'Pravda' closes as lost medals trigger row

Newspaper editor and owners have fallen out, reports Helen Womack
Moscow - The newspaper Pravda, for decades the mouthpiece of the Soviet Communist Party and still popular with leftist opponents of President Boris Yeltsin, has been closed down indefinitely after a row between its Russian editor and its Greek financial backers.

Meanwhile, some of the staff are bringing out a tabloid version of Pravda, but it is nothing like the Sun or the Daily Mirror and certainly there are no page 3 girls. It is just a single sheet of paper folded into a small square to make reading easy for commuters on the packed Moscow metro.

The row between the editor, Alexander Ilyin, and Theodoros and Christos Giannikos, two Greek brothers who have kept the newspaper afloat since the collapse of the Soviet Union, was ostensibly over three valuable medals which were misplaced. In Soviet times not only loyal citizens, but also organisations were given medals and Pravda was the proud owner of three Orders of Lenin which it printed on its masthead as symbols of its "history and service to society".

Earlier this month, Mr Ilyin had a nostalgic urge to look at the medals themselves and went to the safe where they were kept, only to find that the combination had been changed and he could not open it. He called the police.

The Giannikos brothers, directors of Pravda International which has published the paper since 1992, turned up and were denied access to the building. Later it turned out that the medals, which collectors will pay up to $1,000 apiece for, had been moved to the Greeks' safe.

In the ensuing row, charges of drunkenness were made. "Our journalists seem to like partying too much," Theodoros Giannikos was quoted by the Moscow Times as saying. "They think they can do no work and still get a salary."

"There are violations of discipline, but do foreign journalists only drink tea?" Mr Ilyin retorted. "Our newspaper is like any other. Maybe we are not the most organised in this respect. But when you work for a newspaper that has been falling apart for years and your salary is just enough for a bottle of vodka, what else are you going to do?"

The deeper reason behind the row was a disagreement over editorial policy. Pravda, founded by Lenin and whose name means "the truth" in Russian, continued to take a fairly orthodox Communist line, but its new owners wanted to make it more centrist to raise circulation, which has dropped from 13 million in Soviet times to 200,000.

The tabloid, called Pravda 5 and being produced by journalists who had experience on the livelier weekend section, is less propagandistic than the old paper, which Kremlinologists used to comb for clues to official policy, and closer to a newspaper in the Western sense.

For example, the main story in the edition for 31 July was headlined: "Government, standing itself on crutches, cannot help our invalids" and underneath was a neutral report on the attempt of G7 countries to combat terrorism. This was a far cry from the former hostile reporting of foreign affairs when the United States, for example, was referred to as "Uncle Sam" and Western leaders were portrayed in cartoons as fat capitalists loaded down with sacks of money.

The Greek owners are hoping that after the summer holidays Pravda staff will vote out Mr Ilyin and elect a new editor to run the tabloid on a permanent basis. But Mr Ilyin's secretary said yesterday he still regarded himself as the editor. The Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, said he would find money for Pravda as it had backed him during his election fight with Boris Yeltsin. So by autumn, Russia may well have two versions of "the truth".