— In March of 2008, having read my novels, the founder of Le Courrier de Russie newspaper and head of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIFR), Emmanuel Quidet, offered me the job of running a publication.It was Russia’s only current affairs and business newspaper in the French and Russian languages. By then, I had already seen and grasped many things. The theme of “Russia is our enemy” was still a popular one in the western media. But I wanted to show the real Russia.So I accepted the offer. The job turned out to be far from straightforward. The main difficulty was finance. Le Courrier de Russiewas of no interest to any political parties or religious organizations. The paper was supported by two Frenchmen, Emmanuel Quidet and the lawyer Jean-Luc Pipon who in the past had been Managing Director of the legal Department at Sberbank CIB. Both, by the way, had been living and working in Moscow for over 20 years by then. The first edition came out in December of 2002. The shareholders wanted to use Le Courrier de Russieto tell Russians and the French about each other without the usual clichés and stereotypes. In the early days, they financed the paper themselves, but then Emmanuel Quidet and Jean-Luc Pipon found themselves no longer able to do so. Now it is funded exclusively by way of subscriptions and sales of advertising space.
— How many pages does the newspaper have, how often does it come out, and what is its circulation? What do you write about?
— Le Courrier de Russiecomes out twice a month in print and online format. The print version comprises 16-20 columns. Its circulation is 22,000 copies. Each edition features analysis, commentaries, interviews with Russian and French writers, artists, musicians, politicians, and businessmen. We strive to give the reader an objective view of Russian reality. My goal is not just to make sure the paper comes out now, but that it continues to do so in the future.
— Who are your colleagues?
— The editor-in-chief of the print version is a Russian woman, Inna Dulkina. The editor-in-chief of the online version is a Frenchwoman, Nina Fasciaux. There is a deputy chief editor, translators, a content manager, web master, art director, and a commercial department. 15 people in all. The journalists are made up of Russians, French, and Belgians. They all speak French and Russian. Some of the articles are translations from the Russian press. We go on press tours if our colleagues are invited by one of the regions.
— What can you tell us about your readers?
— As regards the printed version of the newspaper, we conducted a poll and discovered that one copy is read by, on average, two people. Which means that 22,000 copies reaches a 40,000-strong audience. There are about 3,000 French households in Moscow, and about another 400 in St. Petersburg.(The subscription costs about 6,000 roubles a year which, at the moment, is less than 100 euros). The rest of our readers are French-speaking Russians. Le Courrier de Russie is distributed free of charge in cafés, restaurants, learning centres, airports, and aeroplanes. If we are to take the online version of the paper and the output of our publishing house as a whole,then the figures are more precise.58% of those who visit our newspaper’s site live in France, 12% in Russia, and the other 30% are spread across Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, and the USA. As you can see, ours is a fairly broad readership.
— Who sets the newspaper’s political agenda? Do you take direction from the shareholders?
— Our shareholders don’t have access to it until it has come out. It has never once happened that they have come to me with a request for this or that article to be published. In the six years that I have been running the paper, they have only ever commented on something once, and that was after it had been published.
— Is there a piece or an interview you dream about doing?
— For the paper,it would be good if we could interview the President of Russia Vladimir Putin, Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev or the Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin. It would be of benefit to the newspaper. As far as I am concerned personally, if it came down to a choice between ministers, ambassadors and ordinary people, even if they had no fixed address, I would prefer to interview the latter. People without an elevated social status are closer to real life; they don’t feel the need to play a particular part in front of journalists. They come across the same as they are in reality. Indeed, the very fact that Le Courrier de Russie exists is my dream come true.We have premises, an editorial office, and at the end of the month, we pay our employees their salary… What more could I dream of?
— Which are the Russian newspapers and magazines that appeal to you?
— The business weekly “Expert”, the magazines “Kommersant-Vlast” and “Russky Reporter”. The Siberian online magazine“Siburbia”, which tells of the Siberia in which people live and that in which they would like to live. And also the current affairs and literary magazine “Russkaya Zhizn” [RuLife]. It’s true though that it’s no longer being published due to financial reasons.
— You co-authored the book “Il est des Russes. Russkie” with Inna Dulkina in which there are 20 interviews. Amongst the book’s heroes are musician Yuri Shevchuk, Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, cosmonaut Aleksandr Serebrov, actor Renata Litvinova, MP Oksana Dmitrieva, and member of the controversial feminist punk group Pussy Riot, YekaterinaSamutsevich. You must surely have a decent grasp of what is the Russian soul. What would you say about the Russian mentality?
