“Objectivity in popular press did not bother almost anyone at that time”

Alexander Melman about what happened to journalism of perestroika period

“Objectivity in popular press did not bother almost anyone at that time”
Photo: anews.com

Realnoe Vremya continues the interview cycle for the 35th anniversary of perestroika in the USSR. The revolutionary phenomenon of that era was publicity and freedom of the press and speech. Alexander Melman, the columnist for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, discusses the newspaper journalism of the perestroika years, whether it created a new person and whether it was responsible for the collapse of the USSR.

“America also can't stand freedom of speech — we can see it now”

Mr Melman, with what can we compare press freedom and glasnost that Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed in 1987?

Those of our people who caught the Khrushchev Thaw have already seen this, although not to the same extent as, let's say, my generation, when glasnost flourished before our eyes in films, in thick magazines, then in published books, waiting in the wings for 20, 30, or even 100 years. On a global scale, glasnost can only be compared to the first amendment to the US Constitution (the amendment guarantees that the US Congress does not have the right to prohibit free religion, encroach on freedom of speech and press, restrict freedom of gathering and the right of the people to petition the government for the satisfaction of complaints — editor's note), that is, what the US “stood” on and what is now almost collapsing there, which creates problems.

Yes, Gorbachev's glasnost was not yet freedom of speech in 1987, but it was a very strong phenomenon. Although media workers now say that they only have self-censorship, and there is no censorship, we know very well that there is censorship, but despite some “freezes” of the Putin era, the situation with access to information is now many steps higher than in the Soviet Union.

We can buy almost any book (if we had the money) and read almost anything we want on the Internet. And all this suggests that the “wave” that Gorbachev raised and developed is still felt by those for whom freedom of speech is important, and many of us already live this freedom.

Here we must pay tribute to Gorbachev — he realised that there was a lot to change in terms of the work of the press, and he wanted to use glasnost for the benefit of the country. He was a child of the 20th party congress and believed that the “floodgates” should be opened, and this was justly for him. Besides, there were many conservatives in the Politburo of the Central Committee, and Gorbachev used glasnost to fight them, but when Nina Andreeva's letter “I can't give up my principles” appeared in the press (they say that Ligachev organised this case), glasnost became a tool for many politicians, and, alas, it “flooded” many things in perestroika and its perception by Soviet people.

America also does not stand for freedom of speech, and we can see this now with the example of the dismissal of the editor of New York Times, who published an article by a senator that did not coincide with the trend.

Photo: ljrate.ru
When Nina Andreeva's letter “I can't give up my principles” appeared in the press, glasnost became a tool for many politicians, and, alas, it “flooded” much of perestroika and its perception by Soviet people

“Kiselev reviewed the situation in the country, his past and his own actions. He has the right to do so”

By mentioning Andreeva's article, do you mean that journalists in perestroika were gradually becoming political players?

Yes, we know that some of the hosts of Vzglyad TV programme became deputies, and after the collapse of the USSR, many of them participated in the Yeltsin election campaign “Vote or lose” and participated for free.

But here's the thing. I am very critical of our current TV propagandists, although, for example, Dmitry Kiselyov 30 years ago was a normal perestroika man, he hosted TSN programme in 1990-1991, and before that very young Dima also worked as a correspondent at the congresses of people's deputies of the USSR.

I won't throw a rock at him now. Why? In addition to personal advantages, Kiselev had a certain review of the situation in the country, a review of his past and his own actions, and he has the right to do so. Not everything is so clear in this question!

The founder of Vzglyad, Anatoly Lysenko, told the guys who started this programme: “Say what you want!”, and they gradually said what they wanted, and said a lot in 1988, and 1989, and 1990, and in 1991 the country ceased to exist. Is there a direct connection? Probably not, but there is an indirect one. And the proof of this is the television that Lysenko is doing now (OTR — editor's note), where there is nothing hot-button, but at the same time, they do not play into anyone's hands — this is the position of a wise man, and I understand it.

Freedom of speech is a double-edged thing, and journalists understood this at the time. A lot was expected of them, and they were telling the truth, but at the same time, the truth was already being transformed into something else.

So it was difficult for the press of that time not to become a political player?

Yes, it was objectively difficult to keep a distance between journalism and politics in that revolutionary situation. Yes, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which was created at that time, even had the slogan “Without anger and partiality!”, but it was not easy for journalists to be “above the fray” — emotions were raging in politics. Although these were the right emotions, the journalist would still need to understand that they would still fade, and the principle of objectivity should always be there, there should not be “friends” and “foes” for the journalist.

Photo: otr-online.ru
The founder of Vzglyad, Anatoly Lysenko, told the guys who started this programme: “Say what you want!”, and they gradually said what they wanted, and said a lot in 1988, and 1989, and 1990, and in 1991 the country ceased to exist

“Many readers at that time became political 'fans”

It turns out that the press was not objective?

You see, many readers at that time became political 'fans'. For example, our circle valued democratic position, so we valued Ogonek, Moskovskie Novosti, Nony Mir and Znamya thick magazines. But I personally read both Nash Sovremennik and Molodaya Gvardiya with great interest at that time, and I believed that they were fully entitled to their, as they said, patriotic position, and it was also interesting and convincing in its own way.

