Russian public flexes its opinion Media changes: Television journalism and advertising are experimenting with their new freedom in Russia, and the populace is startled.


WASHINGTON -- In Soviet days, the Russian evening news program was filled with pictures of tractors, which no one cared about, and stories about how the harvest was better than ever, which no one believed. The stories were delivered by stern-faced journalists, who looked like high school principals lecturing errant and slightly uncomprehending pupils.

Now, Russians get their news from people like Yevgeny Kiselyov, who has beautiful blue eyes, a luxurious mustache, a strong, square-jawed face and a delivery so nonthreatening that he often pauses in a near-stutter. Perhaps even more startling evidence of the enormous change in Russian television is this:

Mr. Kiselyov came to the United States a few days ago to accept an International Press Freedom Award, given to journalists who risk persecution to defend freedom of the press.

Mr. Kiselyov, 39, is Russia's most respected and trusted journalist. He helped set up Russia's only independent television channel, NTV, at the end of 1993. He has a Sunday night show reviewing the week's news, called "Itogi" ("Wrap-up") that has set a new standard for reporting in the former Soviet Union.

His network astonished the Russian nation a year ago with hard-hitting reporting of the war in Chechnya; NTV's cameras showed the carnage so honestly and relentlessly that the two state-supported channels were forced to give their reporters more leeway.

NTV was first to show a Russian helicopter shot down in Chechnya. Americans who watched the Vietnam War unfold on their television screens can't quite comprehend the effect. Russians never saw that kind of coverage of their war in Afghanistan. Information was tightly controlled. They only saw their soldiers victorious -- which was a lie.

Officially, the press is free in Russia. But officials' immediate reaction to the coverage of Chechnya was to clamp down. Officials began looking for ways to tame the coverage, trying to figure out where NTV was vulnerable to pressure, such as depending on the government for a license or for transmitting its reports. Many Russians assumed NTV would be quickly shut down, no matter how flimsy the pretext.

But protection came from an unexpected source. With the war being heavily criticized at home and abroad, the politicians realized that clamping down on the press would fatally taint all the explanations about having to curb Chechen bandits.

Seemingly overnight, public opinion had become a force in Russia.

NTV got in trouble again last summer. The government had become annoyed with its "Kukli." The show, based on British and French programs, used life-sized puppets representing President Boris N. Yeltsin and his associates, the better to make fun of them.

After government leaders were depicted as bums, begging for change because they couldn't subsist on the minimum wage, the office of the prosecutor general announced that it was opening a criminal investigation. At the last moment, public opinion prevailed and the prosecutor dropped the case.

Now, the government has backed off nicely, Mr. Kiselyov says. It happens that there's an election for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on Sunday.

"The closer it gets to the election," he says, "the more government officials are willing to cooperate with the press."

The basic conflict, however, remains unaltered.

"The politician's job is to promise everything so he can win the election," Mr. Kiselyov says. "The reporter's job is to decontaminate all that political poison as much as he can."

Mr. Kiselyov's only close competitor as Russia's most trusted journalist was Vladislav Listyev, a television newsman who was assassinated March 1 by a gunman in the doorway of his apartment building. Journalism is dangerous in Moscow.

Mr. Listyev, who was 38, was the head of Ostankino, or ORT, the main state television channel. His murder has not been solved. It was a contract-style killing, and suspicions were that Mr. Listyev was a target because he was trying to clean up the sale of advertising, a source of vast corruption.

For Russians who had watched Mr. Listyev's career, his death was the final, disillusioning proof that the criminal underground was involved everywhere that money changes hands in Russia.

From that moment, Russians acknowledged a painful new reality. Control that had once been overt -- the Soviet government telling the press exactly what it could say -- had become covert.

People used to know the government's agenda and thus television's agenda. Now a variety of businesses and hidden interests own part or all of the media, and no one is sure how they are manipulating it.

Mr. Kiselyov's NTV was started with $15 million provided by Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the richest of the new Russian rich, as head of a holding company called the Most Group that has made money in banking and real estate.

ORT is now partly private and run by a politically well-connected group that made its fortune in auto sales, a murky, lucrative field. Mr. Kiselyov, who spoke here at a program sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says ORT -- his competitor -- has been improving its dull news coverage and programming.

Now Russians are wondering who, in fact, is behind the political advertising they are watching on ORT.

It has broadcast ads that convey an image that life is getting better in Russia, the party line promoted by Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the prime minister and Yeltsin ally. While ORT produces ads that seem to promote the people in power, some people accuse NTV of giving an advertising break to its own favorites, especially the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky.

"I strongly deny it," Mr. Kiselyov says.

Political advertising remains an emerging field in Russia. It was first used effectively in 1993 by Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the ultranationalist who advertised his way to an unexpected and strong victory in the Duma.

"Zhirinovsky made a great breakthrough two years ago by using television advertising when it was fresh and new," Mr. Kiselyov says. "Now you can only improve on that."

Ivan Rybkin, the conservative Duma speaker, has shown the best flair for advertising this year, Mr. Kiselyov says. "Only he is exploiting the idea that voters should pay attention to what the party's number is and look for that number on the ballot," he says.

One of the first advertisements of any kind to attract public attention occurred in August 1991, days before the failed coup that led to the demise of the Soviet Union.

A computer company bought up Moscow's subway system for the day, giving everyone unlimited free rides. In return, subway users only had to listen to the company's advertising messages blared throughout the system.

People found this marvelously advanced, a sign that the modern world had arrived at last in the Soviet Union. (At the time, no one had ever heard of the computer company. It was MMM, which went on to run a pyramid scheme in which millions lost their life savings. Its ads were so good people kept investing even after the scheme was exposed.)

"Advertising," one middle-aged man riding the subway that day said with a grateful smile.

2& "At last we're getting civilized."

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