20 Years Later

Why leave a comfortable life and home in Amsterdam and move into a tiny, roach-infested Moscow apartment? The image of Moscow in 1989 was of a city with dark and dirty streets, empty shops and long lines. "Can’t we move to New York instead?" my wife, Ellen, asked in response to my proposal to come with me and bring our 9-month-old son, Tom, along. Of course, her reaction did not surprise me in the least. But I said that no, we cannot move to New York — we are going to Moscow, to a city where history is being made. The Soviet Union still existed, but after the Berlin Wall fell and Gorbachev gained influence, change was in the air.

Joint ventures were the only way to do business in Russia in 1989. We partnered with the Moscow Union of Journalists. My idea was to produce the first glossy magazine in the history of the Russian press and to call it Moscow Magazine. Our friends from Holland sent an incredible amount of cheese for the reception marking the launch of the magazine. No sooner had the wife of the Dutch prime minister finished her opening speech than the guests rushed to the buffet and devoured everything in sight. Our Russian nanny had never seen bananas before that, and she considered the pizza a real marvel.

Neither Ellen nor I spoke Russian, but soon we had like-minded people working with us. It was a team of talented young people consisting of Artemy Troitsky, who knew the Moscow crowd, and Yelena Myasnikova, who worked as a professor of Dutch language at Moscow State University. Today she is CEO of Sanoma Independent Media and one of Russia’s most successful businesswomen. We were also joined by Annemarie van Gaal — energetic, intelligent and the best sales manager of anyone I know.

Moscow Magazine received excellent reviews, but as a commercial project it was a fiasco. The ubiquitous Soyuzpechat kiosks were filled with newspapers such as Pravda and magazines like Krestyanka in which no one had ever thought to sell advertising. The joint venture collapsed. However, we managed to fall in love with Moscow and did not want to return home, and so we created our own business with Dutch friends. We named it Independent Press, and later it became Independent Media. Our first project was The Moscow Times, a newspaper for the constantly growing number of foreigners in Moscow.

We bought minivans in Amsterdam, loaded them with Apple computers and other office equipment and personally drove them to Moscow. We didn’t have enough money to rent an office, so we talked American businessman Paul Tatum (who was killed in 1996) to give us a few rooms in the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel in return for advertising in The Moscow Times.

And so, the first issue was published in 1992 — and in 2012, Independent Media celebrates its 20th anniversary. We have come a long way in those years! In many ways, the history of Independent Media reflects the modern history of Russia — the same ups and downs and reversals.

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