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 a Soviet car.
Such articles reflect a remarkable turn-around in the paper’s editorial policy. As recently as 1986, Moscow News was a tired propaganda sheet aimed at unsuspecting foreigners. In that year, though, Yegor Yakovlev, an associate of Gorbachev, was appointed editor, and he rapidly transformed the paper into a vigorous organ for change. Today Moscow News is very popular, and extremely hard to find. Circulation (which is fixed by the state) is only 350,000, and people sometimes wait in line three hours to buy it. To help satisfy demand, the paper posts each issue in display cases outside its offices in Pushkin Square. On the bright afternoon on which we visited, crowds had gathered in front of the cases, poring over the print on display.
Inside, reporters are crowded two and three into small, dilapidated offices. What strikes a Western visitor first is the manual typewriters: like most Soviet news organizations, Moscow News has no computers. The paper’s legal correspondent, Natalia Gevorkyan, a woman of thirty wearing a fashionable print dress and a crucifix, told us how the recent National Congress of People’s Deputies had abruptly altered journalists’ perceptions about what was fit to print. “We’re very progressive,” she said. “We say things that no other paper will say. But what was said during the Congress went much further than anything we’ve ever carried in the paper. I couldn’t believe the things we were hearing.”
Like most official publications, Moscow News has a censor on the premises, and Gevorkyan, at our request, introduced us to Misha, a tall, pudgy thirty-year-old with a shock of blond hair that stood punklike from his head. Misha would not tell us his last name, but, anxious to establish his bona fides, he took out a card identifying him as an employee of the Main Administration for Safe-guarding State Secrets in the Press, otherwise known as Glavlit, the state censor-ship agency. His job, he explained, was to read every page of Moscow News before publication and make sure it violated none of the restrictions in the Glavlit manual, a two-hundred-page tome known, strangely, as the “Talmud.” Whenever he found something questionable, he checked it with the relevant government ministry, which then decided whether the information could be published.
However, Misha told us, his work had changed dramatically in recent months. Glavlit, like everything else, was “going through perestroika,” he said. “We’re gradually reducing the number of restrictions.” Before, Glavlit’s jurisdiction extended over all areas of commentary. Now it was limited primarily to security matters—the naming of army installations, the divulging of statistics about weaponry, the discussion of the KGB’s internal affairs. As for political matters, he said, “that’s none of my business.” Gevorkyan nodded her agreement.
Everywhere we went, we heard a similar story. Glavlit, once a mighty, intrusive institution, was losing its grip. The censorship function, long the province of the state, was gradually passing into the hands of individual editors. Control by the Communist party remains strong, of course. All editors are appointed by the Party apparatus, and all newspapers are closely monitored by Party leaders. Editors who go too far can expect an angry phone call from the Party’s Central Committee—not a good way to advance one’s career. Yet even the Party itself must tread cautiously these days, for blatant attempts to interfere in editorial decisions can stir public protest.
The emergence of the public as a factor in deciding what is news and who will be read is, in fact, one of the most striking byproducts of Gorbachev’s regime. Soviet readers have been voting with their subscriptions, and the results are clear: the more adventuresome the publication, the greater the readership. Ogonyok is a good example. Three years ago, it was an illustrated weekly, a pale imitation of Life. Today, the magazine has a glossier format with more abundant photographs and, most importantly, a great many articles of genuine reporting. Recent issues have included accounts of a pro-perestroika colonel who was fired by the army, a physician persecuted by Stalin, the bleak living conditions of Soviet pilots, and the fate of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. In Moscow Ogonyok sells out at newsstands within two hours. Nationwide circulation is now 3.3 million, and the magazine’s editors maintain that they could sell eight million if only there were enough paper.
