Pounding the Hammer

Molotok, August 22–28, 2006, Moscow Unusually hot days in Moscow this summer must have warped minds at the office of Russia’s chief prosecutor. In June, the agency — which typically engages in strong-arming tactics like taking down oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dismantling his company, Yukos — set its sights on a far more trifling ...

Molotok,
August 22–28, 2006, Moscow

Unusually hot days in Moscow this summer must have warped minds at the office of Russia's chief prosecutor. In June, the agency -- which typically engages in strong-arming tactics like taking down oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dismantling his company, Yukos -- set its sights on a far more trifling matter. After reviewing publications that target young readers, it issued a statement saying that the weekly magazine Molotok, as well as a couple of other teen titles, publishes materials "depraving teenage readers and pushing them toward an early start of sexual life." A deputy prosecutor general demanded that the magazines be shut down.

His criticism of Molotok is just one recent example of the Russian government's ongoing attacks on the freedom of the press. Within weeks of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in 2000, the Kremlin arrested and briefly detained Vladimir Gusinsky -- the founder of Russia's largest privately held media group and an outspoken critic of Putin -- on charges of fraud. It was the first step in the government's efforts to restrict the independence of news organizations. Within a year, the president's cronies had seized Gusinsky's media empire, including his crown jewel: NTV, the country's most respected television network. By the summer of 2003, all major national TV networks were in the hands of managers loyal to Putin. Increasingly, the Kremlin has expanded control over print media, too, arranging for faithful allies to purchase some of the country’s leading newspapers.

Molotok,
August 22–28, 2006, Moscow

Unusually hot days in Moscow this summer must have warped minds at the office of Russia’s chief prosecutor. In June, the agency — which typically engages in strong-arming tactics like taking down oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and dismantling his company, Yukos — set its sights on a far more trifling matter. After reviewing publications that target young readers, it issued a statement saying that the weekly magazine Molotok, as well as a couple of other teen titles, publishes materials "depraving teenage readers and pushing them toward an early start of sexual life." A deputy prosecutor general demanded that the magazines be shut down.

His criticism of Molotok is just one recent example of the Russian government’s ongoing attacks on the freedom of the press. Within weeks of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration in 2000, the Kremlin arrested and briefly detained Vladimir Gusinsky — the founder of Russia’s largest privately held media group and an outspoken critic of Putin — on charges of fraud. It was the first step in the government’s efforts to restrict the independence of news organizations. Within a year, the president’s cronies had seized Gusinsky’s media empire, including his crown jewel: NTV, the country’s most respected television network. By the summer of 2003, all major national TV networks were in the hands of managers loyal to Putin. Increasingly, the Kremlin has expanded control over print media, too, arranging for faithful allies to purchase some of the country’s leading newspapers.

But when Kremlin censors start cracking down on teenybopper magazines, it’s clear the campaign has veered into the ridiculous. After all, Molotok, which ironically means "hammer" in Russian, is hardly the type of magazine capable of inciting revolution and bringing down a government. With a circulation of 215,000, the glossy is aimed squarely at the kind of teenagers who worship pretty-boy pop singers. Large photos of international celebrities are scattered throughout its pages. Splashy and colorful layouts display tips about clothing and diets. The magazine also responds to fans’ endless questions about their idols: "Is it true that Johnny Depp is going out with Keira Knightley? When will [Russian pop duo] t.A.T.u fly to space?" There is the occasional attempt to take up more serious topics. In the August 22-28 issue, the magazine published an interview with a 15-year-old Russian émigré living in Haifa, asking about her life under fire during the recent Israeli-Hezbollah crisis. But for the most part, Molotok keeps the tone light and fluffy.

And then, of course, there’s sex. Since Molotok is aimed at an audience chock-full of raging hormones, it would be remiss — even irresponsible — for the editors to ignore such a hot topic. Molotok tackles safe sex, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and other questions you’d expect in a sex ed class. The details are no more explicit than what you’d find in the pages of any other teen magazine elsewhere in the world. Molotok‘s editor, Katya Mil, is outraged that the chief prosecutor’s office is protesting such content. "How can we possibly not address [sex] if many parents don’t know how to talk about it with their kids?" she says. "What they learn at school, especially in the provinces, is highly insufficient."

Such frank talk comes naturally to the young leaders of Molotok, who were teenagers themselves when the Cold War ended. The 32-year-old Mil is a former model and actress, and moonlights as a writer and R&B singer. Fyodor Pavlov, the magazine’s 30-year-old founder and publisher, is also an entertainment veteran, having hosted TV shows since he was 12 years old.

Their free, glamorous, and cosmopolitan lives would have been inconceivable in the Soviet police state of their youth. The Communist Party condemned rock and jazz as morally corrupt and ideologically hostile, harassing those who dared to test the unofficial ban against playing such music. Sex was regarded as dangerous and suspicious: A Soviet citizen might get too carried away by passion and slip out of state control. So censors cut graphic scenes from Western movies and banned translations of foreign literature if they contained "improper" descriptions. Issues of Playboy magazine and bad copies of cheap porn novels were available only on the black market.

That world may be gone, but there are still echoes of the Soviet Union in today’s Russia. Putin has radically recentralized the government and emasculated democratic institutions. But the Kremlin seeks to neutralize political opponents, not teen idols. The attack by the chief prosecutor’s office against Molotok is probably not part of the government campaign to crack down on independent media outlets. Instead, this conservative project smacks of late Soviet-era paternalism. The Soviet state began as a grand project of shaping a New Man whose words, deeds, thoughts, and emotions would be guided by progressive Communist teaching. But as revolutionary zeal fizzled, what remained was a repressive, bureaucratic system in which rules and morals were dictated by conservative hypocrites. The chief prosecutor’s criticism of Molotok is merely the newest example in a long history of state-enforced morals.

Unlike other targets of the government’s campaign against editorial independence, Molotok remains alive and kicking. Like their peers in the rest of the world, its young readers don’t care about politics, nor do they see how a crackdown on political freedoms may lead to government-imposed bans of things they do care about. They take for granted the freedom to listen to whatever they want, to wear whatever they like, and even to satisfy their curiosity about sex in their favorite magazine. Even Mil nonchalantly shrugs off the prosecutors’ threats: "Those who bring such accusations against us must themselves have problems with sex."

The editors of Molotok, while mocking the narrow-minded bureaucrats, are old enough to remember the specter of the Soviet police state at work. In a note to readers published after the prosecutor’s office threatened to close the magazine, Pavlov’s words come across as playful and slangy, but there’s also an echo of genuine resistance beneath the surface. "I never promised you that MOLOT would always exist and that a buttoned-up stranger wouldn’t one day come knocking on your door to search your house…. [But] it’s known that no one can just shut down MOLOT. (Bitter grown-ups are forbidden to read further.) So this is what we’ll do: Pick up MOLOT, roll it up (so that you get a loudspeaker), lean out of the window, and yell ‘molot foreva’ three times." Hopefully, his cheeky threat of teenage rabble-rousing will be enough to convince the Kremlin how futile its pursuit of Molotok really is.

Masha Lipman is the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Society and Regions Program. She is also the editor of the Center's Pro et Contra journal.

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