Being `one of them' at Moscow News - most of the time

``I haven't seen one of these in 18 years,'' said Lena with almost religious reverence as she gently handled the pineapple. The occasion was her birthday, and Andrei's gift - acquired through his well-connected father, no doubt - was the show stopper. The other Moscow News reporters gathered in Lena's office passed the fruit around gingerly, each inhaling deeply its sweet aroma, each murmuring words of awe.

``Did you enjoy the pineapple?'' I asked Lena later.

``Oh, I didn't eat it,'' she replied. ``I let it dry out and hung it on the wall!''

The ironies of Soviet life. ... I had by then been a guest reporter at Moscow News four weeks and my own status as a curiosity had faded; I felt like a regular member of the staff - most of the time.

One of the more extraordinary examples of my inclusion in life at the paper was the invitation to lead a letuchka, a biweekly meeting where a staff member or two critique the paper (a pre-glasnost tradition). Alan Cooperman, the other American guest reporter, and I could say whatever we wanted as critics - and did.

``You all know you're putting out one of the most dynamic papers in the country,'' I said. ``But we'd like to suggest some improvements.'' The stories are often fuzzy, often not really beginning or ending, often way too long, we told them. The writing style is often too personal. The layouts are deadly. The headlines (written by the reporters themselves) are often useless. The English edition is translated wretchedly. End of criticism.

``Are you pleased with the stories you've written for us?'' Vladimir Pichugin, the English edition's editor, asked combatively. Clearly, our remarks had offended him. But in general, the staff was thankful for our honesty.

Occasional incidents, however, reminded me that I wasn't ``one of them.'' After I watched with amusement several women reporters playing hairdresser in their office one morning, one of them, Natasha, asked if I was going to mention their activities in the Monitor. The concern was voiced half in jest, but it brought to the surface the underlying perception that I was only pretending to be a Soviet reporter, and was always mentally collecting data for eventual Monitor stories.

On another occasion, another Natasha had apparently overheard me chatting with a friend about a touchy incident at the paper. ``How did Linda hear about that in the first place?'' she asked my friend disapprovingly.

Not that the incident was such a secret when it happened. In my first week at work, the paper had come out a day late - a big scandal. The reason was that at the very last minute, a letter from some internal Soviet dissidents had been pulled. The letter was a response to another, now-famous letter Moscow News had published the week before from 10 exiled dissidents commenting bitterly on Soviet reform. The internal dissidents, which included Viktor Yerofeyev and Yevgeny Popov of the unofficial Metropol writers' group, were taking issue with the exiled dissidents' letter and with the rebuttal by Moscow News chief editor Yegor Yakovlev that ran with it. Mr. Yakovlev was out of town, and it was reportedly Valentin Falin, the chairman of Novosti Press Agency and Yakovlev's immediate superior, who decided to pull the piece.

After hearing this story, I played dumb and asked an editor why the paper had come out late. ``Typographical problems,'' he replied. Technically, not a lie: Pulling a story just before press time (especially given the antiquated hot-type printing setup) would push it over deadline. When I later asked Yakovlev about this, and why the paper had come out late again two weeks later, he said he had been away and didn't know. I never heard an explanation for the second delay.

Then there was the time Alan and I were unceremoniously shooed out of a staff meeting. ``Family matters'' regarding Novosti were to be discussed and therefore it was inappropriate for outsiders to be present, explained Sasha, the staff writer and Communist Party activist who ran the meeting. ``Don't be insulted,'' he said. We assured him we were.

Afterward, Sasha came to our office to make peace. The meeting wasn't that big a deal, he said, the main point being that Novosti wanted Moscow News to improve in three areas: make its articles clearer to foreign readers, many of whom had sent complaints; make the articles more informational; broaden regional coverage.

These were all complaints I had heard before. Certainly there was more to the meeting than that. What really happened

``I'll tell you what really happened at that meeting,'' whispered a trusted insider, looking around the room to see who might be watching. ``The word is that Falin wants the paper to go back to the way it used to be.''

Valentin Falin's differences with Yegor Yakovlev were hardly a secret. Before Yakovlev's arrival a year ago, the weekly's innocuous happy talk made it eminently ignorable. Now, according to my friend, Mr. Falin felt the paper was presenting the wrong image of the nation by airing its problems. Yakovlev had reportedly been reprimanded by the party Central Committee at least once for the paper's coverage, though it is unclear if it was the paper's general tone or something specific that troubled the party.

Yakovlev was also reportedly taken to task for publishing weak responses to articles challenging Kremlin reforms. Yakovlev's own rebuttal to the dissident letter won special mention. The letter, which some officials felt Moscow News should not have published, had said Soviet reform efforts weren't enough. Falin was now reading and correcting all articles, it was reported at the meeting.

Some staff members wrote off Novosti's complaints as professional jealousy. But Novosti seemed serious about reigning in its upstart underling. According to my friend, two commissions had looked into the paper: one read closely two months of issues; the other commission talked with members of the staff about Yakovlev's performance. These talks, along with anonymous letters from staff members written to the Central Committee, revealed a streak of dissent at Moscow News - staffers who felt Yakovlev was rude and took important decisions single-handedly.

The upshot was that a new commission was being formed to watch MN, and that Yakovlev was to write a plan of action for the second half of 1987. Would he tolerate such efforts to rope in his maverick style? ``Probably not,'' my friend replied. ``Yakovlev would probably quit before he could be cowed into submission or fired.''

Figuring out the security of the boss's job became a minor avocation during my three months at MN. Over one weekend, three people - a friend at Novosti, a doctor, and a film director - asked me if it was true that Yakovlev was on the way out. Then rumor had it that Yakovlev himself was spreading rumors. As of this writing, Yakovlev is still editor, and Moscow News continues to publish scoops.

As for being kicked out of that meeting, Yakovlev later told me that Sasha had ``acted very incorrectly'' - an admission that confirmed once again that some of the staff hadn't come to grips with our presence at the paper.

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