Accessibility links

Breaking News

Patron Saint Of Russian Journalism Despairs Over Putin's Television

Yasen Zasursky on September 15

MOSCOW -- If Russian journalism has a patron saint, his name is Yasen Zasursky.

The ailing 85-year-old headed the Moscow State University (MGU) journalism department for more than 40 years before becoming its president emeritus in 2007.

The roster of respected journalists who received their diplomas from him is astounding: Yury Shchekochikhin, longtime investigative journalist who died suddenly and mysteriously with symptoms resembling acute poisoning in 2003; Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2006; Mikhail Beketov, the former muckraking editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda who died in 2013 of injuries suffered when he was savagely beaten in 2008; and many others.

But Zasursky is far from impressed by the work of others who have taken his courses -- and are now stars of Russian state television under the government of President Vladimir Putin.

In fact, he is deeply disheartened.

Watch Zasursky Interview

"It is unpleasant for me to see what they are conveying," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It is pointless trying to get your information from television. Everything there is official announcements. There is nothing analytical, so you risk being turned into a person with blinders on."

"There isn't even one journalist there who I would say has his own opinions," he adds.

It is a harsh assessment coming from someone who devoted his entire life to producing his country's journalists.

Zasursky cringes a bit when told that one of his students, state TV news presenter Ernest Matskyavichyus, recently declared that Russia is in the throes of an information war and journalists must reject formerly accepted international standards of journalism. "Let's remember how journalism was in 1942," in the midst of World War II, Matskyavichyus said. "Did they present both sides of the story -- interview one side and then the other in turns?"

Matskyavichyus was "an excellent student," Zasursky says.

"But, no, I don't agree with that," Zasursky says of the Vesti presenter's rejection of one of the basic principles of balanced journalism. "People are only disarmed when they have insufficient or incomplete information. Then we have surrendered even before the enemy attacks."

Dmitry Kiselyov
Dmitry Kiselyov

He is at a loss to explain the popularity of another MGU graduate -- Dmitry Kiselyov, who heads the Rossiya Segodnya state media conglomerate and dispenses anti-Western venom as the host of a weekly news round-up on state-run Rossia television.

"He was an interesting journalist," Zasursky says of Kiselyov. "Was."

"He was a very smart young man," he continues. "He wrote some very smart things. But now he is simply repeating various ideas. And that has nothing to do with journalism. A journalist must help people to understand events. He must not only convey information, but knowledge as well."

"I wouldn't say [Kiselyov] is highly esteemed in the circles that I move in," Zasursky adds. "I guess he is just a highly skilled propagandist."

Zasursky is an admirer of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, whose glasnost reforms in the late 1980s resulted in a golden age for journalists. He is less enthusiastic about former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who he says was unable to bring Gorbachev's reforms to fruition.

"At the critical moment, he was lost," Zasursky says, adding that although Putin has accomplished some positive things, Yeltsin's decision to name him successor was "not the optimal path" for the country.

Zasursky has seen a lot in his long life. Born in 1929, he has lived in Moscow his entire life except the time he spent in evacuation in Barnaul, Siberia, during World War II. He graduated from the Moscow State Pedagogical University of

Foreign Languages in 1948 with a specialization in English. He got his doctorate in 1967 with a dissertation on 20th-century American literature.

He joined the journalism faculty of Moscow State University in 1955 and served as its dean from 1965 until 2007.

In recent months, he has suffered from health problems and has been confined to a wheelchair. But he says he is feeling better and is optimistic that he will be on his feet again by the New Year.

As for the fate of honest journalists under Putin's government, he is less optimistic. He recalls how in the 1950s he worked as an editor for the Foreign Literature publishing house and how the firm gave translation work to Soviet poets who couldn't be published for political reasons.

"Not all those poets were...appreciated, in a manner of speaking," Zasursky says. "But it was allowed to give them translations and they made a living on that. Maybe [journalists now] should do translations. I think it is possible to find some intellectual work."