Ik had het niet beter kunnen zeggen. Daarom gedijt hij ook zo goed in Rusland. Derk Sauer:
“Russia is a perfect democracy
for the informed. And total
dictatorship for the uninformed”
Derk Sauer, CEO, Independent Media is one of the most
successful publishers in Russia. Last year he sold his
company, which publishes more than 30 titles in Russia
including The Moscow Times and Vedomosti, but continues
in the role of CEO. As part of the Russian Economic Forum
Press Mission, we introduced a group of leading British
business journalists to Mr Sauer, resulting in a fascinating
clash of perceived ideas. All the questions are from the
journalists who chipped in with their thoughts as wide-
ranging conversation progressed
How did you come to live and work in
In 1989, a group of Russian journalists came
to Amsterdam. At least, I thought they were
journalists. It turned out they were from
the KGB and were posing as journalists.
They invited me to Russia and suggested
we start a magazine as a joint venture. The
result was the first glossy magazine in the
history of the Soviet Union.
Those people who came to you right at
the start, what was their motivation?
To get rich – as the Soviet Union disin-
tegrated, they saw an opportunity. Rus-
sians thought that if you found a Western
partner and you make money, then boom,
that’s it! It was a wonderful time, a very
romantic time; however these guys had a
very naïve idea about market capitalism.
They thought that all you do is smoke big
cigars and have nice cars. As a result, all
those joint ventures didn’t work, they all
Was the Moscow Times a big hit from
It was a big flop in the beginning. After
two years, we were really down and out.
I had sold my house in Amsterdam and
everything I had. Together with three
friends, we had put all our money into it,
but the ad market was too small at that
time. But now I have sold the whole busi-
ness. I kept one title - Yoga Journal. I am a
big yogic. I’m planning to develop a yoga
empire and I am building a yoga studio.
Why did you stay in Russia in 1998 when
everybody else left?
I was not primarily interested in money.
I was just interested in the Russian experi-
For companies, the tragedy was that
they left as soon as the bottomline and the
margins went down. CEOs of big compa-
nies only look at the stupid numbers - they
don’t talk about the product or the idea.
When the crash came, they only looked
at the bottom-line and not at Russia’s pros-
pects and the long term. But people have
very short memories; they all left and then
a few years later, they had to pay ten times
as much to come back.
Do you think change in Russia is more
than skin deep? Is it a profound change
or is the change less dramatic than peo-
England has changed a lot, but has it really
changed? I don’t think so. England is still
a class-based society. It is the same here:
basically nothing has changed. This is not
a democratic society. There is corruption
and there will always be corruption. It is
basically a country where clans run the
show. It won’t change, but has it changed
in appearances - in consumer spending
and wealth. When I first came, people
had nothing and we paid our staff in food
products because they had nothing to eat.
Today, the salaries we pay are unbeliev-
able and much more than publishers pay
in the West.
What are your thoughts on the quality
of political journalism and the ability to
hold the government to account?
The quality of Russian journalism is zero,
because journalism doesn’t exist.
Except for the Moscow Times…?
Except for the Moscow Times and
Vedomosti, which we publish – also a
little bit Kommersant and maybe a little
But that must be very worrying, most de-
mocracies have a strong press…?
But this is not a healthy democracy, and
any notion that this will be a healthy
democracy is way off. Don’t compare it
to England, or to Holland where I come
What about progress…
What is progress? People here can see
progress. They now can buy a video or a
car and they can travel…
But in the sense of being able to get inde-
pendent unbiased information, is there
progress on that?
There is no progress whatsoever on that.
In fact it has gone backwards.
If you are independent, why can’t the
others be independent?
Well, it is not so easy. Publishing and
working in this country is not so easy.
But is your staff independent of you?
How much do you influence the edito-
I don’t. I’m the traditional western pub-
lisher. I have only one perrogative – I can
hire and fire the editor. That’s all I can do.
For the rest it’s up to them.
Recently, we started a new weekly mag-
azine and I said to the editorial team what
I always say: I will never ever, ever, inter-
fere in any story. I have never done that in
the entire history of Independent Media.
So that does mean they are
Of course, they can write whatever they
If you are an active journalist in Russia,
do a lot of people apply pressure on
No. They call me.
And is that an active act part of doing
business news? Dealing with that kind
Yes, but how it works is very simple. The
TV is 100% controlled. And the TV to-
day is more humorous than it was under
Brezhnev. It is really funny to watch. It’s so
bad it’s totally pathetic. So you may have
10,000 people protesting on the street here
and they won’t say a word about it. But if
Putin sniffs his nose then it’s all over the
news. It’s a total joke.
