Revelations amid the rhetoric: glasnost at one Soviet paper
Moscow — ``Soviet youth need to be taken seriously. ... They want to be self-sufficient. ... The government should make it easier for teens to get after-school jobs.'' I wanted Moscow News to publish these lines from a column I had written. It was better to play it safe, I decided, and bury them in the story so they'd have a better shot at appearing in print.
I knew I had been ``Sovietized.'' I knew what it meant to hear the small voice of the ``internal censor,'' something every intelligent Soviet reporter has.
Even in this era of glasnost (openness), and even at the daring Moscow News, controls on what can be published remain strong. Not that my thoughts on youth were that outrageous, but I was aware of sensitivity over having a guest American reporter criticizing Soviet society. To be sure, the very presence of Alan Cooperman (the other American on the journalism exchange) and me at the paper showed the new Soviet willingness to let outsiders into once-closed domains. And chief editor Yegor Yakovlev was clearly pleased by the prestige of having us. He gave us a column, especially generous for a paper where competition for space was keen. (Too bad the name was so hokey - ``According to Linda and Alan.'')
Moscow News is a peculiar blend of eye-catching revelations and tired rhetoric. The latest issue caught attention by hinting that West German adventurer Mathias Rust may be pardoned. Another recent story, however, perpetuated the myth that few Soviets travel abroad only because of the high cost. Many of the paper's ground-breaking materials are written by outside experts - historians, lawyers, doctors. Mr. Yakovlev's own articles are usually worth reading.
Glasnost has profound limits, and is not a sign that the Soviet press is being Westernized. It is still an organ of the party and state. As Vladimir Lenin said, ``The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.'' If perestroika (restructuring) is in part an effort to return to the basics of Leninism, then Lenin's statement is a pungent reminder that the Soviet journalist's task is not merely to report news. Just last week, President Andrei Gromyko told the staff of the Communist Party daily Pravda that the success of perestroika depends on the press.
Although most subjects are now fair game, how they are handled is key. No newspaper will run a column defending marijuana or homosexuality. There will be no articles questioning the legitimacy of Marxist ideology. Criticism of Soviet foreign policy is still largely taboo.
It is also important who writes the ground-breaking pieces. On May 6, I stumbled upon a demonstration by the right-wing Russian nationalist organization, Pamyat. I talked with the demonstrators and their leader, and accompanied the group on its march up Gorky Street and into the city hall for a meeting with Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin.
``How about a story?'' I asked news editor Alexander Mostovshchikov (``Most'') the next day. ``Not interesting,'' he shrugged. And what did I see in the next issue but a piece on the protest by Most and another reporter.
At Moscow News, censorship exists in various forms. The paper's official censor, the person in charge of keeping state secrets out of print, plays a minimal role. More commonly, editors ranking all the way up to Yakovlev go through copy and make deletions; sometimes they are more subtle, simply circling a questionable word or phrase and letting the writer himself do the crossing out.
In most cases the editor was probably just editing, but sometimes deletions were too pointed to be ``just editing'': References to recently rehabilitated poet Nikolai Gumilyov and to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan spring to mind.
I'll never forget the tense scene I walked in on between Alan and Most. Alan had written six pages on alcohol and he insisted it all run. Most said it was too long. Alan argued that it contained material that had never been published. Most wasn't persuaded. So for several hours they sweated out a 2-page version. Editing or censorship? Often, the line between the two is hopelessly blurred.
Then there was Kolya (not his real name), the paper's best young reporter. Most had assigned him a story on the Lyubery, young right-wing toughs. Several Soviet publications had run sensational pieces on them, and Kolya was to get the real story. He produced a piece that he and other reporters felt was solid.
The story was set to run. Then the ax fell: ``Pull it.'' As Most explained to Kolya, a senior editor had gotten cold feet after a discussion with Yegor Ligachev, the No. 2 in the Kremlin. Kolya doesn't know what they said. Perhaps Mr. Ligachev had said, ``No need to cover the Lyubery.'' Or maybe he had said, ``There's already been a lot in the press about youth problems.'' Sometimes even the vaguest remarks can trigger a better-safe-than-sorry reaction.
Kolya was disgusted, especially since the piece broke new ground: He had determined that the Lyubery did not have any organizational structure. Two months later, after other instances of feeling censored, he quit journalism.
I was shocked. Kolya had worked hard as a journalist for five years and had just been hired by Moscow News - an enviable position. But his case was more than one of a reporter who simply didn't like the editor's pen. He had reached the point in this life where he had to be honest with himself, he said, and that meant he could not write to serve an ideology. The advent of glasnost was not enough.
``Glasnost doesn't mean democracy,'' he said. ``It's still a few people - the editors and their bosses - deciding what they want the public to know.''
In many ways, Moscow News is a microcosm of the larger debate on glasnost. For some, like Kolya, it doesn't go far enough. For others it's just right. And for others still, like Sergei, another young Moscow News reporter, it's too much.
``Glasnost is good to a point,'' Sergei (not his real name) once said to me. ``But reporters sometimes go overboard - settling personal grievances, sensationalizing problems. At a certain point, every Soviet journalist needs to be patriotic.''
Sergei's sincerity surprised me, given his usually stoic demeanor. He reminisced wistfully about the good old pre-Yakovlev days, when he knew exactly what he could and could not write.
``Look at an issue of Moscow News from two years ago,'' he said. ``The writing was more artful. Now it's pedestrian.''
As my exchange drew to a close, questions on what I would write for the home audience grew frequent. The most startling came from a senior Soviet journalist: ``Are you going to write the truth or are you going to write so you can return?
I laughed the question off, but it worried me. What could I write that would prevent me from coming back to the Soviet Union? I resented thinking along those lines. Sadly, I'm still hearing the small voice of the internal censor. Last of a three-part series. The writer, one of two American journalists on a US-Soviet exchange, recently completed three months working at Moscow News.