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Outspoken Soviet publication pushes for independence. Ogonyok says party management is milking profits, limiting its reach

After years of wrangling with its parent publishers, Ogonyok, one of the Soviet Union's most popular and outspoken magazines, is planning to go independent. Editors say they are lobbying the Communist Party Central Committee for permission to break away from the Pravda publishing group. They speak of raising 5 million to 10 million rubles in start-up capital. And they predict big profits. By 1990, editor Vitaly Korotich says, they hope work completely on their own.

Mr. Korotich took over the magazine in 1986, turning a moribund journal best known for its crossword puzzles into one of the most provocative current-affairs publications in the country. But it has made powerful enemies in the party apparatus throughout the country. And the magazine has taken the contrary line to Pravda on almost every important issue.

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Party leaders have so far responded ``carefully but favorably,'' to Ogonyok's request, says deputy editor Lev Gushchin. Pravda's reaction was ``panic,'' he claims. ``Let anyone try to take it away from us,'' a senior Pravda official commented this week. Magazine editors say that the final decision will have to be taken at a very high political level - probably by both the Soviet Council of Ministers and the Central Committee.

Ogonyok's relations with Pravda have been tense for much of the last three years. Pravda's editor is Viktor Afanasyev, a survivor from the Leonid Brezhnev era. Ogonyok editors pointedly and repeatedly refer to him as ``Brezhnev's chief ideologist.'' Mr. Afanasyev has in turn publicly criticized Korotich for wanting to teach other editors the meaning of glasnost (openness).

Ogonyok staffers have long believed that the publishing house was trying both to milk them of their profits and limit their outreach. The magazine made well over 20 million rubles ($32 million) profit last year, Korotich and Mr. Gushchin say.

Ogonyok saw none of it, the editors claim. Its 88 staffers are still making the same salaries they did when the magazine was a literary backwater. (A senior editor makes about $480 a month.) And they have other grievances. ``We asked for computers,'' Gushchin says. ``We were told we'd get them by the end of the century. And at the moment we have a grand total of 15 dictaphones.''

Independence will mean that Ogonyok will have to find its own premises, furniture, and office equipment. Most importantly the staff will have to look for their own printers. Initially, they say, they will try to lease printing facilities from Pravda. Why should Pravda bother to help? ``If the Central Committee says they have to, they will,'' Gushchin said.

Korotich is talking to the Central Committee's business department, the rarely noticed body that oversees Pravda. The department is headed by Nikolai Kruchina, who worked with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he was in charge of agriculture from 1978 to '83.

Pravda's approach to political change is cautious - reformers say conservative. At the beginning of this year it was the first to criticize a controversial new work by an outspoken reformer, the playwright Mikhail Shatrov. Ogonyok supported him, and has been in the forefront of the attacks on former dictator Joseph Stalin. Pravda's coverage of unrest in the Baltic republics has caused intense indignation among activists there. Ogonyok has published sympathetic interviews with people like the Estonian Prime Minister Indrek Toome, a prominent supporter of change. Korotich himself caused a gale of protest at the 19th Communist Party Conference last July when he alleged that some of the conference delegates were not ardent reformers, but bribe-takers. He was proven right, but did not win any new friends in the party.

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The last straw came 10 days ago, Korotich and Gushchin say. Soviet journals are primarily circulated by subscription. In its latest subscription drive, Ogonyok doubled its subscribers from 1.35 million to 3.075 million. Korotich notes that by contrast Pravda and another of the leading papers in its stable, Sovietskaya Rossiya, lost subscribers.

But the publishing house told Ogonyok that it could print only 3.1 million copies in 1989 - leaving a meager 25,000 for the retail market. This year, with around 400,000 copies retailing each week, the magazine is already a rare sight on newsstands. Pravda also told them that one of the magazine's most popular features, a full color insert, would have to go.

At that point, Gushchin says, ``We decided we had no future'' with the Pravda group. Gushchin says they will raise their start-up money here in the Soviet Union. But they are also looking for foreign backers to work with them in joint enterprises.

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