The man behind Pravda's 'party approach' to news

No one in the street seems to notice him on his way back from lunch. In Moscow, power gets measured in length of limousine. Viktor Grigorevich Afanasyev is on foot.

Toting a thick briefcase, his pale eyes glancing neither left nor right, he resembles an anonymous New York commuter more than a man near the top of the Soviet political pyramid.

But Viktor Afanasyev is the chief editor of Pravda, which daily supplies millions of Soviet readers, not to mention foreign diplomats, journalists, and Kremlinologists, with all the news the Soviet Communist Party deems fit to print.

''We do not hide our party connection,'' says Mr. Afanasyev in his spacious corner of the newspaper's new marble office building, which was completed last year.

Quoting Lenin, Pravda's ''inspiration . . . and first editor,'' Mr. Afanasyev explains that, in the Soviet scheme of things, ''The newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, but also a collective organizer'' for the nation.

The typical issue of Pravda - six pages long from Tuesday to Sunday, and eight on Monday - exhorts workers to work better; focuses on an explicit economic or social problem that should be remedied; details the piecemeal decay of Western capitalism; lambastes ''imperialism, first of all the United States'' for ''whipping up the arms race''; and reports ''wide international support'' for the Soviet Union's ''peace-loving foreign policy.''

Before major political holidays, like May Day, most of Pravda's front page is devoted to party-approved slogans for the occasion. Whenever President Leonid Brezhnev makes a speech, Pravda prints the full text.

At a price of 4 kopeks (6 cents US) - 5 kopeks on Monday - Pravda provides what Mr. Afanasyev calls ''history of today,'' penned from an ''active, party approach.''

But if most Westerners read Pravda for its propaganda, for a presumed window on the inner workings of the Kremlin mind, Mr. Afanasyev's newspaper is more than this.

For one thing, it can be a two-way window. Pravda employs nearly 100 times the editorial and writing staff that produced the newspaper in Lenin's day, and the largest group works on mail from readers. The paper receives from 500,000 to 600,000 letters a year, a library of the everyday concerns, gripes, and priorities of the Soviet citizen.

And Pravda is a source of news. To walk and talk on the streets of Moscow, at least, is to conclude that many ordinary citizens manage to piece together a quite coherent, nuanced vision of the world outside. Part of the input comes from Western radio stations despite Soviet jamming, or from Yugoslav newspapers, then spreads by word of mouth. Part of it comes from Pravda.

On Sept. 20, Pravda carried a front-page official statement saying Israel had ''perpetrated'' the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Beirut refugee camps, not merely encircled them while Lebanese rightist militiamen did the actual killing.

Tucked inside on Page 5 was a compendium of Western condemnation of the murders, mentioning the Lebanese rightists and, at one point, saying the killing had occurred ''under the very nose of Israelis surrounding the camps.''

Mr. Afanasyev himself seems not quite to fit the Western stereotype of a Pravda chief.

An articulate man, in interviews he sometimes seems softspoken to the point of being shy. More than a mere propaganda conduit, he comes across as part communist theoretician - though he says he prefers the pace of Pravda work to an earlier stint as head of Kommunist, the party's main ideological journal - and part day-to-day participant in the Soviet political process.

Senior Soviet officials note that Mr. Afanasyev sits in on the weekly sessions of the Communist Party Central Committee's 10-man Secretariat and is generally in a position to influence Soviet policy, not merely advertise it. Although various Pravda items do appear on the express initiative of men above Mr. Afanasyev, or in consultation with them, most do not.

In two lengthy conversations with the Monitor in the past year, Mr. Afanasyev echoed the sharp public criticism here of Reagan administration policies. But having done so, he offered a decidedly more nuanced view of various issues, such as grain trade with the US, or Soviet relations with France's new Socialist government.

On the workings of Pravda, he cleared up at least one small mystery - the identity of ''Alexei Petrov,'' the signature intermittently found below Pravda policy commentaries. The longtime assumption among Westerners here was that Mr. Petrov is a pseudonym indicating high-level Soviet opinion.

''Yes,'' said the Pravda editor, ''it is a pseudonym, for the newspaper's editorial board.''

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