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Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Sunday Magazine: Russia!

The New York Sun documents the possible further onslaught of the neo-Soviet propaganda campaign in English. First the Kremlin bought itself a blog (Russia Profile), then a TV station (Russia Today) and a Western "journalist" (Peter LaVelle) and now perhaps it has a glossy magazine (Russia! - click the picture to visit the site). Russia has already bought a former leader of Germany: How long before it starts trying to buy off Western journalists? Yawn. The USSR tried all this stuff, and it failed and ceased to exist. Apparently, Putin thinks that the idea was a good one, it was just executed badly.

It may not be Cold War II, but Russia's image in America needs defrosting.

"When Putin appears on the cover of the Economist looking like Al Capone, holding a gas nozzle made to look like a submachine gun, you know the Kremlin p.r. people have got work to do," the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, Stephen Sestanovich, said.

But while the Russian government recently funded two English-language press outlets aimed at the West — a satellite television news network, Russia Today, and a monthly magazine, Russia Profile — Russia's latest public relations effort product comes from private sources and is produced in America.

Russia! magazine, a glossy quarterly, arrived at newsstands in New York earlier this month, and its publisher, Ilya Merenzon, said the full print run of 20,000 copies will soon be distributed in major cities across the country, in Canada, and in Britain. A shipment to Russia is now in transit, he said, as a deal is being signed with a Russia-based distributor. And a German-language edition of Russia! is in the works.

The magazine has editorial offices on Lafayette Street and is aimed 70% at Americans, 20% at the British, and 10% at Russians, he said. A 30-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Mr. Merenzon came to America in 1999, studying at Pace University and the New School and, along the way, helping with the launch of a local Russian-language entertainment magazine, Metro.

Over coffee a year ago, Mr. Merenzon pitched the idea for Russia! — which he envisioned as a nonpolitical, design-heavy publication with articles from a range of authors that would inform Westerners about the country — to a Moscow-based businessman, Andrew Paulson.

Mr. Paulson, an expatriate American who has lived in Russia since 1993, had already found success with Afisha Publishing House, which puts out a range of popular Russian-language publications, including Afisha, Bolshoi Gorod, and Afisha Mir. But after selling the business to billionaire Vladimir Potanin's ProfMedia in 2005, Mr. Paulson shifted his sights to the Internet, buying the Russian version of the virtual community LiveJournal with his new company, SUP.

A year after that first pitch meeting, another of Mr. Paulson's companies, New Century Bold, is partowner of the new magazine, along with Press Release Group, an American company led by Mr. Merenzon and partly financed by American businessmen. (Despite much speculation in the Russian press, Mr. Merenzon said Russia! is not backed with Kremlin money.) When asked why he returned to publishing with Russia! Mr. Paulson said Mr. Merenzon is "one of the — if not the — most determined and stubborn entrepreneurs I have ever met."

Mr. Paulson said his input on the first issue was limited to telling Mr. Merenzon "that it was his job to hire the editor in chief and keep out of the way" and agreeing with him that Artemy Lebedev "should be the designer."

Mr. Lebedev, whom Mr. Paulson calls "one of a handful of great graphic designers in Russia," is now the magazine's art director. The designer of the Russian search engine as well as Afisha and a host of other high-profile Russian projects, Mr. Lebedev, who is based in the Russian capital, agreed to collaborate on the new project "to broaden his appeal, because he's done everything in Moscow," Mr. Merenzon said. Mr. Lebedev created the magazine's logotype — a mix of different-shaped letters in which the U, S, and A within Russia! are thinner, standing out — and came up with the first cover concept, a gray moonscape bearing a footprint and the imprint of a rake. Mr. Merenzon called the cover "a strange macro of a macro" that "might not be very understandable to Americans" and spent several minutes trying to explain it to this reporter, starting with a description of a Russian proverb about stepping on rakes and ending by saying, "I don't really know what it means."

The publisher was quick to point out that design alone may sell magazines in Russia and the rest of Europe, but it is not enough to make a magazine successful in America. "Here the text must be excellent," he said. "A major challenge is to make it interesting to Americans."

As such, the first issue of Russia! has features from a contributing editor of New York magazine, Michael Idov, one of Moscow's best-known gallery owners, Marat Guelman, and the novelist Boris Akunin. Topics range from recipes for a traditional dish to an exploration of Moscow's underground passageways and an epic Russian train trip.

For the second issue, which will be published in mid-May, Mr. Merenzon said the Russian input will be limited mainly to art, photos, fashion, and design. Future articles will be written solely by English speakers, and Mr. Idov will take over editing duties from Michael Thompson, a political scientist who edited the first issue but who will now move to the editorial board.

Mr. Merenzon said the magazine had "1,000 subscribers on Day 1, probably because it was in the news," but that advertisements are expected to create the most revenue. Although the magazine's sales staff did not sell the first issue aggressively, he said, some companies will "have to be here," including Aeroflot, which placed an advertisement in the first issue; Delta, which has daily direct flights to Moscow; and the vodka purveyors.

The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, said he had not seen Russia! but said the lack of a vibrant press in Russia — with some exceptions in print and on the Internet — made the topic a pressing one.

"All I can do is hope for a great magazine about the subject, because it is getting overlooked," Mr. Remnick, who served as the Washington Post's Moscow correspondent for four years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," said. "We need to know a lot more about Russia, not least in English."

But Mr. Sestanovich, of the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed doubt about the possibility for success of such a magazine.

"Every so often someone gets the idea that Westerners just don't know that much about Russia, and it would be cool — and profitable — to educate them," he said. "Remember the Gorbachev-era contest to identify words in our own language that come from Russian — like vodka, gulag, and perestroika? Not a big hit."

To Mr. Merenzon, the mere fact of the magazine's arrival in America is important. "It doesn't matter how the magazine turns out — just the fact that a magazine called Russia! is on bookshelves in America and England will make Americans curious and Russians proud," he said.