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Springtime for Russia’s dissident press

The Meduza Project, a Russian expatriate news site based in Latvia, is supposedly “an enemy of the Kremlin,” but its relaxed offices in downtown Riga look like those of any other internet startup.

Fixed-gear bicycles are stacked in the foyer, hipsters in hoodies sit slumped over Macs with cool headphones over their ears, and the stylishly unkempt CEO and founder Galina Timchenko greets me with a big smile.

One of the reasons for her good cheer is the cheap rent: Just 800 euros for 180 square meters in the center of Riga, a fraction of the cost of office space in downtown Moscow.

Established by exiled Russian journalists living in Riga and fed up with the Kremlin’s stranglehold on independent media, Timchenko’s project has proved the many Cassandras wrong. The site hasn’t shared the fate of those who gazed upon the serpentine face of Medusa in Greek mythology and turned to stone. It draws close to 7 million unique visitors a month and is widely considered one of the most influential news outlets by expatriates and dissidents still living in Russia.

During recent anti-corruption protests in Moscow, Meduza’s traffic spiked to over 1 million visits daily. With advertising revenue now accounting for more than 70 percent of the site’s costs, Meduza hopes to become sustainable sometime next year. “It’s the first time in Russian history that somebody has created a popular media that’s not based in Moscow, and not even in Russia,” says editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov.

Meduza’s success can be partly attributed to media smarts of Timchenko, 54, who grew the Russian news site from a fledgling media startup to one of Russia’s most influential voices during her 10-year tenure as editor-in-chief.

The Kremlin’s thawed attitude to the media has left Meduza free to pursue its goals unmolested.

Her sacking in the spring of 2014 over an interview with the leader of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Right Sector made her a cause célèbre among Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and prompted 70 journalists to resign from the publication in solidarity.

This group channeled its anger with the Kremlin’s anti-media machine into their exiled media startup — hence the provocative name, Meduza, referencing a female monster with venomous snakes in place of hair.

It was a bold experiment for a Russian publication desperately seeking to escape the stultifying Kremlin-controlled media landscape. And it didn’t go unnoticed by other dissidents in exile.

Exiled oligarch and vocal Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky even gifted them a quarter of a million dollars after negotiations for his takeover of a controlling interest in the startup broke down over his demands for complete control and the option to fire Timchenko if he decided it was necessary.

“It was so ’90s, our meetings with them,” recalls Timchenko with a laugh. “We met in a secret library in Zurich and our cellphones were confiscated. And everything was oral, his team refused to put anything down on paper.” Still, Khodorkhovsky’s interest in Meduza quickly branded it as the “top anti-Kremlin site in the Russian media.”

Free from overt Kremlin interference from its base in Latvia — a member of both NATO and the European Union — Meduza has been able to publish more provocative stories than its competitors in Russia without repercussions. A recent article about the extravagant €5 million villa on the French Riviera purchased by struggling businessman Artur Ocheretny, the new husband of Putin’s ex-wife Lyudmila, was widely picked up in major independent Russian media outlets and created a storm in the blogosphere.

By contrast, when leading Russian news portal, owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, published a critical article about a lavish oyster farm near Putin’s multimillion Black Sea estate, popularly known as “Putin’s Palace,” its editor-in-chief and two senior editors were fired and replaced by Kremlin loyalists. Its offices were also raided by tax police soon after.

Had Meduza been based in Moscow, it likely would have suffered a similar fate, says Timchenko, waving her palm as if swatting a fly. “Here in Latvia we’re safe,” she adds.

The other reason for the site’s unexpected success — and its ability to attract Russian advertisers, despite the site’s anti-establishment image — is that the Kremlin has recently gone “soft” on opposition media.

It’s a surprising claim to come from a proudly anti-Kremlin site, and yet, editor-in-chief Kolpakov says that Russia’s media policy has mellowed since the former presidential administration’s first deputy chief of staff — who typically sets the tone on the Kremlin’s relationship to the press — left office.

Vyacheslav Volodin, now the speaker of the Russian parliament, was a hardcore ideologue who believed in total government control of the media. His motto, according to Kolpakov, was, “Why should we fight you when we can kill you instead?”

To the delight of Russia’s embattled independent media, Volodin was replaced by the baby-faced Sergei Kiriyenko, a protégé of assassinated opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, late last year. A former prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, Kiriyenko had helped launch a party known as the Union of the Right Forces in the 1990s, and was known as a “young reformist.” Diminutive in stature, he was considered so harmless that Russian media frequently referred to him as “Kinder Surprise,” after the popular Italian egg-shaped chocolates filled with small toys.

Under Kiriyenko’s stewardship, the Kremlin has relaxed its choke on the media in an attempt to appear less paranoid and appeal to more moderate Russians ahead of next year’s presidential election. “Remember Putin’s comment that the ‘dogs are barking and the caravan is passing’?” asks Timchenko. “Well, we’re the yapping dogs now. Nobody’s watching us as closely as two years ago,” she says.

The Kremlin’s thawed attitude to the media has left Meduza free to pursue its goals unmolested. The site has zealously covered accusations of corruption in Moscow’s city government and other hot-button topics that galvanize its reading base and grow its audience. It has also been buoyed by the recent spate of anti-corruption protests led by political dissident Alexei Navalny.

“Young people are tired of being frightened,” says Kolpakov. “Putin might be great for Russia’s international image but he’s ruining the country.” Meduza is now gearing up for next year’s presidential elections, where Navalny hopes to square off against Putin.

Though Timchenko relishes the freedom that comes from publishing in exile, she’s quick to admit that she finds her new base, Riga, “a little bit boring.”

With politics in Russia so central to the website’s concerns, its editors have little interest in the local issues of the tiny Baltic States, their home in exile. Asked whether there was a chance that Russia might invade the Baltic States, Timchenko laughs out loud. “Putin provokes them to make them nervous,” she insists. “It is his way of living. But it doesn’t mean that tomorrow he’ll be at your doorstep.”

Despite their lack of interest in Latvian affairs, the editors maintain contacts with the country’s leading journalists and have met the city’s pro-Russian mayor Nils Ušakovs on various occasions. They feel welcome in the calm European city on the Baltic Sea, they say.

Though Timchenko relishes the freedom that comes from publishing in exile, she’s quick to admit that she finds her new base, Riga, “a little bit boring.” Still, Meduza’s editors have no plans of moving back to Moscow anytime soon. “Being in exile is now part of our genetic code,” says Kolpakov. “Our ambition is to be the best international Russian-speaking media outlet.”

The headline of their daily English-language newsletters — a clever play on the Kremlin’s English-language outlet Russia Today — makes that ambition clear: “Meduza. The Real Russia. Today.”

Source: Politico