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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Former Kremlin Reporter Spills the Beans

MTYelena Tregubova, 30, holding a copy of her new book, "Tales of a Kremlin Digger."
In her book "Tales of a Kremlin Digger," former Kremlin correspondent Yelena Tregubova shares her experience of dealing with presidential officials, whom she calls "mutants," and lashes out against what she says is a Putin campaign to curb freedom of speech.

With chapters titled "One Night with Alexander Stalyevich [Voloshin]" or "How Putin Was Recruiting Me" and a detailed account of a private dinner in 1998 with then-FSB director Vladimir Putin at a Japanese restaurant where she addressed him by the more intimate name "Volodya," the book may appear to be a tabloid look at behind-the-scene Kremlin intrigues. But Tregubova insists it's not.

Drawing on four years of covering the Kremlin for a number of leading Russian newspapers, including Kommersant, the book is a clarion cry that freedom of speech has all but evaporated in Russia, she said.

"I felt that the public wouldn't be interested in reading a book about the plight of journalists and the problem of free press in Russia," Tregubova, 30, said in a recent interview. "So I spiced it up as much as I could with intriguing stories about Kremlin officials so that it would look almost yellow and people would buy it and read it.

"But once they swallow this pill, which is sweet on the outside, they will taste the bitter essence of what has happened in the country.

"There is hardly a single publication left these days with an editor in chief who won't change or simply pull an article after a call from the Kremlin -- or, worse still, replace an opposing journalist with a loyal one," she said.

As if to confirm Tregubova's words, state-controlled NTV television pulled the plug on a report about the new book just hours before it was to air Sunday night. NTV ran advertising spots for the segment on its 9 p.m. news magazine "Namedni" throughout the day and allowed it to air in the Far East, which is seven time zones ahead of Moscow, before canning it.

"This is the reaction of the Kremlin," Tregubova said Sunday night.

"Several hours before 'Namedni' was to be shown in Moscow, I got a call from Lyonya [program host Leonid Parfyonov], who told me the segment wouldn't be aired. He told me: 'I am not going to lie that somebody spilled Coke on the tape. The report was called off.'"

The Kremlin press service could not be reached for comment late Sunday, but earlier in the day it declined to comment about the book.

NTV general director Nikolai Senkevich denied being pressured to yank the report.

"It was my personal decision," he said by telephone. "As soon as I saw the show today at 2 p.m., I decided that I respect our audience too much to air such a base and vulgar segment.

"Nobody can reproach our channel about a lack of political coverage. But this is not about politics, it's about promoting the book and its author. 'Namedni' has earned the reputation of being a refined, high-quality show. But this whole story just smells bad."

The producer and editor of the segment, Andrei Shilov, said it included an interview with Tregubova in which she drew parallels between Putin and Soviet secret police head Lavrenty Beria, a womanizer who was known for disposing of the women when he was tired of them. Tregubova spoke with Parfyonov in a studio decorated to resemble a Japanese restaurant -- a nod to the dinner date with Putin described in the book.

Mikhail Margelov and Alexei Volin, who served in Yeltsin's Kremlin press office, were also interviewed and they were largely critical of the book, Shilov said.

Tregubova said her main point in the interview was that "the main achievement of the Yeltsin years -- freedom of speech -- was done away with after Putin became president."

Likewise, by contrasting her experience of covering the Kremlin in the late Yeltsin to early Putin years, Tregubova in her book sets out to show that Putin "has practically destroyed all independent political journalism in Russia," according to the first chapter of the book.

She writes that shortly after Putin moved into the Kremlin, the Kremlin pool of reporters saw a wave of repressions in which those who did not toe the official line -- including herself -- lost their accreditation.

Reporters were instructed to only ask the president questions that had been cleared with his press secretary, and the Kremlin press service itself eagerly returned to Soviet-style methods of feeding the press -- literally, the book says. It describes a foreign trip by Putin in which the Kremlin pool was divided into those who were loyal and disloyal to the president. Those in the loyal group got to dine with Putin.

Tregubova portrays Putin as a former KGB agent who remains passionately devoted to the security services and says he was personally involved in decisions to shut down private television stations and cross her off the Kremlin accreditation list.

"He sincerely believes that this is what mass media should be like," she said.

In the book, Tregubova also provides a blunt account of slips of the tongue and other blunders committed by Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, that the Kremlin banned reporters from writing about. In one example, she says that in the weeks before he was elected president in 2000, Putin met a young boy who had been hit by a car while jaywalking. "In a hospital in Petrozavodsk, instead of expressing pity to the small boy on crutches ... Putin told him, 'From now on you won't be violating traffic regulations anymore.' Little wonder that after this, when Putin tried to kiss a tiny girl, she wouldn't let him and told him, her eyes full of tears, 'I am afraid of you!'"

Tregubova said her refusal to toe the Kremlin line in her reports ultimately cost her her Kremlin accreditation in 2001.

After the release of the book three weeks ago, Kommersant editors fired her, complaining she had not notified them about taking a sabbatical to work on the book. Tregubova said she had told the editors about the sabbatical.

"It was a physical necessity for me to describe everything I saw there [in the Kremlin]," said Tregubova, who started working on her book early this year.

"I tried several major Russian publishers, but they all said they didn't want to face the risks," she said.

Tregubova finally found an ally in Alexander Ivanov, director of the publisher Ad-Marginem, Latin for "on the margin."

The publisher also has released the works of ultranationalist writer Eduard Limonov as well as Vladimir Sorokin's controversial "Goluboye Salo," which can be translated as "Blue Lard" or "Gay Lard" and depicts homosexual contact between Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.

While any political consequences of publishing Tregubova's book remain to be seen, the economic risk of investing into the project has surely paid off. "Tales of a Kremlin Digger" is currently among the top 10 best selling books in Moscow.

"They [the other publishers] must be biting their elbows now," Tregubova said with a laugh.

Asked whether she had any fears about targeting the Kremlin, her voice trembled.

"I know that I am responsible not only for myself but also for my loved ones," she said. "That is why I never told my Mom that I was working on this book, not until the day it was released. I didn't want her to worry about me."

Tregubova said a friend told her that Press Minister Mikhail Lesin has read the book and said, "I hope that she understands that with this book she has condemned herself. No one will ever hire her."

"But I would be more afraid if I had kept silent," she said.