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‘His fate is the fate of Russian history’ Igor Malashenko, founder of Russia’s first independent TV station, dies at 64

Источник: Meduza
Irina Buzhor / Kommersant

On February 25, Igor Malashenko passed away in Spain. Malashenko, a major media figure, was the co-founder and general director of the television station NTV. After completing a doctorate in philosophy and working briefly as a political scientist, Malashenko began his media career in the 1990s, working not only as the director of the Ostankino media center and of NTV, Russia’s first independent television station, but also as the leading aide in Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign. After 2001, Malashenko left Russia, and until 2009, he directed the channel RTVI. In the months leading up to Russia’s 2018 presidential election, he also became a campaign director for the celebrity journalist and controversial opposition candidate Ksenia Sobchak. Meduza asked those who had worked with Malashenko in various stages of his life to share their memories.

Yevgeny Kiselyov

TV journalist, general director of NTV from 2000 to 2001

It’s hard for me to speak about this, especially because I had a very bad sense of foreboding. I saw Igor Malashenko for the last time in Kyiv not long before New Year’s. He struck me as someone who was dealing with a very difficult mental health problem. I am not a doctor, and I can’t give diagnoses, but it seems to me that he had chronic, severe clinical depression. Not just a bad mood, but, unfortunately, an illness.

Malashenko was an astoundingly impressive and talented person. Few people like him have crossed paths with me in life. I am very grateful to fate for bringing us together. He was erudite, absolutely a Western person — in the sense that he knew the West, had a Western frame of mind, studied Western culture, civilization, politics. He spoke and wrote English brilliantly. He was known in America as a representative of a new sociopolitical genotype in our country as early as the mid-1980s. [Back then,] it became clear in the States that Moscow wasn’t just full of half-senile old fogeys from the Kremlin; we had young, educated people who were hoping that their country would set out on a normal, civilized, democratic path.

He worked everywhere you could possibly imagine. We met when he was still at Gorbachev’s press service and led their work with journalists from Western media sources. At the time, the opposition TV program “Vesti” conducted a head-to-head polemic every day with the official “Vremya” program that aired on state TV. Thanks to some ridiculous internal rule, “Vesti” counted as a Western media program, and Gorbachev’s relationship with it was therefore overseen, fortunately, by Igor Malashenko. Back then, our acquaintanceship was exclusively long-distance and we only talked on the phone. We never met in person. I immediately felt that even in a telephone conversation, there was a striking difference between this person and all the other Kremlin bosses I had ever had to speak with. Even on the phone, it is impossible to mess with an erudite.

And then it worked out that Igor became a master TV manager in record time and, shortly after [his predecessor] Eduard Sagalayev left for Channel 6 (TV6 was just getting off the ground back then), [Igor] became the first deputy chair of the Ostankino company. He was in that position for just a few months before Vyacheslav Vragin, whom many people still cannot recall without a shudder, was appointed to be the permanent chairperson in his place. Malashenko immediately left and was on the market for some time thinking about what he might do next, and then the NTV project turned up, and he started directing it.

And I have to say myself that if it weren’t for Malashenko, there would be no NTV — that old, real NTV that many people still recall with affection. Because only him, with his fantastic work ethic and his fantastic organization, his ability to formulate tasks and delegate responsibility, make staffing decisions, break through walls that seemed unbreakable — only he was able to do what was necessary to turn NTV from an absolutely conceptual project into a real and extremely successful TV channel in the course of what was literally a few months.

I could spend ages telling you tales about how it all was, but right now, I just want to say one thing. You can spit in the eye of anyone who tells you that NTV was created by Oleg Dobrodeyev, Yevgeny Kiselyov, [Tatiana] Mitkova, or even Vladimir Gusinsky, who put what was then an enormous amount of money into the station, for which I am grateful to him despite all the complications that came up later in our relationship. Without Igor, NTV would never have existed.

And I very much regret that in August of 1996, Igor turned down Boris Yeltsin’s proposal to lead [his] presidential administration. For many years, he said that was the right decision, but, as the situation became clearer, he told me multiple times toward the end of his life that it was a mistake — perhaps the greatest mistake of his life. If Malashenko had accepted that offer back then, I think Russia would be a different place today.

Natalia Rostova

Journalist, author of multiple works on contemporary Russian media

I met Mr. Malashenko just a few times in his life, and I interviewed him twice. For me and many others, he was, before all else, the person who created NTV, one of the main engines in the creation of independent television. At the same time, he was not in TV from the beginning. He had a deeply analytical mind, and he specialized in Dante and Russian-American relations. Fate brought him to television in the early 1990s thanks to Yegor Yakovlev, back when Yakovlev was in charge of the Ostankino channel. Thanks to one decision on Yakovlev’s part and the fact that he knew Malashenko personally, NTV came into being.

Malashenko’s fate is the fate of Russian history and the fate of contemporary media. He played a major role in the fact that NTV independently covered the war in Chechnya, and he also played an important role in the 1996 campaign after agreeing to join one of Yeltsin’s offices, the so-called “Analytical Group” led by Anatoly Chubais. That group had a confrontation with another Yeltsin team led by Oleg Soskovets, but that group lost after the so-called Xerox Affair.

