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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Press Comes Home From Exile

There used to be a special word in Russian vernacular for books and periodicals published in Russian outside the Soviet Union and its strict censorship: tamizdat, literally meaning "published there."

Devoured by free-speech-hungry, dissent-minded intellectuals, tamizdat enraged KGB spooks and customs officers searching every other incoming bag for "subversive literature." Papers such as the Paris-based Russkaya Mysl and New York's Novoye Russkoye Slovo were strictly blacklisted in Moscow.

This week, thumbing through the pages of Russkaya Mysl at the First World Congress of Russian-language Press, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and presidential chief of staff Alexander Voloshin exchanged jokes as to what would have happened to them if they were caught reading this newspaper 20 years ago.

Even President Boris Yeltsin, who addressed a select group of delegate members in the Kremlin, expressed his support for the Russian-language press beyond the motherland's borders.

"We used to be divided not only by distance, we were divided into two Russias," Yeltsin said. "Time has shown that such a division is artificial, that we have a common culture and common roots. And although we live in different countries, all of us have one Russia."

Bringing together 300 journalists from 48 countries, the congress united not only the old emigr?s and exiles who left the Soviet Union to create sizable Russian-language communities in Israel, Germany, North America and Australia. It also brought together those Russians who found themselves abroad beyond their will when the Soviet Union collapsed. In all of these Russian-speaking communities, a newspaper or a radio station is often the only institution which binds them together.

"This congress should have been held a long time ago," said Oleg Chubais, a teacher of Russian at Barnard College in New York. Ten years ago Chubais - a cousin of Russia's controversial economic reformer Anatoly Chubais - founded Russkoye Radio, a nonprofit FM radio station that broadcasts three hours a day in Vermont. "It was amazing to see all these people," said Chubais, who was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in the 1970s after he refused to return early from his teaching assignment in the United States. "I never knew that there are Russian papers in, say, Vietnam and Mongolia."

The crowd not only represented different countries, but different interests as well.

An editor of a Russian-language paper from Israel questioned State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov on why he failed to curb anti-Semitic statements by parliamentary deputies. Svetlana Marchelov, who edits the bilingual Russian-Romanian newspaper Zori in Bucharest - an organ of the 100,000-member community of Old Believers in Romania - asked ORT General Director Igor Shabdurasulov why he had not responded to her fax offering to distribute ORT programs through a cable network in Romania.

The biggest surprise for Moscow-based reporters attending the congress was the steady stream of top-ranking Russian officials and media bosses arriving at the Sovincenter to address the gathering.

Analysts struggled to interpret the high-level interest in the low-key congress. Some said it provided a moment to shine before television cameras as the electoral campaign unfolds. Others said it was a good marketing opportunity for the conference's chief organizer, Itar-Tass. As the news agency's Russian audience shrinks, it is increasingly important for Itar-Tass to lure customers from Russian-speaking audiences abroad.

In order to maintain a greater flow of reliable news from the "metropolis" to the "diaspora," organizers are establishing an international association of worldwide Russian-language media - a concept that was supported by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

"I will be frank: We are concerned with the constantly shrinking field of use of the Russian language," Ivanov said in his address to the congress. "It is our common duty to think which measures we can undertake to strengthen relations with the Russian-speaking communities in different countries."