A New Russian Revolution

The Press, May 12, 1990

Denis Dutton


Denis Dutton recently spent ten days in Moscow as a guest of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. His purpose in the city was to speak to a conference on philosophy and the theatre, but he took the opportunity to visit both Radio Moscow and the Moscow News. He presents here the second of two reports on the effect of glasnost — the new openness — on the Soviet media.

For Gennady Zhavoronkov the life of a journalist isn’t what it used to be. Two months ago he was set upon by thugs at the doorstep of his newspaper, Moscow News. He’s not sure who they were, though they might have been members of Pamyat, a fascistic Russian nationalist group unfriendly to liberal, cosmopolitan journalists.

“You’re one of the Jews that writes for this paper,” they shouted as they started swinging at him. He was saved, so he tells, but a husky woman who went after his attackers with a heavy shopping bag.

“I hate Jews too,” she screamed, “but I don’t like to see them beaten up.”

I forgot to ask Zhavoronkov whether he actually is Jewish, but that was hardly the point. For Moscow News, published every week in Russian and nine other languages, is today the most hated and at the same time most respected of Soviet newspapers.

It is loathed — and increasingly feared — by the Party establishment, because of its delight in lifting the veil of secrecy covering government and Party activities. It has published accounts of bureaucratic intransigence, corruption, and incompetence. Moscow News is directing toward Party apparatchiks a kind of criticism not seen in the Soviet press in sixty years.

It isn’t just orthodox communists who have reason to hate Moscow News. Right-wingers, people who today toast the memory of Tsar Nicholas II and parade with the flag of pre-revolutionary Russia, despise the paper because of its opposition to fascistic trends in Soviet nationalist movements.

The Moscow News is the most notorious product — and champion — of glasnost. It was once considered a merely a propaganda sheet for foreigners. But that was before Mikhail Gorbachev.

Today, it reveals suppressed realities of Soviet history with grim determination. It sometimes borders on the savage in interrogating the country’s present leaders. In a country famous for its history of official lies and private fear, both still to be found in Soviet life, Moscow News is today the country’s most courageous newspaper.

Moscow News journalists need all the courage they can muster. About the same time that Zhavoronkov was attacked, the offices of Moscow News — in Pushkin Square, opposite the new MacDonald’s — were destroyed in a devastating fire. Thousands of irreplaceable files and photographs were lost, along with the life-long art collection of a Siberian artist who had brought work to Moscow for a special exhibition in the same building. It may well have been arson, though a special commission set up to investigate hasn’t be able to prove it.

When I spoke to Zhavoronkov, it was in the cramped confines of new quarters next door to the burnt-out offices. He explained that Moscow News was really brought to life with the arrival of its new editor, Yegor Yakolev, in 1986. Yakolev, a personal friend of Gorbachev, has set out to make Moscow News a standard bearer for glasnost.

According to Zhavoronkov, “When we first set out on our new course, we felt constraints from the Party apparatus. Even State Security leaned on us.” Attacks on the newspaper reached a crescendo at the 19th Party Conference in 1988 when the conservative Central Committee member and Kremlin number-two man Yegor Ligachev took the rostrum. Zhavoronkov recalls that Ligachev “denounced us as what he called an ‘ersatz newspaper’.”

“But at the same time” — Zhavoronkov makes a sweeping gesture — “we felt great support from the people. First and foremost from the intelligentsia.”

“Our Editor has offered to resign three times. Twice the newspaper has had its production temporarily halted, with issues coming out late.”

However, Moscow News has continued to grow at the expense of other more traditional Party organs, such as Pravda. “Pravda has lost nearly half its subscribers,” he says. “This year it will lose more. But we’re growing, and it’s a grass-roots development.” Zhavoronkov’s pride is obvious — and justified.


Near the front door of Moscow News, Muscovites stand in the snow to read the most recent issue, posted in glass cases. On the fringes of the crowd there are animated political discussions are taking place. A selection of recent items:

• There is a long feature investigating Vladimir Boyarsky, until recently a respected “senior scientific researcher” and member of the Journalists Union The article reveals that in the 1950s, Boyarsky was a secret police agent who relished brutal interrogation and torture. He sent dozens of people to camps or to their deaths. The writer of this disturbing story, Yevgenya Albats, says that the investigation has made her realise “that our huge country was ruled by criminals with Party cards in their breast pockets.”

• Zhavoronkov writes of Vladimir Stepanov, a Central Committee member from Petrozavodsk who was removed from office for corruption. He moved to Moscow, where he was immediately assigned a coveted flat, ahead of everyone else on the waiting list. Zhavoronkov wonders why he himself waited 37 years for a separate flat of his own. “It seems that all you have to do is abuse your power, make a mess of your job...in order to jump the queue and get the long desired flat. It wasn’t so clever of me to wait 37 years.”

• Columnist Sergei Volvets patiently analyses why the Sandanistas lost the Nicaraguan elections. It wasn’t the Contras, or the millions of American dollars supporting the opposition, he says. It was because “the state’s intervention in the lives of citizens reached a level unacceptable to the majority.” People simply didn’t like being told “how long they ought to work, how much they ought to get, where to buy and at what prices.”

• In a bitterly amusing account of grocery shopping in Leningrad (which she twice calls “Petersburg” ), Tatyana Tolstaya describes a woman queuing for oranges, having mistakenly forgotten to bring her internal passport with here. Tolstaya recounts, “The poster over the counter read, ‘Citrus fruit will be sold only to local passport holders’.” The woman decides she will simply buy some apples instead. “Impossible!” the clerk snaps. “We have just received telephone instructions that apples are to be regarded as citrus fruit.”

