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.1 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 guarantee in law. Every publishing venture had to be an “organ” of some other legal entity, and the stamp of approval of Glavlit—the official censor’s office—was still required for publication. The appearance of the Press Law accelerated the process that had begun with Pushkin Square samizdat, opening the way for the establishment of independent, above-ground publications and encouraging liberalization of establishment newspapers such as Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Television was growing bolder as well. The news program TSN (Television News Service), which broadcast 15-minute programs several times a day on the central government’s Channel 1, featured young journalist-anchors whose succinct reports were notable for their multisided coverage of national events. TSN’s journalists placed the emphasis on information, making use of a variety of new independent news agencies and government sources. Their language was refreshingly devoid of the political euphemisms and evasions of the main nightly news show Vremia (“Time”). The same was true of longer weekly programs like Vzgliad (“Viewpoint”), Do i posle polunochi (“Before and After Midnight”), and Leningrad Television’s Piatoe Koleso (“The Fifth Wheel”), which addressed in a lively format—something between a hip news magazine and a talk show, often with music video interludes—controversial subjects like government privileges and local and national corruption scandals. These programs frequently presented profiles of democratic opposition figures, such as Anatoly Sobchak and Gavriil Popov. Their anchors, journalists like Alexander Liubimov, Vladimir Molchanov, and Bella Kurkova, quickly became household names and were seen as warriors in the struggle for the democratization of Soviet society.

Even after the Press Law was enacted, however, the legal rights of the free press were not entirely secure. Under the hard-line director of Central Television, Leonid Kravchenko (who was appointed in the fall of 1990 and answered only to Gorbachev), programming became much more conservative, favoring bland “entertainment” over the intense political debates and exposés that had become the country’s lifeblood. Following the carnage in the Baltics in January 1991, Gorbachev attempted to have the press law suspended in order to “ensure the objectivity of the press”—and control growing public outrage over his policies. Though he was unsuccessful, there was a noticeable crackdown on the television news that particularly affected liberal shows like TSN and Vzgliad. When the political winds changed, and Yeltsin and Gorbachev moved toward rapprochement in the spring of 1991, Yeltsin was finally granted an independent, Russian television station. The launching in May of the independent news program Vesti (“News”) on Russian Television and Yeltsin’s election in June were celebrated as a victory for the free press.2 Vesti’s journalistic staff included popular liberal journalists from pioneer programs such as TSN and Seven Days, including Yury Rostov, Alexander Gurnov, and Evgeny Kiselev. The program instantly became the most popular news show on television, owing to the same kind of independent approach that had characterized TSN.


By the time of the August coup not only had the contents of the Soviet press altered radically, but entirely new intonations and attitudes had been introduced into Russian journalism, substantially transforming its language. The turgid style of past Party propaganda—what Alexander Yanov has called “Church Soviet”—had largely been abandoned (though it lives on in the hard-line Communist and right-wing nationalist press). But of equal importance was that the high-strung, literary pathos of glasnost’s pioneers was also being overshadowed by a more analytical, informative approach to news and current events. The stylistic conceits that characterized the Brezhnev-era press, from the liberal shestidesiatniki or Sixties generation to hard-liners—the neurotic layers of innuendo, indirection, righteous indignation, sarcasm, and sentimental metaphor—now sounded false, hysterical, and manipulative, whatever the political affiliation of the writer. A calm, measured, civil Russian language had appeared and Aesop’s idiom, while not forgotten, was definitely on the decline.

These changes both reflected and deepened a significant shift in the mentality of Soviet public discourse. The independent press was also opinionated, but its opinions were personal views, not official statements. Freedom of subject matter was no longer enough; a civil society was emerging, and people wanted a new approach to the news.3 Journalists themselves had changed; as Evgeny Kiselev, a founding member of the Vesti team told me:

Like many others [at Central Television], I was simply sick and tired of having to fight tooth and nail for every piece, of having to worry about what they would do to you after every report…. It was an exhausting struggle that had nothing to do with journalism…. At Vesti almost none of the journalists was over forty. It was a different generation, not even the Sixties generation. For us the authorities were not surrounded by an aura of sanctity or exclusivity…. We started accustoming people to look on politicians as mere mortals who get paid for serving the country.4

