An American's saga: My life as a Soviet journalist.
Moscow — Glasnost. How does it work from the inside?
Monitor writer Linda Feldmann, one of two American journalists on an unprecedented US-Soviet newspaper exchange, recently completed three months working at Moscow News. As a reporter on one of the most daring Soviet newspapers, she had a ringside seat on the unfolding phenomenon of ``openness'' - and at times took part as an active player.
When Alexei smells a good story, he goes after it.
So when the young Soviet reporter stumbled upon a demonstration being forcefully broken up on Moscow's Pushkin Square, he went into action. He invited the protesters - elderly Jewish refusedniks demanding the right to emigrate - into his office at nearby Moscow News to question them about their story.
Word of this quickly spread through the building, Alexei (not his real name) told me later.
``Get those people out of here - immediately!'' an editor screeched. Alexei obliged. Later, a higher-ranking editor summoned Alexei for further reprimands, and even threw something at him. Alexei was also visited by the Soviet secret police, the KGB.
``I guess I got carried away by glasnost,'' he recalled ruefully.
It was my first week at Moscow News, and Alexei's tale made a deep impression. Two points were clear: that glasnost (``openness'') does indeed have limits, and that, in a way, glasnost has made the job of Soviet reporters more difficult. The old unspoken rules are gone, but the new rules are unclear - and each journalist and editor has his own interpretation of what they should be. Some Soviet journalists yearn for the good old days.
Such impressions would be reinforced and refined over the next three months. As a Russian speaker, I found it surprisingly easy to become a part of the newspaper and, to a degree, a part of Soviet society. From the outside, the Russians may appear to be living a dreary, somber existence dedicated to ``building communism.'' In fact, they are a warm, emotional people with a flair for personal intrigue, a love of history and literature, and a work attitude that values late nights around the kitchen table with friends more than getting to the office on time. My friends and colleagues were no exception.
Gennady, my Russian officemate, could have been a poster boy for the Kremlin's propaganda department: young, tall, and clean-cut, with piercing brown eyes and ramrod-straight posture. A Communist Party member, naturally. I assumed that Gennady was to be a ``special friend,'' and that therefore I ought to be extra careful around him.
AS it turned out, there was no hard-and-fast rule on where I worked, so I ended up spending most of my time in the office next door with the devushki (``the girls'') - Lena, Larisa, and the three Natashas - young reporters in the news department. They immediately took me under their wing, inviting me out with them on stories, helping me with my own stories, and sharing office gossip and confidences about their personal lives.
My spiked hair (``How do you make it stand straight up?'') and varying wardrobe (from hippie to yuppie) were a constant source of amazement and discussion, as was my life in America: salary (a fortune by Soviet standards), house (``You have tenants? What a good kapitalistka you are!''), husband (who actually allowed me to come to Moscow on my own for three months, they marveled). You want to cover `manly' themes
The hardest thing for my colleagues to fathom was my job as the Monitor's assistant international news editor. On the first day of work, the editors sat down with Alan Cooperman - a reporter for the Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Mass.) who was the other American on the exchange - and me for a chat. Although they stressed that we could write about whatever we wanted, it was tough convincing them that my main interests were not fashion, children, and interior decorating.
A week later one of the devushki was assigned to write a paragraph introducing Alan and me to Moscow News's readers.
``What issues are you most interested in here?'' she asked me.
``Perestroika [restructuring of the Soviet system] and glasnost,'' I replied.
``Let's save those for Alan,'' she said. ``Those are masculine themes.''
This, from a 25-year-old woman whose own life isn't exactly traditional: She lives with her mother and (dull but devoted) boyfriend and has another, secret boyfriend (handsome but self-centered). ``I don't want to get married and have children until I've achieved something as a journalist,'' she explained once.
A curious brand of women's lib, but not surprising. Soviet women still have very few role models in politics and political journalism. When I sat in on a meeting of Moscow News's editorial board, there was only one woman present (besides the editor's secretary) out of 26 people.
