The death of glasnost: How Russia's attempt at openness failed

By Ann Cooper on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, right, talks with his brother and co-defendant Oleg inside a defendants' cage during a court hearing in Moscow on December 30, 2014. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Before Maidan, before Tahrir Square, before the "color revolutions" that overthrew entrenched autocrats, there was the Soviet revolution of the late 1980s.

Perhaps it should be called the Stealth Revolution. This revolution unfolded over years, not weeks or months, and not through angry demonstrations but in newspapers and on TV, where journalists uncovered mountains of information long kept secret by the Soviet Communist Party.

The catalyst for the revolution was the party leader himself, Mikhail Gorbachev. He was no human rights activist; his calls for freer speech never invoked the grand promises of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Gorbachev, glasnost--as he called his policy of greater openness--was realpolitik. He had inherited a system encumbered by corruption and in danger of economic collapse. The country needed changes, badly. But to build support and pressure for those changes, Gorbachev would have to let people see some of the problems that his Communist Party had so zealously hidden from public view.

And so, in the mid-1980s, glasnost was begun as a bold experiment to allow more freedom while trying to maintain party control over what could be made public and what would still be decreed secret.

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It didn't work as Gorbachev planned. The party soon lost control, thanks in part to courageous journalists who pushed the boundaries of freedom well beyond the lines Gorbachev tried to maintain.

By 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved by Gorbachev, media in Russia were as lively--and seemingly as unfettered--as those in the freest Western societies. They had helped foil a coup attempt that year, earning the respect and gratitude of millions. The stage seemed set for a new era--perhaps even for the "bright future" that Soviet communism endlessly promised yet never delivered.

But almost a quarter-century on, only remnants are left of that golden media era, and the few outlets still publishing bold, independent work are under constant threat. Vladimir Putin, now in his 15th year as Russian leader, has systematically dismantled independent media and rolled up press freedoms within his own country.

How is it possible that the powerful journalism born in the glasnost era has become endangered? The answer lies in the legacy of Soviet journalism and in the actions of Russian journalists themselves. And it lies in the post-Soviet global shifts that have created a new form of autocrat, dubbed by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon "the democratators," who embrace the trappings of democracy "while working surreptitiously to subvert it."

*****

In 1986, the year after Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, an explosion rocked the Chernobyl power station in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. Today it is impossible to imagine that such a catastrophe could be covered up, but that is exactly what the party attempted to do.

For three days, no word of the Chernobyl accident appeared in Soviet media, which was in the party's iron grip. Soviet journalists were Communist Party members, editors were reliable party stalwarts, and an entire censorship bureaucracy called Glavlit backed up the system of control.

Even after Europe began detecting signs of radiation wafting over the continent, the party's instructions on how to report Chernobyl were strict. Soviet media could tell their audiences only what had been issued by the official Tass news agency: "An accident has occurred at Chernobyl nuclear-power station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged," and steps were being taken "to eliminate the consequences."

It was the classic obfuscating language in which Soviet media had addressed the Soviet people for decades. But reading between the lines in Moscow, Vladimir Gubarev, science editor at Pravda, could tell that whatever had happened in Chernobyl was a major catastrophe. He told one of the newspaper's correspondents in Kiev to get to the scene, but the reporter was stopped by police and KGB.

Gubarev himself took a train to Ukraine, where he encountered utter panic. In the absence of information and any kind of government action, rumors abounded. "People were storming the trains leaving Kiev," he told the BBC a few years later in an interview for its remarkable series on the Gorbachev years, "The Second Russian Revolution."

Gubarev returned to Moscow and shared his findings with editors but also requested a private meeting with Gorbachev and his closest ally in the Politburo, Alexander Yakovlev. The two party leaders asked him to write a more detailed report for their eyes only. The scathing account he delivered, Gubarev later told the BBC, was "the best thing I've ever written."

"The main reason for the panic in Kiev is the lack of information," Gubarev wrote. "Nothing about what had happened, not even on radiation in the city, not one Ukrainian leader has appeared on TV to explain."

Gubarev's report was full of the kind of criticism and truth-telling that might once have landed him a spot in the gulag. His harshest assessments were not included in the article he published in Pravda, though they informed a highly critical play he published the next year, Sarcophagus. The report's real impact was behind the scenes, where it helped influence the party to be more open about Chernobyl. The accident, though shrouded in secrecy at first, eventually marked the beginning of a broader easing of censorship and secrecy.

