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Moscow: Storm Over the Press


A few days after the attack on the Russian Parliament, I crossed the vast, gloomy lobby of Sklifosovsky Hospital, rode to the eighth floor, and wandered through a grimy, dilapidated hall until I found the right room. On Sunday, October 3, and throughout the next day many of the hundreds of victims of the October revolt—hit by snipers or stray bullets, beaten by rebels or police—were brought here. One of the four men in the ward I entered—all wounded that night—was Mark Shteinbok, a staff photographer from Ogonyok magazine, whom I had come to see.

That Sunday afternoon Mark had watched the crowd as they cheered Alexander Rutskoi’s call to take “Ostankino”—the name of the main government television company, also known as Channel 1, as well as the complex of buildings it owns in the north of Moscow—and Khasbulatov’s summons to capture the Kremlin and “the criminal Yeltsin.” Mark watched the supporters of the Parliament form fighting “divisions” (“Whoever wants to storm the Kremlin line up over here,” he heard someone cry) and leave for Ostankino in hijacked trucks and buses. Mark took the subway and when he emerged a mile from Ostankino, he managed to flag down one of the White House “regiments” passing by in a commandeered bus. To his surprise they stopped and let him in. “It was a motley group,” he told me. “Shabby old people, young toughs. But they were all euphoric, feverish, intoxicated. They sang old Soviet songs and exchanged war stories. They’d broken through the police lines and taken the municipal buildings so easily—they were sure that final victory was just minutes away.”

At Ostankino it was already dark. Rebel “commandos” dressed in camouflage arrived, led by the maverick General Albert Makashov—they crashed a truck through the glass lobby and launched a rocket grenade, setting fire to the building. (See Mark Shteinbok’s photograph on page 71.) When the grenade exploded, the small contingent of armed guards protecting Ostankino fired on the rebels, who answered with a barrage of bullets. Mark hit the ground with the others, and kept taking photographs. He felt a sharp blow to his hip, and realized he’d been shot. Eventually someone dragged him to a car and drove him to Sklifosovsky Hospital. As he was being admitted, CNN cameras arrived and filmed him lying on a stretcher in the hospital’s dingy halls; a scene a friend saw on TV in Norway before his family knew what had happened to him. “As soon as I was shot,” he said, “I lost all interest in politics. But the next day from my ward I could hear the gunfire and see smoke, and I began to wonder how I would go on working if a Soviet regime came back to power.”

About the time Mark was taken to the hospital, the several channels which broadcast from the Ostankino television facilities went off the air, including Russian Television, or RTV, a second government-owned television company (also known as Channel 2). Viacheslav Bragin, director of the Ostankino company, ordered all broadcasting halted—he was reported to be afraid the rebels would actually take over the station (though they apparently never got beyond the ground floor), and concerned for the safety of the staff, none of whom had been evacuated earlier. The city went into shock: almost everyone I talked to spoke of the terror they felt when the air waves went dark that night. That was when people realized the country might really be on the brink of civil war. While Ostankino’s Channel 1 remained dark until the next morning, RTV’s news staff moved to a back-up studio the company owns in another part of the city, and resumed broadcasting within hours. Shortly thereafter, in a move that still provokes controversy, Yeltsin’s vice-premier Yegor Gaidar went on RTV and called on Muscovites to rally at the Moscow City Council building near the Kremlin in a show of support for the government. More than 40,000 people eventually gathered there; they built barricades and listened to speakers until the early hours.

All night long a procession of journalists and well-known cultural and political figures appeared on RTV to make statements and report on the situation (though there was no live footage). The only other channel on the air ran an old American movie. Much of the Russian capital can receive CNN without special antennas, and many, including the military, it turned out, watched the same live coverage we saw in the States. But by and large, as in August 1991, Muscovites depended on the radio for news of what was happening in their city: Radio Russia, Moscow Echo, and Radio Liberty (on short wave) reported around the clock. The Russian news agency Interfax also had its reporters at key points in Moscow, and one of them, Viacheslav Terekhov, stayed in the White House throughout the attack, acting for a while as the only intermediary between the government and Rutskoi. By Monday morning, Ostankino was back on the air and one of the channels was running CNN excerpts with Russian translation.

Several hours after the government’s assault on the White House began, Alexander Kokotkin, a reporter for Moscow News, and Alexander Tsyganov, a reporter for Ogonyok, approached two soldiers standing in the bushes to one side of the Parliament. They showed their press credentials, but though their magazines are well known, an officer told the soldiers to take them away. The young soldiers kicked and beat them with the butts of their guns, and threw them into a van. An hour later they were in the infamous Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where Tsyganov was hit again when he refused to put his hands behind his back. A prison guard threatened him with a night stick when he refused to allow a blood sample to be taken with a reusable syringe (standard prison procedure for incoming detainees, it seems). No one was allowed to make any phone calls. After a talk with the police investigator, they were released, but by then it was past curfew. They left the prison at five o’clock the next morning.

