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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Speaks

The following open letter by Boris Berezovsky appeared in TuesdayТs Kommersant newspaper.

To V. V. Putin, president of the Russian Federation:

On freedom of speech and ORT shares

Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich:

Last week, a highly placed official in your administration gave me an ultimatum: In the next two weeks, hand over the ORT shares I control to the government, or go the way of Vladimir Gusinsky Ч in all likelihood, this meant to Butyrskaya Prison. The reason for such a proposal was your displeasure at how ORT covered events of the Kursk submarine disaster. "The president himself wants to manage ORT," your representative said to me.

After the essential exile of Gusinsky from the country and the transfer of NTV to the control of Gazprom (read: the government), ORT is the only national station not fully dependent on the government. If I accept this ultimatum, television information will no longer exist in Russia; it will be replaced by television propaganda, controlled by your advisers.

I agree: In coverage of the Kursk submarine disaster, the media subjected you to sharp criticism, which was also, in my opinion, just in many ways. Your desire to take control of the media is understandable: The next time that, God forbid, another such incident Ч an explosion, a catastrophe, a scandal Ч should occur, there will be no one to criticize you, and people will learn about such events from Western "voices," just as they did in the recent past.

It will be easier for you to govern, the people will live more peacefully, and there will be far fewer people to raise unpleasant questions; after all, they wonТt have the powerful defense that TV glasnost gives them. You wonТt have to curtail your vacation and immediately look for money to help families of the dead. And one fine day, people will wake up and discover that they have unanimously approved the sending of the Russian army to some far-off country to supply fraternal assistance.

With all the failings and problems that Russia is enduring, there are a few unarguable achievements. The most significant of these is that millions of people have stopped fearing the government Ч and the government has been forced to some degree to answer to the people. This has become possible primarily due to media independent of the government. For the first time in many decades, people have a way of airing their complaints Ч about the policeman, the bureaucrat and the boss. Guilty bureaucrats hide from journalists. By putting the media under administrative-security control, you will return fear to our lives. Once again, we will begin to fear the boss. And, once again, there will be no place we can air our complaints.

I should note that this is not a matter of money, as professional provocateurs have tried to explain to the nation. You well know that ORT is very unprofitable. The weakness of the advertising market makes any media outlet unprofitable. Each year, it takes $150 million to run ORT. Over six years, private ORT shareholders Ч of whom I am one Ч have subsidized the programs of Channel 1 at the expense of other, profitable enterprises.

Neither my colleagues nor I have anything to be ashamed of. Thanks to our financing of independent media, Russia has managed in just a few years to lay the foundations of a civil society and to ensure the democratic process, including two cycles of free elections Ч even with their delays, which are characteristic of any nascent democracy.

I donТt know where you plan to find the money to run ORT Ч maybe from a secret line item in the new budget, or maybe from some secret FSB fund out of which the families of the KurskТs dead crew members were paid. It is frightening when, on issues of social import Ч be it concern for orphans or support of the media Ч the government has no one but the security services to lean on.

In giving me this ultimatum, you essentially have set before society an important question: Do nonstate media have a right to exist in Russia? It is obvious that you have answered this question for yourself, having clarified it for the relatives of the sailors who died on the submarine: "Television? That means, itТs lying. Е There are people who work in television who are shouting more than anyone else today and who have destroyed the army and the navy over 10 years. Е Today they are in the front lines of the defenders Е and with the goal of discrediting and completely annihilating the army and navy! In a few years, they have stolen money, and now they buy anything and everything! TheyТve made such laws!"

My answer to you: Private capital Ч be it mercenary and capricious Ч nevertheless doesnТt start wars and doesnТt hide losses; it didnТt hush up Chernobyl and the tragedy of another submarine, the Komsomolets. Private capital does not engage in exiling peoples and does not liquidate class enemies. The government has many means of controlling private capital. But Russian society today has only one means of limiting the government: independent media.

I ask you, Mr. President, to stop before itТs too late! DonТt let the genie of limitless power out of the bottle, the genie that has laid waste to our nation for more than 70 years. You wonТt be able to handle him. He will destroy both you and the nation.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, I began this letter by mentioning that a bureaucrat in your administration gave me an ultimatum. H. L. Mencken, a famous American journalist, once said, "For every problem there is a solution which is simple, neat and wrong." The Russian equivalent is, "ThereТs a person Ч there are problems. No person Ч no problems." Threats and blackmail are unacceptable arguments for the government to use in resolving conflicts with its citizens. They testify to its weakness, insolvency and thus to the danger it presents to all of society. You know me rather well; therefore, in contrast to your advisers, you will not be greatly surprised to know that I will not bow to a dictate.

If I were to discuss matters in the style of your administration, then I should end this letter right here. But I have sought and found a constructive approach to the problem of improving the efficacy of managing ORT.

Building on this idea of the development of civil society, I have decided to transfer my shares in ORT to a board of journalists and other representatives of the creative intelligentsia.

I am sure that an analogous step by the government Ч and this could be at your initiative Ч will allow the nationТs Channel 1 to remain true to its name: "Russian Public Television."


B. Berezovsky

Sept. 4, 2000