Dear fellow traveller
There is a whiff of mulled wine in the air, even a mince pie or two in the oven, as we put down our proverbial pens for Christmas.
So to all who have followed our musings during 2009, whether in hidden europe magazine or in our regular e-brief, our warm best wishes for the upcoming Christmas and New Year break.
But before we finally close the door on 2009, perhaps we can just for a moment reflect on one troubling aspect of our Europe. A decade into the new millennium and reporters and writers in Russia still tread dangerous waters every day. The names of some of those who have given their lives in pursuit of impartial reporting are well known. For example, the death of Anna Politkovskaya on the afternoon of 7 October 2006 made international headlines. Anna was just one of over eighty journalists and other media professionals murdered in Russia over the last ten years. These were men and women who were merely doing their jobs - often conducting investigations into less savoury aspects of Russian life, and sometimes just reporting on everyday affairs from communities across Russia.
The Togliatti syndrome
Journalists in Togliatti (sometimes transliterated as Tolyatti), a town on the banks of the Volga, know all too well about the dangers of reporting in Russia. Tolyattinskoe obozrenie (Togliatti Review) was a minor star in Russian provincial journalism - a genuinely independent newspaper that started life as a weekly but later switched to daily publication. Nothing especially provocative, but good solid reports that probed local crime syndicates and also nicely captured the warp and weft of everyday life in what is surely one of the very few Russian towns with an Italian name. Togliatti takes its name from the onetime secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, who in the 1960s helped establish the huge Lada car factory which is still the main source of employment in Togliatti today. That industrial initiative was a joint venture with Fiat.
Valery Ivanov founded the Togliatti Review in 1996. Six years later he was shot dead while sitting in his car outside the apartment block where he lived with his wife Yelena. Valery was the fourth local media professional to be assassinated in Togliatti. Not long after the murder of Valery Ivanov, Alexei Sidorov was appointed to the position of senior editor at the Togliatti Review. Less than six months later, Siderov was dead. He was cornered and repeatedly stabbed on his way home from his office one evening.
The end of a difficult decade and life is no easier in Togliatti. Piles of dirty snow line the town's boulevards, and for several days last week the daytime temperature did not once rise above minus 20 degrees Celsius. Thousands of workers in the city fear for the future of their jobs at the local car plant. And journalists still fear for their lives.
Not far outside Togliatti is Shiryaevo village, where a small museum is devoted to Ilya Repin's Volga connections. The Russian artist was inspired by the landscapes and people of the Volga region - and they feature in some of Repin's finest paintings. The fierce determination and suffering of the barge haulers in Repin's painting of the Volga boatmen is very evident in their faces. We see some of that same grit in the faces of men and women who walk the streets of Togliatti today. And we see that same quality of quiet tenacity in those whose job it is to report the news in Togliatti. It is no career for the faint hearted.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)