One of the early signs of change was a new television program, "Spotlight of Perestroika," which began airing after the staid nightly news program "Vremya." Each episode of "Spotlight" focused on bureaucratic bungling or malfeasance: Who was responsible for tons of tomatoes being left to rot on a ship in Astrakhan? Why were there constant shortages of popular newspapers?

These 10-minute stories were reported by journalists who were part of the system that had obeyed, in lockstep, the Chernobyl directive earlier in Gorbachev's term. In fact, their "Spotlight" stories were still carrying out the party's wishes. But now what the party wanted looked a lot more like investigative journalism than cover-up and propaganda.

"The perception of the role of journalists is obviously changing through such programmes" as "Spotlight of Perestroika," noted the authors of a 1989 book, Gorbachev and Gorbachevism.

The mini-investigations of "Spotlight" pointed the finger at individuals and specific offices but not at the Communist system. In that sense, they served Gorbachev's goal of reforming the system without overturning it.

But once the rules were eased, journalists began to explore well beyond mini-documentaries about bad bureaucrats. Pushing this process were middle-aged editors such as Yegor Yakovlev at Moscow News and Vitaly Korotich of Ogonyok.

In their younger years, Yakovlev and Korotich had been deeply affected by Nikita Khrushchev's 1960s "thaw." When Khrushchev was ousted and repression returned, they went along with party rules, rising through the journalistic ranks until, under Gorbachev, they were appointed to positions that gave them real opportunities to test glasnost.

Yakovlev and Korotich created two of the liveliest glasnost-era publications by exploring a host of once-forbidden topics. Ogonyok's 1987 series on Afghanistan revealed for the first time the deprivation and death faced by young Soviet soldiers sent to fight there. Moscow News dared to publish a letter from Soviet émigrés, calling on Gorbachev to withdraw from Afghanistan. Unvarnished truths and criticisms of official policies were brand-new features in Soviet journalism, and circulation figures for Moscow News and Ogonyok soared.

So did circulation at other publications that began to explore a broad range of social problems. Street gangs and prostitutes were profiled, and issues such as homelessness, pollution, and AIDS were written about honestly for the first time. It was possible, in the late-1980s Soviet media, to read about life as it was actually lived. There were far fewer airbrushed party accounts, in which crime barely existed and economic plans routinely exceeded expectations and were often completed well ahead of schedule.

Some who warmly embraced glasnost reporting had worked obediently in the old system, but many were young people who had not known the censor's constraints. Ogonyok had some of the best new reporters, and, in a 1987 interview with The New York Times, Korotich explained his mandate to them: "I told the staff: 'I don't want you bringing in articles on anything you don't talk about at home. If a subject does not interest you, it does not interest me.'"

A combination of veteran journalists and newcomers were also breathing life into state-controlled broadcasting, where some of the more innovative programming came on late-night TV shows such as "Vzglyad" and "Before and After Midnight." They mixed and matched genres--talk, entertainment, hard-hitting storytelling--that riveted audiences and caused frequent journalistic sensations.

One of the biggest outcries followed a 1989 "Vzglyad" appearance by a liberal theater director who suggested that Lenin's embalmed body should be removed from Red Square and buried. Days later, the program was the focus of a Central Committee meeting during which many party leaders argued that "Vzglyad"--and perhaps Gorbachev, too--had gone too far with glasnost.

In fact, the glasnost years were beset by push-and-pull, with journalists pushing into new, once-forbidden topics and party leaders trying, sometimes successfully, to pull them back. The most contentious topics were often those that reexamined dark moments in Soviet history.

But the movement for greater freedom, for more spotlights on more dark secrets, continued to advance. By August 1991, when hardline conservatives put Gorbachev under house arrest, banned most national newspapers, and surrounded the state broadcasting house with tanks, many journalists vowed that they would not get away with it. Some worked together to publish underground papers in Moscow. TV journalists conspired to sneak one story onto the air showing Boris Yeltsin and his supporters defying the hardliners.

These efforts helped persuade the coup leaders to stand down; within three days the putsch had ended and Gorbachev was back in power--until the end of 1991, when he declared that the Soviet Union was over and stepped down.