— Russians don’thide their true feelings as much as the French.We want everything of ours to be nice andsightly – clothes, relationships, but Russians couldn’t care less about that. They don’t need beautiful facades, relationship showcases. They are not bothered about their own image. If they don’t feel like smiling, they won’t smile; if they don’t feel like being jolly and pleasant, then they are not going to put on an act. They are not always trying to show themselvesin the best possible light. The difference between the image they cultivate and their true nature is minute. To me, that is a good thing. By their example, Russians encourage the French to hide their true feelings less.
— But is there anything that you don’t like about Russians?
— If there were something that I didn’t like about Russians, I would have left Russia by now.
— Are the French and Russians similar in any way at all?
— On the one hand, we are very close when it comes to cultural values. But then, the musicality of the Russian language appeals to the French, and the French language to Russians. There are geopolitical issues to do with the alliance between Russia and France. But on the other hand, we are very, very different. In Russia, they live in the moment, whereas the French plan everything. One of the people in our book “Russkie” [Russians], the film director Pavel Lungin put it very well when he said, “In France, even the most down-and-out person will say to you that he can only meet you on Friday after five.”
— What would you be doing differently if you were running a similar newspaper in France?
— Working for the press is difficult everywhere. For example, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, some of the workers of which were shot by terrorists, was trying to get funding from somewhere every month. I think that if Le Courrier de Russiewas a Paris-based newspaper, I would never have got involved. What I find interesting about my job is that I am speaking with Russians every day. What our newspaper rests upon is exactly that: Russian people. Our Editor-in-Chief is Russian and she has the last editorial word. She addresses the French on behalf of the Russian person: therein lies the worth of our newspaper.
— You have been in Moscow for 9 years now. How expensive a city is it for foreigners?
— I don’t consider Moscow to be an expensive city. The rankings which are put together are, more often than not, based on the most expensive apartments in the most expensive areas. The same goes for restaurants. Near us, for example, there are quite a few cafés where a business lunch costs 260 roubles (roughly 4 euros). It is possible to eat well for a reasonable price.
— How expensive is the rent for flats and offices in Moscow?
— Completely on a par with prices in the desirable parts of Paris.
— Are there, in your opinion, enough places in Moscow to go to for recreation?
— In winter, Moscow is dotted with ice-rinks. You can skate both on large ones as well as on those in the backyards. In summer, you can go to one of the parks, stroll around the public gardens. Of course, if you are going to compare it with western cities, there are more leisure areas that have been spruced up there than there are in Moscow. But Russia’s capital has a multitude of theatres and museums. There are always new exhibitions going on. My choice is to unwind at classical music concerts and at the ballet.
— If you were mayor of Moscow, what improvements would you make?
— Now, more and more streets are being pedestrianized. I would both go further in that direction as well as banningcars from entering the entire central, historical part of Moscow. I’d build park-and-ride facilities beyond the Boulevard Ring.
— What would you say to foreigners who are still weighing up whether to go and work in Russia or not?
— You should always separate the facts from the way in which they are presented to you.For example, when I was going to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, I kept hearing how awful everything was there, that it was just one total warzone. But when I arrived there, again and again I was seeing something slightly different. There was war, but not everywhere. It’s the so-called “Distance Effect”, which increases problems. It’s the same with Russia, about which Europe has developed a preconceived idea. It is presented as a country of caviar, mafia, and drugs. Often any deficiencies here are blown up and hyperbolized. To anyone who doubts this, I would advise them not to read any newspapers except Le Courrier de Russie. But joking aside, you shouldn’t rely on that negative image of Moscow and Russia as a whole: you have to come and see and decide for yourself whether it is unsafe to live and work here or not.
I always give an example to illustrate this subject. In the Moscow metro at twelve o’clock at night, you can always see girls in short skirts and high heels. I wouldn’t recommend that they did that on the metro in Paris. Ten days ago, I was in East Africa, in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi. I get the impression that living somewhere like that truly is quite difficult. Each minute, you can feel your own defencelessness, thatdanger is close by, in a purely physical way. Which you cannot say about Moscow. I find Moscow to be a completely safe city. I don’t just stay in Moscow: I sometimes go to the outlying districts. And I travel around Russia a lot, too. For example, not long ago I was in Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, and Rostov. Some colleagues and I were in the Solovetsky Islands too, on the archipelago in the White Sea at the mouth of Onega Bay, which we later reported onin a special edition. And we’d still really like to go to Vladivostok, to Siberia, to the Black Sea, to Dagestan. Russia is enormous and the people in it are unique, which means that we have a lot more yet to tell our readers.