Out of Russia: Publisher finds fortune in mercenary trade

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Enough of flops from the former Soviet Union. Here is a success story - of sorts. Sergei Panasenko, a 39-year-old journalist with bottle-bottom glasses, has just published a new magazine. A trial run of 26,000 copies sold out in a flash. The retail price was 3,500 roubles. Mr Panesenko is getting reports of scalpers in the Moscow Metro asking five times that. 'Every magazine has a niche. We have different readers from, say, the Harvard Business Review. We are not for Academicians or college graduates'.

If the advertising at the back is any guide, readers cannot be that dumb. For one thing, English is essential if they want to understand what is on offer. But take a closer look and you begin to see what Mr Panasenko is getting at. His niche is people who adore Oliver North, hate Japan (how about a white T- shirt with a mushroom cloud under the legend: 'Made in America by lazy stupid workers, Tested in Japan'?), are dotty on automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, laser sights, switchblades and could well be interested in subscribing to Machine Gun Today.

'Our readers,' explains Mr Panasenko, 'are men with guns. They are everywhere.' It is fashionable in Russia to look tough, to look like Rambo or Terminator - big muscles, fast cars. It does not mean they really are tough but they still want to look it. It is part of this mentality to read about weapons, war and destruction.'

And where better to do this than in Soldier of Fortune, cult journal of American gun-nuts, anti-Communists and weekend warriors. Mr Panasenko is none of these - instead of military service, he worked for 'Socialist Industry'. He is now the deputy editor of Rossiskya Gazeta, the official organ of the Russian government. To fill what he decided was a gaping hole in the market, he brought out Soldat Udachi - a Russian-language edition of Soldier of Fortune.

The launch issue has mayhem in Haiti, a retrospective about anti-guerrilla tactics in Rhodesia, a report on how to disarm booby-trapped tunnels in Vietnam and notes on special forces and body-guards in Latvia. All are straight translations from the American edition. But future issues promise homegrown articles from the frontline of Russia's own, myriad small wars. 'New conflicts are more interesting. We hope to be in there at the start. We will have lots to write about - big and small conflicts. I pray just not too close to Moscow.'

This is what interests the American end, too. 'We certainly hope to get better access to their fighting,' explains the executive editor, Tom Slizewski, by telephone from Boulder, Colorado. It seems Georgia, Abkhazia, Nagorny-Karabakh all show great potential. He would also like to see Yugoslavia through the eyes of a Russian mercenary, though not the United Nations - 'UN troops are boring.' Russian weapons tantalise too. 'We'd love to get inside the Tula plant. When we look at a gun, we dissect it.'

He is tickled pink by the idea of the Russian edition. 'We have been rabid anti-Communists for years. We took them on from Angola to Afghanistan. Our guys fought against them. Now this. It is quite a coup.' A month after publication in Moscow the Russian issue is a 'collector's edition'.

According to the reader profile demanded by US advertisers, the 100,000 Americans who buy Soldier of Fortune are: 99 per cent male, one third military men on active duty, one third college graduates and two-third home owners. In Russia, the male part, at least, is the same. But Mr Panasenko sees wider affinities. 'I would not try and sell this magazine in Sweden. Our way of thinking often conicides with that of America: Marlboros, Harley-Davidson, jeans.' But what about the magazine's idiosyncratic poltics? 'Of course, this magazine is militaristic, imperialistic and anti-Commmunist. That is why it will be such a big success.'

As a selling point, anti-Communism might be a bit passe. Imperialism and militarism, though, seem a good bet. 'This has nothing to do with ideology. I hate the word. This is pure business.' Mr Panasenko sees a good chance to boost circulation with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's crazy talk about Russian soldiers washing their boots in the Indian Ocean.

Even this might not be enough to ensure a profit. There are still plenty of racketeers, thieves and tax-collectors around to distort and eventually kill even this potentially vibrant part of Russian publishing. Mr Panasenko is stoical.' It's been fun. This is the joy of creation. The people producing the first A-bomb must have had a great time.'