Wilting Pravda finds that truth hurts in Yeltsin's Russia

Phil Reeves
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:41

The offices of Pravda in Moscow were never particularly cheerful, but even an enemy of the newspaper would have been touched by the air of abandonment last week. A wilting bunch of red roses stood beneath the bust of its founder, Vladimir Lenin, in the foyer. Almost as exhausted- looking was the editor, Alexander Ilyin, sitting in his room upstairs.

For months, Mr Ilyin's paper has been waging a battle to persuade Russians to support Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of a Communist-nationalist bloc, in his effort to win the Russian presidency. But last Wednesday Boris Yeltsin swept the country, winning by a margin of 10 million votes.

"Analysis is required," said Mr Ilyin, with a sigh, when asked about the results. "Mr Zyuganov failed to become a national leader. He needed to convince the voters that he was more than just the head of the Communist Party. He also needed to bring some bright, interesting people on to his team at least a year ago. He was not energetic enough, and he was not sufficiently competent."

A decade ago the notion of being on the losing side would have been unthinkable to the occupant of Mr Ilyin's chair. The paper was the propaganda arm of the government, spinning a web of fibs and half-fibs for some 11 million readers.

Its evolution into an opposition paper, with a circulation of only 205,000, has been a difficult process, marred by a financial upheaval that has left it under the control of a Greek company, Pravda International. It has twice been shut down - once in 1993 by the government for allegedly inciting armed rebellion during Mr Yeltsin's stand-off with parliament, and once by its printers because of debts.

Since reopening it has maintained an uneasy relationship with the authorities, especially in the run-up to the election. Nothing overt was done to stop it campaigning for Mr Zyuganov, said Mr Ilyin. There were, however, several incidents in the regions where local authorities stopped the paper from being circulated shortly before the first round.

What angers Mr Ilyin far more is the way the Yeltsin campaign controlled the bulk of the Russian media, particularly television, giving him a huge edge over his opponent. The airwaves were awash not only with stories about the president's activities, but also anti-Communist films. While the opposition press limped along, the pro-Yeltsin media was - he claims - rewarded by advertising contracts from pro-government companies.

What, then, does Pravda do now in its hour of defeat? "We will try to abide by our title - which means 'truth' - and to publish what we know to be right," said Mr Ilyin, "We have no major ties with Zyuganov. We just played on his team. Our paper doesn't belong to the Communist Party, and I am not sure whether we would not have had problems if the result had been the other way around. We have never wanted to become a presidential paper."

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