How Free Is the Soviet Press?

Michael Massing spent two weeks in the Soviet Union this summer on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization working to promote press freedom abroad. He was accompanied by Sally Laird, the editor of Index on Censorship of London.


The Moscow State University School of Journalism is housed in a low yellow building on Marx Prospect, just across from the Kremlin. The dean, Yasin Zassoursky, occupies a cavernous office on the second floor. When we arrived for an interview, Zassoursky, a courteous man with stylishly long gray hair, motioned for us to sit at a mammoth green felt table. Piled high with books and manuscripts, it looked like the remainder section of a Manhattan bookstore. On the wall hung a portrait of Lenin, who looked down on us with characteristic intensity.

Lenin was much present during our talk. I asked the dean what he thought about Lenin’s aphorism that the press was not only a collective propagandist but also a collective organizer for the Party. Was this still applicable in the era of glasnost? “I’m often asked about this,” Zassoursky said. Rising to Lenin’s defense, he observed, “I don’t think Lenin ever thought of making the media an instrument of the state.” Lenin, he went on, was a supporter of glasnost, of openness, wanting the “widest possible access to information for everybody.” The idea of the press as a tool of the state appeared only in the 1930s, he said, when Stalin “falsified” Lenin’s teachings.

At several points our conversation was interrupted by phone calls from the United States. Zassoursky was organizing a conference on how Soviet and American news organizations portray each other, and professors were calling from California and Pennsylvania with word of their travel plans. Such conclaves, once rare, have become routine under glasnost, reflecting a growing desire among Soviet journalists for information about their Western counterparts, and vice versa.

Of all the institutions in Soviet society, none has changed more than the press during Gorbachev’s years in power. But progress has been far from steady. Many of today’s editors and reporters came of age under Brezhnev, and the hand of the past weighs heavily upon them. Yasin Zassoursky, for example, became dean of the journalism school in 1964, the year Khrushchev was ousted, and he remained there throughout the “period of stagnation,” as the Brezhnev years are now known. On the one hand, he is eager for contacts with the West; on the other, he is resolute in defending Lenin’s honor. Soviet journalism is undergoing tremendous change, and neither Lenin nor Jefferson would recognize it.

No publication better embodies glasnost’s spirit than Moscow News. Published in nine languages, including Russian and English, the weekly tabloid has a lively layout, reprints articles from Time and Newsweek, and has one of the country’s few op-ed pages. Recent issues have examined the Yugoslav economy (“The Market Teaches Lessons”), the lingering distrust from Chernobyl, and the enormous obstacles facing anyone trying to buy…

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