Soviet press finds 'freedom' difficult

August 21, 1991

By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — "If only there were a free press in the Soviet Union!" That was the dream of generations of the Soviet intelligentsia. Somewhat more than a year ago, the dream came true: the last elements of state censorship were abolished.

But the lifting of formal state controls and the introduction of market mechanisms has created a tangle of paradoxes from which freedom is strangely absent. In a situation which in some ways has changed little from the days of Brezhnev and Stalin, virtually the only mass-circulation newspapers are those backed by the Communist Party or by the state, through the all-Union, republican or municipal governments.

One of the achievements of the free market has been to drive thoughtful, serious books and journals into near oblivion.

The two critical problems facing would-be publishers are an explosion in the price of paper and the extortionate costs of distribution through the highly monopolised newspaper distribution network.

Between the spring of 1990 and the summer of 1991, the price of newsprint on the free market rose from 600 roubles a ton to 6000. Meanwhile Soyuzpechat, the organisation which has a near monopoly on the distribution of newspapers and which commands a large slice of the market for books, increased its cut of the cover price from 15% to 50. Attempts to compete with Soyuzpechat have so far failed.

After censorship was abolished, a flood of new journals and newspapers appeared. But most of these have now folded, or appear infrequently in small print runs.

Almost the only new publications to achieve mass circulation and a measure of stability have been those supported in one way or another by the state. The newspapers in this category include Russia and Russian Newspaper, published by the government of the Russian Federation, and Chimes and Independent Newspaper, founded by the Moscow City Soviet. These remain viable because the state either supplies them with paper at discount prices or ploughs substantial funds into them.

The only large-circulation newspaper founded during the perestroika period which is not linked to the organs of power is the business weekly Kommersant. This is supported by other publications including Moscow News, which in turn receives backing form British press tycoon Robert Maxwell.

The decline of the free press has created problems for the

news-sellers whose folding tables are a common sight in underpasses and metro stations, and who provide Soyuzpechat with its only glimpses of competition. For these Soviet entrepreneurs, salvation has come through a switch to selling pornography, along with pamphlets on astrology, palmistry, UFOs and vampires — and, incongruously, often bibles.

For book publishers, things are not much better. The cooperative publishers and joint ventures that sprang up during 1989 and 1990 prefer to publish detective thrillers, horror novels and erotica. Facsimile reprints of pre-revolutionary books are also produced, since the costs are slight.

In the bookshops and on the newsstands, the number of books by contemporary Soviet writers is strikingly small. State academic publishing houses continue to issue works of philosophy and history that were unavailable for decades to Soviet readers. However, many of the editions of this type now on sale date from a year or two ago. State subsidies to the quality publishing houses are being phased out and, with costs rising rapidly, all of these enterprises face serious problems.

The large firm Progress Publishers, which used to issue books in dozens of languages, is now on the verge of bankruptcy.

International Relations Publishing House, the semi-official publishing arm of the foreign ministry, is now a partner in a joint venture that publishes "detective and political novels" in editions of a million and a half.

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