Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


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.”

The censors briefly prevented some stories critical of the government from being published—causing the newspapers to leave white spaces on their front pages. But the censored stories were immediately read over the radio and all of them were published the next day. The criteria the censors applied were haphazard, since many other articles questioning the government’s actions appeared in the press on October 5. One of the two pieces censored in the newspaper Segodnia2 (“Today”) was an account by Sergei Parkhomenko of the confusion in the Kremlin on the night of October 3 (“We decided to give the President a rest from criticism,” was Solodin’s explanation for suppressing the story.) The other was a statement by the Segodnia staff condemning the closing of opposition newspapers by administrative order.3

But even if the censorship was fairly trivial, it came from a government of supposed “democrats,” and it was shocking to most of the journalists I spoke to. Moreover, after the censorship was lifted, Vladimir Shumeiko, who had just been named acting press minister, called on journalists at a press conference on October 6 to exercise “self-censorship” to protect law and order. He said that the ministry should foster a “new ideology” of “a democratic Russian revival based on the spirit of patriotism, on the immense potential of the country, its spirituality and culture.”4 Many journalists reacted with angry disbelief. A headline above a list of dead and wounded journalists in Moscow News read: “After the Snipers’ Censorship, Journalists are Offered Self-Censorship.”

Pavel Gutiontov of the Journalists Union said the censorship was “extremely foolish,” but he made it clear that the banning of opposition newspapers was more serious: it showed the weakness of the government and “did nothing but discredit the authorities.”5 An article in Moscow News said banning proved that “the two-day imposition of censorship was not negligence, but a deliberate policy of the authorities.”6

The opposition papers that were closed ranged from outright fascist publications such as Russkii Poriadok (“Russian Order”) and the virulent Russian nationalist, anti-Semitic paper Den (“Day”) to the old Communist papers Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossiya.7 Like the organizations that were banned, including the National Union of Fascists and the Socialist Party of the Working People, they were closed on grounds that they bore some direct responsibility for the October events. On October 14 the government announced that criminal charges would be filed against about a dozen publications for “direct calls for bloodshed, which contributed to destabilization and rebellion.”8

At the round-table discussion mentioned earlier, then Pravda editor Gennady Seleznev angrily denounced the ban on his paper, claiming that Pravda represented the “civilized opposition,” and pointing out that his paper had never received any warnings from the press ministry. Pravda and Sovetskaya Rossiya were told they could reopen if they replaced their editors-in-chief and renamed the papers. (The government evidently hoped that if they changed their names, they would lose many of their regular readers.) After much negotiating, Pravda finally reappeared on November 2, with a new editor, Viktor Linnik, but with the old name. (Still, within two weeks, a Moscow radio station reported that the “new” Pravda had already received a warning from the press ministry for publishing what the ministry viewed as inflammatory material.) Many of the other banned papers are still closed as of this writing; Sovetskaya Rossiya has appealed the decision to the courts,9 and is considering a suit against the press ministry for lost revenues.

What provoked serious protest from the Journalists Union and from papers such as Moscow News and Segodnia, which support democratic rights, was not the banning itself, but the way it was done. The 1991 press law provides that publications can be fined or closed after two warnings from the press ministry, if the court finds them guilty of calling for “violent change of the existing constitutional order,” or “fomenting religious, social, class, or ethnic intolerance,” or “propagandizing for war,” or using the mass media to carry out “criminally punishable articles.” But the administrative closing violated that law, as the Moscow News article on the banning pointed out:

In Russia there really are publications of both fascist and radical communist orientation and most of them…deserved to be closed…. However, ending the activities of such publications must be carried out not by a decision of the President, but by a court ruling. From the standpoint of ethics it is self-evident that a differentiated approach must be taken, for example, towards the National Union of Fascists and the Socialist Party of Working People, as well as towards their publications, in virtue of the by far unequal degree of their guilt for the events that happened. But…pride of place must be given to the law, and the formula stipulating the ban must be such as is envisaged by the law in any democratic country: for a call to violence, for its organization and realization. Words such as “orientation” (any), let alone “ideology,” are out of place in the substantiations of bans. Any supposition about the permissibility of a ban on thought is extremely dangerous in the days when many people are dizzy with “victory.”10

In any case, the law, it is widely felt, doesn’t work: the press ministry has tried to bring charges against several papers—most recently Den—for inciting people to violence,11 but to no effect, in part because of a lack of cooperation by the prosecutor’s office,12 in part because the judges have resisted finding any of the papers guilty. The failure to prosecute violations successfully has been perceived in the democratic press as a form of passive support for extremist views, to the detriment of the law. Even Vladimir Solodin, who now works in the section of the press ministry in charge of monitoring the press for such violations, complained (disingenuously, some felt) that “we can’t get the courts to find them guilty,…we give articles to the prosecutor and they say there are no violations…. Speaking quite officially, I can tell you that the law doesn’t work, we need a new one.”

