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Birds
International Herald Tribune, September 10, 2012

Flying Putin, Fired Editor

By Masha Gessen

MOSCOW — Losing my job as editor of one of the world’s oldest popular-science magazines, Vokrug Sveta (Around the World), was faster and less painful than I had imagined. And I had spent a couple of months imagining how this might happen.

Early in the summer my publisher entered into a partnership agreement with the Russian Geographical Society. This innocuous-sounding event was actually part of a creeping takeover of the sort that businesses in Russia always fear and often face. The Russian Geographic Society’s board is chaired by President Vladimir Putin, which means the nongovernmental organization can have anything it wants — like a four-story building to house its offices a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.

So when earlier this year, the group’s leaders decided they wanted to take possession of Vokrug Sveta, Russia’s highest-circulation quality monthly, the magazine’s publisher obediently placed the words “Magazine of the Russian Geographic Society” on the cover. He retained nominal ownership of the magazine — and full financial responsibility for it — but it now had an obligation to print at least one RGS-related story in every issue. Our journalists would go along on RGS expeditions, which were many, exotic, and lavishly funded.

I worried. On the one hand, these expeditions afforded us opportunities to go places few journalists can get to, like the New Siberian Islands. On the other hand, RGS representatives were usually hard-pressed to explain the actual purpose of their expeditions, which made me suspect that RGS functioned like any Russian bureaucracy, spending money just because it can.

I also had another concern — or, rather, fear. Putin himself had been taking an increasing interest in RGS activities and in nature-preservation efforts in general. In 2008, for example, he was shown personally placing a satellite-transmitter collar on what appeared to a wild Siberian tiger. In fact, environmentalist bloggers later reported, the tiger had been taken from the Khabarovsk Zoo.

As Vokrug Sveta reporters started going on RGS expeditions, they brought back more tales of such make-believe. There was the time, in 2010, when Putin placed another satellite collar, this time on a wild polar bear on Franz Joseph Land Island. But locals told our reporter earlier this year that the bear had been captured several days in advance and heavily sedated in anticipation of Putin’s visit.

The same reporter brought back another story, about the time when Putin wanted to be photographed deep in the wilderness of a national park in Russia’s Far East. His security service plotted a route through a part of the park that had been clear-cut. Inventive park rangers procured tree trunks and tied them to stumps for the photo op.

Putin’s nature-preservation efforts had little to do with science of any sort; that much was clear. But the evidence was hearsay. Our reporters had not witnessed any shams themselves, and as a popular-science magazine, we were under no obligation to investigate these allegations.

I hated taking this position, though. I had spent years working as a political reporter and editor, and I had never shied away from investigations, including high-risk ones. One of the reasons I had taken a job as editor of a popular-science magazine was that I felt political reporting in Russia, at least in Russian, had become untenable. I had not expected to face gut-wrenching choices at Vokrug Sveta.

And then, a week ago Saturday, I got a call from my publisher: The president’s administration was requesting that a Vokrug Sveta writer-photographer team accompany Putin on a hang-glider flight geared at reintroducing Siberian cranes into the wild. My heart sank: I was sure the journalist would witness something along the lines of tigers borrowed from a zoo or trees tied to stumps. I would then feel we had an obligation to write about it, and then there would be trouble. At the least I would get fired; at the most the magazine’s takeover would turn hostile.

So I said I would not send a reporter.

And I was fired on the spot.

It was, mostly, a relief. What I had been dreading ever since the magazine became affiliated with RGS had finally happened. What bothered me was that I had missed a great reporting opportunity: I would have loved to go myself.

Two days later, a biology student and volunteer at the preserve where the birds were raised, blogged that two birds in the Putin expedition had died because they had had to be transported to the site where he wished to stage the flight. Her post circulated quickly. Soon she took it down, explaining that she had wanted to cause no controversy — and anyway, the president had not “personally killed any birds.”

I don’t know what really happened: Unfortunately, I wasn’t there.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton