LETTERS TO GORBACHEV Life in the Former Soviet Union through the postbag of Argumenty I Fakty Edited by Ron McKay

£1.50

Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts) started life as an eight-page tabloid of the influential academic Znanie Society (The All-Union Society for the Dissemination of Political and Scientific Knowledge), edited by Vladislav Starkov and his deputy Alexander Meshchersky; it launched in 1978 with a 10,000 strong subscription base.

Starkov, an engineer with several years’ experience as a Moscow Radio journalist, was headhunted in 1977 by the Znanie Society to edit a brochure on international affairs. The following year Znanie commissioned him to edit a book of Soviet press digests, to be called Argumenty i Fakty. The lengthy polemics they gave him, however, proved impossible to précis sensibly so he resigned, only to be re-hired a few months later and given a free hand to commission and publish original articles of his choice.

By the mid 1980s AiF was an established and thriving subscription-based weekly and Starkov a key promoter of perestroika and glasnost pushing the boundaries of opposition to the Communist Party.

Description

Leading Soviet dissident and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, an early supporter of AiF, offered Starkov his first article on his return from internal exile in 1986, but the Politburo’s demands for drastic amendments persuaded Starkov, with Sakharov’s blessing, to shelve the article. “Publish it after my death,” he said; it appeared on the front page of Argumenty i Fakty two days after Sakharov’s death in December 1989.

It was in 1988 that Starkov first drew the ire of Gorbachev and the Politburo when he tried to publish an exposé of the opulent homes and lifestyle of party apparatchiks in the mountains of Georgia. When the galleys of the AiF exposé were about to roll, the Central Committee controlled printers refused to print the issue. Gorbachev’s much publicised new Press freedoms on the crimes of Stalin did not extend to exposures of party misdeeds. (The article finally appeared in March 1990.)

The next confrontation came in October 1989 when Starkov published a readers’ opinion poll on the relative popularity of Soviet deputies, a poll that was won, overwhelmingly, by Andrei Sakharov, leaving Gorbachev in fifth place. Outraged by this act of lèsemajesté, Gorbachev summoned the head of all Soviet media to the imposing Congress of People’s Deputies building in the Kremlin grounds where he publicly berated Starkov for daring to publish the poll, accusing him of disrespecting the office of president and undermining the Central Committee with his ‘inflammatory editorials’ — and demanding his resignation. “I’ll fire you, I’ll destroy you”, he shouted at Starkov.

Gorbachev’s sherracking proved counter-productive. His widely reported attack on a popular editor whose open criticism of Soviet bureaucratic bunglings and of the KGB (who had a weekly box to themselves in the paper) did much to accelerate the already changing face of Soviet journalism — and the public mood. AiF’s staff announced that if Starkov were forced out they would strike in solidarity — something unprecedented in the Soviet Union. It also boosted the number of subscribers from 22 to nearly 34 million — and 50 invitations from across the 15 republics of the Soviet Union to stand for election as a deputy for the Russian Federation. Starkov and Meshchersky were two of only eight reform candidates who won the election outright in the first round.

Soon after, in March 1990, AiF was named ‘Newspaper of the Year’ at London’s Savoy Hotel — the first time in 33 years the award had been won by a foreign newspaper. I like to think its growing international prestige was helped a bit by the fact that since 1988 I had edited a monthly English-language digest of Russian news, analysis and opinion, initially called Pravda International (but without the Kremlin’s or Pravda’s consent), and culled primarily from the pages of AiF, which was by then clearly the only independent Russian paper with its finger on the pulse of the Russian people. (After a falling out in 1989 with Pravda’s publisher, Keith Young of IT Matters, I launched Arguments and Facts International — with the enthusiastic support of Starkov and Meshchersky. In fact, when editing Pravda International, the only contact I had with Moscow was an angry phone call from the Kremlin’s press department telling me not to publish any more AiF articles). That same year the Guinness Book of Records listed AiF, with 33.5 million subscribers and an estimated readership of 100 million, as having the largest circulation of any weekly newspaper in the world.

In only 12 years, Starkov had developed his tiny weekly into the biggest-selling publication on the planet. Its weekly print run of 34 million copies were read by an estimated hundred million people, virtually the entire adult population of the Soviet Union’s fifteen republics. Komsomolskaya Pravda, by comparison, had a circulation of 17 million and Pravda nine million. In the West, only the Readers Digest with its 27 million world circulation, even came close.

“We started with 10,000 subscriptions. The first year we received 35 letters — funny when I you think of our 3,000 a day now,” Starkov said at the time. Readers’ letters were central to his concept of journalism. He had a staff of 10 people who read every letter; he himself made the final selection from a short list of 400-500 a week.

The paper’s phenomenal success was, he explained, down to four things:

“One, it is small and thin — easy to hold. Two, the articles are serious, many by contributors of stature — but they are short, easy to read unlike the two-page spreads on Lenin we get in Pravda. Most papers both here and abroad, are much too long and opaque… Thirdly, it is a personal paper staffed by men and women who actually like people. I deplore journalists who feel superior to readers … The fourth reason for its success is that it is ridiculously cheap’ (2.64 roubles a year)

Sadly, neither Vladislav or his deputy, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Meshchersky, could hold out for long against the overwhelming commercial and ‘extra-legal’ pressures unleashed after the implosion of the Soviet Union. With both men seriously ill and ‘Sasha’ Meshchersky experiencing two domestic tragedies they sold their shares in AiF to Promsvyazbank in 2001; they died not long after. In their lives, however, they had made a difference. Today, in Putin’s Russian Federation, sales of AiF are estimated at around 2.9 million copies.