Glasnost had opened up the system, allowed it to be deeply examined, and produced an information revolution that "swept across Soviet existence, touching every nook of daily life, battering hoary myths and lies, and ultimately eroding the foundations of Soviet power," wrote journalist Scott Shane in his 1994 book Dismantling Utopia.

Having helped to thwart a coup and topple an empire, what was next for journalists?

*****

Russian media entered the post-Soviet era staffed with a cadre of energetic young journalists who had helped build huge audiences for their work. More young people were eager to join the profession. Whistleblowers sought out the media, and investigative exposés of sensitive topics--corruption in the military, financial malfeasance by elected leaders--were vigorously pursued.

Journalistically, Russian media had a lot going for them. What they did not have, though, was an economic model.

Under the Soviet system, every media outlet belonged to the state or to a party institution. Newspapers cost a few kopecks--the equivalent of pocket change--and had no advertising; government and party subsidies kept papers in business.

When Soviet-era subsidies began to dry up, editors scrambled for survival. Reporters sometimes went months without pay. Some sought economic salvation in a practice that came to be known as zakazukha, taking money to write a story on demand. The story might be a promotion of a new business--or a smear of a political enemy. The buyer told the news organization what he or she wanted.

Another economic model involved investors with new fortunes made in the Wild West privatization program of the early 1990s, when lucrative Soviet assets, such as state-owned oil companies, were sold off. Two of these oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, built media empires in the 1990s that included Russia's first independent TV channels, Berezovsky's ORT (formerly state TV's Channel One) and Gusinsky's NTV.

In a country of 11 time zones, national TV is Russia's most important news medium--and now it had two channels that were not controlled by the state. NTV in particular built a reputation for hard-hitting journalism, with its Sunday-night political analysis show "Itogi" and its graphic coverage of the 1994 war in Chechnya. Frontline images beamed back by NTV's scrappy young war correspondents "shocked Russians, who had never seen war played out on their television screens before," wrote Peter Baker and Susan Glasser in Kremlin Rising.

Oligarch financing did not come without strings attached, though. Although journalists were left alone to report independently on most topics, Berezovsky and Gusinsky also used their TV stations to settle political scores. It was increasingly obvious to the public, watching a political attack or reading a zakazukha story, that Russian journalism was far from genuine independence.

Then, in 1996, as Boris Yeltsin ran a tough race for re-election, professional ethics seemed to be abandoned altogether by some prominent media houses, particularly NTV.

Yeltsin, a hero when the 1991 coup was thwarted, had turned into a disastrous leader for post-Soviet Russia--so much so that significant numbers of voters were now nostalgic for their communist past. A victory by the Communist Party was unthinkable to many journalists; their response to that possibility was to ignore Yeltsin's faults and cover him in glowing terms that contrasted sharply with their dark portrayal of his Communist rival.

NTV went the furthest, sending one of its founders to work on Yeltsin's campaign at the same time that he continued his duties at the TV channel. "The NTV crew rationalized its pro-Yeltsin advocacy by concluding that the return of the communists would mean the end of free press," wrote Baker and Glasser.

Yeltsin was returned to office, but Russian journalism's image was permanently tainted. Although there were still media outlets doing strong investigative journalism and accountability coverage of government, by the late 1990s much of the Russian public had grown disenchanted with the media--only a decade after their heroic role in glasnost.

*****

Yeltsin abruptly resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, anointing the little-known Vladimir Putin as his successor. In the scramble to learn about this mysterious new leader--a former KGB officer and aide to St. Petersburg's mayor--three Russian journalists sat down with him for a series of interviews, published in early 2000 as a book-length Q&A, First Person.

In one exchange, the journalists raised the case of reporter Andrei Babitsky, whose coverage of the second Chechen War was highly critical of the Russian military. Babitsky, a Russian, wrote for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty, and the military had arrested him in Chechnya just days after Putin took office. In the First Person interviews, Putin made it clear that he considered the reporter an enemy collaborator.

He began a thought on this: "What really happens to people when they fight on the side of the enemy ..."

One of his interviewers interrupted: "Journalists don't fight."

Putin's response: "What Babitsky did is much more dangerous than firing a machine gun."

Putin's anger at critical media coverage is far from unique among world leaders. But whereas others may only fume, Putin shows little hesitation in taking bare-knuckled action to silence critics. In the absence of strong public support and an independent justice system, media owners and their journalists in Russia have found that they have little protection once they are targeted.

