- Celebrating Ogonek, 1899–2020
On 21 December 2020, just one year after celebrating the 120th anniversary of its founding in 1899, the illustrated magazine Ogonek announced that its print publication would cease following the last issue of the year, with its online edition winding down in January 2021. A part of the Kommersant Publishing House since 2009, Ogonek was facing ongoing challenges that are hardly unique in today's global media landscape—insufficient subscriptions and profitability—and the main driver of its closure was apparently economic. At the beginning of the month, the magazine's entire workforce, including editors, had been given notices of termination, "in connection with the optimization of the organizational and staff structure." In their announcement, titled "New Year's Surprise," the editors expressed their hope that scrapping the magazine would help the publishing house and its stockholders weather the economic storm and bade farewell to their loyal readers in the hope of meeting again.1
The closure prompted an upswell of commentary, much of it nostalgic and focused on the perestroika era, when Ogonek, under the editorship of Vitalii Korotich, became a leading reformist force. With its circulation rising from 1.5 million in 1986 to a high of 4.5 million in 1990, Ogonek published countless groundbreaking pieces on both historical and contemporary sociopolitical topics—from the repressed 1937 census to the AIDS epidemic2—becoming a must-read publication whose colorful cover could frequently be observed on public transport.3 As the historian Alter L´vovich Litvin remarked in an interview published in Kritika, "There were two publications [End Page 221] everybody read [during perestroika]: the magazine Ogonek and the newspaper Moskovskie novosti."4 In these few years, Ogonek successfully married the mass-market appeal of a weekly "thin" journal with the serious weightiness of a "thick" journal; it not only reached a diverse audience spanning intelligentsia and middle-brow readers but also—in good Soviet tradition—sought to mobilize them.5 This audience made its presence felt in lively letters to the editor, which, following another long Soviet tradition, Ogonek collected and selectively published.6 In her melancholic homage to the magazine, "Will The Little Flame Go Out?" the journalist and editor Elena Iakovleva reminisced, "That time [the second half of the 1980s] made the magazine into a cult publication, a part of our social world view [obshchestvennoe mirovozzrenie] and, if you like, mentality."7
By 1990, Ogonek would achieve its own independence, becoming a joint-stock company and exiting the Pravda Publishing House, but the shifting political circumstances and growing economic catastrophe ushered in a period of uncertain purpose and declining circulation. As the historian Stephen Lovell commented in 1996:
The defeat of the coup was evidence of the social change that Ogonek had helped to foster, but heralded a new media world where periodicals would have to struggle not for a political cause but for their own independence and economic viability. The magazine quite literally could no longer afford to remain the bearer of shestidesyatnik enlightenment and Soviet middlebrow kul´turnost´; it had to carve out a post-Soviet niche for itself.8
Over the following three decades, it never quite found the right formula for reasons that certainly include political, social, and economic dynamics in post-Soviet Russia but also more recent challenges facing journalism in an [End Page 222] online environment dominated by clicks and social media. For some at least, including the journalist Vladimir Snegirov, a sense of loss coexists with cool acceptance: "I have ambivalent feelings about this. On the one hand, it is genuinely a pity as our parents lived with this magazine, as did their parents before them, [as have] we and our children.… On the other hand, if we accept that life flows according to the laws of the market, then why should tears be shed on behalf of those who do not conform to these laws?"9 In this framework, the new hypercapitalist principles of the postcommunist era mandate what might be described as a survival of the fittest. Yet such a perspective raises important and troubling questions: how—and how well—does the market really regulate journalism and cultural "goods" more broadly...