AT precisely 11 a.m., a bell rings, doors open, and the lively chatter of men and women fills the carpeted corridor on the 6th floor of the drab building on Pravda street. The crowd bustles into the blue-paneled room at the end of the hall, where the morning editorial meeting of Komsomolskaya Pravda is about to begin. Editor Yadviga Uferova sits at the center of a long horseshoe table, the ubiquitous portrait of Vladimir Lenin to her right, and various editors arrayed to either side.
This is how the day begins at the Soviet daily newspaper which, with some 18.2 million readers, proudly claims the title of the world's largest circulation daily. Komsomolka, as it is known, owes much of its popularity to its lively and innovative style.
From muck-raking expos'es to spirited political commentary, Komsomolka has been at the cutting edge of the era of glasnost or openness which began under President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. Today the four-page broadsheet is in the front lines of defending press freedom as glasnost comes under fire from conservative Communists.
The morning meeting begins as usual with a review of the previous day's paper. ``It is one of the few issues which came out on time,'' Ms. Uferova says in a slightly disapproving tone.
The tall, businesslike editor moves briskly through the layout of the next paper, from the front page to a feature on the nation's first private detective agency. An editor requests space for a report on an emergency meeting of private businessmen. Uferova agrees without hesitating.
Right after the meeting closes, a working team of mostly young people gathers in Uferova's office to discuss story ideas. One suggests using a Voice of America report that Leningrad Mayor Anatoli Sobchak is seeking strong executive powers as a front-page item. Confirm it first, says Uferova. She tells them to develop a Tass story about the pilfering of European food aid by adding their own reporting.
Komsomolka is a pioneer of that kind of independent reporting, something rarely found in the Soviet press even under glasnost. Half of its 350-person staff are writers, including 40 correspondents spread across the Soviet Union and in seven foreign bureaus.
Although it is the official newspaper of the Komsomol, the Soviet Communist Party youth organization, the paper is sympathetic to the democratic movement. During the crackdown in the Baltics last January, Komsomolka stood out as one of the few sources of accurate reporting. For a time, the paper was banned from Army barracks.
Still Komsomolka's reach is so vast that it is also a preferred platform for senior government and party officials to express their opinions. Similarly it was exiled Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn's choice as the publisher of a lengthy political treatise on the future of Russia, printed last fall as a special insert.
``It is a democratic paper with elements of radicalism - but controversial because they print right and left,'' says Pavel Voshanov, one of the paper's most reknowned political writers, who has taken leave to serve as press aide to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.
The paper offers not only tough independence but spicy stories that keep readers coming back for more. Vladimir Filin is a 33-year old Moscow State University history graduate who sports James Dean looks and combines investigative reporting with a police beat. Mr. Filin's investigations recently caught worldwide attention with a revelation of a booming illegal arms business in the Soviet Union. By publicly offering to buy illegal arms, Filin arranged clandestine meetings with gun dealers ready to sell m achine guns and rocket launchers, as well as nationalist militants offering to buy what he collected.
``I like adventures,'' says Filin, a twice-decorated Afghan war veteran. He distinguishes his style from the ``classical'' Soviet journalism that consists of long, didactic essays. ``Today what we need are reporters who are capable of reporting,'' Filin says.
Even in the pre-glasnost days, the paper had a reputation for liveliness in contrast to the party daily Pravda, its officious elder brother in the next building. In 1984, for example, Vitaly Ignatenko broke new ground with an article entitled ``Duty'' that gave Soviet readers their first glimpse of the toll of the Afghan war. Mr. Ignatenko is now spokesman for President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Komsomolka's inventiveness makes it a target for conservative Communists. The paper was the first to substitute its own reports for the official Tass news agency dispatches. Political writer Voshanov wrote the path-breaking articles, which he says garnered phone calls from the Party Central Committee and criticism from Mr. Gorbachev.
Pressure from the Party
Uferova remembers the reaction to their reporting of the dramatic first meeting of the freely elected Soviet legislature in 1989. The party secretary in charge of ideology demanded that the Komsomol rein in the paper.
``We were told that Komsomolskaya Pravda only writes about the black side and the time has come to sack its leaders,'' she recalls. The paper held a meeting where Voshanov, speaking for the writers, vowed to strike if the changes were made. But when the editors were called before the Komsomol leadership, the paper was praised for creating a new genre of journalism. ``They disobeyed the orders from the Central Committee,'' Uferova says.
Nonetheless, everyone at the paper is aware that they are still highly vulnerable to pressure. The paper is printed by the Central Committee publishing house, which also controls its bank accounts. With its enormous circulation, ``they will have no other place to print,'' says Voshanov. ``So editors have to be flexible enough to report what they want and still not spoil relations with the Central Committee.''
The paper has felt the chill of the recent shift to the right in the official media and the government's threat to curb press freedom. Independent voices on central television have been systematically eliminated since December and replaced by a drone of old-style propaganda. The government daily Izvestia (a relatively critical voice) has been pressured to oust a top liberal editor.
But the Komsomolka editors show a decidedly defiant spirit. Uferova was the editor on duty recently when the liberal film director Elim Klimov called at 8 p.m. and asked them to print a statement of 63 artists protesting the rightward shift of the central television agency. ``I said, `Let's do it immediately.' And in one hour we had it printed,'' she says. But the crackdown on the press has made them wary. ``We realize that glasnost is something which may shrink before our eyes,'' Uferova says.
For today, the paper must be finished. In the late afternoon, proof pages are spread on the table, headlines written, pictures chosen. Changes go on until late at night, when Uferova signs off on the copy. Then, at 11:30 p.m., the whole staff boards the office bus to go home.