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Russian remodelling of a cosmopolitan theme
Simon Kuper

          It must be nice for Derk Sauer to get out alone for once. The diminutive Dutchman, a media mogul in Russia, has been going around Moscow with some of Mikhail Gorbachev's former bodyguards for four years since someone shot the editor of Russian Playboy, one of his magazines. But this morning in Amsterdam, his home town, he shows up unaccompanied at breakfast in Hotel Europe.
The chandeliered dining room befits Mr Sauer's new status. The Maoist-turned-war correspondent is founder and chief executive of the Russian publisher Independent Media. Earlier this year the Finnish media group SanomaWSOY bought it for euro142m ($172m). It was Mr Sauer's reward for becoming the first foreigner to crack Russia's media market.
The Dutchman publishes Russia's Cosmopolitan, Playboy and Men's Health, the Moscow Times, the financial daily Vedomosti -- a joint venture with the Financial Times -- and about 30 other titles including his personal new pet project, Yoga Journal. In 16 years in Moscow, he has survived oligarchs, mafiosi, governments and even masked tax policemen.
Mr Sauer was editing a Dutch news weekly in 1989 when some Russian journalists visiting the Netherlands invited him to Moscow. Despite speaking no Russian, he persuaded his sceptical wife, Ellen Verbeek, to emigrate. They moved into "a cramped three-bedroom flat above an empty shop on a smoky highway", he recalls in his book Typisch Russisch, a collection of the columns he still writes for an Amsterdam newspaper. Mr Sauer founded the English-language Moscow Magazine, but it failed. Communism was failing, though, and he saw opportunities. In 1992 he started the Moscow Times from a suite in the Radisson hotel, where he resembled a bespectacled scoutmaster among the hordes of eager young journalists.
Two years later, his wife persuaded him that Cosmopolitan might work in Russia. "I'd never had anything to do with women's magazines. I came from news," he admits. Nonetheless he convinced Hearst Magazines, Cosmo's American owners, to let him try it. Ms Verbeek's hunch proved right. "Russian Cosmopolitan is the biggest magazine in Europe, selling a million a month," Mr Sauer says now.
How did they convert the brand for Russia? "Our articles are 100 per cent Russian-made, but the themes are universal. It is always about relationship, career, sex, beauty, fashion. Only the content of those themes is different. I mean if you are writing about the relationship with your mother in-law, it is different than in America, because in Russia nine times out of ten you live with your mother-in-law in a tiny flat. Or, 'My man drinks', which in Russia is almost a universal problem. We took the foreign brand, but we made the editorial content Russian.
"The New York Times in the early 1990s had translated the New York Times into Russian. Or there were magazines which were simply translated. Well, that said nothing to Russians. It was always an enormous flop."
After Cosmo, Independent Media launched a Russian Good Housekeeping and a magazine for young women called Yes, but Cosmopolitan still represents "at least 60 per cent" of the company's revenue, says Mr Sauer.
The company's unlikeliest foreign import was probably Men's Health, hardly a shoo-in in a country where male life expectancy is 59. Mr Sauer decided to try the title after reading that it had succeeded in traditionally unhealthy Britain, and after noticing that he was no longer the only diner ordering mineral water in restaurants in Moscow. Even finding a clean-living editor was a challenge, but the magazine is now eight years old.
Western publications are currently leaping into the Russian market: Forbes, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Time Out, the Robb Report and Wallpaper have all launched Russian editions since last year. Mr Sauer advises: "Russians are not essentially different from the English or Dutch or Americans. Everyone wants the same things: a good life, an attractive woman, a nice job. That is the fascinating thing about Cosmo, because all those women in the world have the same aspirations."
By 2004, Independent Media's net sales had grown to about euro 70m, with earnings of euro 10m. The company controls about a third of Russia's advertising market for print media. Inevitably mafiosi and oligarchs have become interested along the way.
The oligarch Vladimir Potanin briefly owned a 35 per cent stake of Independent Media and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed head of the oil company Yukos, held 10 per cent.
The Moscow Times had long criticised Yukos's treatment of its minority shareholders. "When they became a shareholder," says Mr Sauer, "I told Khodorkovsky: 'I don't ever want to hear anything about that. We are an independent newspaper.' 'No problem,' he said. And I never did bear anything from Khodorkovsky."
Instead Mr Sauer heard from Khodorkovsky's partner, Platon Lebedev, who sat on Independent Media's board. Mr Sauer says: "Often the oligarchs are very friendly, but people around them are the enforcers. Ledev would just call me up. 'I don't want this,' he would say. I would say: 'What do you mean?' 'Well, you will find out.' Now Lebedev is in jail with Khodorkovsky. He is an intimidating man."
Hence the bodyguards? "I got them after Playboy's editor was shot [he survived]. The reason, I'm fairly sure, is that some guy was trying to force Playboy to work only with his models. So that wasn't oligarchs. It was petty crime. That is more unpredictable than the oligarchs. There is no question of their harming me. Look, we have Vedomosti and it writes critically about big businessmen every day."
Yet, as Mr Sauer repeatedly chronicles in his book, Russian journalists do get shot, sometimes after tangling with people in government. How much press freedom is there in Russia?
"The Russian authorities have solved the problem quite cleverly, from their perspective. They have said, 'Well, we will control TV, and the newspapers we will leave free.' Independent news on television doesn't exist. But we and some other papers can write anything, because the authorities are very practical."
He says that the authorities know newspapers sell 100,000 copies at most, which is tiny compared with the reach of television. "The funny thing about Russia: there is complete press freedom for the informed, but none for the uninformed. The informed, the people who read Vedomosti or Kommersant and papers like that, know a lot anyway because they also see satellite TV and the internet. There is no point trying to suppress us. It would just create a fuss and international criticism. We are even an alibi for the Russian authorities. Recently Walter Mondale, the American politician, was in Moscow, and he read the Moscow Times and said: 'Gosh, what press freedom!'"
However, Mr Sauer compares the impact of the press in Russia with other countries such as England. "In Russia, the effect of what you publish is different from in the west: nothing happens. The role of the press only works if it is followed up. But we reveal something every week: that someone is corrupt, that the justice system has made a mistake, we reveal the craziest things. And nothing happens. Deathly silence. It is revealed that the ballot boxes were rigged in the elections. People just say, 'So you thought the elections weren't fixed. "
All this must be dispiriting for a man who used to believe in a communist utopia. "I'm of the Vietnam generation. When I was 14 you saw the bombs on North Vietnam, and there were demonstrations in Amsterdam every week, which I joined. At 15 1 joined the Maoist splinter of the Dutch Communist party. And it is now the Socialist party, of which I am still a member." (The far-left Socialist party is the Netherlands' fourth largest party.)
"I have just read the new biography of Mao Tse Tung. Well, you are deeply ashamed you ever waved the 'little red book' because Mao was a monster. Look, you only need to spend a week in Russia to know that communism doesn't work.
"I have a very good friend, George Blake, the spy. He had a Dutch mother, became British, spied for the Russians, and he really believed in communism. He was caught, given a life sentence, escaped to Russia in the 1960s. He said: 'Derk, I know after a week here that the idea I had was complete nonsense. ' "
Like Blake, Mr Sauer is in Russia for keeps. The Dutch book publishing house he has just founded, Nieuw Amsterdam, will be run from afar. Mr Sauer has pledged to run Independent Media for another three years, has three sons who dream in Russian and even he regards the country as his "second fatherland".
Under syndication arrangement with FE


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