RIGA, Latvia — When Russia closes up, as it has often through the centuries, this Baltic capital becomes a listening post, a safe-ish remove from which to send and receive dispatches from an increasingly controlled society.
And if you are interested in dispatches Russia from right now, one of the best places to turn is a hectic second-floor pre-war apartment on an unprepossessing stretch of Valdemara Street, next door to the Latvian Statistical Bureau and a few blocks from where John F. Kennedy spent part of the summer of 1939.
There, a couple dozen young Russians in sweatshirts cram into a sprawling, seven-room residential apartment with slate blue walls, art nouveau molding, Mac laptops and cheap tables and chairs. The site they produce, Meduza, is a mix of hard news, features, and photography. It all trends a bit dark — but then, they cover Russia.
This could be a media startup anywhere, more or less, and — almost hallucinatory, in a moment when it seems impossible to do free Russian media — that's how the journalists running it see what they're doing.
"We are trying to build a normal startup," says Ilya Krasilshchik, the site's publisher. (One relatively normal startup feature: The site's office was until recently his own apartment.)
But Meduza didn't start in a typical way. Most of its staff were reporters and editors at Lenta.ru, named for the Russian word for "wire" and seen as one of the strongest independent news sites in Russia. Last March 12, as the site faced government criticism over its coverage on Ukraine, its editor, Galina Timchenko, was abruptly fired. She and the core of her team — now 22 reporters in Riga and 4 in Moscow — relocated to Latvia, the easiest place for a bunch of Russians to get a small business going in safety, and a tantalizing hour flight from Moscow. They launched Meduza last October, and quickly recaptured a share of their old audience, according to publicly available estimates, though Lenta remains much larger.
Now, against all odds, Meduza is having a moment: There are so few windows into Russian life that have its mix of true sourcing and proximity, and the freedom that comes from operating outside of Russia. Fewer still of them publish a good-looking English-language site. The Meduza crew worry, of course, that their site will be blocked in Russia, something the government there has done to the blog run by the dissident Alexei Navalny; but which hasn't extended to a Chinese-style broad closure of the internet. But Meduza's staff make an effort, deputy editor Ivan Kolpakov said, not to let that worry affect their coverage, in part because the government is so deliberately opaque, even whimsical. If they are blocked, it is as likely to be for something stupid as for something trenchant. (They were blocked in Kazakhstan, the day they launched, over an investigation of ethnic Russian separatists in the north of that country.)
Russia's power structure has its own online ambitions: Troll armies spread talking points across the web while Kremlin allies push independent voices out of the internet space. Kolpakov said he thinks the next step is building an alternative internet for "big propaganda" — online voices with the production value and investment that has been poured into state-linked Russian TV.
Meduza has found its audience among Russians who want to read independent news. Its biggest traffic days came after the murder of Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov. Its coverage of Ukraine has drawn lines between Moscow and the nominally independent separatists there, and charged that fighters are coming back from the front to commit crimes in Russia. The site has also exposed, in richly personal terms, how the tightening propaganda regime works inside state media.
Meduza is also willing to poke at the Russian president. One recent game offered readers the chance to help Putin — notoriously, perhaps deliberately late to meetings — make it to his meeting with the Pope on time.
And meanwhile, the site is trying to figure out the same things that every media startup is navigating at a moment of dramatic change. They worry about Facebook traffic. (One editor referred glumly to the network as "social Putin" — inscrutable and all-powerful, from their perspective.) They sell ads, which account now for 25% of the site's operating costs, they say; brands like McDonald's, for now, feel safe advertising there. They also rely on investments from liberal Russians with money, whose names they will not disclose — the risk to media proprietors is why they fled Moscow in the first place.
They also held talks with Mikhail Khodorkovsky about bringing him in as an investor, "but ultimately failed to reach an agreement on some key issues, such as editorial independence from the investors," said Kolpakov.
They are not flush, to say the least, and are "constantly trying to raise money," says Krasilshchik.
Riga is, meanwhile, driving them a bit insane. The Latvian capital has long been a practical, peaceable, commercial city. It is not, that is to say, a hub of the Russian intelligentsia. It's been, for the last 20 years, where you stash your money, not your ideas. The Meduza crew stop, at times, for selfies on the street with Latvians who admire their courage in the face of a Russian government that is, at present, investigating the legality of their independence from the Soviet Union; the local Russians, they say, have no idea who they are.
They are better known in Moscow, and not always for the better. Earlier this month, a pro-Putin parliamentarian (there is barely any other kind) wrote to the Prosecutor General, demanding an investigation of the site for running an interview with a Russophone recruiter for ISIS, based in Germany. (The German authorities opened an investigation into the militant himself, not in to the publication that exposed him.)
There are other concessions to Russian reality. Meduza has no comments, which for Russian sites have become a playground for paid trolls. The .io (Indian Ocean) domain leaves them free from Russian registrars, at least. And meanwhile, they are publishing like crazy, breaking news, ramping up translations, thinking about licensing their CMS, hoping a game — a version of Brickles that mourns demolished Moscow landmarks — blows up.
"It sounds fantastical," says deputy editor Ivan Kolpakov, "but we are trying to build a media business."