“If you’re afraid of criminal charges, you can’t live in Russia.” Oleg Roldugin, editor-in-chief of Sobesednik, on how the issue with Navalny was seized  and why the last independent publication in Russia has still not been shut down [Spektr.press]
The latest issue of Sobesednik came out with a photo of Aleksei Navalny, after which its print run was confiscated. Photo: Vk.com

4 March 2024

by Andrei Presnyakov 

Source: Spektr.press

The Russian weekly Sobesednik has been coming out for exactly 40 years. On 23 February, the editorial office marked the anniversary, but there was no celebration. The 21 February issue with the photograph of the deceased Aleksei Navalny as the lead story was seized from all points of sale in Moscow. The newspaper’s associates reported that the publication had lost at minimum 300,000 rubles on this, which it hurts badly inasmuch as it has long since lost most of its sources of income. Today the newspaper survives only at the expense of subscribers and retail sales, which comes to about 150,000 copies.

The photograph of Aleksei Navalny, who died at the Polar Wolf penal colony on 16 February, could have been reason for shutting down the last federal independent publication in the country.  Could have been but wasn’t, fortunately. Another issue of Sobesednik has come out and is even being sold at some Moscow kiosks.

Sobesednik’s position didn’t thrill the Kremlin even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Suffice it to recall that in 2012 one of the meetings of the opposition’s Coordinating Council was held in the Sobesednik office. Boris Nemtsov, Boris Akunin, Leonid Parfenov, and other leaders of the protest movement have also been in the publication’s office.

For nearly 20 years, beginning in 1989, Sobesednik’s editorial policy was set by Editor-in-Chief Yury Pilipenko. He was also the general director of the Sobesednik Publishing House. Yury Vladimirovich left Russia a few years ago, but he owns 50% of Sobesednik-Media LLC, which is the publication’s founder.

Pilipenko’s heir as editor-in-chief was investigative journalist Oleg Roldugin, who has continued his predecessor’s course: in fall 2023, Sobesednik devoted its cover to the Day of the Russian Political Prisoner, publishing photographs of many of them (including Aleksei Navalny). Expressing their points of view on Sobesednik’s pages over the last two months have been Ekaterina Duntsova, Boris Nadezhdin, Liudmila Narusova, Boris Kagarlitsky, Igor Strelkov-Girkin’s wife, and others.

On 6 March 2022, the Sobesednik site was blocked. An attempt to launch a new one was unsuccessful—it was blocked again. The editors did not give up, though. Today the newspaper’s materials are once again accessible on the Internet (https://sobes.press/). True, no one in the editorial office knows how long this will last.

It’s worth mentioning that Sobesednik attempted to get the block lifted in court, although Vadim Subbotin, deputy head of Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications], stated in summer 2023 that no media that had lost its site due to his department had disputed this decision. Sobesednik lost its trial but has filed an appeal.  

In fall 2023, Roskomnadzor blocked the Sobesednik channel on the Dzen platform. This had been the most successful instrument for spreading the edition’s content on the Internet. Meanwhile, no one ever showed the editors Roskomnadzor’s decision to block it, and the channel is not on the list of banned sites.

Sobesednik’s new channel is only four months old, and it has 12,500 subscribers. They are short-handed, the editor-in-chief admits, when it comes to promoting Sobesednik’s resources on the Internet. Today there are just five correspondents, a few editors, a photo editor, proofreaders, and a layout designer working on the publication.

In November 2023, the editorial office was forced to sever its collaboration with investigative journalist Ilya Davlyatchin, who was named a foreign agent. This happened 10 days after Sobesednik published his article about how the children of high-placed Russians—including the Russian justice minister’s daughter—vacation abroad

Actually, in his interview with Spektr, Sobesednik editor-in-chief Oleg Roldugin comments that despite the clouds that have gathered over the publication, things aren’t that bad for now. 

— This isn’t the first time they’ve seized Sobesednik’s print run. The same thing happened after 24 February 2022. How did all this come about?

Yes, the first seizure was in early March 2022. At the time they removed not only the latest issue from sale but also the two previous ones, for mid-February, which described how the residents of Donetsk, according to their own words, were having fun, living a normal peaceful life, and didn’t believe there would be an escalation [of the conflict]. Understandably, after 24 February hopes like that could be considered sedition. Therefore the print runs were seized all over the country.

But this time we ran into the decision of a specific distributor for Moscow and the Moscow region. Maybe someone got scared that on the eve of Navalny’s funeral and the presidential elections the last independent newspaper in the capital was capable of spoiling their rosy picture. If so, then they achieved the opposite effect. People called, wrote, and came to the offices with words of gratitude, people who before the ban hadn’t even known of our existence and now felt they weren’t alone.

— What kinds of problems, besides seizing print runs, has the regime created for your office in the last two years?

I can’t talk about all the problems for a number of reasons. Of those that can be made public there is the ban on sales in Moscow, the difficulties with advertising, and the blocking of our site last week—the fifth so far—that Roskomnadzor considered somewhat similar to the previous ones. Although anyone who looks at our sites can be convinced of the opposite.

—  It seems that any issue of Sobesednik might turn into a criminal case on a political charge. Aren’t you afraid to put out the paper in these circumstances? 

You can’t live in Russia and be afraid of criminal charges. Legally, we are not breaking the laws, but they can always find fault with anything they like. And it doesn’t matter whether you write about Navalny or Putin. Anyone who doesn’t believe that should ask Sergei Udaltsov.

—  Over the last two years the regime has eliminated all media that are critical of it and are within its reach. What do you think, why has the regime still not shut down Sobesednik?  

The Sobesednik site has been shut down several times, as for the newspaper . . . Literally yesterday Putin was talking about the development of democratic institutions in Russia. It’s hard to develop them if you’ve shut down the last independent newspaper in Russia. It’s simpler to take away our readers by prohibiting distribution, although this isn’t going to look very pretty either. And then, the regime itself reads us. The Duma and Kremlin both subscribe to us, which means they understand that this is something the country needs, too.

Independent journalism, unlike propaganda, is a kind of conscience. It’s not supposed to say that everything’s fine. It’s supposed to point out deficiencies and suggest ways to eliminate them. Of course, it would be simpler for many today to live without a conscience at all, asserting that we alone are right about everything, but since Sobesednik is still coming out, that means there are still people in the country who have a conscience.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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