These were not isolated incidents. Shteinbok, Kokotkin, and Tsyganov were just three of more than sixty reporters (some of them Americans and Europeans) who were considered lucky to have been only beaten or wounded. Seven journalists died during those two days, several of them, apparently, deliberately killed by snipers. The rebels aimed their attacks not only at Ostankino but also at the TASS offices and the Moscow Pravda building (which houses many publications, among them Moskovskii Komsomolets, the outspoken, somewhat sensational tabloid that has been particularly critical of the Parliament). Like Tsyganov, many journalists were also harassed or beaten by police and interior ministry troops, and their film confiscated or exposed. Literaturnaya Gazeta and Moscow News, among others, published lists of the journalists who were attacked. The Journalists Union and others have issued strongly worded demands during the last few weeks for strict measures to protect journalists’ rights to do their job. Some publications, including Ogonyok, are planning to sue the police and the ministry of internal affairs for assault and unlawful detainment of their employees.

The injuries suffered by journalists were not the only kind of attacks on the press to cause alarm and protest among journalists. During the revolt, the Yeltsin government briefly imposed censorship—for some thirty-six hours—and, by administrative order, closed one TV show and more than a dozen opposition papers. Before the dissolution of the Parliament, the greatest danger to press freedoms seemed to come from the Parliament, which wanted to ensure the kind of “journalistic objectivity” that would cast their own activities in a favorable light. Under Khasbulatov’s leadership, for instance, the Parliament tried and failed in the summer of 1992 to take over Izvestia,1 and attempted to restore greater government control of the mass media through “parliamentary oversight committees” that would have effectively resuscitated Glavlit, the Soviet-era censorship office.

In that contest and other, similar ones, the Yeltsin administration appeared as the champion of free speech. Yeltsin himself has been fairly consistent in his statements of support for a free press. In fact, however, conflict surrounding the press has been far more complex than the familiar distinction between “reformers” and “hard-liners” suggests. In the weeks that followed the storming of the White House and the imposition of prior censorship it became evident that the battle for the press did not end with the defeat of the conservative Parliament. As the campaign to elect a new Parliament on December 12 got under way, it was obvious that the battleground had simply shifted to what may loosely be called the “democratic” camp—that is, those people who oppose the Communists and right-wing nationalists, and, to one degree or another, support democratic and market reforms. However, the democrats, like Yeltsin’s own cabinet and administration, are not a monolithic or even a very unified political force, but rather an extremely diverse mixture of individuals and alliances, each with its own outlook, self-interest, and interpretation of just what is meant by free speech. Soviet-style thinking, whether among hardliners, Yeltsinite bureaucrats, or democratic journalists themselves, is far from a thing of the past.

When censorship was imposed on Monday, October 4, reactions were mixed. The commentators on RTV’s evening news program, Vesti, sharply criticized the government’s action. Newspapers barely had a chance to respond (no papers are published in Moscow on Sunday, and many papers do not issue Monday editions either) before censorship was lifted on the morning of October 6. Though there was much indignation, and no one approved of the censorship, I was surprised by the number of journalists who later seemed to react to it with cautious acceptance. (Dmitry Ostalsky, the editor of the liberal newspaper Segodnia, for instance, told me that he had been startled, but had taken it calmly, simply informing the censors that because of production schedules, the paper would be forced to leave blank spaces if any stories were deemed unacceptable.) The country was undeniably in a crisis, and temporary censorship is permitted by the law dealing with states of emergency, though, as many said, the law may permit censorship, but does not require it. Why, several commentators wondered, was censorship considered necessary at all? Furthermore, as Izvestia pointed out, the state of emergency applied only to Moscow, but many of Moscow’s papers are nationally distributed. Why, they asked, should readers in St. Petersburg or elsewhere be deprived of certain articles?

What disturbed people most, it seemed, was that the original decision to impose censorship apparently came not directly from Yeltsin, but from bureaucrats who acted on their own, and it was not clear precisely who issued what orders. But at a round-table discussion on censorship with the editors of Pravda, Moskovskii Komsomolets, Segodnia, and Pavel Gutiontov, head of the Journalists Union’s “Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Speech and Journalists’ Rights,” which I attended on October 8, a mild-mannered, middle-aged gentleman in glasses, who reminded me of Alec Guinness’s George Smiley, spoke on behalf of the censors. He turned out to be Vladimir Solodin, former head of Glavlit (“The very mention of his name used to be enough to make any editor quake,” one reporter told me), and the man who had carried out the censorship. Solodin said that he had been contacted by the office of Alexander Kulikov, the emergency commandant of Moscow who had been appointed by the interior ministry. Solodin quickly assembled the twenty censors who went to the printing houses and read the papers dated October 5 as they were going to press. When asked who these censors were and where he found them, Solodin seemed slightly miffed: “They were all former Glavlit or military censors,” he replied. “I still had their phone numbers in my old address book,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect me to use pastry chefs, would you?—censors are specialists, they read twice as fast as any editor.”

  1. 1

    For an account of this episode, see my article in these pages, October8, 1992, p.56. The dispute between the Parliament and Izvestia finally went to the constitutional court, which decided in the paper’s favor.

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