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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Post-Soviet Press Mold Broken by Terror

"The fire improved her appearance immensely."

-- Alexander Griboyedov, "Gore ot Uma"



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Anyone well-familiar with the canon of Russian literature will immediately recall that this clumsy phrase, uttered by Colonel Skalozub -- a character in Alexander Griboyedov's 19th-century play "Gore ot Uma" or "Woe From Wit" -- described a real event. After the great fire of Moscow that consumed most of the city during Napoleon's occupation in 1812, the wooden dwellings destroyed by fire were replaced by fine stone houses.

I would use this phrase as an epigraph to what has happened with the press since the terrorist attacks on America.

Previously, attentive members of the public would read leading publications not so much to acquaint themselves with the facts as to understand the opinions of the political or financial groups that stood behind them. Now, even applying one's keenest skills to read between the lines, it is extremely hard to identify a single unambiguous position within a particular publication as to how the events of Sept. 11 will affect Russia, the United States and the rest of the world. Indeed, many diverse viewpoints "cohabit" in one and the same publication. The range of experts that journalists now seek for commentary has increased considerably (before it was about 10 names that circulated between channels and publications). A key event for me personally was when an article titled "Terrorist Act in Manhattan -- A War of Civilizations?" by Georgy Mirsky appeared in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Mirsky knows the Near East and Islam exceptionally well, and I don't honestly remember when I last saw his byline in a newspaper.

The shock of what happened in America forced the Russian press to think about itself. On Sept. 15, two of our leading papers -- the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda and the quality liberal daily Izvestia -- devoted an entire page to U.S. television coverage of the event. On Sept. 19, the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, which positions itself as a mouthpiece for respectable conservatism, wrote on the same topic. The publications are different, but the leitmotif is the same and is best captured in the Komsomolskaya Pravda headline "Why Don't Americans Show Blood and Bodies on Television?" It seems our journalists convinced themselves that there are things more important than ratings and that voluntary self-restraint and taking responsibility for the consequences of one's words are not at odds with freedom of speech.

In general, plenty that is unusual, unexpected and pleasing to the professional reading public has been happening in our media over the past weeks.

Why? After all the press has owners who it listens to. And there is the state, which in recent years has been steadfast in promoting its line via the media. The fact is that the elite, i.e. the owners and the state, have yet to form even a stable selection of positions to adopt given the new situation, let alone some kind of consensus.

The press, it seems, was left to its own devices. While before Sept. 11 Russian pluralism was a function of the information wars, now it feeds what is virtually the first serious national debate in 10 years regarding the contemporary world and how we should live.

Incidentally, after the conflagration of 1812, Moscow never again burned to the ground.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)