The 25-year-old Moscow journalist Dimitri (Dima) Babich began his journalistic career with Komsomolskaya Pravda in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time when journalists were at the forefront of the enormous changes sweeping Soviet society. They were the public's mentors, read by millions of devoted readers - Komsomolskaya Pravda held a place in the "Guinness Book of World Records" as the largest-circulation daily newspaper in the world, distributing twenty-three million copies.
When the economic crisis hit in 1991-92, circulations collapsed, and costs soared. Material want pushed many independent or semi-independent newspapers back into the arms of the state, or sent them fleeing to the powerful corporations that were the key new players on the national media scene. Babich's newspaper underwent an internal upheaval typical of the times. KP was swept up in the ownership struggles and corporate intrigues. It was eventually taken over by Oneximbank, the corporation that would join forces with a large gas enterprise, Lukoil, to seize control of the semi-independent Izvestia in July 1997.
Babich eventually decided that broadcast media offered greater freedom and interest. He left the written press to work as a special correspondent with TV6, the closest thing to an independent national television network in Russia. In an interview at his Moscow apartment, conducted in English on 20 May 1997, Babich ranged widely and eloquently over the transformations of Russian journalism since the heady days of glasnost.
[Note: You can write to Dima Babich directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
What do you think are the motivations of the Oneximbanks and Gazproms and Lukoils for this recent wave of media investments and takeovers? Are they just looking for something to do with their money? Do they seek prestige or political power through newspapers?
In Russia, it's a legacy of our socialist past. If you want to get rich, you must have good relations with the government. You can't be entirely independent. You can't retreat to a country mansion or company headquarters and get your billions without connections to government. You have to constantly mingle. You have to always be with [Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin or [President Boris] Yeltsin or some government ministers. If you relax for a moment, if you lose their trust for a moment, or if - heaven forbid! - you conflict with them for a moment, they will ruin you in two days. They won't even have to do anything illegal! The tax system is constructed in such a way that if you paid all your taxes, you would be in the red. What the government can do is just not notice some of the taxes you owe. If it ever chooses to remember, even if you are a very successful businessman, you will lose it all overnight.
So you have to have a good relationship with the government. How do you do that? For better or for worse, there are elections in Russia. You have to influence public opinion. The best way to do it is through the press. Yeltsin's last campaign [in which the Russian press flocked to him] showed what a great role politics still plays in the life of Russia. Because all these bankers and capitalists, they really felt threatened [by the resurgence of the Communists], and they united behind Yeltsin. ... The next election is not that far away, in the year 2000. You have to prepare things in advance. So a lot of people - I think Lukoil and Gazprom and others - just think that the cost of newspapers will go up and up until the year 2000, and they should buy now.
Are the corporate owners expecting the press to hold off from reporting unsympathetically on the government?
Not exactly. Because the government also is not united. It's a strange coalition of political forces. There are some people who represent the interests of the natural-resource monopolies, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin [former director of Gazprom, the state gas monopoly]. There are some other people, like Anatoly Chubais, who want unlimited competition, western-style market reforms, all that stuff. There are even some Communists! So when Lukoil buys a newspaper, it wants that newspaper to report sympathetically about the part of the government that supports Lukoil, and unsympathetically about the part of the government that doesn't support Lukoil. And, for example, to write unsympathetically about the Duma [Russian parliament], which is dominated by communists who want to ruin Lukoil and these other large companies. So it's not such a simple process as "the government" trying to influence the media.
Someone suggested to me that the corporations were using the media as tools or organs with which to speak to one another, to send messages from one corporate concern to another: warnings about territoriality, and the like. Does that make any sense to you?
Any medium is a method of communication, including communication between corporations. Sometimes it's just a question of good reporting. When people say, "We're against the ordered articles" [i.e., articles commissioned and paid for by corporations, which are run as straight news], I say it depends what kind of ordered article it is. In every media [institution] in the world, you have someone from an important company or major organization who can come and say, "Look, there's some news there." And if you agree, and you write about it in an interesting way, then you're a good journalist. You can be absolutely free and write bad journalism; you can be dependent and be an excellent reporter. It's a very intricate game.
How subtle is the process by which stories are assigned to journalists? Is it quite clear to many reporters that they are doing propaganda on behalf of one governmental faction and against another?
It depends on the publication, and on the intellectual level of the newspaper's leadership. In some newspapers it's crude, but in many it's subtle. And many companies are getting clever enough not to be too aggressive about it. Because if you are too crude with the journalist, if you force him to write articles that he doesn't want to, you will sooner or later ruin the newspaper's image in the eyes of the public. And you will waste all that money you spent on the newspaper in the first place. So the companies that are smart, and that really care about money, are getting more and more subtle about it.
Do you think a certain amount of self-censorship prevails at, say, the average "quality" newspaper?
It depends what you consider self-censorship. In matters of style, western journalists are a lot more self-censored than Russians. Because a Russian journalist can call someone he doesn't like an "idiot," without any problem. Even on serious TV programs. In America, you can't imagine anyone in the serious press calling a politician an idiot, even if he hates him. Likewise, in Russia, politicians can make statements that would be outrageous by western standards, and still stay afloat. The things that were indecent before are now commonplace.
But I wouldn't say there's a lot of self-censorship. Of course, you have to adjust your style to the newspaper where you are working. It was hard for me to work at Komsomolskaya Pravda in the last years, because it was just getting too "yellow" [i.e., sensationalistic]. I think this is the kind of self-censorship that I hate most of all, when you're just forced to be stupid, and criticize people you don't really want to criticize.
Has that sensationalism been a noticeable trend over the last several years? How do you trace the influence of the "tabloid" style in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
There's a classic example - the evolving coverage of the [current] Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. In 1990, when no-one owned the newspapers, the new press legislation wasn't quite ready, and they actually wrote everything they wanted - I don't think this media liberty has been surpassed in any country in the late 20th century. It was an exceptional situation. And back then, every seventeen-year-old journalist would consider it his duty to call Luzhkov a thief. Everyone wrote that Luzhkov is corrupt, with all his Moscow real-estate dealings on Leninskii Prospekt ... The editors encouraged the young people to do that, and did it themselves sometimes.
And now, these same editors are the first to kiss Luzhkov's ass! Now that he holds power, now that he has money, now that they are entirely dependent on him, they're the first ones to write sickening articles about his administrative talents. We at Komsomolskaya Pravda were once encouraged to investigate Luzhkov's activities, and these investigations were sometimes of a very poor quality, with a lot of mistakes, a lot of injustices. I felt sympathy for Luzhkov at the time. And now the same people [at KP] put Luzhkov on the front page: interviews with him with questions like, "What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?" "Oh, I think about the city." "Isn't it too difficult for you to think about such a big city?" "Well, it's true, I don't know how I survive, but I still think about it." You know ...
What explains their earlier willingness - or eagerness - to defame the guy, to throw every bit of mud at him they could?
Exploring the new freedoms, and attracting new readers. Also, it was absolutely unpunishable. You couldn't get sued for it! There was no legislation. The courts had no experience. In Communist times, it was very easy. You calumniated the guy, you wrote an unsanctioned article - well, you got kicked out of the newspaper, and probably out of the Communist Party, which meant a civil death. Then there was a period when a new legislative and court system was not in place, and the old Communist system had already collapsed. It was a very strange situation, where no-one actually controlled the media, either economically or politically. Many westerners who came here called it anarchic. But there were many good things about it. It was much easier to work as a journalist, especially as a foreign journalist, at that time. What do you do if you write a police story now? It's like in the West. You have to go to the press department, public relations, of the Moscow city police; and then, if you have good connections, they'll probably release some news to you. At that time, if someone was killed near this or that apartment block, you could go to the local police precinct, talk to the officers, and they'd tell you everything about it. No-one could punish them! There were all these heads of political departments who had information that came with their posts, and who were not responsible to anyone.
Under Gorbachev, it was real press freedom, in the sense that people were just not afraid. Now, can you try to approach Yeltsin [today]? You first have to talk to his press secretary. And then, if he really loves you, and if you talk to Yeltsin's personal guards, and if they have a good relationship with you, they may allow you, if you write the question down in advance, to come into his august presence and ask a question that he already knows how to answer. Under Gorbachev, it was easy. You just caught him by the wrist: "Mikhail Sergeyevich! A few more questions!" The problem was, he didn't say anything new while answering the questions ... but at least it was easy. It was human.
To take a broad view of that epoch, what role do you think journalists were playing in society and for society?
I think it was very important. It was really journalism that changed the country. ... People viewed the media as part of the political establishment. And when, suddenly, the media, by some twist of fortune, became dominated by dissidents, or by people with views close to dissident views, when the journalists were against the communist authorities - people could refer to [the media], saying, "Look, I didn't do anything wrong. Look at the newspaper, listen to the radio. They say exactly what I do." So people who had a feeling of anti-Communist opposition suddenly were legitimized. I think that was the main role of the press: it legitimized the opposition to the regime in the last years of glasnost.
And yet the press eventually turned against Gorbachev. Is that accurate, that they were instrumental in undermining the thrust of perestroika [restructuring]?
Well, I think people suffered tremendously under Gorbachev. Economically, his regime was a disaster. I wouldn't say the press destroyed him. His regime just ran out of everything. When, at the end of the twentieth century, you can't provide a city like Moscow with potatoes, that means your government must fall. Even if you have excellent relations with Margaret Thatcher, even if Reagan loves you and you are a Nobel Prize writer and a multimillion-bestseller writer - if you don't provide the potatoes, you go!
Where were the models of journalism coming from that influenced your crowd at this time? The notion of the press as a critic of government, for example ...
If you trace the predecessors of the perestroika press, I would say these were the dissident writers and journalists of the 1960s and 1970s. Some people from Radio Liberty, for example, which provided a lot of information, and on which [the liberal] Moscow News based its reports. I wouldn't say it was so much western newspapers that influenced the Russian press. Because the difference between Slavic and Anglo-Saxon journalism is tremendous. Even the recent globalization couldn't alter that fact. Slavic journalism is a mixture of sermon and confession. "Here is what happened to me, here is how I view the situation, and here is how I want you to view it." A lot of stuff written in the first person, a lot of columns ... Nowadays less than before, but still a lot. Many headlines with [hidden] meanings, a lot of puns, always great attention to literature and to context. The western press is mostly reporting; it tells you what happened. Most Russian journalists don't really like that. They have a feeling that, "Oh, it was [all] written by one person." I don't agree with them; I think sooner or later we will move closer to the Anglo-Saxon press. It's just part of a global media model. But I would still say that many, many Russian journalists would never agree to work in the way their western colleagues do.
How would you describe the role of the press today?
There are fewer unfounded expectations of the press now on the part of the public. In 1990, I remember, about fifteen or twenty journalists were elected to parliament - just because everyone saw them on television, and thought, "Oh, if we get these folks into parliament, everything will go smoothly." And they turned out to be political failures! They were excellent journalists, but bad politicians.
So you can't expect the press to solve all your problems. That, people understand now. There are fewer letters from people saying, "Oh, I live in a small apartment, I want a bigger one, so please tell the government that I am suffering." That is stupid.
Now the press is working to establish its reputation in the new conditions. So people will respect journalists, and respect the quality journalists, not the demagogues. The press is more and more reaching a western [-style] image of itself. I think the improvement has been considerable. I see a lot of good reporters now. And I see there is more respect for the journalists on the part of their employers. Newspapers are buying journalists from one another. You couldn't imagine anything like that in Communist times. On the one hand, that's not very nice, because people hop from one job to another; there is less of a sense of community. It's more like a business. But on the other hand, if journalists can get respect in this way, fine! A good journalist should get a lot of money. He's doing hard work.
What were your own motivations in making the move from print to broadcast journalism?
Well, it's a very unusual situation. Usually, television is perceived as more "yellow" than the press. Here, it's the opposite. My newspaper [Komsomolskaya Pravda] would write absolutely unchecked information, just as a result of its alliance against [Boris] Berezovsky. Finally I felt I couldn't take it anymore. I had to leave. In my new program, I produce short television news-pieces, six or seven minutes long - special reports on topics that really interest me, like communal reform, the jewelry business in Russia, Russian troops abroad, changes in the government, privatization ... All that is fascinating. I feel a lot more in my element. But I don't know what will happen tomorrow or the day after. On television, everything is a lot more unstable. It's a lot easier to shut down a program than it is to shut down an entire newspaper.
You feel you have a considerable amount of freedom?
No-one has ever asked me not to touch Luzhkov, or to dump on Luzhkov. Sometimes they smoothed my lines; it's just the way our small team operates. They don't like insulting politicians. But I am for smoothing the lines. I don't like it when people are insulted without any explanation.
What are the main mechanisms or forums of associational life for Russian journalists?
I would say that unfortunately we have very little solidarity. There are several associations, but they are dominated by people whom the journalists themselves do not respect very much. I don't need to go to the Kremlin palace to meet my colleagues from the North Caucasus. What I really need is for someone to ostracize the editor-in-chief who is immoral, who sifts all the funds from the newspaper to his own pockets, or to front organizations. I want some kind of monitoring of the way big business is influencing the press.
I see a lot of young people, my generation, who unfortunately are unable to show any solidarity. They think individualism is the solution to all problems - like many people in post-Communist society. I'm for private initiative; I'm for being responsible for yourself. But that doesn't exclude the fact that you have to help your friends and colleagues sometimes. And that is not there.