Unfortunately, the country is suffering a severe paper shortage intensified by the booming demand for reading material. Since 1985, the total number of copies of magazines and newspapers produced in the country has increased by about 20 million a year. The Soviet Union is one of the largest producers of paper in the world, but its mills have not been able to keep pace with the surge in demand. (Of course, shortages never arise when it comes to publishing the works of Lenin or other orthodox texts.) Last year the Communications Ministry announced it was limiting the number of subscriptions for forty-two publications, including many of the most progressive (Ogonyok among them). The orthodox publications Pravda and Izvestia were left untouched. This was immediately interpreted as an antiglasnost maneuver by the bureaucracy; an outcry took place, and the limits were soon rescinded. The paper shortage continues, however, and library reading rooms are today crammed with people unable to find their favorite periodicals at the newsstand.
“What was unthinkable a year ago is today routine”—that is how Soviet journalists sum up the pace of change. Even Lenin, long immune to criticism, seems about to succumb. As recently as April, the head of the State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting was fired when a guest on a TV talk show suggested wryly that Lenin deserved by now a decent burial, i.e., that his body should be moved from its tomb in Red Square. In late June, however, Arguments and Facts, an officially sanctioned tabloid with a circulation of more than 20 million, ran a front-page article about the Russian Marxist revolutionary Georgi Plekhanov (1857–1918), who sharply disagreed with Lenin. The article laid out in detail Plekhanov’s argument, which became central to Menshevik thought, that the Bolshevik takeover in a country as undeveloped as Russia could only lead to tyranny. For many Moscow intellectuals, the article was a signal that Lenin could now be openly criticized.
With Lenin now vulnerable, it might seem that no taboos remain. Plenty do, however. One of the most glaring is foreign policy. I got a sense of this while tuning in to the English-language service of Radio Moscow, the Soviet equivalent of the Voice of America. Though directed at the outside world, the service is broadcast on the AM band in Moscow On domestic matters, Radio Moscow seemed very open to critical comment—astonishingly so, at times. I heard reports on the declining quality of Soviet tea, the opening of a Jewish national center in the Ukraine, plans by the recently legalized Hare Krishna sect to open a vegetarian café, and the rapid spread of AIDS throughout the USSR. One night the station even quoted the minister of defense as denying rumors that a military coup was about to occur.
When it came to the rest of the world, however, Radio Moscow seemed back in the days of the Comintern. One broadcast placed the blame for the arms race exclusively on the United States. Another featured a glowing report on a youth festival in Pyongyang, “Democratic Korea.” On the Middle East, the station hammered away at Israel for engaging in “escalating acts of state terrorism,” giving no hint that any other groups were committing violence. Worst of all was the coverage of China. Mirroring the line of the Beijing government, Radio Moscow dwelled on the need for the return of law and order, the roundup of student agitators, the sentencing of trouble-makers—everything but the bloodletting in Tiananmen Square.
Few news organizations did better. Editors, mindful of the thaw between the Soviet Union and China, were wary of provoking a diplomatic incident between the two countries. In covering other nations, too, Soviet papers dutifully follow the government’s lead, which is laid down for writers at the periodic press conferences held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ironically, these meetings, instituted under Gorbachev, were an early advance for glasnost, a means of keeping reporters better informed about Soviet activities abroad. But in practice now, the conferences, while undeniably informative, have provided officials with a forum for “advising” journalists on how to write their stories.
“I’d like to be critical of Ceausescu, but I can’t,” we were told by Izvestia’s Aleksandr Bovin, one of the country’s best-known commentators on foreign affairs. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will say we’ll ruin our relations with Romania. The same is true of North Korea, Syria, Libya, and any other country with which we have good relations.” Bovin recalls that when he wrote an article for Moscow News criticizing Iran for its threats against Salman Rushdie, he received an uncomplimentary letter from Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. “This is our forbidden zone—our friends,” Bovin said, adding dryly, “I’m afraid our relations with America will become so good that it will be difficult to analyze objectively what is happening there.”
