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Russian Journalists on the Barricades

In this open letter to a Soviet editor and friend, an American journalist relives her fears and exhilaration during those fateful days in August

DEAR Natasha: I have been worried about you since we became friends two years ago.We are the same age, both have daughters, both are journalists. But you edit a newspaper in Leningrad, and I help edit one in the United States. Publishing facts has always been a risk-free occupation for me. Not so for a Soviet journalist. When you stayed in my home two years ago on an exchange program, you were planning to start your own newspaper. You wanted to print news stories offering no opinions, only facts, as American newspapers do. You intended to test the limits of glasnost. I thought it would take you years to start your newspaper. It took exactly six months, as I learned when I saw you quoted in USA Today as the editor of a new weekly newspaper named Rush Hour. When I visited you in Leningrad last year, I saw how people lined up to buy Rush Hour, even though at 50 kopecks, it cost nine times more than the average Soviet newspaper. I saw how, even with a circulation of 100,000, it would sell out in one-half hour. And I began to fear for you, Natasha. You printed stories that other Soviet newspapers hesitated to print. You published, for the first time, figures on the true size of the Soviet government's debt. You printed stories that demanded answers to social problems such as homelessness and hunger. Reporters from other newspapers began to insist that nervous editors stop censoring their stories, threatening to take their articles to Rush Hour if their own papers refused to publish them. Your aggressive pursuit of truth was in the best tradition of journalism. Yet I knew that you would be hustled off to a labor camp if democratic changes ultimately lost and the hard-liners won. I asked you if you were not taking a great risk. "I am not afraid," you would reply, shaking your head. But I was. You told me that the days of communism had passed, that the Soviet people would never, ever allow another dictator to put his boot on their necks again. I smiled, nodded, and didn't believe you. On Aug. 19, all my fears appeared to become reality. Another journalist called me at 5 a.m. that Monday to tell me that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had been overthrown. A hurricane was heading toward New England that day, and as the winds rose I kept the television on, staring at scenes of tanks on Red Square. When trees began to fall and the power finally died, I turned on a battery-powered radio to hear what was happening. It wasn't good. The coup leaders had ordered all newspapers except for a handful in Moscow to stop printing until the new government had a chance to "register" them, blaming the media for the Soviet Union's turmoil. As the winds died down and the hurricane passed, I knew the storm for you was only beginning. But you were right: The people wouldn't put up with a coup. In Leningrad's Palace Square, 200,000 people rallied against the junta, demanding that democracy be restored. Many newspapers ignored the censorship decree. And in an amazing turnaround, the Union of Soviet Journalists, that bastion of rigid communist writers and editors, found the backbone to oppose the new government. Leaders of the union faxed the following statement to all newspapers in Moscow: "Your comrades have lost their jobs and the people are waiting for true, objective information," the letter said. "For that reason we appeal to your conscience and professional duty: Don't blindly carry out the will of the criminals, don't take part in the activities of the putschists. The people will not forgive us if we allow democracy to die during these days." Broadcasters also pleaded with radio stations that remained open: "Don't lie. If you cannot speak the truth, say nothing." In the end, the truth triumphed. The coup was crushed by the refusal of the Soviet people to live a lie. You were right, Natasha. I'll never worry about you again. Someday we will take our daughters together for a walk in Leningrad's Hermitage, the awe-inspiring palace of the czars. We will see the paintings of da Vinci, and the throne of Peter the Great, and the gleaming halls lined with marble statues. We will walk to nearby Palace Square, too. But instead of explaining that Palace Square was the site where the Bolshevik Revolution began in 1917, you might say, with your zeal for accuracy: "This is one of the places where, in August of 1991, the Soviet people liberated themselves."

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