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The idea that the Russian Forward's recent sale is a plot by ex-KGB stooges, or a ploy by Vladimir Putin and Russia's top rabbi to dominate the Russian-Jewish Diaspora, is "ludicrous," Yury Zilberman, a board member at Russian American Jews for Israel (RAJI), tells the Voice. But, he adds, "You drop a charge like that in the community, people begin to talk."
Indeed, Russian-Jewish immigrants from Brighton Beach to Illinois are talking about the Forward Association's unloading the award-winning and fiercely independent weekly to Mitzvah Media Group, a set of investors that includes several RAJI board members (but not Zilberman).
Since 1897, the Forward Association's newspapers have been Jewish American cultural beacons, first in Yiddish, then in English, and then, in 1995, with a Russian version. "From the very beginning, I read it," says Skokie, Illinois, resident Leonid Stonov. "For many, many people from Russia, especially older ages, who don't know English, it was very important to have an independent Russian paper." But Stonov and some other readers think that's changed since early November, when Russian Forward was sold for an undisclosed price.
Forward Association executive director Samuel Norich says Russian Forward was six figures in the red annually, "and the losses, unfortunately, kept growing," even as circulation leveled off in the 10,000 to 15,000 range. The Yiddish and English Forwards also lose money, but, Norich says, "We have an even higher commitment to sustain those two papers, and we didn't want that commitment to be ended by our commitment to the Russian paper."
So in mid 2004, the Association began shopping for a buyer, and found Mitzvah. Dr. Daniel Branovan, head of RAJI and Mitzvah, says he was told the paper would close if it weren't sold, adding that Mitzvah bought it because "we felt it was an important thing to maintain."
Branovan says the group does not expect to make a profit, but adds, "We had to streamline some things"meaning staff. Most of the 15 employees were laid off immediately and received what Norich termed "very generous" severance packages. None of the workers heard the paper was even for sale until after it was sold. "It was like thunder," says Riana Milner, the former ad director. Now a team of five full-time and five part-time workers puts the paper together.
The deal triggered complaints from several readers, including Stonov, that the paper was losing its independence and moving to a pro-Moscow stance. This suspicion was fed by connections between some Mitzvah investors and the World Congress of Russian Jewry, a group that some perceive as pro-Putin. Other complaints went further: Zilberman says that only days after the sale, a rumor that some of the new owners were ex-KGB spooks took life. Branovan labels those charges "offensive."
"I was very amused just by the fact that people who were likely on the payroll of various Communist/KGB organizations when they were in Russia are accusing myself and other folks who grew up in the U.S. of being Moscow sympathizers," he says.
Mikhail Nemirovsky, one of the Mitzvah investors involved in WCRJ and Russian Forward's new editor, says most of the letters he has received from readers support the sale. A former professor and Jewish leader in Russia who emigrated in 1997, Nemirovsky insists his paper "will be a stage for everybody who would like to tell about Jewishness, about Israel, about political involvement," although he adds that it's important to bring the paper "back to the roots" of the Jewish community, which means letting readers "know the story of the people, to know the culture of the people."
Nemirovsky is only a part-time editor; he also continues in his previous role as a community activist. Most of the other Mitzvah investors are heavily involved in large Jewish organizations. And the newspaper's recent agreement to collaborate with a Russian paper in Israel, Vesti, had the backing of several Russian members of the Knesset. Despite those connections to power brokers, Nemirovsky says independence was a condition for his accepting the job. "This will be my newspaper," he says.
Branovan, however, does suggest that the paper's editorial voice will change. "We want a diversity of opinion, not beholden to any particular ideology," says Branovan, who describes himself as a staunch Republican and one of the founders of Russian American Jews for Bush. "The Forward over the past year or two has gotten to be very confrontational. They kind of took upon themselves to be the voice that criticized the events, the trends, the personalities."
That confrontational bent harkens back to the original Forward's socialist leanings, which have shifted over time, as well as its populist tone, which fans say has remained.
Now, Milner sees it changing. But both she and reporter Leah Moses , who were invited to stay at Russian Forward after the sale but opted to leave, say the change that shattered them was not in the paper's politics but its people. "We were really friendly and very unique," Moses, now at Russian Bazaar, tells the Voice. "We gave our heart and soul to the paper." With the new people in place, Milner, near tears, says, "My opinion is the Forward will never be the same. It cannot be. Impossible, I think."