Snob, a kind of Vanity Fair for Russia’s political elite, made its U.S. debut this month. Twenty thousand copies hit the New York newsstands last week—in Russian for elite members of the Russian diaspora. Snob made its U.K. debut last year. Russia Beyond the Headlines caught up with deputy-editor-in-chief Masha Gessen in Moscow. An acclaimed journalist and author, Gessen had the advantage of growing up both in Russia and in the United States. She was hired for the project by Vladimir Yakovlev, the journalist best known for founding the independent newspaper Kommersant. Yakovlev pitched the idea of Snob to metals magnate Mikhail Prokhurov, who put $100 million behind it.
So I understand that the title of your magazine, Snob, is a bit ironic. Who is your target audience?MG:
Russia has been cycling through concepts of exclusivity in the past ten to twenty years. We have had multiple elite—communist elite, new wild business elite, quasi mafiaso elite…I could go on.
Our readers on one hand reject any exclusivity, and on the other hand they are snobs because of that. This a project for people who dare to be separate and special and value it in themselves.”RBTH:
So you are targeting a new intellectual, a new intelligentsia?MG:
Russian intelligentsia is distinct from other cultures in that they have a sense of particular responsibility to the country and society. …The people we are targeting have been building their identities privately. After 15 years, they are beginning to look outside themselves. They are finally ready to look around and engage with the world for the first time.RBTH:
So you are cultivating or nurturing your audience?MG:
What we’re about is creating a discussion space. Russians don’t have space for those things that used to be discussed in the kitchen, and have been discussed less in the last 15 years. There is a huge empty space in Russian media between electoral politics and theater coverage. We don’t have a way of talking about sex, assimilation, identity, education or childrearing.RBTH:
What do you mean by a discussion space? MG:
It means an online network combined with editorial and user-generated content. If someone writes a brilliant article without a discussion, the article is a failure. You can’t find anything in the magazine that is distant from the website. We have online social networks, offline social networks small non-publicized breakfasts. And film showings. People become members of social networks either by invitation or subscription. RBTH:
There is a lot of talk in Western publications about diminished freedom of the press in Russia. What is it like on the ground and how does the atmosphere affect Snob?MG:
Snob is the only publication that has the guts to have me as editor. I was arguably the first journalist blacklisted by [then-President] Putin when I was with U.S. News and World Report in 2000.
However, Russian magazines fall under much less scrutiny [than TV]. In addition we are not a news source. We really fall in the lifestyle category although life is what we are here to talk about.
The way I view freedom of the press is that the press space is contracting, especially for those near the center. But we don’t feel the pressure very hard. I also feel the pressure has lessened considerably in the last two years. Two years ago I would have said it is unstoppable and every kernel of thought will be stamped out…now I don’t know where it’s going.RBTH:
You are from a literary family with a fantastic legacy. How does that fuel you?MG:
I’m actually a fifth generation journalist. My great great grandfather owned a printing plant. …My mother was involved in self-publishing and was a literary critic. My brother is a writer. We can’t walk a mile without writing a word.RBTH:
What is your hope for the U.S. launch?MG:
Enough time has passed so this community of people is secure in their American identities. We want them to look at Russian and pull them in. I want this community to be part of the discussion to facilitate social change in this country.
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