Washington, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russians outside of Moscow are reading ever fewer newspapers than they did in the past. But when they do, they increasingly are turning to the local and regional press rather than to papers published in the Russian capital, a shift certain to affect not only the regions but the country as a whole.
In the regions, this shift from national publications to local ones means that regional officials frequently are able to control the press more easily than can the authorities in Moscow, precisely because they can and do act without much outside oversight.
Not only does that reduce the flow of information to people in the regions and the power of the media to serve as a watchdog over the behavior of local officials, but it also and perhaps more importantly means that readers may come to adopt the perspective of local officials on many issues, including those of national import.
And in Russia as a whole, this shift means that the central press is likely to be ever less influential in promoting national identity and debate. And it also suggests that the central press will thus be ever less important as a guide to developments in the country as a whole or as an indication of the thinking of the Russian people.
Just how dramatic this shift has been is suggested in research by British scholar Graeme P. Herd. In a monograph recently published in Great Britain, he noted that during Soviet times, national publications dominated the print media scene.
Thus, in 1990, for example, national publications accounted for 71 percent of the total circulation, with local papers occupying only a 29 percent share. But in 1998, these figures were nearly reversed: National publications accounted for only 30 percent of the total, while local publications represented 70 percent of the total.
On the one hand, this represents a turning away from the increasingly expensive press to television and radio. In some parts of the Russian Federation, for instance, there is only one copy of a national newspaper daily for every 1,000 residents, a figure that means there are only two or three copies of local ones.
But on the other, it marks the further fragmentation of what many Russians call their "information space." In Soviet times, the press gave Russians a union-wide perspective on developments, one that encouraged them to think of the USSR as a whole as "theirs" and that limited their ability to organize a national movement.
Now, with the press providing an increasingly local perspective, it is having a similar effect but from the other direction: It is causing ever more Russians outside of the capital to think about the interests of a territory smaller than the country as a whole, something regional leaders are quick to exploit.
Indeed, this pattern is very much on view inside Moscow, itself increasingly a region rather than simply the capital of the country. There, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has sponsored his own newspaper and called for subsidies to a television channel which broadcasts local news.
While he calls his newspaper "Russia" and thus appears to be trying to reach a national audience, in fact, Luzhkov's media offering reflects his views and those of his region rather than the country as a whole. Thus, it too both reflects and promotes the fragmentation of the country's information space.
Overcoming this fragmentation in the media will not be easy, but unless it is addressed, Russia like other large countries may see a decline in shared views about what constitutes the national interest or even the nation. And that psychological shift seems certain to make politics in Russia more rather than less difficult in the future.