On domestic matters, the most obvious forbidden zones are the military and the KGB. These institutions discourage being written about, and most reporters honor their wish. The volatile nationalities question, too, remains largely off-limits. When rioting occurs in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, the press duly carries dispatches mentioning it, but it rarely looks beneath the surface at the causes of discontent or the views of ethnic leaders—the topic is too sensitive. As for social behavior, it is acceptable to report on homelessness, alcoholism, and crime—but not on homosexuality. Finally, and tellingly, high government officials—including Gorbachev himself—are largely immune to adverse comment by journalists. Exposing Stalin’s henchmen is one thing; criticizing present-day members of the Politburo quite another. “I’m not interested in writing about something that happened twenty years ago,” says Moscow News’s Gevorkyan. “But if I try writing about the privileges of people now, it’s hard getting it through the censor.” Glavlit may be down, but it’s not out.
People were still milling about on the sidewalk when we left Moscow News. Curious passers-by had gathered around a man and a woman arguing loudly about the special medical privileges of Party members. A young man with long curly hair was selling a paper consisting of only a few pages called the Herald of Soviet Jewish Culture. “Show it to your Jews in America,” he urged as I bought one. A few feet away, people were peering at the pages of a political journal, called Civic Dignity, which had been plastered on the wall. At the edges of the pages were tattered shreds of paper, the remains of earlier copies. The police, we were told, kept ripping the paper off, but someone kept pasting it back up.
Civic Dignity’s ability to frustrate the authorities seemed remarkable and we arranged to visit one of its editors. We took the subway to a suburban neighborhood of empty avenues and faceless apartment blocks. There Anna Zolotareva, a slim, intense nineteen-year-old who wore a tight-fitting dress that barely extended to mid-thigh, led us to her nearby apartment. She seated us in her disorderly kitchen and began cooking sweet pancakes. Her journal, she told us, had a staff consisting of herself and her twenty-eight-year-old brother, Viktor. “People feel that only the Communist party can engage in political activity,” Anna said. “We wanted to show that people other than Communists can become active.” With no political organization behind them, they decided to go into the newspaper business. Civic Dignity is thin—only three typewritten pages—but bold, publishing spirited essays in favor of Western-style pluralism. “If we can’t be a political force with thousands of members, we can be a metaphysical force with a newspaper,” Anna said. “People wouldn’t realize that behind it were only two people working at night.”
While we ate, Anna described how she and her brother had originally passed out Civic Dignity at political meetings. After a while, though, they wanted to reach more people, so they hit on the idea of sticking the paper on walls. “We realized from the first that the newspaper would be ripped down,” she said. “So we decided to put it up at rush hour, when a crowd would gather and prevent the police from approaching. As soon as the rush hour is over, someone comes to tear it down, but every morning we put up new ones.” On good days the paper stays up for five hours. While she walked with us back to the subway, Anna complained about the hazards of her work, including her fear that she might be arrested. Still, she said, “a year ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this.”
Civic Dignity is one of about five hundred unofficial publications to have sprung up in Gorbachev’s Russia. Unlike official publications, which receive printing resources from the state, the independent press must fend for itself. Most publications resemble Civic Dignity in being produced by only a few people typing late into the night in kitchens and bedrooms and xeroxing the pages the next day. Many are political in nature, manifestos published by the countless Jacobin clubs that have appeared in the last couple of years. But many other subjects are treated as well, including the environment, poetry, religion, the occult, nationalities, and rock music (a growing field with more than thirty publications).
These unofficial journals are successors to the samizdat of the pre-Gorbachev years. Legally, they exist in a twilight zone, neither clearly authorized nor wholly repressed. In the past, people producing or possessing samizdat publications were liable to prosecution under such statutes as Article 70 of the Soviet criminal code, a notorious provision that prohibited all manifestations of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Many dissidents of the Brezhnev era were imprisoned under this article. Last April, the law was revised. As originally proposed, the new statute appeared little better than the old one, making it a crime to propagate “public insults against or the discrediting of the supreme bodies of state power.” At the Congress of People’s Deputies, however, a group of liberal deputies succeeded in getting the provision repealed—the first time, observers said, that a piece of Soviet legislation has been revoked because of public pressure.
