The Breakfast Table

Why Yeltsin Went to Work

Good morning, I think. On a friend’s recommendation, I took these homeopathic No-Jet-Lag pills when I left California. Now I am jet-lagged as ever, but, instead of accepting it as a normal part of travel, I am resentful as hell.

“Very well meaning weekly” is the best definition of Obshchaya Gazeta that I have heard. It had a glorious beginning, and it is run by one of the most famous men in Russian journalism, and none of this can save it from obscurity. Yegor Yakovlev headed up Moscow News during perestroika. That weekly paper was the flagship of glasnost, the publication that broke virtually every major story, pushed the limits of censorship with every issue, and pioneered a number of genres new to Soviet journalism. During the failed coup of 1991, Yakovlev and the editors of 10 other newly banned newspapers founded Obshchaya Gazeta, which means “the common newspaper,” which they collectively edited and published for three days. In the wake of the coup, a grateful Boris Yeltsin appointed Yakovlev head of Central TV and Radio, only to remove him a year later. Yakovlev decided to resurrect Obshchaya, which never really took off. The reason, I think, is that in that brief interval perestroika-style anti-Soviet pathos became uncool. Everyone was rushing to become establishment, leaving behind the embarrassingly passionate rhetoric of a budding democracy. I think this is a very large part of what made the Return of the Ugly Old Men possible.

So a positive effect the crisis has had on the media is that it’s made us all a lot more critical. As you’ve mentioned, the media have stopped ignoring the mounting signs of Yeltsin’s incapacitation. Personally, I realized we’d turned a corner a few weeks ago, when I used the phrase “Yeltsin is stupid” in the first paragraph of a story (I was quoting my step-daughter who, in turn, was quoting her classmates in Year 6 at the British International School; my piece was about expats and the crisis).

An opinion piece on the front page of today’s Izvestiya advances the idea of a looming palace coup. The author argues that the only person in the presidential administration who remains loyal to Yeltsin is presidential adviser Tatyana Dyachenko, the president’s daughter. The writer points out that the presidential chief of staff, who is, nominally, Dyachenko’s boss, “cannot demote her from the post of daughter to that of step-daughter.” She has been alerting her father to the danger of losing his job, prompting him to show up for work.

Reading Izvestiya today, I realized here was another positive effect of the crisis: With the number of newspapers shrinking, some of them are getting better. Having swallowed up Russky Telegraph, a highbrow daily with a pathetic circulation of 30,000, Izvestiya has rapidly turned from a dull rag with odd reporting standards (nothing I ever tried to follow up checked out) into a very professional newspaper.

Another interesting piece in today’s issue reported on five years of trials by jury in Saratov, the medium-sized city on the Volga. Jury trials have been conducted, on a semi-experimental basis, in a dozen cities over the last few years. In Saratov, at least, the results have shocked the public: The juries acquit virtually every person who comes before them, so shoddy is the prosecution’s customary standard of proof. By the way, the Pasko trial, which we were discussing yesterday, was postponed indefinitely–I’m sure they are going to stretch it out to maximize his term of detention.