The spectacle of armed mobs roaming the streets of Moscow (some of their number wearing swastikas) and the sudden, vivid prospect of civil war were very frightening to many people. And the response among intellectuals and political activists who are in principle committed to democracy was far from consistent. Izvestia published an appeal to Yeltsin signed by more than three dozen Russian writers who demanded, among other things, the dissolution and banning of “all types of Communist and nationalist parties, front and blocs.” They went on to demand that

publications which day after day have been provoking hatred, calling for violence and are, in our view, among the main organizers and culprits of the recent tragedy (and the potential culprits of many to come), such as Den, Sovetskaya Rossiya, and Literaturnaya Rossiya, (and also the television program 600 Seconds) and a number of others, should be closed pending judicial review.13

It is not clear what the writers meant by “judicial review,” but closing papers in the absence of a court order to do so violates the press law. Indeed, other papers published demands that those who were associated with the August 1991 and October 1993 coups be banned from public life for at least several years.

In Russia today, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who supports the broad definition of free speech allowed by the First Amendment to the American Constitution. No one I talked to questioned the necessity of some restrictions on freedom of the press—not even the most principled opponents of government control of the press, who publicly demanded that the banned papers be reopened and condemned the government action for its violation of the press law. Again and again I was told that if the government does not act to suppress extremist groups (and, by extension, their newspapers), Russia’s fledgling democracy will soon be faced with another coup, one that it may not survive. A large number of the “democrats” blame Yeltsin for allowing the October events to happen by being too tolerant after August 1991, and feel strongly that inflammatory publications must be punished. Evgeny Kiselev, whose weekly TV news roundup Itogi is notable for its dispassionate, and even-handed coverage, told me that “I myself was one of those who, after 1991, said that we have to be tolerant. But some of the opposition was too aggressive, and they probably should be forbidden for a while.”

Of course it is crucial, many people acknowledge, that an opposition be allowed to exist and publish, for an opposition forced underground would be far more dangerous (and indeed, some of the most extremist groups have already threatened terrorist acts). What is needed, I was often told, is a “civilized opposition” that adheres to the rule of law and seemly public discourse, not an “irreconcilable opposition” (as it is called now) of the profascist and violent Communist fringe. “We have to recognize the right of the government to protect itself,” said Pavel Gusev, editor of Moskovskii Komsolmolets, the scrappy tabloid that regularly attacked the parliament, but is often quite critical of the Yeltsin administration as well. “For America,” he said at the round table, the banning “seems a catastrophe—but this is Russia, and any match can start a fire.” The playwright Alexander Gelman, who signed the Izvestia statement, wrote in Moscow News that “In Germany, the USA, France, Great Britain, Canada, Spain, or Japan fascists could not by any means come to power today, but we can’t say the same about Russia. This is tormenting, and it should continue to torment our souls and minds.”14


One of the many other controversies over the Russian press in October concerned the actions of the officials who run Ostankino. People had been seriously frightened by the attack on the television station and the information blackout that followed. The decision of the Ostankino director, Viacheslav Bragin, to stop broadcasting was widely condemned: an announcer on RTV said: “There were two decrees on Ostankino the night of October 3: to seize it, and to turn it off—and the latter was the most frightening.” A commentator on Itogi noted that “Bragin did what Rutskoi was unable to do: he turned Ostankino off.”

Bragin, who was appointed for his loyalty to Yeltsin, is not popular with the staff, which sees him as an outsider. Although press reports insinuated that he had been waiting to see which way the wind would blow, most serious journalists I talked to agreed that he had simply panicked. Bragin’s reaction to the criticism was first to justify himself by heatedly denouncing the “criminal, fascist, pro-Communist” opposition. He demanded that the government defend journalists by giving the station more land and by building an electronically protected wall around it; he wanted “more weapons than we have now.”15 This statement was generally greeted with derision by journalists I talked to. Upset by all the criticism, Bragin told Izvestia on October 13 that an unspecified “third force” (within the Yeltsin administration, he implied) had plotted to leave Ostankino unguarded, and that the decision to stop broadcasting had been made not by him but by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Bragin’s next move, however, was far more serious and illustrated the kinds of forces affecting the Russian press today in the absence of a public consensus on the value of free speech. On the night of October 3, two Ostankino journalists, Alexander Liubimov and Alexander Politkovsky, who run popular programs called, respectively, Red Square and Politburo, appeared along with others on RTV; while many people were making emotional appeals for citizens to heed Gaidar’s call and come out on the streets to show support for Yeltsin, they urged people to stay home and let the politicians fight it out among themselves. They were heavily criticized in the press16 and on TV: what outraged people most was not their doubts about Gaidar’s appeal but the insufferably offhand and smug tone in which they dismissed it.

