Moscow magazine's imitation isn't flattering to artistic ideals

September 17, 2004|By Rebecca Reich

MOSCOW -- A new Moscow weekly wants to raise the level of publishing in Russia. Too bad it's ripping off The New Yorker in the process.

The magazine, Novy Ochevidets, or The New Eyewitness, launched five weeks ago with a massive billboard campaign across the city. "We want to make people read," its editor, Sergei Mostovshchikov, told The Moscow Times, "and those who write should know that their work will be appreciated and well paid. At this point, we might be the only Russian publication that pays decent money for poetry."

He's right. While everyone waits around for Russia's next Tolstoy, the problem is that it doesn't pay to be a writer in Moscow these days. Publications rarely pay decently for quality essays or fiction, and solid copyright protection for everything from film to books to art is a dim dream at best. Cheers to Mr. Mostovshchikov and his publisher, Paola Messana, for founding a magazine that's out to protect writers' interests.

The trouble is that those interests are undermined by the nature of the magazine itself. Trumpeting the value of intellectual property, Novy Ochevidets trashes it by lifting whole another magazine's design.

Page for page, Novy Ochevidets mirrors The New Yorker so faithfully that it's hard to tell the two magazines apart from more than 5 feet away. The New Yorker's influence is striking throughout, from the elegant literary font to the three-column pages, the captioned black-and-white cartoons, the wobbly lines dividing headings from text, the listings at the front, the discursive articles about society and politics, the fiction and, of course, the poems. And no, Novy Ochevidets never asked The New Yorker for permission.

In principle, Russia has long needed such a magazine. But by flagrantly copying The New Yorker's design, Novy Ochevidets has demonstrated its own disrespect for intellectual property -- property that must be valued if, as Mr. Mostovshchikov insists, a writer's work has worth.

As he well knows, Russian literary publications are in serious need of new blood. During the Soviet period, the so-called thick journals were artificially propped up by apparatchiks and hacks who had little or no interest in what people actually wanted to read. Interest flared briefly after the Soviet Union's fall with the sudden release of long-suppressed works. The British Booker Prize created a Moscow affiliate to help discover Russia's next great novel. Several journals were founded, each declaring a new direction for Russian literature.

Lost amid the rush to honor the past were measures to encourage a new kind of future. Today's Booker Prize, run by jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia fund, seems more or less committed to traditional realist writing. The books on its short list rarely get read outside of Moscow's beltway, while garish thrillers and bodice rippers can be found across the country.

Sensationalist tabloids such as Komsomolskaya Pravda sell nationwide, and the journalistic integrity of even top Moscow papers leaves much to be desired. Cut off from where the money is, writers such as Dmitry Kuzmin, founder of the Vavilon literary youth organization, have turned to today's samizdat, or underground publications -- the online diaries and self-published stories of the Internet, where the laws of cut-and-paste rule out personal profit.

It's high time the Russian publishing world redefined its mission, creating a new competitive environment for literary journalism.

A rigorous nonpolitical magazine of Novy Ochevidets' type would hold its authors up to stricter standards of fact, objectivity and accountability. And, as Mr. Mostovshchikov says, better pay would encourage better writing -- or at least encourage those who would have written for desk drawers in Soviet times, and who now post their material on the Internet or print it practically for free, to demand more commitment from their publishers in return.

It's a shame Novy Ochevidets wasn't true to its end of the bargain. Despite talk about raising the value of writing and strengthening the concept of intellectual property, the magazine undermined its mission by cribbing from a more established magazine's design. Russia needs a New Yorker-type magazine, but it doesn't need The New Yorker. As people who prize creativity and independence, its founders should have known better.

Rebecca Reich is the editor of Context, the arts and ideas section of The Moscow Times. These views are her own.

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