However, there remain other articles that pose a threat to free expression. What’s more, the independent press is subject to constant harassment. Almost daily, journalists are detained by the police, their offices searched, and copies of their publications confiscated. In April a group of independent journalists tried to mount an exhibition of publications on Moscow’s Arbat, the popular pedestrian thoroughfare that has become a center for entrepreneurs, entertainers, and political protesters. The display lasted only half an hour before police intervened, detaining nine people. All were released after a few days but two were fined one thousand rubles apiece—almost a year’s wages for the average citizen. In an even more serious case Sergei Kuznetsov, an unofficial journalist in the city of Sverdlovsk, was arrested at a human rights demonstration last December and charged with giving personal offense to the KGB and the Communist party. Kuznetzov remained in prison for eight months before being released in July. In terrible health as a result of a hunger strike, he must still stand trial.
Such cases of extended imprisonment are rare, however, and most unofficial publications are able to operate fairly openly. A good example is the weekly Express-Chronicle. One of the most important unofficial journals publishing today, it relies on a group of forty correspondents, who call in with reports about demonstrations, new political groups, human rights abuses, and the suppression of ethnic protest throughout the country. Every Saturday, the Moscow staff gathers in an apartment on the outskirts of town to collate the information and prepare it for publication. When I visited their offices I saw about ten people—students, teachers, a painter, and a physicist—working in two cramped but brightly lit rooms. Some were on the telephone, gathering last-minute information; others were typing on four Toshiba computers. The guiding force behind the paper is Aleksandr Podrabinek, a former dissident who, in spite of six years in internal exile, has managed to retain his sense of humor. When I asked what the paper needed most, he reached under the table and pulled out a photocopying machine. “A Japanese repairman!” he said.
The machine had not been working for weeks, leaving the staff in a bad way. Photocopiers remain under tight control in the Soviet Union. It’s not illegal to own one; with enough hard currency and the right connections, a machine can be imported from abroad. However, as Express-Chronicle has found, it’s almost impossible to get the machines fixed once they break down. As for public copiers, virtually all remain in the hands of the state. Recently two commercial copying centers opened in Moscow, but this doesn’t mean everyone can get service. Earlier this year, Express-Chronicle approached one of the centers, a joint venture between the Soviet government and the British company Rank Xerox, hoping to sign a contract for making five hundred copies of its current issue each week. The center agreed—until it found out what the copies were for, at which point it reneged. As the incident shows, the Soviet government controls samizdat less by imprisoning people than by controlling access to technology.
Every Sunday morning at eleven o’clock, the Express-Chronicle people gather with other independent journalists in a narrow park on Gogol Boulevard in central Moscow. On the day I visited, about one hundred people—political protesters, Jewish activists, people seeking to emigrate—showed up. When the Express-Chronicle editors arrived, a crowd quickly clustered around them, eagerly seeking copies. Other publications were on sale, too. An anarchosyndicalist was passing out Obschina (“Community”), his party’s journal, while a monarchist peddled a pamphlet about the fate of the last tsar. Throughout, two policemen stood at the entrance to the park, but they kept a safe distance. During the last year only one or two people have been arrested at these meetings.
The scene seemed both sorrowful and uplifting at the same time. The sparseness of the crowd and its faint air of desperation said something about the current place of the unofficial press. For the most part, it remains on the fringes of Soviet intellectual life. Official publications have become so vigorous and probing that they routinely publish articles on matters once reserved for samizdat. Nevertheless, journals like Express-Chronicle perform an important function. Working with few resources, they bear witness to the cruelties that continue to characterize the Soviet system. On occasion they even dig up information that forces the official press to take notice. What’s more, these publications stand for an important principle—the right of individuals to publish freely, without the sanction of the state, a right that the Soviet government does not yet recognize.
The only corner of the Soviet Union in which full-blown Western-style free expression has taken root is the Baltic republics. In Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania journalists have taken advantage of the new openness to create the country’s most dynamic press. We spent a week talking to reporters and editors in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The sense of ferment was almost palpable. Since the 1940s, when both republics were incorporated into the Soviet Union, many local residents were deported or imprisoned, and many have feared for the survival of their national languages and cultures. Now, with Moscow’s grip relaxing, nationalist sentiment is exploding. The Baltic countries are small and vulnerable—Lithuania has only 3.7 million people and Estonia, 1.6 million—but they have emerged as laboratories of glasnost, testing the limits of free expression for the rest of the country.
