LONDON, United Kingdom — Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law that will prohibit foreign individuals or companies from owning more than 20 percent of any Russian media company as of February 2017. According to another piece of legislation announced this month, from December 6th of this year, foreign companies will have to seek government permission before buying a stake of 25 percent or more in newspapers and magazines in Russia.
The new laws are a bullet fired squarely at the country’s independent news outlets, which include Forbes and Vedomosti, a business newspaper part-owned by the Financial Times Group and Dow Jones, whose corruption exposés and investigations of businesspersons close to Mr Putin have long been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. But fashion media is in the firing line as well.
Russia's largest fashion media holdings — Hearst Shkulev Media (which publishes the Russian editions of Elle and Marie Claire), Sanoma Independent Media (Grazia, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan) and Condé Nast (Vogue, GQ, Glamour, Tatler) — are all fully or partially foreign-owned and must now contemplate changing their ownership structure, or selling off significant proportions of their Russian assets.
As the restructuring of banks and energy companies in the country has already proved, ‘Russian-owned’ likely means owned by trusted friends of Mr Putin. “If you do big business, you’re 100 percent connected to the government,” said Ekaterina Petukhova, a partner who monitors fashion markets at international consultancy Texere Advisors. Aliona Doletskaya, editor-in-chief of Interview Magazine Russia and former editor-in-chief of Vogue Russia, told BoF that in her experience, while investors normally try not to influence editorial content, the implications for Russian-owned media are somewhat different. “This opinion of mine would not cover Russian brand magazines,” she said.
If Russian ‘big business’ is to own fashion media brands operating in the country, magazines will face increased pressure to bring their content into line with the values of the Russian state. Indeed, going forward, their articles and photo shoots will be conceived with the knowledge that publication of political or otherwise controversial content could bring serious harm to the titles in which they appear.
“Most Russian fashion magazines would never touch on political issues, but that is logical given the character of the magazine itself,” said Doletskaya. But this is not always true of modern fashion publications, such as Cosmopolitan, for example, whose editor identifies her reader as a woman “interested in mascara and the Middle East."
How the magazines will react to the legislation remains to be seen. Condé Nast declined to comment for this article. In an email to BoF, Dasha Veledeeva, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Russia, wrote: “Of course, this will change everything and it's really difficult to predict anything now.”
“It makes publishers’ lives more difficult. It’s a nuisance,” said Doletskaya. “But we know countries that already function like that. And the law will give us two more years.”
“I am sure there is a way out like in China, for example, where western glossy magazines are running very successful businesses,” agreed Olga Mikhailovskay, former fashion director at Elle Russia, who has contributed to publications including Vogue Russia and Kommersant, a newspaper covering business and politics in the country. “I do not think the new legislation will have any impact on the content and distribution [of glossy magazines]. I cannot see any reason for that!”
According to Miroslava Duma, founder of culture website Buro 24/7, “The overall change in the ownership structure might lead to consolidation of fashion and business media.” Buro 24/7 intends to comply with the legislation, but “our editorial policy is not vulnerable to any of the legislation or political issues,” Duma wrote in an email to BoF.
Indeed, all of the editors BoF spoke to disputed the idea that the new laws would result in increased political influence over the content of fashion magazines. Most said that, in practice, the new laws amount to little more than a cosmetic change: media companies will set up and register ownership under a company in Russia and carry on business as usual. But such comments euphemise the seriousness of the situation. If they are to comply with the law, these media companies have two years to secure a Russia-based partner that is suitable for their company — and suitable to the Russian government.
For Mr Putin, shifting media ownership is certainly not a cosmetic change, but the latest step in a long campaign to tighten the state’s hold on Russia’s press, rolled out with urgency in recent months due to increased international media scrutiny of the Kremlin. This campaign includes the launch of Sputnik, a planned international network of state media hubs in 30 cities, unveiled in November. It is known that state agency Roskomnadzor blocks access to certain websites and, in August, launched a media blackout against a performance art project called Monstration.
The government has also closed down or bought out Russia’s independent television networks. In May, comment moderators at the Guardian newspaper reported that, in the 40,000 comments they monitor per day, they were seeing an organised pro-Kremlin campaign in which people were paid to troll anyone criticising Russia or President Putin. Such a track record does not seem consistent with a media left to conduct business as usual.
Compared to western glossies, the Russian fashion press is a babe in arms. Harper’s Bazaar Russia, which calls itself the country’s first fashion magazine, launched in 1996, followed by Vogue Russia in 1998 (US Vogue had celebrated its centenary before Russian Vogue had even launched). And in its early years, the Russian fashion media pushed boundaries more than one might expect.
In 2005, Russian Vogue published an austere black and white series of photographs, shot by Hedi Slimane, featuring fresh-faced soldiers, caught in eerie documentary-style portraits, moving across a silent carpet of snow. “I almost got fired because I was defending it,” recalls Anna Dyulgerova, former executive fashion editor of Russian Vogue. “I think that it is brave that it happened. That was the time when maybe Russian media was considered cool and forward.”
In recent years, however, the country’s fashion magazines have somewhat toned down their output. Advertising is harder to come by, especially in Russia, where alcohol advertising — something that previously supported many luxury and fashion publications — was banned in 2012. And after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia’s postal service fell into disrepair, making magazine subscriptions a challenge to fulfill and meaning circulation in the country is disproportionately low. “A lot of fashion magazines are getting more commercial and less, I would say, brave and creative,” said Doletskaya.
“Yes, we are more conservative and not because of politics,” said Dasha Veledeeva, of Harper’s Bazaar Russia. “We've made numerous surveys that showed that our readers want to escape from everyday life while reading the glossies.”
“It had to cater to what the market needs,” said Dyulgerova. “Because it’s a business. And the more money you make, the more successful the business is.” Would Russian Vogue publish Slimane’s bleakly moving images of soldiers today? “I just don’t think they would be interested,” she said. “They would say, that’s not ‘Vogue.’”
Who’s to say what is ‘Vogue’? For now, it’s the editors. But by limiting foreign ownership of media, the state Duma aims to preserve Russia’s "informational sovereignty," which could have serious implications for publications covering an industry like fashion, in which the vast majority of news comes out of Western cities.
Indeed, Russia's state media has already voiced its distrust of the relationship between fashion and the West: in October, government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta lashed out at Russian fashion designers and figures including Miroslava Duma, accusing them of pandering to the western press and not doing enough to promote Russian designers in their engagements with international media.
As such, the new media ownership laws may make the task of keeping the country’s fashion press relevant that much harder. “I always think, ‘Think global, act local.’ I’m trying to come up with a magazine that is internationally valuable,” said Doletskaya. “A purely local media, especially in fashion, in Russia, does not set a competitive level for me. I love putting all the issues on an international calibre and I think it’s very helpful and healthy for both my Russian readers and people checking us out abroad.”
It appears that some working in Russia’s fashion media are willing to fight for their editorial independence to keep their publications relevant to their audiences and the international fashion industry at large. Come 2017, they might have to.