MOSCOW — Throughout the contentious summer of 1991, when the control and thus direction of the Soviet Union seemed to be up for grabs, the press here was pushing hard against the unwritten boundaries of glasnost.
Glasnost, said President Mikhail Gorbachev, meant openness. What he had in mind was a license to be honest about the shortcomings of Soviet society, and about the best ways to fix them. Reporters and editors took this to mean freedom of the press, which is another principle altogether.
As they pushed, they created the first unfettered press in Russia’s history, just in time for the showdown between reformers and their hard-line opponents that was fast approaching. Twenty years ago, Moscow was witnessing a flowering of argument, reporting, digging, exposing, vituperating. That bloom has long since faded, but it was dazzling at the time.
Newspapers were the most unbridled. By 1991 they had been exploring the dark corners of Soviet history and of the Soviet present for several years. Newcomers competed for attention, from giveaway sheets handed out in the Moscow subways to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, or the Independent Newspaper, founded in late 1990 and beholden to neither the government nor any outpost of the Communist Party.
As always, the government was considerably more concerned about broadcast than print. The national television news reports were full of stories about the grain harvest, with plenty of emphasis on tractors and threshers. That was safer than trying to navigate the intricacies and double-dealing of Kremlin politics, especially as Gorbachev veered first one way and then another.
In the newly renamed Saint Petersburg, TV reporters tried to get serious, with some hard-hitting reports. Gorbachev was not amused. He wanted reform but he wanted to lead it. He took the station under his control, infuriating the city’s liberal mayor, Anatoly Sobchak.
An experiment in radio fared a little better. For a year, a small station called Ekho Moskvy, or Echo of Moscow, had been reporting and commenting on the news. Among reformers, in particular, it was a sensation. For the first time, they felt, they didn’t have to listen to the BBC or Radio Liberty to find out what was really going on. Ekho built a tremendously loyal audience — which it has retained to this day.
The climax arrived Aug. 19, when conservative communists launched a coup against Gorbachev. At first it looked like it might succeed. Nonetheless, the newspapers kept publishing. Ekho Moskvy was taken off the air three times, but three times it came back on. National television, as its contribution, broadcast “Swan Lake.”
After the coup collapsed the Soviet press was stronger than ever. Well, not every outlet: Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin quickly banned Pravda, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. (In short order it was reconstituted and reappeared, eventually under the ownership of a Greek businessman.)
But newspapers, magazines and independent television companies flourished. Competition was fierce. In the early 1990s the TV news brought startling revelations seemingly every night. Russians were ill-advised not to watch.
The past 10 years, though, have not been kind to the media. A man who was once Sobchak’s protégé, Vladimir Putin, rose to power and methodically brought the press to heel. Today a single newspaper, called Novaya Gazeta, is free to report what it likes; with a small circulation it is a useful counter-example for a Kremlin that is regularly accused of not allowing free expression. A handful of its reporters have been murdered over the past few years, however.
Ekho Moskvy still broadcasts to the city of Moscow, and is as wily and independent as ever.
But Putin, like his Soviet predecessors, is primarily focused on television — and Russian viewers today will not glimpse even a faint stirring of independence or criticism.