In many respects, this change in attitude in the press made public resistance to the August coup attempt possible. The junta’s August 19 declaration seemed unbearable; the men-dacity of its language was not only blatant but pathetic. The same shift—accelerated enormously by the democratic victory in August—was likewise partly responsible for the unceremoniousness of Gorbachev’s final demise. His first press conference after the coup revealed the extent to which he was a creature of the old regime. Clearly failing to understand that the August revolution had been not only political but psychological, he harangued and evaded, chastising and lecturing the press in language that was an entirely inappropriate throwback to the old days. (Gorbachev implied that an unruly, irresponsible press had provoked the coup; listening to that press conference at the time in Moscow, I suddenly and almost viscerally understood the hostility Gorbachev provoked among many liberals, what one of my friends termed his “allergy” to Gorbachev.) Though he changed his tune the next day and quickly resigned as general secretary of the Party, that press conference cost him much potential support.

In August the last cords binding the established press to the old regime were cut; to give one example, the staff of Izvestia, which was formerly the organ of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, fired its government-appointed editor and reregistered with the Russian Press Ministry as an independent periodical. The considerable capacity of the Russian language for verbal bile was then directed against Gorbachev and the USSR (by both the democratic and conservative press, from their respective points of view) almost more zealously than it had been against dissidents in years past. Liberals felt that Gorbachev hadn’t moved swiftly enough on reforms and excoriated him for having hired all the coup plotters in the first place. Conservatives accused him of pandering to liberals and the West and bringing about the destruction of the USSR. One young journalist told me, only partly in jest, that he thought the USSR collapsed because the press hammered it into people’s heads in the months following the August coup that the country no longer existed.



Among the many independent newspapers started up over the last two years, Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta (“The Independent Newspaper,” NG) rapidly became two of the most influential and respected newspapers in Russia. In both cases, the founding editors and journalists were in their thirties and forties, and came out of established, liberal Soviet papers; these new publications were the counterparts in print of TV programs like Vzgliad, TSN, and Vesti.

The debut of Kommersant at the beginning of 1990—a full nine months before the enactment of the Press Law ending censorship—marked the coming of a new era in independent Soviet journalism. A weekly mainly devoted to business news, Kommersant was founded by former Ogonek correspondent Vladimir Yakovlev, son of the Moscow News editor Egor Yakovlev (since the August coup, director of Central Television)5 In the words of Kommersant’s new editor-in-chief, Ksenya Ponomareva (the former managing editor, who has been with the paper since its inception), Kommersant sought to present “an objective reflection of economic and political events. We have no political position, we follow no party’s line, except for the overall democratic orientation we began with.” “One of our main ideological goals,” she said, “is the social rehabilitation of business.”6

The practical task at hand was to help fill the “serious economic information famine” existing in the country. To that end, each issue follows the previous week’s market trends and activities, currency rates, commodity exchange prices, visits of foreign businessmen, and analysis of government actions that affect the business community, in addition to domestic politics (there is little coverage of international news), culture, crime, and a press review. Many of the paper’s writers are economists and lawyers, because, Ponomareva says, “at a certain point we realized that it was easier to teach an economist to write, or to rewrite pieces for him, than to drum a minimal amount of economic information into a reporter’s head.” There are professional journalists on the staff, she added, “but we don’t print personal ‘authorial’ pieces. All our articles reflect the position of the editorial board. This is not the place for journalistic ambitions, which is hard for journalists—so a lot of people come to work for us and then leave.”

