Russian Around

Texans in Moscow discover a spunky tabloid with a very familiar accent.

THE MOST POWERFUL TEXAN in Moscow may be Bob Strauss, but the opinions of Texan Billy Rogers are what everybody talks about. As the editor of the Moscow Guardian , the Russian capital’s leading English-language newspaper, Rogers cranks out a lively, pugnacious weekly tabloid for the more than 10,000 expatriates who live and work in the city.

The Guardian is also likely to be the first thing a Westerner reads upon arrival, since it is distributed free at all the hard-currency hotels, restaurants, and shops patronized by foreigners. It offers a perspective on Russian life and politics that isn’t available anywhere else, not just because Rogers, 31, and his lead columnist, Bob Lichenstein, 29, are both Texans, but because they try to live like Russians. They have little choice—their salaries are so low that they have had to go native.

Recent issues of the Guardian have addressed a spectrum of topics that received little exposure in Moscow. Rogers and Lichenstein are expatriates themselves, so a matter close to their hearts was the expat taxation hysteria,” which they reported after a recent proposal to raise the tax rate on Westerners living in Moscow. The Russian government’s perspective on AIDS (officially, it doesn’t exist) was a revelation that appeared in the Guardian well before it hit the New York Times . And the latest on American rock stats appearing in town is a topic that remains untouched by the successors to the now-defunct Pravda.

Lichenstein’s humor column epitomizes the paper’s irreverent persona. Lichenstein, who is fluent in Russian, regularly refers to President Boris Yeltsin as “Big Bo” and recently said of Russian economic architect Yegor Gaidar, “If he walked into some bars in Texas, he’d end up on the wrong end of a dwarf-throwing contest.” Although Lichenstein is obviously not happy about the way things work (or don’t) in the disintegrating post-soviet society he tells his readers, “I love Russia, because Russians aren’t as bad as Democrats.”

Like the rest of the column, that’s all tongue in cheek, since Lichenstein’s best friend and boss, Billy Rogers, is a Democrat. Rogers checked into his first Democratic National Convention, as a Jimmy Carter volunteer, while still a teenager. He managed a successful campaign for land commissioner Garry Mauro and later worked on Bob Krueger’s ill fated campaign for railroad commissioner. Until recently, his mother, Mary Beth Rogers, was Ann Richards’ chief of staff.

Hungry to be in one of the world’s hot spots, Billy Rogers arrived in Moscow about a year ago, armed only with a literary knowledge of the country. Luckily he landed a job as an English copy reader at Commersant, a Russian-owned business journal published in English as well as Russian. Commersant also publishes the Moscow Guardian, and Rogers soon became a reporter for the tabloid. When a number of entrepreneurial staffers quit to start a rival publication, Rogers was elevated to editor.

Working in an office draped with the Lone Star flag, Rogers often writes about Russian-American relations. He has found that Russians have great affection for Americans, and he is miffed that the United States has not capitalized on that fact. “The U.S. provides about ten percent of the aid to Russia, but we get about a hundred and twenty percent of the credit.” He thinks that might change.

Moscow is in the midst of huge changes. A Chevrolet dealership on Tverskaya Street, the main drag into Red Square, brings that home to the casual visitor. Russians, however, are struck more by the availability of luxuries such as aspirin (for about 50 cents each) and the advent of advertising on television. And the Guardian , like many struggling young Russian enterprises, is having to deal with competition. The renegades who left and gave Rogers his editorial break have become keen rivals for the limited available advertising with their own free English-language publication, called the Moscow Times . And, as is becoming more evident in Moscow every day, nothing is ever really free.

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