Derk Sauer Talks Media Marxism and Mafia in Russia

By Adrian Leong

“It was like a scene from the Godfather,” Derk Sauer said as he was speaking in front of the audience in the RAJ conference room last Thursday. He was describing a scene in which he met with a Russian oligarch who wanted to offer him protection, in a casino in Moscow; it was 11 a.m., and he was surrounded by girls in short skirts and the oligarch, who had found his number and called him the previous day. Sauer was forced to accept this invitation because the oligarch claimed to know his children and the route he always took to go to work. The most important lesson Sauer learned from his many years’ of experience working in Russia was that “if you’re afraid, then you’re in trouble.”

Sauer was invited to become the President of RBC Information Systems last year. RBC is a leading Russian multimedia company, which works to spread and broadcast business information; it can be found in print, online and on television. Sauer, Dutch by birth, spoke to the College community last week about the developments that have taken place in Russia in the past two decades, focusing on his personal experiences.

A self-identified “Maoist,” Sauer said that he belonged to the “Marxist-Leninist Party” when he was covering the wars in Vietnam, Angola and Mozambique, among other places. In Amsterdam in 1989, he met a group of Russian journalists who belonged to the Union of Journalists in Russia. At that time, he was excited by what Mikhail Gorbachev was doing as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, so he could not pass up the chance to meet the Soviets in the east.

His first impression of Moscow in 1990 was that it was “a dark place” with little light and few advertisements. There were not any friendly people on the streets and no infrastructures either, and journalism in a liberal society’s tradition was nowhere to be found: the newspaper was simply a mouthpiece of the government, and journalism schools only taught Soviet ideologies.

Once Sauer got there, he saw a niche market for glossy magazines, so he set one up with the Union in 1990. By 1992, he managed to set up his own company that printed the Moscow Times, a paper with a current circulation of about 35,000 copies that still remains the only English-language daily newspaper in Russia’s capital. Without office space, he contacted a hotel in the area and made a bargain with them – in exchange for a few guest rooms, the hotel would get their name in an advertisement in the first free newspaper in Europe.

With the office set up, Sauer still needed to find someone who was willing to print out his twice-weekly newspaper for him, which at that time he envisioned with a circulation of 30,000 copies. Unluckily, that number was so small compared to the state-run newspaper at that time, which circulated at around 8 to 10 million copies daily, that the printing firm’s managers jeered at Sauer’s effort. Nonetheless, Sauer managed to strike a deal with the printing company because they also owned a farm and were desperately trying to find someone who could teach them how to make cheese. Sauer, being from Holland, knew many friends back home who would do him a favor, so the riddle was solved.

Commenting on the current state of press freedom in Russia, Sauer said that it is mixed. On the one hand, freedom of the press is upheld in printed and online media. Sauer pointed out that he never had to censor an article because of its political undertone. On the other hand, the television industry is still very much a channel for “indoctrination.” The government mainly controls the television channels because they are still the main source of information for the masses. The informed portion of the population travel widely anyway, so they did not think that censorship would matter for these people.

When asked how he dealt with the mafia in Russia, Sauer said that he has devised and adopted the shareholder responsibility approach. He sold 10 percent of the shares of his company to a Russian oligarch that vowed to protect his business without influencing his writers’ reporting. Even when that oligarch’s related businesses suffered some public scandals, under their prior agreement, Sauer’s newspaper still reported the news truthfully and honestly.

Roksana Gabdul ‘16 was most surprised that the government did not see the point of censoring his newspaper.

“Sauer was free to criticize the government because his newspaper was read by the select few rather than the whole Russian population,” Gabdul said. “The government would be more worried if his newspaper was widely read by the regular Russian people.”

Towards the end of the lecture, Sauer said that one people be clean as long as they are clear and strong: “Russians respect and like strong people.”