception given by former US President George W. Bush to explain to the president why she considers Vladimir Putin to be "a criminal." She had done some research on the Beslan hostage crisis.
In September 2004, the Kremlin had its forces storm a school in Beslan that was occupied by Chechen terrorists. But Milashina found information suggesting that the terrorists did not set off the bomb they had installed. Rather, ricochets coming from the guns of the Russian special forces apparently triggered the catastrophe. In addition to 31 terrorists, 334 schoolchildren, parents, teachers and soldiers died in the Beslan incident.
After the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000, Milashina spoke with 53 officers and experts, including 27 admirals and rear admirals with the Russian fleet, until, as she says, she "could have led a tour through that nuclear submarine with my eyes closed." In the end, she was able to prove that a few of the 118 sailors trapped in the submarine 108 meters (354 feet) below sea level were alive for three to four days -- not just a few hours, as the government had insisted in an effort to justify its claim that a rescue mission was impossible.
Milashina was 22 at the time. "Novaya is the only place where I can truly practice journalism," she says today. "We help people in very specific ways." The paper's editors seek to change reality, instead of merely describing it. For that reason, some of the journalists occasionally abandon the role of observer and make themselves into part of their stories. This was one of the criticisms of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, both in Russia and in the West. She evacuated retirees from the embattled city of Grozny and placed them in Russian retirement homes.
Politkovskaya was no isolated case. Her colleague Vyacheslav Izmailov, a veteran of the Chechen war and an expert on the Caucasus region, helped liberate more than 170 hostages from the Chechens. He uncovered evidence linking despotic Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to torture, and he is convinced that the trail in Politkovskaya's murder leads to Kadyrov and his cohorts.
But Izmailov's story hasn't been printed yet, perhaps because the supporting evidence is not yet conclusive enough. Of perhaps, as Muratov says, "no story is worth another life."
Muratov, Lebedev and Gorbachev make up the triumvirate that protected Novaya in bad times, when the newspaper almost went out of business, or when inaccurate reporting shook the credibility of its editorial team. In a famous blunder, the paper ran a story on the head of the Russian nuclear program, who had apparently been accused of embezzling international aid money and seeking US citizenship. The only problem was that the story wasn't true, having been concocted by a Moscow-based English-language satirical publication.
Such fiascos are all the more painful to the trio because the three men have known each other for the past two decades. Twenty years ago, Gorbachev was still president and the general secretary of the Communist Party. One evening, during a visit to London to attend a summit of industrialized nations, where he was fighting for a loan worth billions, he was unwinding at the embassy. Everyone praised Gorbachev who, in his typical manner, asked the guests for their criticism. A slim embassy secretary stood up and explained that the loan would lead the country into a debt trap and was more beneficial to the lenders than to Moscow. The man was Lebedev.
"The rest of us held our breath. A young diplomat was contradicting the leader of the Soviet Union," says Lebedev's former KGB colleague.
Novaya Gazeta represents a continuation of that encounter. Gorbachev uses it to fight for his life's work, and to ensure that at least some vestige of glasnost, openness and democracy is retained in the Putin era. Gorbachev, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, once donated $300,000 (€215,000) from his book royalties to the Novaya editors so that they could buy computers. He sits in his office today, a portrait of his late wife Raisa on the wall behind him. She too had a special relationship with the paper: In the 1990s, she gave the editorial staff its first mobile phone.
And Lebedev? He is still capable of playing the impudent anarchist today, just as he once did at the Soviet Embassy in London.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan