"PEOPLE say that the Russian media have gone back to the Soviet times," said Vyacheslav Lukyanov. "They forget what the media were like in the Soviet times." Mr Lukyanov, who edits a bi-monthly called Russia in Global Policy, is right. People, in and out of Russia; do say that about Russian media. He is also right that they are wrong: whatever Russian media are like, they are not like Soviet television.
In a battered, out-of-Moscow hotel room before Christmas, I turned on my television with 16 channels to catch DTV, which ran raunchy Playboy filmettes followed by a Jerry Springer show, dubbed in Russian. The main state channel was showing The Fog of War, a documentary based on the second thoughts of Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era former US defence secretary -- which, a Russian friend told me next morning, had caused him to reflect on the mess Russia had made of Chechnya. In the morning, the same channel carried a travel programme in which a bronzed and handsome commentator dilated, to a shivering Russia', on the joy of being in Capri in the late spring.
Soviet television, Mr Lukyanov reminded me, used to do pieces every Christmas from the US showing beggars outside department stores, with commentary saying that, under capitalism, the wealthy enjoyed the warmth while the poor begged outside. Now they show tourists cuddling in Italian cafes. It was, he thought, at once more pleasant and more accurate.
It is different in the provinces. Raita Sarayeva, who used to work on the daily Soviet Kalmykiya in the Russian Kalmyk Republic, said she and many others had left the paper since 1998. This was when Larisa Yugina, the editor, was murdered by assassins from a well-connected mafia gang who objected to the newspaper's campaign against corruption. "I had a family," she told me miserably. "Now nobody will work there because everyone thinks it's dangerous to oppose the people who run the place."
Her impression of her own region was underscored by a survey of Russia's democratic development published last month by the Institute of Social Expertise, which showed Kalmykia achieving a "very low" score for the democratic nature of its elections. Igor Yakovenko, the institute's director, said: "The difference between the levels of freedom among the different regions of Russia is greater, than that between any two countries of Europe." Kalmykiya and Saint Petersburg are more different from each other than Britain and Portugal".
I had met Ms Sarayeva at a conference for 120 journalists from all over Russia, organised every December by the Moscow School of Political Studies. I did a session on reporting and ended up by asking them how possible they thought it was to do it properly. Their responses fell into four categories.
First, it is possible, depending on where you are. Bad in Kalmykiya; not so bad in Tomsk; pretty good in Nizhny Novgorod. It brought to mind the way things were, until deep into the 20th century in the southern US, where colour bars were supported, or not much opposed, by many local newspapers or the way things still are in southern Italy, where anti-mafia journalism can still be a dangerous business.
Second, very little critical comment, from anyone, makes it to television. Most newspapers -- with exceptions such as the weekly Novaya Gazeta -- are pretty much controlled; radio is a bit freer. Big commentators, such as Alexei Pushkin, are heavily briefed by, and rarely stray far from, the Kremlin. Where television most differs from Soviet times is that it is very consumption-oriented; and opinions differed sharply on whether the new freedom of choice, at least for the burgeoning middle class, would also increase the desire for freedom of other kinds. We had a spirited exchange on whether Ikea, which has built out-of-town shopping palaces round a number of Russian cities, is a force for good. The consensus: it is good at selling furniture but needs help to spread civil society.
Third, self-censorship can be as bad a foe as fear of retribution, state or commercial control. "The most important barriers we have are within ourselves," said Alexei Mironov, editor of Togliatti Observer. "As editor, I get reporters coming back with stories I don't like and they say: 'Oh, we did this the way we thought you wanted it'. And I say: You must do it the way you see it."'
Fourth, they need better training. Lyubov Chilikova, the RIA-Novosti (wire service) correspondent in the Ulyanovsk region, said she covered everything politics, crime, science and sport and often did not understand what she was covering. Shell had put on a seminar for reporters in her region, in which it explained what it was doing: - a rare event, she said. Journalists' training is narrow; official explanations often sparse, self-serving and badly organised. But at least the journalists recognise the problem.
Post-Soviet Russians differ on everything and these post-Soviet broadcasters, editors and writers disagreed, often passionately, on whether or not their country had a democratic system and a civil society. Those -- the majority -- who thought these attributes were at best embryonic, doubted whether journalism could be free without them. But they wanted it to be free and thought it could be. That is the big hope.
FT Syndication Service