“What happens in Estonia can appear in Russia four or five months later,” says Rein Kruus, an editor at Looming, an Estonian-language political and literary monthly. We met Kruus at his office in Tallinn’s old town, a carefully preserved quarter of medieval buildings, cobble-stone streets, and venerable churches (most of which now serve as museums). To illustrate his point, Kruus told us that while journalists in Moscow were still negotiating to publish Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Looming would be carrying a chapter from it in its next issue. Or so he hoped. The issue was currently at the printer’s, and Kruus was praying that local apparatchiks would not intervene at the last moment. He would know by the next day. Curious, we arranged to meet again. When we did, Kruus shyly but triumphantly presented us with the June issue of Looming, and there, on the cover, was the chapter by Solzhenitsyn. (Novy Mir published the first chapters of The Gulag Archipelago in late August—slightly ahead of Kruus’s timetable.)
Throughout Estonia, publications are rushing to change their names. The local woman’s magazine, long called Soviet Woman, is about to become Estonian Woman Hammer and Sickle, a Communist party weekly, is to be renamed Friday. Noorte Hääl (“Voice of Youth”), the organ of Estonia’s Komsomol, or Young Communist League, is keeping its name but changing its look, as we learned from Eve Osa, the paper’s education editor. We had barely sat down in her office when she excitedly handed us two issues of the newspaper. One, dated June 21, bore in the upper-left-hand corner the insignia of the Communist party; in the right was a drawing of Lenin. Across the top ran the slogan, “Workers of the World, Unite!” The second paper was dated June 27; it had no Party insignia, no picture of Lenin, no slogan.
“We decided it was so ugly, we just cut it off,” Osa told us in fractured English. What, I asked, had been the Party’s reaction to all this? “We don’t tell them we do it,” she said, smiling broadly. “And if they told us to put it back, the people…” She didn’t complete the sentence, but her meaning was clear: any attempt by the Party to intervene would set off public protest.
Edasi (“Forward”) is Estonia’s second largest paper and, by most accounts, its best. Published in Tartu, a university town with a population of 100,000, it has a circulation of 155,000. The editor Mart Kadastik, attributes the paper’s success to its criticism of the Party and the government. “I’m a member of the Communist party,” he noted. “All editors in chief in Estonia are members of the Party. Eighty percent of the journalists in Estonia are members of the Party. But a large number of them are opposed to the Party.” As strange as it may seem, in Estonia it is the Party’s own papers that, responding to public pressure, have taken the lead in openness. One result has been to stunt the growth of the independent press, which, aside from Looming and a few other journals, barely exists.
The situation is very different in Lithuania. Sajudis, the popular nationalist movement founded last year, initially was barely reported in Tiesa (“Truth”), the main Communist daily. In response, the movement’s leaders last summer called for a boycott of the paper. It was highly successful, and Tiesa, in response, eventually changed editors. Nevertheless, its coverage remained tepid, and a great many independent journals—130 of them, in fact—have sprung up. Most are little more than newsletters, but a few have established themselves as important and reliable sources of information. The best, we were told, is Mazoji Lietuva, or “Little Lithuania.” I asked one of its reporters, Rystas Staselis, what distinguished his paper from the rest. “Youth,” he replied. “Not one of our writers is even thirty years old.” As a result, he said, “We don’t publish heavy analytical articles.” Staselis himself is twenty-three. A new generation of reporters is taking command in Lithuania, giving the republic’s journalism a sense of vitality we encountered nowhere else. The independent press certainly had an important part in organizing participation in the recent series of Lithuanian nationalist demonstrations.
