Obituary: Len Karpinsky

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The Independent Online
Len Vyacheslovovich Karpinsky, journalist: born Moscow 29 November 1929; died Moscow 12 June 1995.

In 1967 Len Karpinsky, with a fellow journalist, wrote an article attacking state censorship of the theatre which it was clear that his own newspaper, Pravda, would never run. It was published in Pravda's rival, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Karpinsky was sacked.

The article was a direct challenge to Leonid Brezhnev's government policy and to the KGB, the enforcers of censorship. Karpinsky's next project too fell foul of the KGB - an underground magazine aimed at telling the truth about Soviet society. He nevertheless succeeded in setting up a group whose aim was to explain "real, not fake communism". It was a naive aim, and Karpinsky was threatened by the KGB; but they were limited in what they could do to a man whose father had been a personal friend of Lenin.

Len Karpinsky was born in Moscow in 1929 and his father, Vyacheslav Karpinsky, a professional revolutionary, met Lenin while hiding from the Tsar's police in Switzerland. Vyacheslav Karpinsky remained Lenin's close friend until Lenin's death, in January 1924, and called his baby son "Len", an invented diminutive of Lenin. In the hard years immediately after the Second World War, Len Karpinsky was a student at Moscow University in the faculty of philosophy, which in those days meant Marxism. He graduated in 1952 and took up a teaching post at the Pedagogical Institute for Foreign Languages in Gorky (now restored to its former name of Nizhny-Novgorod), where he stayed for five years.

From 1957 to 1962, he was a senior official in the Central Committee of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) Central Committee - a powerful organisation with plenty of resources for its staff - in charge of young people's education. At one time he headed a sport committee for army recruits. He advanced into the highest Soviet elite, was highly paid and enjoyed perks including a dacha, a car, and a flat in the centre of Moscow. His well-connected father died in 1965. Nikita Khrushchev, who had also been a close friend, was saddened.

Len Karpinsky could have lived as the high-flyer he was for the next 30 years but refused; he could not accept what was going on in his country.

From 1962 he was a senior editor and member of the board at Pravda. It was then that he decided to test the degree of democracy in the Soviet Union, about which he used to lecture to young people. He offered his own newspaper's arts page an article, "On the Road to the Premiere", which described in detail a nightmare effort to stage a play that did not have the approval of the Theatre Censor. His colleague, a fellow editor, refused to run it because it was a challenge to the whole system, of which Pravda was the guardian-in-chief. He then rang a friend at Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose circulation was then about 3 million. The editor there did not ask official permission and took a risk.

The article appeared the following day and created a sensation. Karpinsky's colleagues say that Brezhnev read it and was furious. Pravda's First Department demanded that Karpinsky should go and he was fired. But Karpinsky had good contacts and became a special correspondent for Izvestia. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia he gathered a few close friends with the aim of setting up an underground magazine which would supply real news. The group was immediately penetrated by the KGB. From then on Karpinsky was under round-the-clock surveillance, something he discovered only when the KGB archives became available for inspection 25 years later.

At a meeting at Izvestia, Karpinsky expounded his view of "real communism", and what they needed to achieve it. Shortly after that he set up a group to work to realise it. He was fired for a second time, and this time could not find a newspaper that would employ him. He got an obscure job as a researcher at the Institute of Sociological Studies, whose director was another friend, Fedor Burlatsky. Karpinsky clashed with the bureaucrats there, and came off worse. He became an editor at Progress Publishing House, an establishment he had dealt with in his earlier days as a Komsomol official, which was in the business of translating, publishing and distributing through Soviet embassies millions of copies of propaganda brochures and books written by Western Communists and socialists.

On this occasion the "real communism" group progressed and, as usual, the KGB was fully informed. Karpinsky was summoned to the Lubianka, threatened by the KGB, fired from the Communist Party, of which he had been a member since the early 1950s, for "views incompatible with being a member of the Communist Party"; and then sacked from his job.

He became a freelance agent for several publishing houses and, from 1979 to 1987, using his high party connections, he acted as an agent for many Moscow artists. In 1989 Yegor Yakovlev, the editor-in-chief of the weekly Moscow News, invited him to become its chief political writer. When in August 1991 Yakovlev moved to television, Karpinsky became editor-in-chief and remained so until 1993, when he became seriously ill.

He returned to work last summer and occupied his old room, opposite that of the new editor, Viktor Loshak. He was appointed an honorary chairman of the company and occasionally wrote a piece. To his last days he thought first about others - journalist colleagues and his artists - and their concerns. Everybody liked Len Karpinsky.