When this past weekend I was about to write yet another column about the intricacies of modern romantic relationships, the chilling news of Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin's horrendous beating arrived. I froze in disbelief and then asked myself — why am I doing what I am doing? Writing about love, sex and travel instead of covering the Khodorkovskiy trial or investigating a high-profile economic scandal? Why do I opt for easy, safe and sometimes superficial journalism and not get into the meaningful stuff? Am I afraid? Pessimistic? Disillusioned?
Probably all of the above.
I got my first job in journalism in the mid-90s, when the profession still boasted the romantic image of if not being able to save the world then at least change it a good deal. Well, at least this is what becoming a reporter meant for many of us when we were first year students at the Moscow State University Journalism Faculty. My role models back then were, in fact, Kommersant political and economics reporters who frequently gave talks at the writing seminar I attended. In 1996, I became a metro reporter at "Argumenty i Fakty," Russia's biggest weekly newspaper at the time and now, but back then it was also influential, relatively independent in terms of content and in many ways even liberal. I covered the city government, roads construction, schools, city rats, housing, homeless, small businesses, garbage recycling and other metro issues for five years until I dropped it all and went to study at New York's Columbia University and then worked as a reporter for USA Today in Washington, D.C.
When I came back to Russia eight years ago, going back to the newspaper milieu was out of the question for me. Another, more inviting universe had emerged - glossy magazines. They offered more money, fairly flexible schedules and an opportunity to lead the lifestyle of a "citizen of the world" which for me was and still is most alluring. More important, I knew I could write what I wanted if I worked there because our realities would hardly intersect with the regime's official line of media coverage, which had become very censorship-prone. I took an editor's position at a woman's magazine, happily resigning myself to a kind of information vacuum.
The vacuum turned out to be quite accommodating. My medium looks nice, smells nice and offers pret-a-porter solutions of how to be (or to become) a "have it all" woman. Granted, Marie Claire is probably the least sugar-coated of Russian women's glossies, but compared with French, British or Australian editions of this magazine, ours is light as a breeze. It's almost 100% politics-free (A pre-2008 election syndicated interview with Barack Obama doesn't count. Ironically, when we wanted to do a profile of President Medvedev's wife, Svetlana, her camp didn't return calls.) Still, during my time at the magazine, I have got do to my share of relatively "hard" stories like, for instance, going to the North Caucasus to write about the women working for humanitarian aid organizations there, or to Tchuvashia region to do a piece on women in the local government. Even so, I actually don't mind my magazine promoting a carefree consumerist dolce vita. We are selling a dream, an escape, a temporary distraction from the reality that bites. Perhaps the French or British women don't need this kind of distraction, but Russian ones do. Even if only a small percentage of our readers can actually afford to buy the fashion items we promote or take the vacations we write about, it's still important for the rest to be stimulated to dream, set the goals or make the wish-lists.
I don't watch TV and I don't read newspapers — I get most of my news online. My escapist stand is a kind of a compromise I've got with myself for living in today's Russia. Not everyone should be a fighter for the truth, I have convinced myself, and a well-researched and witty-written piece on relationships is as relevant as a ground-breaking political investigation. I also go abroad about once a month and, like so many of my colleagues, I occasionally update my Facebook status based on my exciting travels. This way I pretend I live in a free and open country — just like my peers in the West — or even better, perhaps, as the emerging economy's opportunities are vast and plenty for the younger generation.
Still, when I hear of my other colleagues who are doing a different kind of journalism and don't get sent to all-expenses-paid SPA trips to Maldives, getting nearly destroyed for what they say or write, I stop wanting to live in this country anymore. But I still believe in the power of the written word and in the change it can induce — at least in the minds. I also think in order for the change to take place, there should be a lot more journalists like Oleg Kashin out there. Sadly, seeing what could happen if you do a reporter's job in Russia will not inspire many to join his camp.
But I've got tremendous respect for the handful of journalists who choose to remain there.
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.