5Lecture14 min

The New Russians

Publishing house “Kommersant” and the language of the new Russian bourgeoisie

Experts: Maxim Kovalsky, Gleb Morev

Text expansion for the Lecture

The New Russians

Publishing house “Kommersant” and the language of the new Russian bourgeoisie

00:14 — 03:15 What was so new about “Kommersant”?

Gleb Morev: When Kommersant appeared, several aspects struck readers. First of all, it was the price. The Kommersant weekly cost one ruble. A huge price for 1989–90. Other newspapers on sale cost mere kopecks. Obviously the price aimed to cut out readers who Kommersant’s owners felt were not the target audience. It was a demonstrative gesture.

The second thing: this paper was first to hark back to pre-1917 media. They found an old newspaper Kommersant. It wasn’t really well known in Russia before the Revolution. But it had been published in Moscow intermittently up to 1917, and it stopped publication after the October coup. The first page wittily stated that the paper hadn’t been published in 1917–1989 “due to circumstances beyond the editors’ control”.

Maxim Kovalsky: I think of Yakovlev as simply a demigod who created literacy. Cyril, Methodius, Yakovlev. There were three of them, not just two. They gave us letters, and he told us how to put them together. It was a standard for neutral journalism. A technique to distinguish factual info from one’s own opinion. Whoever has not mastered this craft, who can’t distinguish facts from what’s in his head, he is rejected. He can’t work in journalism. I think this was Yakovlev’s first and most important step. This was purposely hammered into journalists’ heads. Who cares about your stinking opinion? That was the most important thing. I don’t know if people know how to do it now. At RBK or Vedomosti, it’s basically the same standards. Probably each has some differences in the style, additional restrictions at each of those corporations. But basically it’s like that. That’s the most important thing. Keep yourself out of your articles.

03:15 — 05:11 Where did “Kommersant”’s famous ironic language come from?

Maxim Kovalsky: We had all come out of Soviet culture. Soviet culture was different in degree but still like advertising repeated 40 times a day. If any song was recorded, you couldn’t not know it: it was played 700 times from every corner. You knew the words against your own will. So, this was all inside us, and we were freed from it by mocking it: all the punning headlines that riffed on Soviet clichés. We found it healing. We laughed at the bad there had been, and now we were out of it. That is what it was all about, the whole initiative we started. That is where all these headlines came from.

Gleb Morev: Remember the language of the Soviet press, even during Perestroika, fighting for glasnost, democracy, faster: it was a serious approach of people who understood their mission. People speaking dramatically of serious things. It was like Soviet discourse, only the other way around. As Dovlatov said, quoting Naiman: “Soviet, anti-Soviet... What’s the difference?”. Stylistically speaking, they were one and the same.

Kommersant offered an alternative. It was a new language. It was a language that questions itself and reality through irony.

05:11 — 08:29 Who was “Kommersant” directed towards?

Gleb Morev: Kommersant’s problem was, it had to describe a reality that didn’t actually exist. In retrospect we can say a new Russian capitalism formed there, a bourgeois society. In fact, that bourgeois society imagined itself into existence. These were cooperatives, kiosks, whatever. People with fancy suits and gold chains appeared with time, not right away. It was quite different from what foreign analogues wrote about, Financial Times and the Western business press. It was far from their reality.

Naturally, Kommersant couldn’t adopt that reality. There was a brilliant idea by Vladimir Yakovlev, Kommersant’s founder and first editor-in-chief. He tried a different strategy. He decided to create a reality that largely didn’t exist, but should. He felt reality will adapt itself to how it’s described. The language to describe it created what then really existed.

Maxim Kovalsky: That was the game he played. A real hero who had been hawking things in the street, barefoot, and now he’s just settled in Moscow and is happy. They wrote about him like a grown man. The formal address “gospodin” still hadn’t been reintroduced. Now Kommersant’s puts “gospodin” in front of everyone’s name. Some Vanya in a track suit made money on selling cookies. They wrote about him that this person in a car, VAZ-210 something struck a light pole ‒ that was the police slang for a street lamp.

