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Russia: 300th Press Anniversary Celebrated

  • Gregory Feifer

This year marks the official 300th anniversary of the Russian press, which Tsar Peter the Great set rolling with a decree calling for the creation of the state's first newspaper. Censorship has been a common aspect of the Russian press ever since. While the last decade has seen unprecedented progress, there is already a growing nostalgia for the first few years following the collapse of the Soviet Union -- a period marked by unparalleled media freedom and creativity. Since then, critics say, media outlets have been snapped up by influential business interests and the state has once again begun to wield its heavy hand.

Moscow, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Three hundred years ago, Peter the Great forced Russia to confront changes that had slowly taken place over the previous century, such as the development of a large bureaucracy, to help govern the growing territory.

To bring the country's lagging laws and customs into line, Peter imported many ideas from the West. Among them was the initiative for Russia's first newspaper, which he founded by decree in 1702. Previously, only the narrow circles of the court read papers, which were written by hand for them.

The modest first newspaper, "Vedomosti," was launched the following year -- the same year as the founding of the tsar's most enduring symbol, the city of St. Petersburg. "Vedomosti" was based on translations from Dutch newspapers. Peter helped edit the copy himself.

Russia began marking the press's tercentenary this month with an archival exhibit in central Moscow. The exhibit begins with a facsimile of the 300-year-old first issue of "Vedomosti" and includes a number of other centuries-old publications as well as Soviet-era propaganda.

Speaking at the exhibit's opening, Aleksandr Muzykansky, the head of press affairs for the Moscow city administration, described the predominant role censorship has played in the history of Russian journalism.

"In the 300 years of the history of the Russian press, there have been all of a few tiny, tiny periods when it enjoyed freedom. The rest of the time, it was the unimpeded rule of censorship."

Two of those brief periods, Muzykansky added, came after the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. One of the items on display at the press exhibit is a 1917 decree by the Bolshevik regime vowing to establish the "most liberal" press laws as soon as the political situation allowed. "Many generations waited for that period until 1990 -- just about 70 years," Muzykansky says.

Even those rulers who encouraged liberalization at the beginning of their reigns often cracked down on freedoms later on.

Empress Catherine the Great -- who befriended French Enlightenment philosophers and urged the establishment of Russia's first European-style journal -- in 1790 imprisoned the man considered to be Russia's first intellectual, Aleksandr Radishchev, for his criticism of serfdom. The empress also jailed publisher Nikolai Novikov, who helped pioneer printing in Russia.

Perhaps the country's most famous journalist, Aleksandr Herzen -- an outspoken advocate of social reform -- lived in internal exile in the 19th century before spending the second half of his life abroad.

Censorship reached its greatest prevalence under the Soviet Union, especially during the rule of dictator Josef Stalin, who had countless millions imprisoned and killed. By 1930, journalism essentially became a tool for propaganda wielded unyieldingly by the Communist Party.

That radically changed in Mikhail Gorbachev's era of glasnost beginning in the late 1980s. Finally free to write and say what they wanted, journalists fueled an explosion of reporting and commentary on the radical changes taking place in the country.

Westerners were quick to point out that Russian journalism deviated from their own standards of objectivity and style, but many in the profession today look back at that period with nostalgia.

Muzykansky, of the Moscow city administration, says the media played a major role in the collapse of communism in 1991.

"[The press] played a key role in the changes that took place 10 years ago. It is one of the largest gains amid the general freedom of the changing world we received as a result of common efforts over the past 10 years."

Muzykansky says the Russian press has since developed under the most liberal laws on media the country has ever seen -- but quickly adds that journalism has not withstood the "test of freedom."

Under former President Boris Yeltsin last decade, the press increasingly fell prey to the country's wild business and political practices. Powerful new businessmen snapped up media outlets and used them mercilessly to promote the politicians and ideas they supported.

That tendency backfired against Kremlin opponents after President Vladimir Putin's election in 2000. State-controlled media have since come under increasingly strict control as those seen as disloyal have been pushed out of their jobs. A number of independent media have meanwhile faced ruinous lawsuits.

A particular blow came in April 2001, when a state-controlled company forcibly took control over the media empire of tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, a Kremlin opponent who now lives in exile. His holdings included independent NTV television, then considered the country's best.

This year, former NTV journalists were only able to keep their jobs at another station, TV6, by submitting to the oversight of a consortium of Kremlin-friendly politicians and businessmen.

Journalists have meanwhile been urged to exercise "self-censorship" and been barred from covering sensitive subjects, especially the war in Chechnya. This month, Press Minister Mikhail Lesin admonished journalists not to "mix freedom with permissiveness."

Reporters have also been subjected to physical attacks and murder, usually linked to their coverage of political dealings in Russia's regions. This month, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters without Borders named Russia the world's most dangerous country for journalists.

Yasen Zassursky is the elder statesman of Russian journalism. Dean of the country's top training ground -- Moscow State University's journalism school -- he says Russian journalism today is nonetheless continuing in the tradition of Peter the Great, as an "information window" to the West.

But he adds that the media face an uphill battle.

"The golden age of our journalism was perhaps not long -- I think it was in the period from 1991 to 1992, when our journalists freed themselves from the heavy hands of [state censors] and the Communist Party, and hadn't yet fallen into the stronger hands of press owners -- those called 'oligarchs.'"

Zassursky says the current situation is "difficult," but adds that the press is doing well under the circumstances.

"The history of our Russian journalism is the history of journalists resisting censorship and pressure, and that's the history of free speech. The word of journalists was free in the 18th century, in the 19th century, and the 20th century. And I think that, notwithstanding all the difficulties of our era in the development of Russian democracy, ours has become the freest press in Russia, and maybe not just in Russia."

Others are even more upbeat. Moscow city archivist Lyudmila Smirnova, who helped curate the press exhibit, says she is happy with the state of the press today.

"Today, everyone can select from the press whatever he likes and accepts. I think that's normal. Everyone reads the paper he likes and which corresponds to his views. We now have a choice and I think that's not bad at all."

Zassursky of Moscow State University meanwhile urged for the country's liberal press laws, adopted in 1991, not to be changed -- something increasing numbers of politicians are now demanding.

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