LONDON – Gennady Janaev’s hands were shaking. The Soviet vice president, newly appointed head of the military-political junta that orchestrated the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, betrayed a visible nervousness as he answered questions from us journalists, foreigners and Russians, in the crowded press room of the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Next to him, the head of the KGB Vitalij Kryuchkov and the defense minister Dimitrij Yazov they seemed equally uncertain. It was the first clear sign that the putsch was failing, as it did within three days. But thirty-two years later, faced with the failed coup by Evghenij Prigozhin against the generals of Vladimir Putin, an apparent act of defiance to the Russian president himself, that press conference of the coup plotters of ’91 contains another lesson: the impressive difference between the freedom in which the national and international media operated in Russia then and the mixture of censorship, oppression and secrecy in which they are forced to operate today, under the iron heel of Putin and his followers.
Berlusconi and caviar on TV while the coup was taking place
While the mutiny of Prigozhin’s mercenaries and their march on Moscow were underway, Russian TV broadcast a documentary on Silvio Berlusconi and then a gastronomy report on caviar. The Moscow newspapers, all muzzled, only reported the Kremlin’s official statements on the dramatic tug of war. The regime’s censors even prevented Google searches. Aside from his brief “address to the nation” from TV screens, Putin has disappeared and is silent. After leaving Rostov to the applause of the citizens and requests to pose for a selfie, not even the alleged coup plotter Prigozhin is known anymore. When he speaks, moreover, he too does it on his own channels, with controlled video proclamations, staying away from journalists like Putin.
Of course, the coup plotters of ’91 tried to exercise some control over information. The TV began to broadcast classical music. The state news agency Tass complied with their releases. And in theory, in a pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era, gagging the mainstream media might have seemed sufficient. But five years of glasnost, the “transparency” or freedom of the press with which Gorbachev (and even more so his adviser Aleksandr Yakovlevcalled “the architect of perestroika”) tried to democratize communism, had irreparably changed Russian society and its means of communication, even infecting the authors of the coup.
The fate of Prigozhin in Russia that does not like the generals in power by Gianluca Di Feo 26 June 2023
Putin’s control over the media
Russian newspapers freely reported everything that was happening. Radio Echo of Moscow and Radio Liberty, two independent radio stations, broadcast live coverage of the coup, which was listened to by millions. The population of the capital thus learned that tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets to demonstrate against the coup plotters and that Boris Yeltsin, the popularly elected president of Russia, the largest of the fifteen republics of the USSR, was free and spurred the people to resist. As if that weren’t enough, the coup plotters themselves failed to completely bury the customs and traditions of the Gorbachev era: instead of shutting themselves up in the Kremlin, at the Lubyanka (the infamous headquarters of the KG) or in the ministries, they felt compelled to convene a press conference , to remain accessible to us foreign correspondents and local journalists. In hindsight, a sensational mistake: practically the coup began to crumble before our eyes, listening to the stammering answers of Janaev and his accomplices to the far from docile questions of the media. The genie of freedom had come out of the bottle and not even those who wanted to bring back the Soviet Union knew how to push him back.
A decade later, of course, Putin arrived in the Kremlin and in twenty-three years of increasingly authoritarian rule he has extinguished virtually every aspect of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has made it harder to censor everything. But being a journalist in Moscow today is infinitely more complicated and risky than at the time of the 1991 coup. When we could see the shaking hands of the Soviet vice president and publicly call the head of the KGB a liar with impunity.