I'll also never forget a certain editor's fondness for strolling around the devushki's office and stroking their hair as he looked over their work. And no one thought twice about being greeted first thing with ``Good morning, beautiful. You look like a million bucks!'' Lou Grant, Soviet-style
Alexander Mostovshchikov is the Lou Grant of Moscow News - a well-fed news editor, tough, but with a heart of gold. I recall vividly sitting in his office and watching a steady stream of reporters phone or drop by to discuss story ideas. ``Most'' always asked a million questions. Why is the idea good? Has anyone else covered it? How will you approach it?
On one level, they were like the typically lively editor-reporter discussions that go on at any newspaper. But on another level, they were often the early stages of yet another step in the Soviet effort to publicize inadequacies in society and government. As the shapers of one of the nation's more interesting papers, Moscow News's editors have a particularly tough job. They are often at the forefront of glasnost, trying to push its limits. A severe blunder could mean a reprimand, or even the chance of being fired.
One could almost read Most's thoughts as he listened to ideas, weighing whether a story was sensitive enough to require the chief editor's approval, whether it should be rejected out of hand, or whether it was OK to approve immediately. One reporter suggested an update on the controversial restoration of Moscow's Arbat district. The idea eventually became a front-page story. Another reporter suggested a major report on teen sex, an issue rarely mentioned in the Soviet press. He liked the idea, but thought the editor in chief should decide. The story has yet to be published. Taking part in glasnost
My own first foray into glasnost - an ``expos'e'' on the valyuta beryozkas (hard-currency stores for foreigners), a subject the Soviet press had avoided - was also instructive. In the article I raised a series of complaints - that the beryozkas don't sell much of what foreigners want, that the prices don't make sense (they're often vastly inflated or reduced), that the sales help could be more polite - and then reported vague responses from the director of the agency that runs the beryozkas.
After I submitted the article, a reporter who had critiqued it had second thoughts about the ending. ``It needs an extra paragraph drawing conclusions,'' she said.
I agreed, and wrote that the beryozka system is severely flawed as a business enterprise and that it promotes a system of privilege that goes against the egalitarian goals of the Russian Revolution. The reporter enthusiastically supported my views, even the second part, which by the look of realization on her face seemed to be something she had never thought much about. We approached Most to plead a case for the extra paragraph.
``Not necessary,'' he said. ``The article is fine without it.''
Was I being censored, or did Most just not feel like finding the piece in his stack of manuscripts to make the addition?
The beryozka story still made waves. The prime minister's office reportedly sent it to the Ministry of Trade with a memo saying ``do something'' about the beryozkas. Valentin Falin, chairman of Novosti Press Agency and direct superior of Moscow News chief editor Yegor Yakovlev, reacted differently. He complained to Mr. Yakovlev that it was inappropriate for an American to be ``teaching us how to live.'' Yakovlev, whose differences with Mr. Falin are an open secret, didn't seem too troubled by the reprimand.
With time, Alan and I became minor celebrities. We were interviewed by state radio in Moscow, Estonia, and Latvia. State television asked us to be the hosts of a show on visiting guitarist Pat Metheny. Novosti came forth with a book offer (apparently Mr. Falin's pique had not spread to all of his staff). Feeling protective of our journalistic integrity, we declined the second two offers.
But most flattering of all was when, alongside our last piece, a column on Soviet journalism, Yakovlev published a rebuttal by columnist Vladimir Simonov. ``It is always easier to be a prophet in an alien land,'' Mr. Simonov wrote. ``Especially if the prophets happen to be from the USA, with scissors ever ready to cut and recut everything according to US standards. Maybe that's the origin of Linda's and Alan's tiresome didactics, which sometimes generated something like annoyance in me, when they tried to explain to us our not so very simple life.''
I could only chuckle. After all, being denounced in the Soviet press is a rite of passage for any would-be Soviet specialist. And at Moscow News itself, they must not have felt my didactics were too tiresome. Otherwise, why did they offer me a permanent job on my last day there?
Linda Feldmann has been on the Monitor staff for six years. She was a Russian major at Middlebury College and spent a semester in 1980 at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. The American journalists' visit, from April to July, was part of an exchange organized by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors and the Union of Journalists of the Soviet Union. Two Soviet journalists will work at New England newspapers this fall.
First of three parts. Next: Being one of them - most of the time.