So, when they wrote about him, they used a language he never applied to himself. That certainly flattered him. You understand? This language did not demean him, but the opposite: it elevated him in his own eyes.

Gleb Morev: In talking about Kommersant’s ironic approach, we must mention an important aspect: Andrei Bilzho’s cartoons, the Petrovich saga. They long ran from issue to issue and represented in fact the New Russian that Kommersant wrote about. Petrovich was a main character in Kommersant. He was really a main part ofKommersant, a serious paper of business and politics. At the same time, it fit with Kommersant’s ironic approach to what it described. Bilzho’s cartoons were very clever and still make people laugh.

08:29 — 10:22 Did “Kommersant” manage to create a new middle class?

Maxim Kovalsky: It would be funny to say that Kommersant created a middle class, wouldn’t it? It did appear there somehow. One can debate whether it really exists. But if it does, there are many reasons for it. Kommersant isn’t the most important. It was people... who didn’t feel an urge to submit, let’s say. There were issues they were ready to solve on their own. Those were the people not seeking for superiors.

Gleb Morev: One can debate whether a Russian middle class appeared or not, but the New Russians kind of blended in with the crowd, that is, they ceased to be unique individuals. They formed a certain multitude. The jokes about them disappeared. They stopped being the fancy suits visible in a crowd. In a sense, they themselves became a crowd. Whether a big crowd or not is up for debate. Either way, a lot of them appeared, and they stopped figuring in jokes.

This happened by the late 1990s. The newspaper had become ordinary, not like the early ’90s Kommersant. It was a natural process: early ’90s Kommersant used a new language, described a new reality all for the first time, on the cutting edge.

10:22 — 14:25 How influential was “Kommersant”?

Maxim Kovalsky: Politically, it’s hard for me to say. Again, I was young. I started off at Postfactum, an information agency. I moved over to the newspaper in 1991. I was a proofreader. Is there any lowler position? I got a call from a friend of a friend etc., a remote acquaintance. He said, “Maxim, hi. My name is so-and-so, I represent…”. I don’t even remember the company. He asks me, “When do you hand over the issue for printing?”. I say, “Saturday.” Kommersant came out on Monday back then. He says, “After you hand over the issue on Saturday, could you tell me the USD black market rate listed in it? I can pay you for it.” I turned him down, but it just shows what Kommersant represented back then. They’d find a proofreader, get the exchange rate 1.5 days early, and make some profit by knowing it in advance. If a proofreader was so valuable to some oil business, imagine the value they found in the journalists who wrote serious economic news, and in the management and Yakovlev.

Gleb Morev: By the late ’90s Kommersant was clearly not just a successful business, it was a vital influence on society a channel for conveying opinions and forming them. No wonder Boris Berezovsky bought it in 1998. Everyone knows Berezovsky’s words, or what legend attributes to him: “Whoever owns Kommersant controls opinions in modern Russia.” So, Kommersant’s role and symbolic status among post-Soviet media is hard to overestimate.

The editor-in-chief Leonid Zlotin mentions a curious episode in his memoirs. At a meeting of deputies in the ’90s, he walks into a meeting room. There are security guards sitting there, they’ve all got Kommersant in their hands. They’re all reading Kommersant. Kommersant journalists saw this, they had a special pride. People treated them as special, too. They had access to high offices. Reports from e.g. Duma deputies’ meetings, they read them first. No wonder Kommersant’s best writers, e.g. Maxim Sokolov, began as Duma correspondents. Back then a Duma correspondent was an important job for the paper. They didn’t pick just anyone for it. There was life in parliament, real politics, and it needed coverage. This coverage would have certain consequences. So, Kommersant’s access to decisionmakers in the early Yeltsin era was not comparable with things today. Generally, relations with the authorities were completely different than today.