"What is the news?"
My "colleague" from the Soviet press agency, Novosti, responds by calling out the stories from Pravda: the cleanup continues at Chernobyl, the miners have exceeded their quota, the editorial concerns navigation of the rivers. He puts down the paper. What more do I need to know?
I am isolated. News junkie that I am, I am forced to cold turkey in Russia. In the lobby of the Yevropeiskaya Hotel, a grand prerevolutionary affair, newspapers are sold, but only two are in English. The first is the successor to the old Daily Worker. I skip it in favor of the second, the English-language Moscow News. It announces that Kiev has won the European Soccer Cup, a "poisoned cloud of anti-Sovietism" has swept the West in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, and there is a dispatch from Alexander Makhov in Managua, Nicaragua. Among other things, he reports that "shops and restaurants are full of customers." Only in the Soviet press is Tin Pan Alley vindicated: At last, "Managua, Nicaragua, is a wonderful town."
News, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder I happen to visit is the news director for Leningrad television. Her name is Helen Kaloyarova. With her fat cigarettes and breezy manner, she evokes a Russian Lauren Bacall. I ask her what story will lead the evening news. She is considering two, she says. The first is the completion of a ship by Leningrad shipbuilders, and the second -- even more gripping -- concerns the meeting here of a peace organization.
This is news? Where are the murders of Leningrad? Where are the rapes? How about fires and traffic accidents, lying politicians, thieving civil servants, the arrival in town of a famous television actress with a career in half-life to match her IQ. That's news, I tell her. Who cares about a ship?
We are both ostensibly in the same business, but our assumptions are entirely different. The ship is important, the director explains, because the new economic plan calls for more ships. The peace delegation is important because, well, peace is important. Her station covers the municipal government, corruption and crime, too. Once a month, a policeman appears to review the situation. This much is certain: If today a certain Raskolnikov took an ax to a certain old lady, Dostoevski could take his sweet time writing it and still have an exclusive.
What news comes to me from the English-language service of Radio Moscow is almost obsessively concerned with -- and hostile to -- the United States. In recent days, the reporting of the Chernobyl disaster in the Western -- particularly the American -- press has seemed to be as big a story as the accident itself. Some Western correspondents, many from communist newspapers, were allowed to visit Kiev. Their reports, uniformly optimistic and cheerful, have been repeatedly aired. Not a one of them is quoted as saying that, not being experts, he or she is in no position to judge radiation damage. Like hotel maids, rather than reporters, they affix a "Sanitized" label to a whole region and leave it at that.
Is the average Russian reassured by the testimony of people who saw the truth before they left Moscow? No foreigner knows, if only because few really know the average Russian. But in the end, people tend to believe their own government. It is, after all, theirs. On streets here, people line up for Pravda. In some cases the lines are as long as those for the first beer of the day. Constantly, from television, radio and newspapers, a single line of information is articulated. Russia begins where Tevye of "Fiddler on the Roof" left off: Here, there is no other hand.
It would be stretching it to argue that the Soviet news media are the mirror opposite of America's. But just as it is instructive to hear your favorite ball club described by the announcers from the other city, so, too, is it instructive to read and watch the Soviet media. It is true, after all, that the United States bombed Libya, shelled Lebanon, invaded Grenada, sponsors the overthrow of the recognized governments of both Nicaragua and Angola and continues to test nuclear weapons. The news from home is not good.
Soon the white nights will come to Leningrad. Already, a blue light, like that cast by a dying fluorescent bulb, persists until midnight. Peter the Great built this city for two reasons -- to have a graceful, European-style capital and to open a "window on the West." He only partly succeeded. The city is beautiful, but the window is closed tight.