• A roundtable discussion between journalists, a prosecutor, and KGB officials deals with the threat posed by Pamyat and other extreme nationalist organisations. A Major General of the KGB insists that there are only about 200 Pamyat members in Moscow, perhaps a thousand nationwide. The journalists want to know why, following an incident involving Pamyat members, the perpetrators of fascist violence were only charged with disturbing the peace, instead of violations under the statutes governing Crimes Against the State. The prosecutor confesses, “Maybe we are still waiting for instructions....After all, we must always be told what to do.”

• Reporter Vladimir Orlov writes of a visit to Havana. His angle is the dogged Cuban pursuit of the kind of totalitarian socialism the Russians want to expunge. He mentions how rationing allows every Cuban woman either one bra or two pairs of panties per year. (The panties may not fit, but maybe you can find someone willing to trade.) The average Cuban has to work three months to afford a cheap Chinese-made electric fan. Concerning independent thought in Cuba, Orlov repeats a story he heard in Havana. An American researcher polled various nationalities, asking, “What do think of your country’s meat supply?” When the question was put to a Russian, he answered, “What is ‘meat’?” When it was put to a Cuban, he responded “What is ‘think’?” Orlov suggests that after thirty years of revolutionary socialism, it might be time for Castro to call a free election. Moscow News is now banned in Cuba.


When Moscow News first set out on its crusading path, it was opposed by threatened officialdom. According to Zhavoronkov, “In the past year the constraints have been less, but they still exist. It’s just that the tactics have changed.”

“Now people smile, and say they’re willing to help an investigation, but behind our back they’re throwing up roadblocks.”

“For example, I am involved in an investigation of the Katyn Massacre, and twice we were stopped. Despite KGB objections, we went after this story a third time, and finally got the help of a young KGB officer in Smolensk. He aided our investigation — a new experience for us! — and as a consequence, KGB bosses tried to dismiss him. But they didn’t count on the resistance they received from journalists and from the public.”

Zhavoronkov’s investigation into the mass executions in Katyn Forest, which is continuing as a series in Moscow News, makes chilling reading. Many of the people he would have liked to interview have died only recently, but Zhavoronkov did locate survivors with stories to tell. For example, there is 83-year-old Ivan Titkov, who was the chauffeur for nine successive police commanders in charge of Stalin’s murders at Katyn. Every time Titkov would come to work and discover he had a new boss, he would ask what happened to the previous one. “He left on business was the usual answer,” Titkov recalls. “None of them ever returned from those business trips.”

Titkov took Zhavoronkov on a walk through the forest, and pointed out where a homestead stood before the war. The owner apparently had trouble sleeping: “He used to complain of shooting he heard every night”

“In springtime many cavities appeared in the forest,” Titkov remembered. “The graves sank. The dead bodies went deeper into the soil, as if hiding from someone.”

The most recent installment of Zhavoronkov’s Katyn investigation finally manages to illuminate Stalin’s massacre there of 15,000 Polish officers and policemen. This was the first detailed treatment of Soviet responsibility for the murder of the Poles to appear in the Soviet media, and when Zhavoronkov’s story finally appeared in late March, it was world news, even showing up in a Radio New Zealand newscasts.


I had read that Moscow News has a censor by the name of Mischa, and I asked to meet him. Unfortunately, he was out that afternoon, but to hear Zhavoronkov tell the story, Mischa probably takes many afternoons off.

“He uses his reference book,” Zhavoronkov says, “but his only control now is over state secrets.” Zhavoronkov is referring to a 200-page handbook, known affectionately as the “Talmud,” published by Glavlit, the state censorship agency. Even with this guide, it is increasingly clear that except for a few clear cases (troop movements, location of military facilities) nobody in this age of glasnost is sure anymore what a state secret is.

Mischa can no longer suppress or even tone down articles for their political content, nor is able to act to save the reputation of any Soviet official who might be attacked in the newspaper. “We show him our issues, and he dutifully reads them, but he cannot interfere.”

“Mischa wanders the halls like a ghost. He is definitely the last censor of Moscow News. Some have suggested we ought to sell snapshots of him as souvenirs.”

How then can the authorities pressure newspapers? There is one fairly effective means: the government controls the supply of newsprint. Since the Soviet Union cannot produce enough paper to supply its own internal demand for reading material, choosing the books, magazines, and newspapers to be allocated paper is a vexed issue.

A note of frustration creeps into Zhavoronkov’s voice. “The main burden on us is that we aren’t allowed to increase our circulation. The authorities in charge of newsprint distribution have allowed us to climb to three million, but we need to produce fifteen million copies to satisfy demand. I witnessed a conversation between our editor and the Politburo member concerned with paper supply. The Politburo official was given to understand that if he didn’t resolve our newsprint problems, his portrait as an enemy of Moscow News would appear prominently in our pages.”

When it come to paper, Zhavoronkov said, “we are like beggars compared with Pravda and Isvestia. But we are becoming rich with readers, while perhaps they are facing the prospect of bankruptcy.”

Bold words from a brave journalist. But we shouldn’t underestimate other Soviet newspapers. Thanks in large measure to the aggressive example set by Moscow News, investigative journalism is appearing elsewhere, particularly in recent numbers of Isvestia, the major evening newspaper. Journalism in the Soviet Union is, in fact, showing all the signs of healthy competition.

I said good-bye to Zhavoronkov and tried to locate the stairway to the street. Taking a wrong turn, I found myself in a reporter’s momentarily unoccupied office. There were papers scattered all over the desk, many with telephone numbers scribbled in the margins. Pinned on the wall above an ancient manual typewriter was a beautiful black-and-white still of the great physicist and champion of freedom, Andrei Sakharov. Books, pencil stubs, and files tied with string littered the shelves. And at the center of the desk two familiar yellow foam Big Mac containers and an empty Coke cup.

There are all sorts of fresh winds — and exotic aromas — blowing through the world of Soviet journalism.