A focused, bracing look at how the control of the media has helped plot the Russian political trajectory from dictatorship and back again.
A Soviet-born insider who hailed the opening up of Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev 30 years ago as creating an “exhilarating new sense of possibility,” Ostrovsky, former Moscow bureau chief at the Economist, is chagrined by the nostalgic return to Soviet ways by the current leadership of Vladimir Putin. The “dismantling of lies” first spelled out in Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes opened a rift between the generation of old-school Communists and those of the shestidesiatniki, “the men of the 1960s,” contemporaries of Gorbachev who wanted “to restore social justice and clear the names of their fathers.” While Gorbachev introduced perestroika as a “new beginning” to fix the broken Soviet Union in 1986, 30 years to the day after Khrushchev’s speech, he “dithered” in terms of moving to a free market and liberalizing state-controlled prices, creating “an unbridgeable divide between the minority of the liberal intelligentsia and…the gray and menacing mass of Soviet-bred men and women” known as Homo soveticus. Ostrovsky effectively demonstrates this divide in the father-son dichotomy of reformer journalist Yegor Yakovlev, “the mouthpiece of Gorbachev’s perestroika,” brought up in the era of “socialism with a human face,” and his son Vladimir Yakovlev, the founding editor of the new capitalist newspaper, Kommersant, started in 1990. Each of these organs defined the tone of the times, along with NTV, a new TV channel started in 1993 by media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, which presented Western-style “normal” (“uncensored”) news; the station eventually got into hot water after criticizing Putin’s handling of the Chechnya war and was shut down. From oligarchs bred in Boris Yeltin’s administration to the lethal growth of the bureaucrat-entrepreneur under Putin, the grasp of the message became key to controlling the state.
An astute, accessible, illuminating navigation of the idea that the “only consistent feature in Russia’s history is its unpredictability.”