This might seem a rather dry proposition for a newspaper of mass appeal, but in a country where business was seen as the foreign language of an evil capitalist empire for seventy years, Kommersant read like a guidebook to an intriguing, exotic country of the future.7 It is hard to convey just how novel its approach and language were at the beginning of 1990. For one thing, the weekly set store by relatively short, information-packed articles supplemented with thorough, emotionally neutral analyses of pros, cons, effects, and consequences. Though most of these were usually on business-related matters—the opening of commodity exchanges, new government decrees on taxes or licensing, etc.—the attitude extended toward political events as well. Kommersant’s coverage of the events in Vilnius in January 1991 included not only an analysis of Gorbachev’s attempt to muzzle the press, but of the press’s own reaction. “The President,” Kommersant wrote,

who accused the mass media of a lack of objectivity…was not altogether wrong…. The press has definitely shown,…if not a lack of objectivity, then at the very least a tendency to occupy rigid political positions…. All publications divided into two camps,…some sharply condemned the military interference…while others fully supported and justified it. The only exception, it seems, was Izvestia, which published materials representing various points of view.8

A nonjudgmental survey of which papers occupied what position in what language followed. Against the background of glasnost’s liberal press, dominated by the Sixties generation of reformers, with its endless, often histrionic essays, short on information but long on preachy, convoluted opinions, Kommersant offered “new thinking” of a kind perestroika had not yet seen.

What really captured the public’s imagination, however, and quickly made Kommersant regular reading for the intelligentsia and bohemia, as well as for a growing business class, was its style. The tone of its headlines, many of its articles, and the unsigned “What Happened Last Week” column—usually written by the paper’s astute political commentator Maxim Sokolov—was cool, ironic, often sardonic. At their best, Sokolov’s unsigned columns are virtuosic chronicles packed with allusions to literature and history. Commenting on the transfer of power from Gorbachev to Yeltsin at the end of 1991, he wrote that it

resembled a production of King Lear, a somewhat avant-garde one at that. Yeltsin played two royal daughters simultaneously—both Regan and Goneril—and sternly dismissed the immoderate demands of our native Lear to leave him a retinue of two hundred knights. As befits the script, B. N. Yeltsin reasoned that twenty would suffice. In the same avant-garde spirit, the national yellow press played both the Earl of Kent and the gentle Cordelia. The yellow press, which once acted on the principle “be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad” and was heretofore so roundly cursed by M. S. Gorbachev, for the nonce surrounded the disgraced president with tender love and concern. We may only hope that the resemblance [to Shakespeare] will remain incomplete and we shall be delivered of the vulgar scenes that so justly irritated Count Leo Tolstoy. God granting, no one’s eyes will be torn out, no one will be hanged, and…we shall not be forced to drag a large number of corpses out by their legs.9

Kommersant’s headlines also bear the mark of Sokolov’s wit. The quintessential expression of the paper’s style, they have been widely copied (with little success) by other publications. Usually consisting of a statement broken into two parts by a period—a full stop to give the punchline the greatest possible effect—they often involve puns and literary allusions. For example, a small item on an American opinion poll giving Bush a negative rating on domestic policy was headed: “Bush lives not sensing the country beneath him,” an allusion to Osip Mandelstam’s famous poem on Stalin. After the August coup, when most papers were running headlines like “The Reaction Didn’t Pass” (Izvestia), “A Doomed Conspiracy,” “The Junta Will Answer for the Blood It Spilled” (Kuranty), “We Will Live!” (Moscow News), and “Sternly Judge the Junta And Those Who Stood Behind It!” (Golos), Kommersant’s first front-page post-Putsch headline read: “Thank God, Perestroika is Over.”

This aloofness had the refreshing effect of a cold shower in the muggy, hothouse atmosphere of Russian public discourse. It assumed an independent, adult readership capable of assessing events without being lectured, or becoming bogged down in the emotional symbiosis of oppositional victim and powerful victimizer that so frequently characterizes commentary in the Russian press. Its appeal was enormous and its ramifications positively therapeutic in the Russian setting, for it went against the traditional Russian penchant for apocalyptic pronouncement and implied—often contrary to the evidence of contemporary reality, it must be said—the existence of a stable world in which decorum, common sense, and good taste are valued, a world made in the nostalgic image of pre-WWI Russia. As essayist Alexander Timofeevsky pointed out in a brilliant literary analysis of Kommersant’s prose published in the new weekly magazine Stolitsa (“The Capital”), Kommersant reads “as if we are not living in murky 1991, but in placid 1911.”10

