A Memoir of Glasnost

A Memoir of Glasnost

Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, reflections on glasnost’s fate.


The Soviet Union ended twenty years ago, in December 1991. On November 10-11 of this year, the Gorbachev Foundation, headed by the last Soviet President, the Carnegie Moscow Center, and the Washington-based National Security Archives co-sponsored a two-day conference in Moscow on the causes behind the break up of the Soviet Union and the domestic and international consequences of that historic event. Russian, European and American participants, including scholars, journalists and political figures, presented their perspectives and debated an array of large issues. A number of the speakers had participated in or been close observers of perestroika, as Gorbachev’s reforms preceding the end of the Soviet state were known. My own contribution was on a panel focusing on social developments during that period—with a special emphasis on glasnost, or the ending of censorship. Below are my remarks at the conference. They are in part a memoir of my own experience at what was perhaps the most important glasnost newspaper.  

At the height of glasnost in 1988-89, the writer Ales Adamovich remarked, “Today, it’s more interesting to read than to live.” Anyone who lived during those years of glasnost as a writer, a journalist, an editor, an intellectual, a political person, understood what he meant.

My husband Stephen Cohen and I lived in Moscow for several months during each of the six and a half years of perestroika and glasnost. For an American, I had an extraordinary insider view of the unfolding of glasnost. In 1989, I worked at Moskovskii Novosti—the flagship newspaper of glasnost—under its remarkable editor, Yegor Yakovlev, a det dvatsatovo sezda (a child of the 20th party congress) and a leading perestroischik. Yakovlev’s determination, courage and ability to expand the limits of what could be published at that time, to shatter longstanding taboos despite the fierce opposition this aroused among powerful enemies of perestroika, continues to inspire me today as the editor of a weekly American political magazine whose unorthodox and dissenting views frequently provoke the animosity of powerful establishment forces.

I remember Yegor—though we were much younger than him, I do not recall any of us ever using his patronymic—crossing Pushkin Square from the editorial offices of Moskovskii Novosti to the chief censorship office (Glavlit) to argue for publication of articles about long forbidden subjects, people and literature. As I recall, there was also a censor—a nice older man—in the newspaper’s own editorial offices. With each passing week, he looked increasingly bewildered—as the multitude of taboos being broken became too many to defend. Indeed, I was amazed every week by how much I had heard spoken only in apartment kitchens during the Brezhnev era was now appearing in the pages of the mass circulation newspaper Moskovskii Novosti.

As many of you know, Yegor Yakovlev was not alone on the barricades of glasnost. Behind him stood, of course, Gorbachev and Aleksandr Yakovlev, and on his staff at Moskovskii Novosti were other fearless perestroishchiki. Len Karpinsky and Volodya Shevelov were two of them whom my husband Steve and I came to know well and admire very much.

My own small contributions to glasnost, to destroying taboos, included Yegor’s approval of my idea that I interview for the newspaper Robert Conquest, the author of the famous but still banned history of the Stalinist terror, The Great Terror. A few weeks later, I did an interview with Valery Chalidze, then living in America, who had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship for his human rights work with Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents. Both interviews were published in Moskovskii Novosti in the spring of 1989. The stir they caused among Russian readers was fascinating to observe.

I still remember standing on the street outside the newspaper’s offices, then on Pushkin Square, astonished to find crowds gathered each week to read the sten-gazeta (wall newspaper) of the latest issue of Moskovskii Novosti—enthralled and eagerly consuming each new revelation, even after two years of glasnost. Every week’s issue was a new stride toward the complete end of censorship. (We should not forget, of course, that the same was true of Ogonyok under its editor, Vitaly Korotich.)

Yegor also assigned me and several other reporters to cover the historic 1989 elections to the first Congress of People’s Deputies. When Americans and even some Russians tell me today that Russians are not capable of democracy, I always remember the way the Soviet people in March 1989, and after, avidly followed the electoral campaigns, voted in enormous numbers and were glued to the televised proceedings of that first Congress. If there was any doubt that democracy had come to the Soviet Union, evidence was provided by the following story, reported uncensored at the time in the Moscow media. When Gorbachev was told publicly by his opponents that he didn’t know what was going on in the country, for the first time a Soviet leader in power responded to such charges in a democratic and self-deprecating way: “Comrades, I even know about the following incident: In the last bus coming to Moscow, there were veterans carrying quite graphic propaganda: a portrait of Brezhnev wearing medals and a portrait of Gorbachev wearing rationing coupons.” Again, all of this was reported in the press.

In recent years when I have visited Moscow and spoken with a younger generation of journalists, it saddens me that many do not know the name Yegor Yakovlev or the role he played. Yet it heartens me that virtually all of them understand that Mikhail Gorbachev was the father of glasnost.

There is disagreement about when glasnost began to end. No doubt many of you at this conference have your own opinion. Personally, I believe it began in the 1990s when the new financial elite of oligarchs took control both of mass media and increasingly of elections in order to expand and protect their wealth.

Does this mean that the glasnost achieved by Gorbachev and his allies like Yegor Yakovlev failed, or was in vain? As I think about Russia today, I do not think that is the case. Among many of my Russian journalist friends, the struggle goes on—despite the very real dangers and obstacles they face. Moreover, just as there were the “Children of the Twentieth Party Congress,” now there are the Deti (Children) of perestroika and glasnost. I think of my friend Dima Muratov—a protege of Yegor Yakovlev—chief editor of Novaya Gazeta, a glasnost newspaper of our times, partially owned by Gorbachev himself. Moreover, I believe the spirit of glasnost that spread also to the West in the late ’80s and early ’90s lives on among those of us who continue to struggle for a media free of corporate and other corrupting influences and for a democracy that includes not only a free press but also social and economic justice.

It may even be that the heirs of glasnost include those who, twenty years later, are occupying the public squares around the world, from Tunisia and Egypt to Spain and Wall Street—and the 2,000 other encampments in cities and towns across America. I believe these protests show that people understand genuine democracy and social justice require a contemporary version of glasnost, including the glasnost of the new media.

It was always Mikhail Gorbachev’s conviction that there are alternatives in history and politics—ones better than the discredited status quo. He understood that such alternatives required full glasnost. That remains true today. In this essential respect, we must hope that perestroika and glasnost are not over—in Russia or in the world.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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