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A new breed tells it like it is The journalist: A former slave to the old Soviet censors can report the truth, using criticism as his stock in trade.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - When the arsenal buried in this military port's hilly, San Francisco-like downtown exploded into a giant fireball four years ago, people for 50 blocks around ran for their lives.

But Andrei Ostrovsky, a skinny, hyperactive newspaper reporter, scrambled straight to the inferno to report a story of lax military discipline in which a soldier's cigarette ignited stored torpedoes, mines and rockets, killing two.

And when two more military arsenals blew up in subsequent years, Ostrovsky was first on the scene and first with the stories of what had happened: Soldiers playing with a rocket and maintenance personnel burning grass over a berm full of explosives were to blame.

Those stories never would have been reported in the old Soviet system, especially from this once secret, closed port on the Russian Far East coast. Telling the truth wasn't part of a Russian reporter's job.

"Five or 10 years ago, no one would have reported this," says Ostrovsky, a senior reporter and editor for Vladivostok Daily.

Ostrovsky, who is flourishing under a free press, was just an unremarkable slave to the old Soviet censors.

In the 1980s, as a government maritime radio reporter, Ostrovsky traveled aboard fishing, military and trading ships plying the Pacific, and he saw a lot he couldn't mention.

"It was always a problem to tell about horrible things that took place - like the barbarous fishing accidents when tons of fish would die and were thrown away because the trawler couldn't get to a processing plant or base," Ostrovsky recalls.

"A good journalist used to be the one who could put a beautiful phrase together and obfuscate. So Andrei's was considered weak journalism," says longtime friend and colleague Vladimir Oshenko.

Being a journalist was once a constrained, 9-to-5 civil service job. No one even reported evening or weekend news.

Unauthorized criticism wasn't permitted because it meant the system wasn't perfect, Ostrovsky explains.

A dangerous life

Today, criticism is Ostrovsky's stock in trade. Democracy has freed human curiosity. If your city blows up, it's natural to ask why and to explain, says Ostrovsky, 37. That philosophy makes him part of this nation's new breed of journalists.

Not always objective, and alternately timid and overly aggressive, the Russian press is evolving from the stultifying, gray Communist Party organ of the Soviet era to a variety of publications ranging from tabloid scandal sheets to broadsheet knockoffs of the Wall Street Journal.

Many news organizations won't hire anyone who worked as a journalist under the Soviet system.

Ostrovsky's newspaper - though beholden to local business backers - is a feisty upstart that has driven its competition into the ground. Its investigative reporting has made Vladivostok Daily the most widely read newspaper on the Russian east coast, with a circulation of 130,000.

As in all of Russia, Vladivostok's power structures - the press, the government and the new capitalism - co-exist uneasily.

The reaction to truth sometimes has been lethal. Since communism fell in 1991, journalists regularly have been hauled into court on criminal libel charges; they have been shot dead, blown up and threatened into hiding. Ostrovsky himself has gone into hiding.

Irreverent, profane and intense, Ostrovsky is a journalistic gadfly. He has sources from the bombed-out villages of Chechnya a half-continent away to the sailors, soldiers, traders and mobsters of the craggy, blue inlets of this harbor city of 700,000.

Vladivostok suffers all the economic pains of Russia's reform. But with its plentiful Asian-imported cars, food and clothes, it has a distinctly upbeat and open attitude more common to the vibrant Pacific Rim countries than the brooding Russian heartland.

'Wild East' openness

Ostrovsky's reporting is a reflection of this "Wild East" openness. His stories regularly irritate the governor, enrage the mayor, cause mothers to cry over their sons fighting in the Chechen civil war, and inflame the Cossacks sent here long ago to guard the border with China.

His worn jeans, mussed hair, ever-present cigarette and impatiently bouncing knee are the universal signs of a hard-bitten reporter. His writing is laced with attitude - his opinionated, common-man style often reads like the transcript of a schmoozy conversation with a source over a bottle of beer.

A recent Page 3 article he wrote included opinions that would only be found on the editorial pages of an American newspaper.

The article took Mayor Konstantin Tolstoshein and a Maritime Region official to task for holding a closed meeting on the city's frequent blackouts, which have left more than a quarter of the population and industry without power most of every day this summer.

Ostrovsky reported that a militia officer forced a news photographer to expose film of Tolstoshein arriving amid a crowd of angry protesters. Ostrovsky went on to explain that Russian law gives journalists the right to be present at all events that don't involve state secrets.