A major newspaper, however, cannot live on style alone. Kommersant’s flippancy can wear thin—at times the irony seems misplaced and the tone detours into condescension. Furthermore, serious questions have been raised about its accuracy. Kommersant’s articles are full of unattributed quotes, unnamed sources, and experts who agree, state, or opine. Ponomareva claims that the paper strictly monitors its classification of anonymous experts and sources in government agencies and the business community (some of whom, she says, the paper pays for information). But of course, readers have no way of confirming this. Kommersant is not alone, however, and this accusation could be leveled at many new Russian newspapers, none of which (Kommersant and NG included) has a serious fact-checking department as established papers like Izvestia do.11

In December 1990, one year after Kommersant started, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Newspaper) began publication and became one of Russia’s most talked-about papers. The founding editor, Vitaly Tretiakov, formerly a deputy editor at Moscow News, received a 300,000 ruble loan (now repaid) from the Moscow City Council, which also arranged for office space, paper, and access to Izvestia’s printing facilities, all at subsidized government prices. But Tretiakov made it clear from the outset that NG would not be an “organ” of the City Council (this point was included in the paper’s charter).

Tretiakov’s model was an English or American style paper of record, an elite paper that would spurn the traditional ideological affiliations of Soviet journalism. However, because NG initially came out only three times a week, its value as a source of information was limited, especially in view of the swift pace of events last year. This, says Dmitry Ostalsky, editor of the “Politics” page, kept the emphasis on analysis and commentary. The eight-page paper contains regular sections on Russian politics, economics, and social issues, as well as an excellent culture page; its coverage of the former republics has always been particularly good. In January 1992 the paper began to come out five times a week, moving into direct competition with Izvestia, which, with a circulation in the millions and vastly greater resources, including an established network of domestic and international correspondents, still remains the foremost paper of record throughout the former USSR.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quickly attained a prominent position in intellectual and political circles.12 “When NG appeared,” says Anatoly Papp, an editor at the information agency Panorama,

there was only Kommersant, which had a fairly small political section. NG was the first large political newspaper to write freely about absolutely everything. And other papers were then forced to cover politics and all the little political parties—an element of competition appeared.13

If in Kommersant independence takes the form of strict allegiance to a democratic, promarket editorial view-point unallied with political parties, NG refuses on principle to serve any one “editorial position.” Whereas Kommersant rejects the “authorial voice” of the individual journalist, NG sees itself as a pluralistic forum, a vehicle for distinctive views. As a matter of principle, Tretiakov publishes differing political perspectives side by side, frequently in the form of interviews with leading politicians or economists—without additional editorial commentary, a practice almost unheard of in the extremely partisan Russian press. The paper’s motto, Sine ira et studio (“without anger or zeal”), from Tacitus, is meant to affirm editorial tolerance rather than express the paper’s point of view. But this sentiment is somewhat contradicted by NG’s rather cranky disposition. Its indignant front-page responses to any criticisms of its coverage, which it invariably sees as nefarious attacks on its reputation, are clearly a temperamental holdover from the psychology of pre-perestroika days.

NG’s editorial policy often gives the newspaper the flavor of an extended and sometimes outrageous op-ed page. When NG published an anti-Semitic letter from a reader last year, for example, Literaturnaya Gazeta criticized the absence of accompanying editorial comment as irresponsibly contributing to ethnic strife. Writing in Stolitsa, Alexander Timofeevsky said the point wasn’t that they should have commented, they simply shouldn’t have published it, and he disparaged the paper’s overly “literal” approach to independence and pluralism.14

The idea of partisanship is deeply ingrained in the Russian concept of journalism—“if you’re not with us, you’re against us” is still the rule for much of the press, not to mention much of the government. Tretiakov’s commitment to democratic pluralism within one newspaper, as if it were a mini-parliament, was novel in Russia, and rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. The paper, strongly identified with the Yeltsin camp in the struggle against Gorbachev, began publishing articles critical of Yeltsin after the coup—for creating tension with the Ukraine and other republics by threatening to “review” state borders or failing to unequivocably denounce the anti-Semitic group Pamiat15—it was then roundly attacked for “betrayal” by colleagues in the democratic press, and by many confused, angry readers. Tretiakov answered with a lengthy front-page editorial analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of Yeltsin’s policies as he saw them, and explaining that taking issue with the president’s policies was not the same thing as being “anti-Yeltsin.”16


The problems of the Russian press have by no means ended with the demise of the Communist Party and its censorship apparatus. The irony—as Russian journalists never fail to note—is that the “transition to a market economy,” for which much of the democratic press fought hard, may prove its own undoing. The liberal press now finds itself in the awkward position of begging for the very government support it presumably wished to see abolished. But the crisis caused by astronomical price rises in paper,17 printing, and distribution cuts across political lines.