But days after the incident, Bragin fired both of them, saying that they had acted immorally by failing to come to the support of democracy. Bragin and the Ostankino governing board acted as they did, most agree, in order to divert attention from criticism of Ostankino for stopping all broadcasting, and to settle their personal accounts with two of the station’s most popular journalists. The press pointed out that while the journalists’ behavior was supercilious, tasteless, and stupid, the response of the Ostankino board was sinister, based as it was on the idea that “whoever’s not with us is against us.” An article in Nezavisimava Gazeta, which was headed “Witch Hunt at Ostankino: Two Have Been Found. Who’s Next?”17 said the firing smacked of “pure bolshevism” and an “inborn, illfated characteristic of Russian democracy—which turns friends, colleagues, and allies into enemies.” Jonathan Steele, the Moscow bureau chief of the British Guardian, pointed out in an article published in Moscow News, “the firing…was a serious reminder: the outcome of the upcoming election campaign will, to a large degree, depend on who ends up controlling television.”18

This wasn’t the only dispute within “democratic circles” that recalled the spirit and language of the old Soviet press. “I can just feel my youth returning,” a writer friend sarcastically said one night as we watched the news. “There’s more than a whiff of Brezhnev in the air.” Many, though by no means all, articles in the “democratic” press exulted over the “defeat” of the “red-brown” opposition and reveled in “our victory.” The commentators on Vesti, the RTV evening news program which had stayed on the air, indulged in a great deal of self-righteous, self-congratulatory gloating over their own “heroic” behavior during the crisis, at the expense of Ostankino.

In late October, Bella Kurkova, director of St. Petersburg Television, and a journalist well-known for her pro-Yeltsin views, produced a special program on the October events. She interviewed maids and cafeteria workers present in the Peace Hotel when it was taken over by the rebels. In simple language they told chilling tales of how the police troops bolted at the first sign of trouble (“They were just boys, children—they were unarmed, their commanders deserted them and they were terrified,” said one middle-aged woman, sympathetically). They described how the rebels, a disorganized band of largely drunken men, threatened to “kill all the Yids and protect the constitution.”

Like many other press commentators, Kurkova criticized the government for not having foreseen the conflict, and expressed disgust at the undeserved award of medals for heroism to three of Yeltsin’s most prominent officials: Victor Yerin, the interior minister, Pavel Grachev, minister of defense, and Nikolai Golushko, the new head of the former KGB. But she made no attempt at journalistic objectivity, indiscriminately characterizing the opposition as “criminals, bandits, hooligans, fascists, Communist-mafia,” etc. Her language could have come straight out of attacks on dissidents frequently published in the Soviet press in the 1970s.

To their credit, many journalists in the “democratic” press did not gloat over “victory,”19 and criticized the kind of reversion to old habits exemplified by Kurkova’s program. Not all reporting was ideologically loaded. Most impressive in this respect was Evgeny Kiselev’s weekly TV news program Itogi—“Roundup”—which was launched on October 10 as one of the broadcasts by the new, privately financed, nongovernmental company, Independent Television.20 Itogi presented a careful chronicle of the events of October 3–4 without editorial commentary21 and followed it with analysis, public opinion polls on the recent events,22 and interviews with Gaidar and several journalists.

The widespread press reports of government officials’ displeasure with Itogi make it clear how threatening a financially independent press is to some of those in power in Russia today. The government still has a virtual monopoly not only on television but also on printing presses. Kommersant and Segodnia are the only major papers (not counting some weeklies) to be published entirely by private funds. It is not one of the least ironies of the situation of the Russian press that the banned nationalist, anti-Semitic paper Den is printed on the same press as the liberal Literaturnaya Gazeta. Or that, until it was banned, Pravda was receiving government subsidies. If there is to be a free press, the government’s control over printing and broadcasting facilities—which makes censorship and banning so easy—must be dismantled.

The Journalists Union and others have called on the government to abolish the direct subsidies for the press, radio, and television, and support them through the more democratic, egalitarian method of tax relief (which is also less vulnerable to political favoritism). So far, the Yeltsin government has shown little interest in this reform, and many journalists implicitly endorse their continuing dependence on the government by lobbying for increased subsidies; they are afraid that otherwise many papers would fold, as some undoubtably would. Oleg Poptsov, director of RTV, is a critic of the former Parliament’s attitude toward the press, and insists on the importance of an independent press for the development of democracy. But he also put forward the strange proposition that “it is precisely the government that should pay for the opposition and for the independence of the press, and not put forth the thesis that ‘he who pays orders the music.’ “23

