As a conflict between journalists at Forbes Russia and the magazine’s local license holder, Alexander Fedotov, reached its height in late July, the electricity in the newsroom was switched off, apparently deliberately. Staff continued publishing stories from their mobile phones until they were locked out of the editorial system. Under siege, some reporters posted bemused selfies from their darkened office. The electricity was restored four hours later, minutes before a meeting at which it was announced the chief editor had been replaced by Andrei Zolotov, a former editor at Playboy.
The following day, desperate editors turned to messaging service Telegram. “Blocking access to the site is the latest attempt by publisher Alexander Fedotov to obstruct our journalism. We demand the resignation of the new acting chief editor Andrei Zolotov,” they wrote in a soon-deleted message to over 10,000 followers. “Pressure on the newsroom should stop immediately. Please distribute this.”
For observers, the confrontation seemed to mark the death of Forbes Russia as an authoritative media outlet. Former chief editor Yelizaveta Osetinskaya wrote a column alleging Russia was “losing one of its last independent publications.” But expectations were confounded later that month when investor Magomed Musaev bought the Forbes Russia license from Fedotov. Staff had effectively won — and the news was a minor sensation in the doom-laden Russian media world.
Influential print outlets in Russia, like Forbes, have struggled to survive in recent years: censorship scandals are common and pressure from officials and wealthy owners has hollowed out once-influential publications. In 2016, senior editors at business website RBC were fired and the outlet sold to the owner of a pro-Kremlin tabloid. Other examples include the shuttering of news agency RIA Novosti in 2013 and the firing of editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko from popular news website Lenta.ru in 2014. Those seeking independent news read publications based outside Russia, like Meduza and The Bell, or niche outlets with small audiences.
Despite the headwinds, journalists at Forbes Russia are convinced the magazine has a future and were euphoric at Fedotov’s exit. “For the first time in Russian history, editorial staff have defeated an owner and forced respect for their editorial standards,” says former chief editor Nikolai Uskov, who was fired in June but re-appointed as editorial director by Musaev. Staff described the events as a “victory” to colleagues at other publications. “At last what we have all dreamed about has happened,” chief editor Nikolai Mazurin told staff the day after the announcement of the deal.
“For the first time in Russian history, editorial staff have defeated an owner and forced respect for their editorial standards,” says former chief editor Nikolai Uskov
Forbes was set-up in Russia in the early 2000s and made headlines in 2004 when its first editor-in-chief, Paul Khlebnikov, was gunned down in a contract killing outside its offices. In Russia’s subsequent oil boom years the magazine became respected for its investigative work and rigorous standards. But as print media came under renewed pressure in Russia, Fedotov acquired the license from the original holder, German publishing giant Axel Springer, after the passage of a 2014 law limiting foreign ownership of local media assets. But Fedotov lasted less than three years, bruised by what current and former employees interviewed for this article describe as financial problems and a bitter struggle over editorial independence. Fedotov did not respond to a request for comment.
The most obvious consequence of staff unhappiness with Fedotov was a series of legal challenges. Former Forbes Russia journalist Yekaterina Yeremenko recalls the final confrontation with Fedotov, which emerged as a result of an article about the business interests of the billionaire Magomedov brothers, who were arrested earlier this year on embezzlement charges. “We got the journal from the printers 24 hours before it went on sale but we already suspected they might have tried to remove something illegally,” says Eremenko, who eventually resigned in protest. “After this, acting chief editor Nikolai Mazurin decided he was going to complain. He told all the editorial staff. The next day, he filed a case with prosecutors.”
Mazurin’s legal challenge was not the only such case. Former chief editor Nikolai Uskov also started legal proceedings against Fedotov after he was fired in June. While neither Mazurin’s nor Uskov’s challenges reached court, an earlier case filed by former Forbes journalist Elena Zubova did go before a judge. Zubova sued Fedotov in late 2016, alleging changes to editorial policy meant she was forced to resign.
“It never entered my head that one day I would have to take the publication to court,” Zubova says in a message. But she led an uprising against Fedotov when he removed the name of Andrei Kostin, the head of Russia’s second largest bank, from the magazine’s ranking of the country’s highest paid executives. In response, Zubova composed a joint letter signed by 25 members of staff. “I wasn’t trying to change the system,” she says. “The aim was simple: speak publicly about the importance of observing standards of independent journalism and do everything so that any concerned person could show their support.”
While Zubova ultimately lost her case, testimonies by Forbes journalists in court in 2017 painted an extraordinary picture of a deeply compromised media outlet. “The situation in the newsroom is a situation of permanent war,” editor Maria Abakumova told the court. Another longstanding Forbes Russia editor, Yelena Berezanskaya, described how Fedotov tried to influence editorial policy, first pressuring one employee, then another. At a meeting of editors, she recounted how he became furious at objections from staff and swore he would find the “rat” who had given an anonymous interview to a rival media outlet.
There are fears Forbes’ reputation may have suffered so much as to make a complete recovery difficult, if not impossible
Fedotov’s desire to direct editorial policy was part of an effort to maximise advertising revenue — not because Kremlin officials were meddling with Forbes, according to former chief editor Uskov. “I think if he hadn’t had financial problems it would never have occurred to him to pressurise the editorial staff,” says Uskov. “Many people make the mistake when thinking about Russia that everything goes back to the Kremlin. But… I know for certain that Fedotov wasn’t put there by the Kremlin and nor was the deal approved by the Kremlin. There is no political subtext.”
And Fedotov’s financial problems were severe. By the summer, his ASMG media group reportedly owed 18 million roubles (£204,000) to printing companies and some of its bank accounts were frozen by the tax authorities. Staff say their salaries were delayed. In the final weeks of Fedotov’s tenure — as Forbes’ U.S. parent company brokered a deal between Musaev and Fedotov — the despair was palpable in the Moscow office. Staff even created a large cardboard billboard that read: “Holding back tears is already work in its own right.”
“We are very fortunate that the Americans supported us at the right time,” says Uskov in a September interview in Moscow. Downstairs, one of ASMG’s offices was being dismantled by workmen and rubble lay in heaps on the floor. Since taking control, new license holder Musaev has paid off Fedotov’s debts and told staff he will build a “Chinese wall” around the newsroom. He has proposed creating a new board of trustees that will include previous editors-in-chief.
But there are fears Forbes’ reputation may have suffered so much as to make a complete recovery difficult, if not impossible. Zubova says over 20 employees left in 2016 (the outlet has about 60 staff in total). And other censorship scandals have also led to resignations: Yeremenko left in August and Sergei Titov, who wrote the article about the Magomedov brothers that Fedotov pulled from the magazine, departed in September.
Leonid Bershidsky, a prominent media commentator who helped set up Forbes Russia in the early 2000s, says Forbes’s reputation in the region is already in tatters not just because of events in Russia, but also what happened in Ukraine — where most of the editorial staff resigned in protest after the license was sold to tycoon Serhiy Kurchenko in 2013. “Fedotov, Schmedotov, I doubt anyone in that part of the world attaches much value to the Forbes brand,” says Bershidsky. “Back when we worked with Axel Springer to start Forbes Russia, the brand meant much more than it does today.”