Some of the most well-established, largest-circulation papers and magazines are having the greatest difficulty—most Russian papers now operate at a per issue loss, thus the larger the subscription run, the greater the deficit. Financial problems caused Pravda to cease publication in early March (it later resumed publication three times a week) and in September it was bought by a Greek millionaire whose plans for the paper are still unclear. Komsomolskaya Pravda cut down to four issues a week; and Ogonek switched from a weekly to a bi-weekly schedule.18 Last fall and winter the press repeatedly raised the alarm and the government responded with a series of temporary economic reprieves. On February 21, Yeltsin issued a decree on press subsidies; but rather than providing for a more equitable, politically neutral form of subsidy through tax breaks to publications and distributors, the government has chosen to keep control of the purse strings: the press ministry now doles out the 12 billion rubles allocated to the press this year to individual publications according to a formula based on each publication’s circulation.19

The potential for political pressure in a system of government subsidies is all too obvious; but many argue that complete withdrawal of subsidies under present conditions—in which distribution, printing, and paper are still monopolies—could very well lead to the collapse of any minimally independent press in the country, and thus to a virtual information blackout. Many likewise fear that without access to the “central,” i.e., Moscow, press, the provinces would be far more subject to the whims of conservative local political bosses.

But the argument over government press subsidies has some odd consequences. In order to demonstrate its commitment to “pluralism” and fend off conservative critics, the press ministry finds itself partially subsidizing ultra-right-wing publications like Sovetskaya Rossiya (“Soviet Russia”) and the anti-Semitic, nationalist paper Den (“Day”), which have not only criticized the Yeltsin government, but openly called for its overthrow and the restoration of Soviet power.20 In June the government television company Ostankino was picketed daily by right-wing groups led by the Trudovaya Rossiya (“Working Russia”) leader and Mossovet deputy Viktor Anpilov and by supporters of the right-wing television journalist Alexander Nevzorov, and of Alexander Prokhanov, editor of Den. The people picketing (many of whom, the liberal press reported, were paid to be there) demanded that their views be represented on government television, the “Empire of Lies,” or “Tel-Avivision” as their protest placards called it. The picketers’ refusal to vacate the premises eventually led to a violent confrontation with the special police forces, OMON, and a negotiated agreement with Press Minister Poltoranin, Director of Central Television Egor Yakovlev, and Russian Television director Oleg Poptsov, to guarantee the “patriotic opposition” free airtime.21

The Yeltsin government’s honeymoon with the democratic press did not last long. During their conflict with Gorbachev, the Russian republic’s authorities needed the independent press as an ally and relished its criticism of Gorbachev and the central USSR government. But once journalists began to flex their critical muscles in a newly independent Russia, and Gorbachev was no longer their primary target, the same type of criticism began to rankle. Since last fall, press freedoms have come under a series of attacks from various factions of the government, most recently and seriously, the Russian Parliament, which consists in great part of former Communists who were not democratically elected.

Nezavisimaya editor Dmitry Ostalsky echoed many journalists I interviewed last winter and again this summer when he said that “the government’s press policy is revolting. It changed [after August 1991], and not for the better…. I can’t say that it isn’t repeating all the mistakes made by the Union authorities.” Pavel Gutiontov, a former political commentator for Izvestia and head of the Journalist Union’s “Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Speech and Journalists’ Rights” (formed in April 1991 under the newly elected leadership of liberal television journalist Eduard Sagalaev), felt much the same. After the failed coup attempt, he said,