Of course, Malashenko understood that he wasn’t playing a clean game by serving simultaneously as the general director of a media outlet and playing for one team in a candidate’s campaign. As far as I know, he didn’t want to join them at first. And as far as I can tell by what happened next, Gusinsky also regretted making that decision. Gusinsky recognized that they showed the Kremlin how you can use an active TV channel, how journalists can easily flip over to one side, how easy it is to control the media in Russia. And that’s exactly what happened during the campaign when the channel supported Yeltsin full steam. Later on, they defended themselves by saying they did interviews with Zyuganov and other presidential candidates, but the channel obviously supported Yeltsin, and that was a fatal mistake. In the next election, when the channel refused to toe the Kremlin’s line and support Putin’s election, well, the rest is history.

Igor Malashenko was a key player in Russian political life of the 1990s. He believed in independent television but understood very quickly that establishing it in Russia would be practically impossible. That was because it turned out that the political elite is incapable of allowing an independent channel to exist in the country, and every political clerk thinks it’s all right to push journalists around. And I think that tormented him, and he spoke out about it — the fact that people didn’t defend the channel. That was back when all of Prague was out on the streets defending their first independent station, and he said people couldn’t do the same for NTV — there were too few people defending NTV in 2001, and in the end, we couldn’t save independent television.

Igor Malashenko (center) at an August 1997 press conference
Oleg Buldakov / TASS

Gleb Pavlovsky

Political scientist, former Kremlin consultant

If I’m not mistaken, I first met Igor Malashenko in 1991, and that was somehow related to the journal The Twentieth Century and the World, which I edited at the time. He liked the journal, and we brainstormed together a bit. Back then, a lot of people were thinking up a lot of projects that didn’t come to anything in the end. He was still working for Gorbachev at the time. But I only really got to know him during the Yeltsin campaign in 1996. His role was central then, in my view. He led the campaign on TV. We met often, and we had a close working relationship with no problems at all. He was very methodical in coordinating his work and [simultaneously] very easygoing. Derisive, as always. He was a cold person, and he always held himself at a distance from everybody as a rule. He was a product of the breakdown in social norms that I so valued back then, that pressure-cooker style. Back then, that style worked.

I remember how we printed out fake communist stickers to put up around the city — “This house will be nationalized after the elections” — he put one of those stickers on Gusinsky’s door as a prank. It was a huge scandal because they couldn’t tear it off without ruining the paint. He had this sardonic sense of humor. He was highly educated — he didn’t show off his education, but he was highly educated. A couple of times I figured out that he had been reading and citing [the historian and philosopher Mikhail] Gefter.

Fortunately for him, he turned down the offer to become the president’s chief of staff. That was, I think, in 1997, when Chubais, who left the government along with [Boris] Nemtsov, wanted to leave Malashenko [in their place]. But he refused. That attempt to keep the team together after the [1996] elections didn’t work out.

And then the information war started between NTV and Berezovsky on one side and the young reformers, Nemtsov and Chubais, on the other. After that, any kind of trusting relationship was out of the question. Then that war, unfortunately, turned into the 1999 war over the elections when NTV threw its support behind another candidate, Primakov. This merciless conflict continued to escalate even when it came to be that a new regime was fighting against NTV. And the barbs he threw at me and the barbs I threw at him were pretty furious even in 2000. Later on, I joined the TV program “Puppets.” I only saw him again when he came back from the emigration some 10 years later. I talked to him for the last time on [Yevgenia] Albats’s show when he was in charge of [Ksenia] Sobchak’s campaign headquarters.

Alexander Oslon

President of the Public Opinion Foundation

I knew him for many years. He stood out no matter what he did. He started with Dante — wrote his dissertation, got his doctorate. Made NTV. A star. And he was a star in politics too. We worked together on the presidential campaign in 1996.

This was an awfully rational person; he was built right. He lined up algorithms for his plans in his head and tossed out everything that wasn’t helpful or necessary to leave just the real essence of things behind. He was a strong person who marched toward his goals like a tank. If he had a job, he went to get that job done. “Don’t complicate things” — there’s this phrase nowadays, “don’t try and be clever.” And his phrase was “easy as pie.” I thought we were tossing the baby out with the bathwater sometimes, but the baby usually turned out to be some marginal detail, and so we were actually greatly increasing the likelihood that we would reach our goal.

That’s exactly how things went for him in television too. Then, a new age started, and a large gap formed between us. He was a strong person.

Mikhail Konev

Director of Volunteers for former presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak

Of course, Igor Malashenko was special. He was calm, kind, and very amicable. In Sobchak’s office, he would always tell us a million funny stories from his younger years over lunch: stories about Japanese karaoke, about some magic vodka that didn’t give you hangovers, about going out dancing. And he always talked very thoughtfully about politics when he was helping me prepare for debates.

Once, we were drinking wine with a large group, and all of a sudden, Igor started singing:

There’s no one here who loves us

Or invites us to their place,

No one gives us beer or food,

They think we’re a disgrace.

We always keep it groovy,

But we’re their punching bag,

Downtown or in Sokolniki,

It’s all a rotten drag.

It’s cold here and it’s nasty,

The booze just doesn’t flow.

Come on, let’s have another round,

And then it’s time to go.

I laughed because I didn’t know that song, and I thought he had made it all up. That’s how I’ll remember you, Mr. Malashenko — smiling and singing. Rest in peace.

Recorded by Taisia Bekbulatova and Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Hilah Kohen