"So this means electrical supply problems are a terrible secret," he wrote. "Otherwise, why is electricity cut off at schools and kindergartens but never at the homes of high officials?"

The article infuriated the governor's press secretary, Natalya Vstovskaya, who sent a prosecutor to question Ostrovsky in his office. Vstovskaya has a lawyer pressing libel suits full time to defend her boss's reputation.

Cursing Ostrovsky's name, she says the story isn't true. "The mayor didn't want his photo taken with all those pickets there, and the photographer volunteered to expose his film."

Ostrovsky just rolls his eyes, mustache twitching in amusement.

"Today the major censor is myself, because I know I have to be able to prove every single word," he says.

Ostrovsky has a love-hate relationship with Yevgeny Nazdratenko, a former mining company boss who is the elected governor of this region bordering on China and North Korea.

For three years, the governor played the nationalist drumbeat over three small pieces of borderland that President Boris N. Yeltsin finally ceded this spring to China.

Borderland expedition

Ostrovsky took an expedition to the remote borderlands in this region of endangered tigers and thick primeval forests and described them as very small, uninhabited areas - not the major concessions to the neighboring giant that the governor portrayed them to be.

In the process, he not only angered the governor but incensed the jackbooted Cossacks whose traditional, but fading role from the time of the czars has been to settle along Russia's borders.

Ostrovsky recently got a scare after his wife, Natalya, a correspondent for the national newspaper Izvestia, wrote articles suggesting that the governor hadn't given up his interests in the mining company.

Ostrovsky claims an acquaintance secretly taped a conversation with the governor about the Ostrovskys' work. The tape made Ostrovsky nervous enough to take his wife and two sons away for a few days to a nearby island.

"Often business ends with a dead body," the reporter says.

But both sides reluctantly acknowledge that the governor gave Ostrovsky an award for his reporting in the three arsenal explosions.

Nazdratenko invited Ostrovsky to go with him on an official trip to Chechnya, and he takes the reporter's calls at home when weekend stories break.

Russia's emerging democratic principles are still murky on some issues, such as the ethics of a free press.

While the government and the military are favorite targets of reporting at Vladivostok Daily, there are some sacred cows, such as the newspaper's owners.

Vladivostok Daily was founded in 1989 during perestroika by one of Ostrovsky's former journalism professors. It is backed by an assortment of private firms, including a bank and the huge Far Eastern Shipping Co. (FESCO).

At first it was a scandal sheet specializing in morgue photos and nudes, but once the newspaper secured a stable circulation and hefty advertising profits, the management turned toward responsible daily reporting.

Soon the newspaper will move into a new building on property given by FESCO, and it will build its own printing plant, a rarity for Russian newspapers, which mostly depend on state-controlled printing presses.

Untempted by bribes

Conflict of interest is not a concept that bothers the journalists in Vladivostok Daily's tight, 20-desk newsroom.

Ostrovsky, who pets the bust of Josef Stalin at the newsroom door, says the newspaper's sponsors "definitely affect what I report. I often run into things I can't report. But that's part of the reality of the job."

But he stresses that the common Russian journalistic practice of taking payments from sources for favorable articles is strictly forbidden.

Ostrovsky says that he's had big-money offers but that he's not even tempted.

His pay of $1,000 a month, plus a cellular phone and a computer at home, puts him well into a privileged Russian class. (His salary is more than six times the official average monthly wage in Russia.)

His hatred of the old system developed at an early age.

His father was nearly expelled from the Communist Party for reading dissident writer Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn. His aunt was a political prisoner for 10 years in Kazakstan.

Ostrovsky rebelled in small ways against the Soviet system, refusing to take required college gym classes to the point of expulsion, and eagerly snapping up smuggled rock 'n' roll music from sailors. "My first dance with a girl was to 'Yesterday,' by the Beatles," he says with a smile.

Now thriving with a journalistic reputation he never would have enjoyed in Soviet times, Ostrovsky still worries about losing the freedom he has. Colleagues across Russia shared his anxiety with the threat that a Communist might be elected president this summer. It led many newspapers to show an overwhelming bias for Yeltsin during the campaign.

For Ostrovsky, the feeling that all this freedom might be ripped away crystallized in an instant five years ago when he heard the news of the hard-liners' coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

Suddenly he realized he couldn't stand to go back.

"It's not that I was crying," he says, "but my very small son saw my face, and I'll always remember how he understood how lost I was at that moment - I thought we'd have to leave the country.

"After that romantic breath of freedom, after you've lived freely, it's difficult to go back."

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