I thought there would be no one to defend freedom of the press and journalists’ rights from. But then it turned out that the real work had only just begun…. We began to understand very quickly that the press and the authorities, whoever those authorities may be, are always opponents. If the press is going to do its job right, then the government will try to suppress it.22

Attempts to tame the press began even before the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. The draft for a Russian Federation Press Law put before the Parliament last fall had been written to substantially conform to Gorbachev’s Press Law of 1990. But it was eventually passed with three amendments—who wrote them has never become clear—that would have meant the death of any serious investigative journalism or freedom from government harassment. The most menacing of the amendments required journalists to reveal their sources to prosecutors carrying on any investigation, even when no indictments have been made. Another forbade all “hidden” video- and tape-recording, which in effect would have made it impossible to shoot even background street footage without release forms from every passerby. The press and liberal deputies, working with Gutiontov’s committee, quickly raised a furious campaign against the law, and forced it back to committee, where the amendments were removed.

Like many others, Gutiontov thinks these amendments were added after the Russian Information Agency (RIA), citing anonymous sources, reported in late November and early December the Russian government’s plans to freeze cash payments from business bank accounts as part of a new economic reform strategy. The reports were picked up by newspapers, and panic ensued because it was widely thought that many workers’ salaries might not be paid. The government immediately denied the story; but in January NG revealed that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Egor Gaidar (himself an award-winning journalist) had ordered an investigation of the press to determine its sources. The newspaper published the full text of a December 9, 1991, letter to Gaidar from V. Ivanenko, head of the new Russian KGB, the “Agency of Federal Security.” Ivanenko writes that the journalists involved refused to name their sources, citing the protections of the Press Law, but that the leak clearly originated in Russian ministry circles. Press Minister Mikhail Poltoranin’s attention, he writes, should be drawn to the fact that

the unjustified aspirations of certain journalists to create a sensation, and the provision of unchecked facts, leads to the increase of instability in society and may become the source of the population’s discontent, with unpredictable consequences.

Ivanenko further assures Gaidar that the agency will carry out “prophylactic measures” with the press.23

Many journalists saw the government’s decision in January to merge TASS, the Novosti Press Agency, and RIA into one agency as an ominous attempt to create what they call a “pocket press,” i.e., a compliant information service. The consolidation was most often likened to the proposed merger of the ministry of internal affairs and the KGB, which would have created a super agency with potentially dangerous powers (and which was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court); there were also speculations that the move was designed to get rid of RIA’s director, Andrei Vinogradov, who was not as tractable as some in the government would have liked.24 In a television interview on January 26, Poltoranin claimed that the reasons were entirely economic (TASS alone had requested a budget of some $37 million and 600 million rubles). The claims of the former Soviet republics to a share in TASS’s property and assets at home and abroad (since it had been an all-Union agency) were completely ignored as well. Despite considerable protest in the press, Yeltsin signed the decree ordering the merger. Several months later, however, RIA and Tass remain separate, a new director has been appointed, and plans for the partial privatization of RIA have been resurrected, as if Yeltsin’s decree (which is supposed to have the force of law) never happened.25


By far the most serious assault on freedom of the press has arisen around the conflict between Izvestia and the speaker of the Supreme Soviet, or Parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, a deputy of Chechen nationality who has become identified with the conservative, industrialist lobby in the Parliament and who has emerged as a strong opponent of Yeltsin. During the last few months Khasbulatov’s campaign against Izvestia, whose reporting on himself and on the Parliament he resents, has turned into a political struggle with disturbing and far-reaching implications.

In early April, during the full session of the Russian Parliament, in a move that had many similarities to Gorbachev’s attacks on the press in January 1991, deputies supported by Khasbulatov attacked the press and called for measures to ensure its “objectivity.” Citing “proposals on the subject of Izvestia from many deputies,” and the paper’s “financial difficulties,” Khasbulatov suggested that the newly independent newspaper should be made an organ of the Russian Supreme Soviet. This would have been a regression to before August 1991, when Izvestia was formally an organ of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet.26 Khasbulatov’s long-standing grudge against Izvestia for “deliberately driving a wedge between the Parliament and the president,”27 and for its less than flattering coverage of the Parliament’s and his own activities, is well known; but as deputy editor of Izvestia Vladimir Nadein remarked in the paper’s defense, “It’s easy to make an enemy of the speaker—all you have to do is quote him verbatim.”28

By the end of the April session it seemed that the deputies’ fury had yielded to reason and democratic argument; a committee on the mass media, headed by the liberal-minded Viacheslav Bragin, was charged with preparing a general report for Supreme Soviet hearings in July on “government press policy” (including issues of regulation of newspapers, broadcast media, and subsidies) rather than a draft resolution on “means for ensuring press objectivity.”

