Team 29: We are Vlast here

posted 9 Oct 2019, 12:05 by Translation Service   [ updated 9 Oct 2019, 12:10 ]

5 October 2019

Hi there! It’s Natasha Korchenkova.

Before Team 29, I worked as a correspondent for Kommersant. I joined the paper in late 2011, not long before the State Duma elections – the ones that led to the mass protest movement. I was in my third year of journalism school back then. I was really into politics and absolutely worshipped the magazine Vlast [Power as in political power -ed], whose Chief Editor was Maksim Kovalskiy. The paper seemed (and generally was) the model of perfection. Just take the headline ‘Award of the Week’, for example, where the editorial staff would symbolically present Vladimir Putin with the ‘Order of Water off a Duck’s Back’, calling out his lies. The articles were perfect, too, just unforgettable. They were intelligent, articulate, ironic, and had brilliant covers. Like ‘Here’s to sucking up before the Motherland’ (on Valentina Matvienko’s appointment as speaker of the Federation Council following her failed leadership of St. Petersburg and the scandal involving snow removal) or ‘I’m not a friend, and I’m not the enemy… Attack!’ (on President Medvedev’s confused position on the war in Libya).

Shortly after I arrived as an intern at Ъ (Kommersant), Vlast ceased to exist. By which I mean that although the magazine was produced for several more years, it was far from the legendary publication it had once been. On 13 December 2011, the owner of Ъ, Alisher Usmanov, fired Maksim Kovalskiy after he published an image of a ballot paper that had a cross marked for Yabloko and alongside it, in the same pen, was written ‘F* you, Putin …!’. The picture had the caption, ‘Correctly completed ballot paper declared invalid.’ Soon after Kovalskiy went his deputy Veronika Kutsyllo and several of her colleagues also left.

Seven and a half years later, in May 2019, Alisher Usmanov did it again and fired my colleagues Maksim Ivanov and Ivan Safronov, for an unremarkable piece on the possible departure of Valentina Matvienko from the Federation Council. All of us went after them – 11 members of the magazine’s political desk.

I found my new position at Team 29 – a media organisation that not only makes the case for openness but also defends people who stand accused by the government of disclosing certain ‘secrets’. Such accusations affected Vlast under Maksim Kovalskiy when, piece by piece, the editors compiled directories on the Russian Armed Forces and later asserted their
right, in court, to disseminate such publicly available information. 

'The Team' spoke to Maksim Kovalskiy last year during the preparation of a special project on the history of espionage and treason. Not long ago, we published a full version of this conversation, with the consent of Kovalskiy’s family. “In particular, I drew the court’s attention to the repeated failure to differentiate between the dissemination of information containing a state secret and the disclosure of a state secret. I grew up in a place where arguments are based on reason. It’s one thing for someone with access to secrets to disseminate secret information, and quite another to disseminate information containing a state secret. We might have predicted that some action would be taken [following the publication of the directories], but that did not matter to me. We publish a magazine. If we looked over our shoulders at the authorities the whole time, we would only ever publish blank pages,” says Kovalskiy in this interview. You have to read it.


Just a few weeks before we were fired from Ъ, Maksim Kovalskiy passed away. I managed to catch his memorial service in the newsroom (he eventually returned to Ъ and in his later years, he had a lower profile role as creative director).  Colleagues remembered him as someone with old-fashioned ideas about the boundaries of acceptability. But also as
someone who clearly appreciated that if you give way over a completely unnecessary picture of a ballot paper, then you will have to give way on just about everything further down the line. Please let’s try not give up either.

Natasha, T29

Translated by Lindsay Munford