Malcolm Dixelius is a former Moscow correspondent for the Swedish public broadcaster SVT and respected expert on Russia-related topics. Dixelius was first stationed in Moscow in 1979, where he remained for five years before taking up a role as an international reporter for SVT. He returned in 1990 and would later cover the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1993, Dixelius left SVT to start his own company, Dixit International, which focuses on producing international documentary films. He is the author of two books with Russian journalist Andrei Konstantinov on organised crime in Russia, “Russia’s Underworld” (1994) and “Mafialand Russia” (1997).
IPI spoke with Dixelius recently by phone about the changes that have taken place in the Russian media before, during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how the doctrine of “repressive tolerance” allows the current authorities to control public opinion.
IPI: From your point of view as a longtime correspondent, how did the experience of the Soviet Union shape journalism in Russia?
Dixelius: That whole generation of Russian journalists [working under the USSR] was taught in school and in practice to do journalism as a service to the country and the Communist Party. They didn’t like it, but those were the working conditions. Some of them became fantastic journalists, simply by using their literary skills to be able to correspond with their audience even through the means of party propaganda. They became very good investigative journalists. They sometimes worked to cover things that the government did that they weren’t supposed to cover. So out of that Soviet experience came a group of journalists who were very good writers.
IPI: Russia went through a profound transition with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. What effect did this have on the way that journalists worked?
Dixelius: I think the main problem has to do with the commercialisation of the media in Russia and, specifically, the lack of a tradition of ownership. In Soviet times, the party owned all the means of running media outlets. With the fall of the Soviet Union, media outlets were taken over by people with commercial interests of different kinds, but there was no experience with the type of liberal media ownership that we’re used to in Scandinavia and the rest of the Western world. And this has really affected the journalistic profession in Russia. The new generation of journalists who were not brought up with this division, they’ve basically had to fight their own fight. There are no safety nets in this new system. Journalists have often had to obey the wishes of very self-serving media owners who have little interest in journalism. Indeed, these owners wanted to use the media outlet to advance their own private, ideological, or very often simply commercial interests.
IPI: What role has the Russian government played in these developments?
Dixelius: With time, as the Russian government grew stronger economically and more influential, it crept back into commercialised media. Under [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, both in Putin’s time as president and prime minister, the central government increased its control over television in particular, but also over other types of media. At the same time, local politicians strengthened their hand over local media outlets. What we’re left with today is a situation where you still don’t have any major independent ownership over media in Russia. Media outlets are either controlled by a political interest or by media owners who use their holdings for personal interests.
IPI: In the recent panel in Helsinki, you discussed a theory to describe the Russian media landscape known as “repressive tolerance”. What does this theory say?
Dixelius: Already during Soviet times there was an understanding that of course you couldn’t hide everything from the public, so there had to be a certain elegance of discovery, elegance of reflecting public discontent in the media. So while authorities remain in control, at the same time they had to tolerate a certain amount of press freedom to let the public blow off steam. And the same thing is happening now. There is no 100 percent repression of the media in Russia. Friends of mine whom I’ve worked with in Russia have come from quite independent media outlets. The one I’ve been most closely connected to is the Fontanka news site in St. Petersburg. They’re a healthy group of journalists, and they do quite well commercially.
IPI: What do these independent media outlets have in common?
Dixelius: What they all say is that it doesn’t matter what we do as journalists. It doesn’t have any significance on corruption. We expose politicians with shady records, but they are still kept in power because of their cronies. They’re immune thanks to the political system we’re dealing with. So independent media are allowed to exist, they’re even allowed to publish unpleasant stories about people in power, but the government has made itself immune to consequences mainly by maintaining a very strong hand over the media where people get most of their information – primarily television.
IPI: What sort of impact does content published on the Internet have, particularly when it comes to critical stories or opinions?
Dixelius: We previously thought this had a very, very small effect. However, recently we have seen an exception with the outbreak of Internet-fuelled demonstrations in over 90 Russian cities, which was quite unexpected and showed that this system of tolerance from the government’s side isn’t working fully. I would think that any repetition of such events would cause the government to strengthen its control.
IPI: What do believe is the best way we can propel Russian journalism, particularly in St. Petersburg, toward a more open future?
Dixelius: I hold a very strong view in this respect, and it’s doing exactly what you are doing: seeking dialogue. They’re not stupid, we’re not stupid. We need to keep the dialogue going. We have similar problems in the media world in the West today. Things are not easy here. The whole system is changing because of new attitudes, particularly among younger media consumers, and the same thing is happening in Russia.
My previous experience, and my credo today, is more dialogue. Keep working on it, keep talking to our colleagues [across borders], keep inviting them to join the discussion, and we will eventually wear down the barriers against good journalism. But the long-term problem of publishing for media in Russia must be regulated in a political way. There isn’t much we can do to change that, except to keep up the spirit of our journalist colleagues.