April 30, 2009
Facing up to an unpredictable past
By Tim Wall, Editor-in-Chief
"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." George Orwell, "1984"
With these words, the chronicler of doublethink described a Stalinist party's philosophy of blatantly rewriting history, and then swallowing the falsified version as the real one.
We decided to do the exact opposite at The Moscow News' relaunch presentation on Friday April 24: to look at the paper's unique and often troubled past squarely in the eye - good and bad - as a way of freeing ourselves and our readers from the baggage of the past.
In this spirit, we made a short documentary film to show, as far as we could, the history of the paper through the eyes of the people who worked for it. We also put on display 30 of the paper's front covers over the years - to show the best journalism and the worst propaganda it produced.
In the film, Anna-Louise Strong, the paper's first managing editor, was represented through her great-nephew and biographer, Tracy Strong, who recalled how Josef Stalin once intervened directly to resolve a dispute between foreign and Russian editors at the paper. Our correspondent Anna Arutunyan also tracked down Yakov Lomko, the paper's editor-in-chief from 1960 to 1980, at his post at the People's Friendship University, where he still teaches journalism and international relations at the age of 92.
As guests of honour on Friday, Lomko and Viktor Loshak, Moskovskiye Novosti editor-in-chief from 1993 to 2003, were at opposite ends of the spectrum: one a staunch defender of the Stalinist party line, and the other a strong proponent of press freedom.
Lomko, of course, viewed his task as an honourable one in presenting a favourable view of the Soviet Union to the outside world, even if the paper deliberately ignored the bad news about Soviet life.
He is still disappointed about the paper's transformation into an instrument for glasnost and perestroika, and it is indeed a supreme irony: the newspaper that started as Stalin's mouthpiece eventually became its opposite - a wake-up call for the country, which helped it shake off the dead hand of Soviet bureaucracy. It shows that things can, and inevitably do, change - especially when your history is as unpredictable as ours has been.
Anna-Louise Strong's early idealism gave way to disillusionment at the slavish propaganda of her successors. The Stalinist machine then chewed up those who had served it, sending at least three of The Moscow News' editors to early graves in the purges. The paper had to wait until the era of Mikhail Gorbachev and Yegor Yakovlev in the mid-1980s before it got an independent voice - and it was one that had to be fought for. In the post-Soviet era, the paper's long sought-after independence eventually succumbed, as did too much of the Russian media, to commercial and political interests.
Now, once again, the paper has every chance to maintain its editorial independence. We are in a similar position to the journalists at Ekho Moskvy radio, which is owned by state-controlled Gazprom-Media but editorially independent. The owner of The Moscow News, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, has promised to protect our editorial independence, and this is something we intend to defend at all times.
Many people have put in a lot of work to bring about the recent changes at The Moscow News, and in preparing the relaunch presentation. I'd like to say a big thanks to everyone involved, but space demands that I only mention a few people here:
RIA Novosti editor-in-chief Svetlana Mironyuk, for giving us full editorial freedom and the resources to relaunch the paper; The National Hotel, for allowing us to use their splendid Petrovsky Hall; Anna Arutunyan, for her tireless work in tracking down former MN editors and journalists, recording their recollections, and writing the video script; Timur Rudnikov, general director of The Moscow News, whose quiet, behind-the-scenes work helped everything go smoothly; Evgeni Vasiliyev and Anastasia Bobrova, for their excellent work on our new design; Pietro Guastamacchia, for digging out such fascinating articles and organising our archive; Svetlana Sannikova and her team, for making a top-class video; everyone who organised and spoke at the presentation and agreed to be interviewed about our history; good friends who gave me their feedback on our new design; and - last but not least, all our editors and journalists, who put up with the many distractions while we were preparing for the event.
Many guests said they enjoyed the presentation and gave us their comments on the paper's new design, and for these kind words and feedback we're very grateful.
"What a real rollercoaster history," said Jim Brooke, a former Russia bureau chief for Bloomberg. "It was shown by those two former editors. It was great that these two people could stand to be in the same room together."
The video, "From Stalin's mouthpiece to Russia's wake-up call" can be seen via our web site, www.moscownews.ru and at RIA Novosti's web portal: www.rian.ru.