The local press is completely controlled
by the local oligarchs or governors. You
do what you are told, otherwise you get
killed or fired or they stop the press.
Then there’s a small group of central
newspapers or magazines which they
leave alone. We are the most important
representatives of those. Why? Because
they love us. Because we criticise them
and they can show the world.
So you are a token?
For them, yes.
How easy is it to get genuine stories? The
news wires in Russia aren’t independent
of the government, are they?
No, but we have Reuters, and we have
our own journalists. We have an excellent
team of reporters.
And they go out and get real stories?
I would say 60% of what you read in the
West about Moscow comes from us. The
Guardian, the Independent - every morn-
ing they read the Moscow Times and then
they start writing. I always see every story
pop up in the New York Times or wher-
Do you worry that you can’t make genu-
ine democratic progress until…
I do yoga; I don’t worry about anything.
It’s not my role in life!
If you were a worrier though, would you
You have to accept that Russia is a differ-
ent country. I say, it’s like if Bush wants
Iraq to be a democracy, that is total stu-
pidity. Iraq will not be a democracy no
matter what they do. Russia will not be a
democracy in the way that you perceive a
Is there a separate reality going on where
people can get their information if they
I always say that Russia is a perfect de-
mocracy for the informed. And total dic-
tatorship for the uninformed.
Is the situation improving?
Well, maybe it was 99 to 1, now it is 95 to 5.
As Russia becomes more economically
prosperous, the pressure for liberalisa-
tion will grow…
Is Saudi Arabia, which is a very rich soci-
ety, free and open? You have to compare
Russia not to England but to Saudi Arabia.
It is an oil-oligarchy.
Do you think that things can change at
the margins? You mentioned Britain, but
Britain is not as class-ridden as it was?
Of course it is changing – although some-
times I feel it is going back again. But you
have to look at Russia with a long-term
view. Russia always had a dualistic rela-
tionship with Europe. They want to be in
Europe, but as soon as they get too close
they pull back.
Were you more optimistic about Russia
I came with the same perspective as you
come here now. You are judgemental, be
it optimistis or pessimistic, but I am nei-
ther. I just enjoy Russia and I don’t have
the expectation that it will become a dem-
ocratic society as we have in Holland. In
Russia, it is the extremes –everything is
bigger than life. For example, my kids go
to school with rich Russians. This week
my nine-year old son went to a birthday
party for one of the girls in his class. For
her present she got a pink Hummer with
But most of the population in Russia
don’t have the ability to move up – there
aren’t the opportunities for the major-
ity of Russians…
No, you are wrong. First, you can’t talk
about Russia. What is Russia? It is a
myth. It is from China to the Baltics. If
you talk about Russia, you talk about 15
cities, with a circulation of 1m and up. In
all of those cities there is very dramatic
development. In between, there is an
enormous amount of land where there
are people and they live in the middle
ages. They don’t participate. Forget about
them. It sounds cruel, but they might as
well not be there.
That is an extraordinary thing to say,
you can’t just write off a quarter of the
I am just painting how the situation is.
I am not saying if it is good or bad. These
people are mostly drunk.
Then surely there is a responsibility to
help these people. That is what human-
ity is about…
I agree with you. But what you do is bring
your perceptions and the Russians don’t
have that connection.
It doesn’t make it right though…
What is right and wrong? I am not judg-
I also think that it is to do with Chris-
tianity. Russian Christianity is differ-
ent. It is about suffering - they actu-
ally think that it is good to suffer. The
whole notion of making society better
is Christian Calvinist, and they do not
have that in Russia. But they may get to
heaven before I do!
You bring your Anglo-Saxon concepts
to the country, and ask what about this?
I have learnt to forget about my back-
ground and just take it as it is. I look at
it and find it fascinating.
Are Russia’s problems, for example of
drugs and HIV/Aids, exaggerated or
stereotyped in the Western media?
No, these are huge problems. The demo-
graphic problems are the biggest, most
fundamental, problems facing Russia. It
means that they will need immigrants
to work. Already go if you go to Vladi-
vostok you feel China on the door. The
immigrants have to fill the labour gap.
How will the Russian people react?
Russians are nationalistic, and say, ‘Get
rid of the foreigners’. But it is ridiculous
because then no one would clean the
streets. They say, ‘The foreigners run
the markets’, but are Russians going to
stand on the markets?
Are you an honorary Russian? Do you
feel like a foreigner?
I am as Dutch as you can get! But I do
feel at home here.