Censorship barely exists in Lithuania, and Glavlit was rarely mentioned during our conversations. Paper is another matter. Lithuanian editors are obsessed by it. Lithuania happens to be a major producer of paper, but it is of high quality, and most of it is shipped to Russia for use by the central government: the revised Soviet encyclopedia will be printed on Lithuanian paper. What remains is tightly controlled by the local government, and it invariably goes first to the official papers. That leaves most independent publications with large deficits. To make them up, editors have sent agents to paper mills throughout the country. One editor says he sends regular expeditions to the Urals, offering “gifts of all kinds—whiskey, barrels of vodka, smoked hams, free trips to resorts in Bulgaria.” This is not legal, but the authorities generally look the other way and the papers keep coming out.
One afternoon we met with Gintautus Iesmantas, a former political prisoner. A journalist and poet, Iesmantas was convicted in 1980 of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” for his involvement with the samizdat journal Perspectives. He served six years in a strict regime labor camp and three more in internal exile before being allowed to return home last fall. We met at a drab outdoor café located in the shadow of the Vilnius cathedral. Iesmantas looked frail in a worn gray suit, but he seemed in good spirits. Like many former dissidents, he expressed great skepticism about the depth of the transformation occurring in the country. There were still Lithuanian political prisoners, he said, and the judge who sentenced him to the labor camp still sat on the bench.
Nevertheless, Iesmantas said, he was struck by the changes taking place around him. The KGB did not seem to be watching him. One of his poems had been published in an official newspaper. The Vilnius cathedral, long ago converted into a picture gallery, was again functioning as a place of worship. Lenin Prospect, the city’s main thoroughfare, was about to be renamed after a fourteenth-century Lithuanian patriot. And, across the street from where we sat, the Lithuanian flag flew from the roof of the Sajudis headquarters. Not long ago, flying the flag could land one in prison. Leaning forward in his chair, Iesmantas observed, “I would say there is freedom of expression now in Lithuania, freedom to say what you want. I’m astonished. I wouldn’t have said this earlier.”
What is happening in the Baltic countries is indeed astonishing. Will their example be duplicated elsewhere? For the moment at least, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia seem special cases. All three have long traditions of independent journalism, helping them keep alive the spirit of critical thought through the long years of Soviet domination. Sadly, that tradition exists in few other places. The provinces boast many courageous journalists, but also many autocratic Party bosses. Crusading editors are regularly sacked and enterprising exposés are routinely killed. In the most rigidly controlled republics, like the Ukraine, the press remains as fettered as during the Brezhnev years. In the Baltic countries themselves, journalists fear that the new openness will not last, that the government will eventually crack down lest things get out of hand. Glasnost is a fragile phenomenon indeed.
The mood among Soviet journalists today is not very optimistic, thanks largely to the recent Congress of People’s Deputies.* This might seem a paradox. After all, the Congress, with its frank speeches broadcast live to the nation, seemed the very embodiment of glasnost. Yet now that the initial euphoria has faded, journalists are left to consider the many attacks that deputies mounted on the new order. Those who spoke out against Gorbachev’s policies far out-numbered those speaking in favor. The press itself came in for special and repeated censure. For Soviet journalists, the congress revealed just how strong a backlash is developing against them.
“So many people spoke out against our line,” notes Vladimir Nikolaev, and editor at Ogonyok. Nikolaev exemplified a pattern I encountered among other Soviet journalists: the more liberal the writer or editor, the more gloomy his prognosis. Placing Gorbachev’s chances of success at no more than fifty-fifty, Nikolaev explained his pessimism: “There are at least 18 million bureaucrats in the Soviet Union. They are all afraid of perestroika. Each of them has on average a family of five people. So that’s almost 100 million people afraid of perestroika. Add to that several million more who took part in the crimes of Stalin and Brezhnev, and you can see that at least half of the Soviet people are afraid of perestroika.”
Nikolaev embarked on a dark, rambling monologue about the country’s backwardness. “Here we are the main illustrated weekly in Moscow and we have hardly any computers,” he glumly observed. Cursing Stalin for destroying the Soviet cybernetics industry, Nikolaev called the lack of computers “the number one tragedy for our country. We’re behind the West twenty to twenty-five years. In the next ten to fifteen years, our people will not be able to understand people in the West.”
