Out of Russia: 'Sunday Sport' meets Ivan the Terrible

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MOSCOW - Gennady Fedotov, a young editor in the fast lane of Russia's free-market press, is talking about his next big story: 'Five convicts escape from prison. They don't have any food. So what do they do? They eat each other. In the end only one is left. He tries cats and rats but needs human blood. Good, eh?'

Sounds great, I tell him. But is it true? 'Well . . . sort of,' he mutters, 'the phenomenon is definitely true.' But what about the prisoners. Do they really exist? 'Not now,' he says with a big grin. Okay, did they exist before they ate each other? 'No. I made them up. They were my idea.'

Mr Fedotov, a graduate of Moscow University's journalism faculty, has lots of ideas. All of them horrible. A selection of headlines from the last issue: 'I Just Can't Stop Killing - confessions of an executioner', 'From the Lives of Man-Eaters', 'Orgasm in the Embrace of a Corpse' and 'Pies from Placenta'. It comes out once a month and the next issue will, he promises, be even better: 'We've got some great material.' You don't have to read the headlines to get an idea of his organ's editorial policy. Its title leaves little to the imagination: Ochyn Strashnaya Gazeta - 'Very Frightening Newspaper'.

'We have studied the market very carefully and try to correspond to its demands,' explains Mr Fedotov, who discovered journalism during military service. He wrote articles for Kantemirovets, the newsletter of a Soviet tank regiment outside Moscow. But that was before perestroika. Now, he says: 'Everyone is fed up with politics. They want some spice. They are fed up with life.'

Instead of life, Mr Fedotov offers page after page of grisly death. The front page is plastered with gruesome headlines and blurred black-and-white pictures (all totally unrelated to the text). Each following page has its own rubric: 'Cannibalism', 'Butchers and Victims', 'Agony', 'Evil Forces', 'Criminals', 'Suicides', 'Readings for Lunatics'. This, he insists, is what Russians want to read about, though he does worry about those who read nothing else. 'These people really are sick. But I hope they don't exist.' He is frank about his aims: 'This is a purely commercial paper.'

So far his analysis of the market seems to be spot-on. While the rest of the Russian press is in crisis, with subscriptions down by 50 per cent for most major papers, 'Very Frightening Newspaper' is storming ahead. It was launched only four months ago. ('Killer Cockroaches Fly Towards Moscow' was its first big story). The inaugural issue sold 25,000 copies. ('It sold out within two hours.') There have been three more issues since and each one doubled the previous circulation. The brake on sales, says Mr Fedotov, is not the public's appetite for horror but limits on printing and distribution. The next issue, due out at the end of the month, will have a print-run of 120,000.

Printing is done by Moskovskaya Pravda which, like other former Communist Party journals, rents its presses to make up for dwindling state support. 'Very Frightening Newspaper' was itself founded on the grave of a paper pushed to the wall by the market. In its previous incarnation it was called Orienteer, the earnest monthly journal of the 'Fund for the Promotion of Invention and Rational Methods'.

'It was a good paper,' says Mr Fedotov, who edited it. 'But it was boring. He tried to spice it up, introducing stories about abominable snowmen and extra-terrestrials. But money ran out. The Invention Fund metamorphosed into a business-services company. Mr Fedotov was given a salary of 30,000 roubles (pounds 37) and a free hand. Orienteer became 'Very Frightening Newspaper'. Overheads are low. He works at home and the only other employees are a 'marketing executive' and a part-time writer, who claims to be an aristocrat. Many stories are plagiarised from foreign papers.

The paper is still small but is growing while others shrink. Pravda, which once earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records with a circulation of 23 million, has lost all but some 600,000 readers.

Seriousness doesn't sell. Moscow's fastest-growing paper is Moskovksy Komsomolets, which started as an organ of the Communist Youth League but now offers a mix of scandal, crime and political gossip. 'Very Frightening News' uses the same formula - only with more blood and guts. Mr Fedotov's only real worry is the one subject he studiously avoids: politics. 'Five years ago there was nothing like this. And maybe in another five years there will be nothing like it either. It all depends on politics.' He got a call the other day from an old lady. 'She said we need a new Stalin, someone to shoot people like me.'