Yeltsin’s main supporters in the government are far from united and as the pre-election campaign began, differences between them threatened to expand into major factional splits. These may well divide the vote and lead to the election of another equally obstructionist Parliament. A recent series of disturbing developments suggests that gaining control of the press will remain a central goal of political infighting among “democratic” politicians for some time to come. Rossiskaya Gazeta, the right-wing daily paper published by the Parliament, was turned over to the executive branch of the government and a new editor appointed, against the wishes of its collective, and in violation of the press law (which states that when a “founder,” in this case the Parliament, ceases to exist, the rights to the publication revert to the collective). Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin turned the small parliament TV studio (and, it seems, their broadcast time) over to the government, though the equipment in it technically belonged to RTV. Yeltsin’s press secretary, Viacheslav Kostikov, then accused the government (i.e., Chernomyrdin and the Council of Ministers) of attempting to “monopolize” the mass media. “Unfortunately,” he said, “the Council of Ministers has done what the former Parliament and its leadership didn’t manage to do—create its own propaganda ministry.” He went on to say that Yeltsin was concerned about the decision, which would “harm the image of a democratic Russia and the prestige of the government.”24

In a highly unusual move, Chernomyrdin recently conferred the status of minister on his own press secretary, leading some to comment that, in effect, Russia now has several press ministers. The other unofficial one is Mikhail Poltoranin, himself former press minister, and currently head of the Federal Information Center. In late October Poltoranin, who has been one of Yeltsin’s closest advisers, said that the decision to impose censorship came from the Council of Ministers, which wanted to cover up the incompetence of the interior ministry and police during the revolt. He accused the current press minister Vladimir Shumeiko of supporting censorship and implied that that was the reason Shumeiko was appointed. At a press conference on October 27, Shumeiko rebutted Poltoranin’s accusations point by point and then told the assembled journalists that “it’s up to you to judge what is going on here—lies or immorality.”25 Renewing his call on October 6 to build a “new government ideology,” he claimed that “no one will succeed in driving a wedge between the President and the government.” To the amazement of the journalists, he flatly stated that “censorship wasn’t introduced,” and implied that the white spaces in some papers on October 5 were a publicity stunt on the part of editors.26

Poltoranin, meanwhile, has been actively promoting himself as the press’s greatest defender; yet he has also alarmed many journalists by seeking to consolidate all government information services under the umbrella of the Federal Information Center, which he directs. This would create a dangerous monopoly capable of controlling the distribution to the press of official decrees and all other types of information. That Poltoranin, Shumeiko, and Kostikov are all members of the Russia’s Choice coalition headed by Yegor Gaidar (whereas other Yeltsin advisers such as former vice-premier Sergei Shakhrai, who resigned from the government several weeks ago to run his campaign for the new Parliament, are not) has done nothing to prevent some extremely sharp exchanges, over the press and other issues. “Russia’s Choice will most likely be the big winner in the elections,” Segodnia correspondent Dmitry Volkov told me, “but who will be seen as the hero of that victory will depend on the mass media.”27 Some politicians are apparently trying to control the press, others to buy it with promises of protection and subsidies. Freedom of the press isn’t the politicians’ concern, most journalists feel. “This is a struggle of bureaucrats for their place in the sun,” Volkov said, “because whoever comes out as winner will have assured himself a place in the future Russian government.”

So far, despite the banning of newspapers and all the political maneuvering going on in “democratic circles,” a bewildering variety of opinion can still be heard, and, on the whole, the press has been extremely critical of Yeltsin since the October events. There have been genuine, if imperfect, attempts to provide the public with differing political views on television. One of the first such attempts, aired on Ostankino’s Channel 1 on October 27, included Yegor Gaidar (Russia’s Choice), Anatoly Sobchak (the mayor of St. Petersburg, and a member of the Movement for Democratic Reform bloc), Gennady Ziuganov (Party of Russian Communists) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (a right-wing nationalist who heads the “Liberal Democratic Party”). Yeltsin has issued a decree allotting one hour of free air time to each party, but the overwhelming advantage clearly lies with “Russia’s Choice.” Fair access to television is much discussed. It is far from clear to what extent it will be allowed. Journalists and other observers have expressed their concern to me that democrats critical of Russia’s Choice and non-communist centrists may face greater difficulties in this respect than the communist and nationalist opposition.

In contemporary Russia, however, some people fear the words of Communists, fascists, and nationalists almost as much as the Soviet government once feared the words of writers and dissidents. And in a country where most people are still tied to the psychology of the past, such fears cannot simply be dismissed. Still, as Russia seeks its way out of the most recent crisis, there are many journalists and intellectuals who say they realize that tolerance of free speech is the only way to ensure the legitimacy of the coming elections and avert a third coup. Because everyone understands that if the events of October 3 and 4 are repeated, the people who organize the coup will want to make sure that this time they remain in control of Ostankino.

November 18, 1993

This Issue

December 16, 1993