Other editors were less apocalyptic but no less troubled. Among their most pressing concerns was a relatively new one: libel. Glasnost has resulted not only in more exposés but also in more libel suits. In fact, many Soviet journalists consider libel to be one of the greatest current threats to press freedom. To take one case, Soviet Culture, an enterprising weekly published by the Communist party, has been hit with no fewer than thirty suits since the start of the year. “We’re taken to court virtually every day,” says Albert Andreevich, the paper’s chief editor. “We’ve had to hire a special lawyer just to handle the cases.”
In some respects, Soviet journalists have it relatively easy. Libel trials tend to be brief, concerned exclusively with the accuracy of the article in question; no effort is made to determine the editor’s “state of mind,” as in the United States. Judges have proved generally sympathetic to news organizations, and most verdicts have gone their way. Even when newspapers lose, they needn’t pay money. They are required only to print a retraction. On the other hand, newspapers in the Soviet Union bear the burden of proof in libel trials, i.e., they must prove their stories are accurate, whereas in the United States the plaintiff must prove the article is false. Many journalists fear that conservatives will use these suits to tie them up in court and thus keep them from reporting on official abuses. (At the same time independent journalists and activists are using libel suits to challenge conservative publications that have maligned them.)
For relief, editors are looking to a new press law that is currently being drafted. This might sound like an abstract exercise, but it will define the rights and responsibilities of journalists for many years to come. Should journalists have a right to government information? Should private citizens have the right to publish? What is the proper place of censorship? Should standards of responsible journalism be written into law? Girding for battle are the nation’s bureaucrats, who want to preserve the principle of secrecy, and the nation’s journalists who want to smash it. “There’s going to be a real fight,” says Vladimir Posner, host of a national TV talk show. Posner, for one, is optimistic. Noting the sharply rising circulation of the more outspoken journals, he says that “the wind is clearly blowing in favor of the media.”
I spoke with Posner on my last night in Moscow. He is familiar to many Americans from his appearances as the house Soviet on Nightline. We talked in the study of his spacious apartment, located on a quiet Moscow side street. The study had an Old World feel to it, with a handsome leather couch, Oriental rug, and beautifully carved wooden bookcase. There were some modern touches as well—a copy of Time, a Garfield doll, a color photograph of Posner laughing with Phil Donahue, an Epson computer glowing on the desk. The computer remained on throughout our talk. Posner explained that he was up against a tight deadline imposed by the Atlantic Monthly Press, for whom he was writing his memoirs.
The son of a French mother and a Russian-Jewish father, Posner was born in Paris but grew up in New York, where he attended Stuyvesant High School. His father worked for MGM but was blacklisted during the McCarthy period, and in the late 1940s he moved the family east, first to East Berlin and then to Moscow. In the early 1960s, Posner took a job with the Novosti news agency, and from there he worked his way up to become a star of Soviet broadcasting. Drawing on his own experience, he said, he hoped to explore in his book what “kind of hope there is for human beings” to transcend the political systems in which they live.
Having watched Posner over the years, I was curious how he regarded his earlier journalism. Before 1985, he was a loyal spokesman for the old order; now he’s an advocate of glasnost. Would his book deal with this apparent contradiction? Certainly, he said. He paused. “My book looks at the subconscious way that journalists more often than not will do what is expected, what is demanded of them.” Another pause. “It’s a matter of self-preservation. It’s not a uniquely Soviet or American phenomenon. If you look closely at both countries, you will find that the journalist knows what the mainstream media want and will furnish it. And he will find ways to justify it.”
Posner’s response seemed vague, which didn’t surprise me, in view of the other interviews I’d had. Throughout my stay, the matter of the past proved highly elusive. Many of today’s leading advocates of change occupied powerful positions during the Brezhnev era. What were they doing during that time? How did they now see it? As far as the Soviet journalists, I talked to are concerned, the subject is taboo.
—August 31, 1989
September 28, 1989
See Peter Reddaway, “The Threat to Gorbachev,” and Andrei Sakharov, “A Speech to the People’s Congress,” in The New York Review (August 17, 1989). ↩