However, through a series of complicated political maneuvers, Bragin’s liberal committee was shunted aside, and in late May an ally of Khasbulatov, Nikolai Riabov, formerly head of the “Liquidation Committee” that oversaw the transfer of property from the USSR Supreme Soviet, was appointed to inquire into the “Izvestia question.” At the request of a group of deputies, the general prosecutor’s office began searching Izvestia’s office files, looking for irregularities in the documents relating to the newspaper’s reregistration as an independent publication.29

When the Supreme Soviet reconvened in July, Riabov’s group had drafted two resolutions. One recommended the formation of a parliamentary “oversight council” with the power to make “obligatory recommendations” on the regulation of press, radio, and television to the ministry of press and information. Such a council, it was noted, would “ensure the leadership of the Supreme Soviet a wide range for making personnel changes and giving selective financial support to the mass media.”30 This would, in essence, mean reviving a censorship office, which is clearly prohibited by the Russian Press Law that took effect in February. The second draft resolution ordered the press ministry to reregister Izvestia as an official organ of the Russian Supreme Soviet, claiming that it was the proper legal heir to the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet and that the current staff was making illegal use of government property for private gain.

The reaction of the democratic press was swift. An open letter to Yeltsin dated July 13 from the editors of the leading newspapers appeared in Izvestia and other papers; Moscow’s prominent newspapers were filled with headlines, editorials, and cartoons condemning the Parliament and the speaker. (The notable exception, of course, was Rossiiskaya Gazeta, itself an official organ of the Russian Supreme Soviet, which blamed the whole conflict on Izvestia’s failure to understand “the Parliament’s complex work.”) In a meeting with journalists on July 14, Yeltsin expressed his support for a free press in general, and Izvestia in particular.

In order to dramatize the danger to freedom of speech and democracy in Russia, the editors of fourteen Moscow and Petersburg papers joined together to collectively produce the second issue of Obshchaya Gazeta (“Common Newspaper”); the first had appeared during the August coup, when all independent newspapers had been closed by the junta. However, despite Yeltsin’s public statements and intervention with Khasbulatov, who reportedly promised the president on the 15th that he would remove “the Izvestia question” from the Supreme Soviet’s agenda, the question was rescheduled for consideration at 4:00 on the afternoon of Friday, July 17, i.e., late in the last day of the session before adjournment for the August holidays.31

Discussion of the proposal to create an “oversight council” was eventually postponed until the autumn session. But regarding Izvestia, Khasbulatov was obliged to make a move before August 23, 1992, when the one-year statute of limitations for challenging the paper’s independence would have run out. Debate on the issue did not last long. A number of deputies (including, most eloquently, the former dissident and political prisoner Sergei Kovalev, who now heads the Supreme Soviet’s Human Rights Committee) objected that any question about the legality of the paper’s status was a matter for the courts, that the legislature was violating the separation of powers and overstepping its authority. These arguments were ignored, and, pressed by Khasbulatov, the Supreme Soviet passed a vaguely formulated voice resolution: 134 to reregister the paper, 23 against, and 12 abstentions. The ministry of press and information was ordered to reregister Izvestia.32

The next day, Yeltsin’s press secretary issued a statement saying that the president was “deeply concerned by the results” of the vote and reaffirmed his commitment “to defend the mass media”; but the president’s inability to ensure Khasbulatov’s cooperation remains disturbing. Press Minister Poltoranin strongly condemned the vote, declared that he had no intention of reregistering any newspapers, and added that as far as he was concerned, the Supreme Soviet’s decision was “the same as voting to change the name of Washington, DC, to Ruslangrad.”33 At the end of July, a group of deputies supported, among others, by Poltoranin, Bragin, and Sergei Shakhrai (who is currently arguing the government’s case against the Communist Party) filed suit with the Constitutional Court asking it to rule on the legality of the Parliament’s resolution. The court agreed to hear the case, and, at the deputies’ request, ordered the Supreme Soviet to refrain from any action until the court reaches a decision.