As for objectivity, almost no one in popular press cared about it. They cared about other things: for example, Vitaly Korotich, who became the editor of Ogonek, opened the secrets of Stalin's time to readers. This topic was previously “locked up”, much of it had not been explained earlier, in the 1960s, so it was in extraordinary demand. Moskovskie Novosti worked on the same acute topics, then Komsomolskaya Pravda and other newspapers took up the hot-button topics.

Besides, readers needed something else: after all, the truth had not been told in the country for many years, and here documents were issued with information about the same repressions, and this was not invented!

There was just such a wave that people didn't need objectivity.

People, by the way, did not particularly need the scientific press — esoteric and astrological newspapers were appearing and becoming popular…

They appeared at the right time, as well as Kashpirovsky and Chumak. Like many people, I also went to sessions of various psychics and hypnotists, and I remember that I was the only one who couldn't be hypnotised in these sessions. You see, the time of troubles when everything is unclear arouses interest both in the psychics themselves and in the press of this kind. After all, it is not surprising or accidental that Rasputin and other similar people appeared at the end of the existence of tsarist Russia.

Photo: mg1.od.ua
They cared about other things: for example, Vitaly Korotich, who became the editor of Ogonek, opened the secrets of Stalin's time to readers. This topic was previously “locked up”, much of it had not been explained earlier, in the 1960s, so it was in extraordinary demand

“These free people, brothers-brothers, suddenly began to waffle on Lomakin”

Who from the press best reflected that time? After all, Ogoniok, which, like Vzglyad, is still accused of contributing to the collapse of the USSR, although it sounds stupid.

To understand what perestroika is, of course, you need to read a file of Ogoniok of those years — it was the most outstanding magazine. There were no lies in this magazine, and I don't remember anyone catching Korotich in any fraud. He simply took once sensitive documents and published them. But all these things just resonated with the collapse of the Union. The internal system had rotted, and then wherever you poke — everything would fall apart, and so it turned out that Ogoniok and Vzglyad allegedly collapsed the country.

But they did not break it up — journalists were a mirror of what was happening, they just revealed the crimes of the past and present authorities, as this was their task. Yes, they talked about Stalin's crimes, then they switched to Lenin. Perhaps the authorities should have put a fence in front of Lenin, as the Chinese did with Mao, saying that he was 70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong. But with the destruction of Leninism, the foundations of the country and the country itself were destroyed, but this is not the fault of journalists. The country was brought to this state by general secretaries, but still even perestroika had to be done taking into account many important values for the country — including Lenin.

But Gorbachev acted differently. When in matters of principle it was necessary to act rigidly, as Lenin did, he acted from the point of view in nobody's favour. But the policy of hesitation is the worst thing for a politician, and for the country.

Who do you think the perestroika press made of Soviet people? Did they become citizens in the best sense of the word or not?

Here I will tell you what — the happiest moment of my life was the day of August 21, 1991. On this day, Moscow was waiting for the second storming of the White House, but it did not happen, and we, all those who were then at the Russian parliament building, were happy, celebrating the victory, fraternising, there was a sense of freedom and brotherhood, which I had never felt anywhere.

But at the same time, I remember this: it would seem that everything was great — the victory, everything was fine, and so on, but some people among the cheering there was noticed famous TV journalist Sergey Lomakin. Lomakin worked in Vzglyad, then left, and six months before that did a big interview with Yeltsin, in which the democratic party saw the alleged trick of the host, who asked their idol uncomfortable questions, although the questions were normal. So, Lomakin was noticed in the crowd, and these people, free people, brothers-brothers, began to pour water on Lomakin, who was in a white suit, from puddles formed after the rain! Sergey was forced to flee, and I saw that there is a very thin line between citizens and cattle, that citizens can easily turn into cattle. These people were just against the totalitarian system of power, against totalitarian relations, for internal and personal freedom, and here they just showed this totalitarianism! Yes, a person could be for the former power, but it turned out to be important — he turned out to be a stranger and, they say, let's kill him.

And I can say the same about the current liberal public. It is the same: totalitarianism does not get out of it, and there are still few liberals in our country who understand the value of freedom of speech.

Good words can be said here only about Aleksey Venediktov. No matter what difficult feelings they have about him, Venediktov understands what the essence of freedom of speech is, and this is very important.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
No matter what difficult feelings they have about him, Venediktov understands what the essence of freedom of speech is, and this is very important

“That journalism is no longer there, but there is the Internet. The future belongs to it”

It turns out that the perestroika person became only more informed, more well-read, but did not change for the better internally, isn't it?

By and large, yes. The Soviet people were already well read, but we were the most reading country in the world, and many of us read real, great literature — classics and so on.

But our thousand-year-old slavery, which was abolished in 1861, obviously has not gone away, it has not faded away, it is still with us. And this also was a certain ambiguity of ours — we are not slaves, but have we become civilised?

Was the interesting press of perestroika lost because of the commercialisation that happened to it?

It wasn't just about the money. In the post-perestroika period, the trend for Moskovskie Novosti went away, and they failed to be on the wave of the new time, besides, they were going from one owner to another. After all, Moskovskie Novosti, Ogoniok worked on the idea. Yes, Vzglyad's workers on television earned, as they said, four times less than on foreign broadcasting, but the romance, the desire for freedom attracted, and then yes, there appeared the opportunity to earn, and this is a purely human story.

In my opinion, if you are a citizen, you should have a filter in your soul, and you should be able to detach the main thing from the secondary. But it is not easy and it is a personal problem for everyone.

By Sergey Kochnev