Alexei Pushkov says -- what has become a standard line -- that the media were unfree under Yeltsin, too. It is nonsense, and I'm tired of seeing it becoming a kind of conventional wisdom in some circles. Here's the standard formulation of the argument as he gives it:
"The elections of 1996 were a fiesta of manipulation, outward falsifications, use of dirty money and the servility of the so-called free media -- in fact mainly controlled by oligarchs and financial groups."
The actual reality is that the media freely criticized Yeltsin practically all the time in the '90s. Indeed, they recklessly criticized Yeltsin. They jumped on him and his people in terms that were often unfair and dishonest as well as extreme. Pushkov was one of those who savaged the Yeltsin government repeatedly and with impunity, from the safe perch he had on the Moscow-Luzhkov dominated TV channel 3.
The media called a pause in its attacks on Yeltsin for the 1996 election campaign. For once they were brought face to face with something they really feared and hated: the danger of a Zyuganov regime and the loss of their freedoms. The prospect of hanging, as it's said, concentrates the mind. Or fear, as Freud and Hobbes said, teaches us the reality principle.
This created a sense of responsibility for the consequences of their attacks on Yeltsin. Suddenly the attacks ceased. At the same time, the media becane overly friendly to Yeltsin, probably to compensate for the damage they had done in the previous five years.
They didn't do this primarily because of pressure from oligarchs or administrative resources, although such things did indeed exist. They did it primarily because the journalistic collectives, some of them with roots in Soviet era journalism and its flowering under glasnost, felt an enormous stake in the outcome of the election. And, for the first time since the era of glasnost, it seemed clear to them on which side any good person ought to stand.
The role of the oligarchs after 1996 in using some of the media as attack dogs on the government and on one another was indeed depressing and did a lot to discredit the independence of the media in Russia. There was great room for improvement; instead the changes have made the media worse. It was a pluralism of corrupting influences, and some of the media remained on the whole genuinely free and competent. The loss of this relative freedom has been a serious setback for Russia; by far the most serious setback of the Putin era, without which all the others would not amount to much and could probably be safely ignored by the West.