On August 22 another round in the battle of bureaucracies began. Yeltsin ordered Goskomimushchestvo (the State Property Committee, controlled by the government) to review the question of securing ownership of the Izvestia publishing company’s property in the name of the company itself. In doing so, Yeltsin was trying to outmaneuver Khasbulatov and the Parliament. Two days later, however, on August 24, presumably on Khasbulatov’s instruction, the Russian Federal Property Fund (which is controlled by the Parliament) issued a directive in which it claimed ownership of the Izvestia publishing company. This was obviously a direct challenge to the Yeltsin directive. On August 27, the State Property Committee, headed by A. Chubais, issued its own directive, combining all the assets of the former USSR-owned Izvestia publishing company into one “government newspaper-publishing complex” and named Igor Golembiovsky, current editor-in-chief of Izvestia, its acting director.34

Chubais’s directive might seem to have settled the issue, since the Parliament’s Russian Federal Property Fund is legally subordinate to the State Property Committee. Pointing out that the conflict over Izvestia was entirely political and becoming absurd, NG jokingly suggested that the USSR Supreme Soviet be exhumed and temporarily resurrected in order to decide the “pseudo-legal issues involved.”35 Chubais’s directive presumably leaves the newspaper free to follow its own independent editorial policy (i.e., Izvestia was not made an “organ” of anything) and does not rule out the possibility of partial or total privatization of Izvestia in the future. However, though the newspaper may have escaped direct control of editorial policy by a hostile Parliament, it is still a government-owned enterprise, under the wing of the executive branch. For the moment, Yeltsin and the government are protecting the paper’s independence, but the potential for editorial interference will continue to exist as long as the state owns Izvestia.

The August developments have escalated the conflict into what could turn out to be a dangerous, destabilizing battle for power between Yeltsin and the Parliament, which in this matter is largely controlled by Khasbulatov. It remains to be seen what happens when the Supreme Soviet reconvenes in late September. The constitutional court has not yet ruled on the legality of the Parliament’s initial action, and it is still possible, that like so many other recent scandals—including the “merger” of RIA and TASS—the whole affair will simply blow over or sink into the rapidly shifting quicksand of Russian politics. But as this article goes to press the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet is already meeting in Moscow; the two main issues on its agenda are the Izvestia question and a move by a group of deputies to relieve Khasbulatov of his position as speaker.

Whatever the outcome, an ugly political precedent has been set, and it touches on issues that are critical not only to the continued existence of free speech but to the further success of reform and democracy in Russia: above all, the clear separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers; and the resolution of conflict through the rule of law, not decree. The extremely thorny, highly complex property issues now facing Russia as it moves toward privatization—whether it is the disposition of Writers’ Union property, Moscow real estate, or government-owned newspapers—must be resolved by the courts, rather than by recourse to presidential or parliamentary decree. Otherwise, Izvestia and other publications whose legal status is equally unclear will be tempting targets for the ambitions of disgruntled politicians of every political persuasion.

In these hard economic times the democratic press has been loath to accept that a publication largely supported by government subsidies will never be truly independent.36 When the economic dust finally settles, the landscape of the Russian press will no doubt be substantially altered. Many publications will simply not be able to survive in a world without government handouts; those that do, however, should be better able to defend themselves.

The new Russian press is scrappy, tendentious, opinionated, and highly politicized at present, but it encompasses an astonishing and invigorating diversity of voices. While its pervasive editorializing and bias sometimes shock Americans—accustomed as we are to the pose of journalistic neutrality—Russians generally see things differently. After seventy years of “Church Soviet” language, they relish the clamor of a free press. But it now seems clear that a long and difficult battle lies ahead to defend the one freedom the new Russia has indisputably attained.

September 10, 1992

This Issue

October 8, 1992