Under Putin, actions against the press often come in the guise of regulatory enforcement. An early example was the raid by masked, gun-toting "tax police" on Vladimir Gusinsky's media empire in early 2000.

In some cases, targets allege that they have been given hardball choices behind closed doors. After going into exile in 2000, Gusinsky and Berezovsky each alleged that the Putin administration had forced them to choose between jail and giving up their media holdings. Both surrendered their companies and fled the country, allowing eventual state takeover of the once-independent NTV and ORT channels.

In her book Putin's Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha suggests that Gusinsky and Berezovsky were complicated poster children for press freedom. "The idea that a free media was intrinsic to a democracy meant nothing to [Putin], who had seen television used by oligarchs in their own battles with each other and with the Kremlin," she wrote. But the more Putin spoke about his views on media, the clearer it became, wrote Dawisha, that, "for Putin, taking a stand against a state policy was equivalent to spewing disinformation."

In the years since the takeovers of NTV and ORT, the space for free speech and independent media in Russia has continued to shrink. New laws--or regulatory inspections designed as harassment--have been used repeatedly to target outspoken media. Phone calls from the Kremlin can persuade a business to withdraw advertising from a news outlet deemed unfriendly to Putin's policies. Self-censorship is one of the few ways to protect against such repression.

And sometimes the risks are more grave. The justice system under Putin has failed to pursue those who have murdered journalists in reprisal for their hard-hitting investigations. Although there is no evidence that the government is linked to the murders, even prominent cases that have prompted global protests, such as the 2004 murder of Russian-American Paul Klebnikov and the apparent contract killing of Novaya Gazeta's Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, remain unsolved.

Russia's 2014 involvement in post-revolution Ukraine has opened a new era of media repression. The largest national TV channels, all owned by the state or Kremlin sympathizers, cover the story as a necessary, patriotic effort to protect Russians in eastern Ukraine from alleged persecution by the new government in Kiev. Media outlets that deviate from that line, or report critically on Russian military actions in Ukraine, are labeled traitors or fifth columnists. Putin, for his part, has countered criticism of Russian media bias by saying that it is Western coverage that is biased.

In light of the relentless actions of Putin's government over the last15 years, perhaps the most surprising thing to say about independent media in Russia is that it still exists.

Analysts have long puzzled, for example, over the survival of the Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy, which has operated continuously since 1990. Some argue that Putin allows Ekho, Novaya Gazeta, and a handful of other critical outlets to stay in business so he can say that Russia has independent media.

CPJ's Joel Simon suggests another explanation. Democratators like Putin, Simon wrote in The New Censorship, "do not seek to exercise absolute control over the media because they recognize that to achieve this in the Internet age they would have to close their societies to the world." Instead, Simon contends, the democratators have learned to "manage" the media through "national security prosecutions, punitive tax audits, manipulation of government advertising," and other methods.

Putin's skills at media management--and manipulation--are indeed impressive. Another technique he developed for muting criticism was to pour tens of millions of state rubles into RT and Sputnik--English-language TV and digital mouthpieces for the Kremlin that laud Russia while vigorously attacking the West, particularly the U.S. Even the Internet, where critical bloggers have been less subject to repression than traditional journalists have, looks increasingly vulnerable in the wake of new Kremlin-supported laws.

Protests against these moves are relatively small and nearly always unsuccessful, perhaps because the Kremlin has seemingly convinced much of the Russian public that the West seeks nothing short of Russia's economic and political collapse. That message was hammered home throughout 2014 in media coverage blaming Western sanctions (in retaliation for Ukraine) and a Western-led information war for most of the country's problems.

Putin's continued high ratings in public opinion polls indicate that the message has been accepted--and not just at home. His democratator techniques have been adopted in Turkey, Hungary, and elsewhere by leaders who seek new, more nuanced tools for stifling their critics.

The danger, of course, is that the story of the rise and fall of the independent Russian media will be viewed by such leaders not as a cautionary tale but instead as a successful model for containing and manipulating the flow of information.

Ann Cooper is a professor at Columbia Journalism School; from 1998-2006 she was executive director of CPJ, and before that she was a foreign correspondent for NPR, including serving as Moscow bureau chief from 1987 to 1991.

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