For those outsiders who learned to decipher the codes, clichés, and inflections of Soviet journalism—what Soviet people used to called “Aesop’s language”—the metamorphosis that took place in little over two years before the attempted coup in August 1991 was nothing short of astonishing. The culture of linguistic camouflage which had included both the regime’s supporters and detractors (from the liberal press to the most ardent dissidents) began to give way to a new Russian language.
The watershed in this evolution of the Russian press came in the summer of 1989 with the broadcast of the USSR Supreme Soviet sessions live nationwide. The whole country was transfixed by the spectacle of uncensored debate, the contrasting displays of straight talk and manipulative ideological euphemisms. It would be difficult to overestimate the liberating effect this had, both on journalism and the public at large. Glasnost had already revealed many of the sins of the Stalinist past (so that by the time Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago began to appear in Novyi Mir that summer its value was more symbolic than informative), but the debates in the Supreme Soviet concerned the here and now. After tens of millions of people had listened to the likes of Telman Gdlian, Yury Vlasov, Yeltsin, Sakharov, and Anatoly Sobchak, the present, too, was open to scrutiny—government corruption, the role of the KGB, and, to some extent, even that of the Party.
At the same time, another journalistic revolution was underway. While established liberal Soviet publications such as Ogonek, Moscow News, Literaturnaya Gazeta, and Novyi Mir fought the censors, addressed controversial issues, and saw their circulation soar into the millions, a parallel, alternative newspaper culture began to make itself felt on Pushkin Square in the heart of Moscow. By the summer of 1989 there had been an explosion of independent publications which worked outside the official system. Hundreds of papers and journals were sold in the underground pedestrian passages of the metro station; many—like Democratic Perestroika’s Alternativa or Civic Dignity’s paper of the same name—were allied with one or another political faction in Moscow’s growing democratic movement, i.e., the myriad “informal organizations” that were the precursors of today’s fledgling political parties. Some lasted only one or two issues, others managed to publish regularly. They covered the political and intellectual spectrum from right-wing, Russian nationalist, monarchist, and anarchist broadsides, to all manner of liberal party papers, business and how-to manuals, and sex, scandal, and gossip sheets, the latter being entirely new genres for the Russian reading public. The quality of the writing, like that of the print, generally left a lot to be desired.
However, despite the visible achievements of glasnost and the public’s growing taste for new, uncensored points of view, until August 1990, when the USSR Supreme Soviet passed the historic Press Law freeing the Soviet press from the censor for the first time, freedom of the press and of book publishing still had no …