• At 25, Margarita Simonian was handpicked by Putin to lead a network.

April 1, 2006 | Magazine Archive

STANDARD BEARER: ARMENIAN JOURNALIST SPINS RUSSIA TO ENGLISH-SPEAKING MARKET

by Suren Musayelyan

At the age of 25 she already has an impressive career in TV journalism, becoming a role model for journalists in Russia and far beyond. And she is a presidential-appointed boss.

Commencing as a reporter for a provincial TV company in Southern Russia, Margarita Simonian later became a correspondent for the Russian state-run TV company Rossiya in Krasnodar and then moved to Moscow to work as a Kremlin correspondent.

Last year Simonian was appointed head of the newly created 24-hour English-language news channel, “Russia Today”, broadcasting worldwide.

“Desire and good teachers are the keys to my success,” says Simonian, who now manages a staff of 539, including 79 foreigners, and in fact is Russia’s chief “spin doctor” for the world’s audience tuned to English.

“Certainly I never aspired to become a TV boss. My goal was to become a good journalist,” she says. “Now I simply turned to another side of my profession.”

“Russia Today” was established in spring 2005 and went on air on December 10. As its editor-in-chief says, it was established to give more information to the outside world about Russia and to show Russia and world events the way they are seen from Russia.

The company’s budget comes from the government and commercial banks’ loan funding.

“We are here to tell the world about interesting phenomena and people, something that people in the West may not know about Russia but would be interested to learn,” says Simonian.

Simonian, 100 percent Armenian, considers herself a living example of what representatives of national minorities may achieve in Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of TV viewers in Russia and the CIS remember Simonian reporting live from Beslan as terrorists held school children hostage in the South Russian town in September 2004.

“I never considered my reporting from Beslan from the viewpoint of career growth. It was such a hard story that I simply didn’t have the cynicism to look at it from this aspect. It was an ordeal for me,” says Simonian, who was awarded with a medal by President Vladimir Putin last year for her professional reporting from Beslan.

Simonian herself considers her best report to be one she made at the age of 19 for a small TV company in her native town: “It was about a children’s hospital. In one of my stories I told about a boy who had problems with his looks because of pre-natal traumas. The report was seen by people who had money, and they contacted me and helped to change the boy’s life.”

Simonian graduated from the Philological Department of Krasnodar University, which she entered without exams as the winner of an English language Olympiad and the sixth best in the All-Russian Olympiad in literature. She also studied in the United States and Moscow.

“Of course, my English language skills and training in the U.S. mattered in the decision to appoint me to this position. I think that good journalism is alike in the West and Russia. There is no such thing as Russian journalism. There is good journalism and bad journalism both in Russia and in the West.”

Anna Kachkayeva, of Internews Russia, tells of her former student: “Margarita was one of the students you can never forget. She was a bright personality and had extraordinary professional abilities.

“Surely, she gives a shining image to the channel she heads. She doesn’t have much experience in management, but this is something that comes with experience.”

Simonian says that although she was in Armenia only once—as a Kremlin reporter covering President Putin’s visit—she feels connected to both cultures and countries. (Both her parents were born in Russia—her mother is from Sochi and her father is from Yekaterinburg).

“I’d love to visit Armenia again. My younger sister was there on holiday about two years ago and she was very delighted to be there, as she had more time than I,” Simonian says. “But I always remember Armenia and my Armenian roots.”

Simonian doesn’t speak Armenian. She says her several attempts to learn the language failed for different reasons.

“My parents speak Armenian, but they speak different dialects and hardly understand each other. So they speak Russian at home. And I never had a chance to learn Armenian,” she says. “But I would like to learn the language one day.

“We have a very strong tradition of family holidays. We sing both Armenian and Cossack songs and feel our closeness to both histories and cultures. I am very glad about it. I think it expands your inner world. You feel you belong not just to one culture or history. It’s like fusion in cuisines.”

Simonian says she doesn’t exclude that success might be due to her Armenian genes. “Who knows, perhaps I should pass a psychological test to establish that for sure.”

With growing divisions between Russians and ethnic minorities—especially in Moscow—Simonian is an exception to the notion that minorities can’t achieve high positions.

“I never had patrons. I grew up in a provincial town, in an ordinary family, even a poor one as I understand it now, and there was nothing in my life that would explain my success as an exception,” Simonian says.

Yet Simonian admits that some manifestations of xenophobia might exist on the domestic level, but, according to her, they don’t affect people’s chances in life as “those making decisions on all matters in life are different by their mentality from those who discriminate.

“I’ll never forget my Russian fellow students who in the third grade beat a boy who said something insulting regarding my nationality. It was not insulting to them, but they did it. In my life I’ve mostly met such people in Russia, and so I didn’t feel I was alien here because I am Armenian.”

Neither does Simonian think that her being Armenian will ever make her a target of unreasonable criticism based on ethnic grounds, should her TV channel do something deserving criticism.

“My representing Russia as editor-in-chief of a Russian TV channel does not contradict my singing Armenian songs at home. There may be criticism of my channel and it may be connected with the way I manage it, but no reasonable person will criticize me because of my ethnicity.”

Simonian, who has some relatives in Armenia, says relations between Russia and Armenia matter to her.

“I don’t want to see Armenia moving away from Russia culturally,” Simonian says. “As a person who is close to both cultures I’d like to see a mutual penetration of cultures not only inside me, but also on the state level. I don’t see any reasons why it shouldn’t be so, as relations between the two states are fine.”

As the head of an English-language TV channel broadcasting worldwide (visit www.russiatoday.ru for scheduling), Simonian does not want people in Armenia to forget Russian.

“I would like them to choose ‘Russia Today’ only if they wanted to practice their English,” she says.

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