When asked by my Russian friends about my occupation, I responded briefly: “the fifth column” or “the CIA agent”. When asked by my American peers the same question, I responded: “The Russian propaganda” or “the Kremlin’s mouthpiece”. Of course, neither was true. Yet such ambiguous situation is inevitable if one tries to pursue non-partisan journalism, especially in a time of the post-truth and fake news.
Of course, those skeptics had a reason to question the integrity of Russia Direct, the English-language analytical website, at least because it was owned by Russia’s official newspaper. On the other hand, this media outlet tried to be well-balanced and editorially independent, which created a sort of cognitive dissonance among those who used to seeing Russia Direct as another tool of the Kremlin’s propaganda. That’s probably why our audience accused us of being both “a bunch of CIA agents” and “the Kremlin’s mouthpiece”.
Russia Direct was launched four years ago as an attempt to create a platform for dialogue between Russia and the U.S. It was the time when U.S.-Russia relations had not yet reached their current state, although there were signs of profound disagreements, including the case of whistleblower Edward Snowden, who got the asylum in Russia in 2013, and differences over the civil war in Syria. These disagreements turned into full-blown hostility in the winter of 2013-2014, when protests in Ukraine resulted in the war in the eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which the Kremlin sees as the reunification with Russia.
Despite the Moscow-Washington confrontation, both political and informational, Russia Direct sought to build bridges between Russian and American expert communities and create a place that could convert these two monologues into one dialogue. This was our key principle. This bold mission is relevant today, with the ongoing investigations into the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 American elections and the attempts of Congress to toughen sanctions against Russia.
Throughout its history, Russia Direct always sought to produce well-balanced content from a diverse array of experts, analysts and newsmakers from Russia and abroad on the most relevant topics. One of its guiding principles was to showcase contrasting opinions — sometimes, extremely divergent ones — so that its readers could come up with their own conclusions. Russia Direct shied away from imposing any agenda and have never cherry-picked perspectives that favored one side or another. Indeed, creating an honest dialogue, balancing between two extremes and maintaining our journalistic integrity were among top priorities for Russia Direct.
The outlet never avoided covering the most controversial problems that were relevant to our audience. It published articles, debates, interviews and opinions on the downing of flight MH17, the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and the murky relations between the Kremlin and Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Mostly recently, Russia Direct run several articles on Alexei Navalny’s investigation into Medvedev’s corruption schemes — a topic that was taboo for some Russian media outlets.
As The Washington Post wrote in December 2016, Russia Direct “has nothing like the Moscow-centric slant of the outlets usually associated with Kremlin propaganda, such as the Duran, Sputnik or RT. And every Russia Direct story comes with a box directing the reader to another story that presents an alternative — if not always opposing — point of view.”
On March 26, 2017, Russia Direct has officially stopped updating its website following the failure of my negotiations to take over the media outlet from its owner, Russian newspaper Rossisykaya Gazeta, which ended its financial support in January 2017. With the lack of funding, Russia Direct suspended its monthly reports, but nevertheless it struggled to maintain the website while searching for sponsors. Since March 1, the website has been maintained on a purely volunteer basis. My goal was to make Russia Direct fully independent, yet this expectation didn’t come true. The dialogue is over — ostensibly because of the lack of financial reasons. And it came at the moment when this dialogue was in high demand.
Alas, but the very idea of dialogue is compromised due to the lack of trust between Moscow and Washington and a very hostile environment in today’s politics. Politicians and journalists try to promote their own agenda without giving an opportunity to the audience to come up with its conclusions: “Our” truth is “your” propaganda. All this devalues the words, ascribed to famous French 18th century writer Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Unfortunately, today it sounds like an idealistic statement, ridiculed and ignored by both partisan journalists and pundits.
Pavel Koshkin is the former editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, an English-language analytical media outlet that suspended its activity due to financial and political challenges. Koshkin is a contributor for Forbes-Russia magazine and the deputy editor of International Desk at RBC Daily, a Russian independent newspaper. He is an alumnus of the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program administered by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX). In 2011-2012, he participated in the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF), which brings together Russian, U.S. pundits with students to improve bilateral relations between the countries. He has a Ph.D. in international journalism from Lomonosov Moscow State University.