When Soviet journalists interviewed President Reagan in the Oval Office last week, the U.S. president bluntly recounted the 1979 Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan, batted back a question on U.S. military operations abroad with an answer about Soviet-occupied Warsaw Pact countries and complained about the tight-lipped Kremlin approach to its own space-based missile defense program.
But when the interview appeared today in the official government newspaper Izvestia, such controversial responses were deleted, along with other passages where the U.S. president disputed official Soviet policy explanations. Reagan's offer to share "Star Wars" research was deleted also, in keeping with official depiction of his stance on the issue as hard-line and intractable.
Declaring that Moscow has "taken over the initiative in the political psychological preparations" for the coming summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, an extensive critique in Izvestia rebutted Reagan's defense of U.S. arms control policy point by point, and dismissed the interview as "nothing new," "propaganda" and a distortion of facts.
The rebuttal, which like the interview covered a page of the nationally distributed newspaper, was signed by Gennady Shishkin, Vsevolod Ovichinnikov, Stanislav Kondrashov, and Genrikh Borovik, the four journalists who interviewed the president last Thursday.
The splashy 19-page spread of Time magazine's cover-story interview with Gorbachev in August, with colorful pictures of the Soviet leader, dwarfed coverage of the Reagan interview in the official Soviet press.
Izvestia played the interview on page 4, without illustration. Moscow television's evening news program Vremya (Time) chose not to report the interview itself. Instead, following extensive reports on a new railroad line and other eye-glazing Soviet production news, a newscaster read a brief commentary on Reagan's remarks by Tass, the official news agency, that blasted the interview, calling it "contradictory."
Tass and the official Communist Party newspaper Pravda have not published the interview.
Despite cautious official treatment of the interview, marked by editing, heavy criticism, and low-key coverage, Muscovites have displayed interest in this rare direct exposure to a U.S. president's views.
Questioned near the Izvestia office in Moscow's Pushkin Square, where the evening newspaper is first distributed, several Soviets said they had come specifically to grab copies of the interview.
One young man said an announcement on this morning's Voice of America broadcast had alerted him to its appearance today.
Westerners in the Soviet capital seem pleased that the interview -- only the second the Soviet press has published with an American president -- appeared at all. Izvestia has a nationwide circulation of more than 7 million, in a country with a population of 270 million.
In 1961, Alexei Adzhubei, then editor of Izvestia and son-in-law of the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, interviewed president John F. Kennedy in Hyannis Port, Mass.
A comparison of the Russian-language version of the Reagan interview printed in Izvestia and the original English-language text, as distributed by the U.S. Embassy here, showed that Izvestia had printed most of the original, including Reagan's charges that Moscow has used force against foreign countries and has surpassed Washington in its development of nuclear and space weapons.
But there was no indication in Izvestia that the published interview was incomplete, and readers would have no way of knowing that portions of Reagan's responses were omitted.
Deputy Izvestia editor Nicholai Efimov told journalists at a reception here tonight that Izvestia ran the interview exactly as Tass' Washington office transmitted it Thursday.
Efimov said the four-day delay in publishing the interview was a result of technical production and distribution schedules, not disputes over its editing.
The rebuttal written by the four Soviet journalists also came through the Washington office, he said, and had to be edited for space reasons.
But remarks offensive to the Soviet Union or its allies, and comments that contradicted the official Soviet presentation of the Reagan administration's arms control positions as inflexible, were omitted.
Twice in the interview Reagan proposed to share Star Wars research with the Soviet Union, but neither offer appeared in Izvestia. Reagan's assurances that the United States would not deploy a space-strike weapon in violation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty was also omitted by Izvestia.
Recently the Soviet press has accused the Reagan administration of planning to violate the treaty, signed and ratified by both superpowers.
But the most striking omissions from the interview referred to controversial Soviet or Soviet-backed involvement in foreign conflicts. The following Reagan comments were cut out:
On Afghanistan: "The government which invited the Soviet troops in didn't have any choice, because the government was put there by the Soviet Union and put there with the force of arms to guarantee it. And in fact, the man who is the head of that government is the second choice. The first one wasn't satisfactory to the Soviet Union, and they came in with armed forces and threw him out and installed their second choice."
On the Vietnam War: "We left South Vietnam, and North Vietnam swept down, conquered the country, as I say, in violation of a treaty."
On Eastern Europe: The Warsaw Pact countries "were never allowed the self-determination that was agreed to in the Yalta treaty."
Izvestia's criticism of the interview described the arms control proposal outlined by Reagan as "covered with dust" and "one-sided" and characterized his plea for greater trust between the two countries as unconvincing.
In its most caustic retort, Izvestia rejected Reagan's explanation of the U.S. invasion of Grenada two years ago. It referred to the military action as "a bandit assault" on a sovereign state.
At the same time, a Tass commentary of the interview flatly opposed Reagan's contention that Soviet-backed military operations in Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia were main sources of tension in the U.S.-Soviet relationship.
"Nevertheless," the Tass commentary said, "the awareness of the need for extensive Soviet-U.S. dialogue is a positive development.