VOLTAIRE was once asked where he would like to be in death: paradise or hell. He answered that in paradise the climate is better, but in hell, the people are so interesting, the company is so good!" Vitaly Korotich chuckles mischievously as he paraphrases the French philosopher. Until now, the choice has been obvious for this free-wheeling Soviet magazine editor, one of the earliest and most fearless practitioners of glasnost, who clearly has a taste for interesting people in a place where the political climate is less than cool.
In the five years since Mr. Korotich took over the leadership of the magazine Ogonyok, circulation has skyrocketed from 250,000 to a high of 4.5 million. (Circulation is now 2 million, a decrease Korotich blames on government control of paper supplies.) At its peak, each issue had at least one must-read article that shed light on hitherto dark areas such as the military, Afghanistan, religion, and counterculture.
But increasingly, the choice isn't so obvious. Speaking in his office at Columbia University's Gannett Foundation Media Center, where he has been a visiting fellow since September, Korotich is eager to return to the cauldron of Soviet politics and to his magazine.
But he has also got his ticket to "paradise" - several, in fact - should a feared hard-line crackdown in his country prevent him from practicing the journalism he's now accustomed to, and close down the rambunctious Soviet parliament of which he is a member. The University of Michigan, Bard College, and Oberlin College have all offered Korotich teaching positions, one of which could become a safe haven for riding out the storm.
Korotich is not alone. Scores of liberal Soviet intellectuals are using their connections in the West to line up fellowships, grants, and teaching posts, as well as to place their children in Western schools.
Mainly, these Soviets are taking advantage of opportunities that their government long denied them, but for some there's also a desire to create a safety net in anticipation of gloomier times.
Korotich doesn't want to emigrate to the West, he says. He realizes that he is much more interesting here as Vitaly Korotich, maverick Soviet editor and politician, rather than Vitaly Korotich, yet another Soviet writer in exile.
"I understand that now it will be not my time [in the Soviet Union]. But at the same time, I understand that if I stay here now, I will lose my face," he says in frenetic English.
"People there are expecting the people who started this process to fight for democracy.... I want to be there now, especially in these days. [But] if there will be martial law or censorship, I will come back here."
He is also looking out for his younger son, Nikita, who is a journalism student in Moscow. Nikita would like to study journalism management, but no such course is offered in Moscow, says Korotich. If he agrees to teach here, his son would have the possibility of studying here tuition-free.
"But," Korotich adds, "the situation in the Soviet Union will decide."
What that future holds is a matter of intense speculation. But to most of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's liberal contemporaries, the future looks bleak. Mr. Gorbachev has started a process of societal transformation that got away from itself and can't be put aright by any one person.
The turning point, says Korotich, came last September, when Gorbachev announced that he had agreed to a 500-day plan to institute a market economy, only to change his mind. One by one, Gorbachev's most liberal advisers either resigned, were fired, or were simply distanced from the inner decisionmaking circles: pro-market economists such as Stanislav Shatalin and Nikolai Petrakov, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, and perestroika guru Alexander Yakovlev.
That same month, Korotich published a transcript of a meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee in Ogonyok.
"Three colonels visited Gorbachev," Korotich recalls, "and told him he must fire [Interior Minister Vadim] Bakatin and Shevardnadze or they would arrange his impeachment."
Mr. Shevardnadze resigned not long after that. Vadim Bakatin was replaced by the hard-line Boris Pugo.
Korotich says a dictatorship is "inevitable," perhaps even a dictatorship with Gorbachev at the head, as a "human shield for the hard-liners." He was troubled by Gorbachev's recent warning in Japan that the Soviet Union may "descend into chaos, possibly with a dictatorship, if we fail to stop its disintegration." Korotich sees this as Gorbachev paving the way for a possible announcement of martial law and the dissolution of parliament, the effective end of the nation's experiment in democracy.
But until then, Korotich plans to keep fighting for more transparency in public life. Lenin, who is the nation's icon, remains "half taboo," he says. He wants to dig out "the real history of the Soviet state, the real story of the KGB and the Army." Korotich was horrified recently to discover that even some points of history that have been cleared up in the press have not made it into school textbooks. His son's history book describes the Soviet crushing of Hungary's 1956 anti-Communist revolution as "a
counterrevolutionary attempt which was stopped by friendly countries," Korotich says with disgust. "This was printed in 1989! Circulation 33.8 million!"
Korotich also wants the media to make the Kremlin leadership seem more human.
"I want real life stories," continues the avuncular journalist and poet. "Many times I asked Gorbachev, permit my reporter to live with you and your family for a day. I want to know what you eat for breakfast, who is your favorite dog or cat, where you buy your sausages, where you buy your potatoes. People will feel closer to you, [like] Bush jogging in the morning."
Does Gorbachev understand freedom of the press?
"Uh-uh," Korotich responds, shaking his head emphatically. "He thinks it will be a nice regulated free press. It will be nice regulated freedom, like cows surrounded by electric wire. They walk around, feeling free, then they hit a wire and step back."
Despite his gloomy prognosis, Korotich is optimistic about the long term. Of necessity, Soviet society will become democratic and institute a market economy.
"It is possible to have stagnation for two or three years more," he says, "but strategically, we will win."