Since my last trip to Kiev 20 years ago I had grown enough not to have an opinion just about everything; so I hadn’t any opinion about what is happening in Ukraine today. It’s clear that Novaya Gazeta writes about Ukrainian problems too sympathetically probably because our television demonizes them too much. So I assumed the truth to be somewhere between and maybe closer to our side. Approaching Kiev on a train and looking through the window I didn’t find a single building resembling the estates of the “new Russian rich” of the first wave. The roads looked solid; houses looked normal and well cared after. As for the Byzantine style – I found nothing. Afterwards I would be explained that luxury mansions exist too, but they are hidden somewhere. As for Russia, there is no road approaching any Russian city where you wouldn’t notice striking chic mansions.
Killing for me was the island that the train passed going over the Dnepr River by the bridge. The island was connected with the land by a neck and, you know, there is no even a casino on it! Well, we began from same starting point, but either Russians got more money or Ukrainians had less impunity. Kiev is not Estonia, it’s our Slavic motherland too – but what’s the reason for such a difference?
Enjoying old times’ sake, I had called Savik Shuster, a TV anchorman, and he invited me to the program apologizing that he wouldn’t be asking me any questions on the air. His initial period in Kiev it was not everyone who came to his program – which has been a feature of our television lately – and he gave the air to experts. At present, it’s only those are talked to on the air, who took part in the events directly. We had spent two hours talking in his office before the air began; his guys ran up with different news and it was easy for me to see how that all was done, and I had opportunity to ask my first questions to Savik in his office.
Q: Savik, what exactly do you consider to be the news? Where do you take the news from and how do you arrange them? Who does that depend on?
A: This depends on the news. Well, this also depends on the fact who exactly come to my program. This is the talk show, you know. We make monitoring during all week, but if something happens on Friday it becomes a priority. For example, today the interior minister bashed the mayor of Kiev. Of course, this is the news number one. But we shall see who will come. The minister will be afraid, as it is necessary to talk on the air, not only to slap faces. As for the mayor, he is at the hospital at the moment. He must be calculating if it is better to come to the air with bruises on his face, but in that case he wouldn’t be able to say that he was seriously injured. It is likely that some of his assistants come.
Q: Can it happen that someone refuses to come, considering oneself, for example, to be above all this and reckoning there is no one worthy talking to in your program?
A: It may happen, but such a person loses immediately as I say on the air that he or she did not come without valid excuse in spite of the fact we called. We have hosted Yushchenko, and Timoshenko came many times here. As for Yanukovich, I think he will come soon, he is not ready yet. Those are persons from the highest political establishment.
Q: In what sense Yanukovich is not ready? He is not a democrat enough? I’m sorry I didn’t try to get into your political reality before.
A: He may lose points on the air. He should get a bit more trained to meet the TV audience directly…
...At this moment some youth barged into the room and said the mayor wouldn’t come and there was no camera to film him in the hospital, but it was possible to put him on the air by phone. They decided to do so at once. In my mind, I looked for some similar situation that might happen in Russia, just to compare.
Q: Savik let us assume there has been a loud incident where the son of the defence minister bowled an old woman on a crossing. Would you put it on the air?
A: Of course! Immediately!
Q: And who would come to the program? What if no one came?
A: Well, old lady’s relatives would come for sure. Plus experts. And Ivanov – in case no one came from his side – would find himself in an awkward position and would be beaten.
Q: It would be subjective approach, and such things require proper investigation.
A: Sure, it would be unripe and too emotional. But the task wouldn’t be to pretend to have understood everything immediately. At least, we wouldn’t allow hushing up the matter; we would create the conditions so that proper investigation can be done. My last talk show in Moscow in such a hot style was done after Kasyanov’s resignation. And when Khodorkovsky was arrested, there was no live air in NTV. Then Kulistikov sugared the pill and offered me to become his assistant for documentary films. First, I took it seriously; I’m rather naïve in my relations with close to me people.
Q: Can it be said that you were friends?
A: It depends on what you mean by this word. Anyway, we have drunk a lot with Volodya. Maybe he is a boss now and may be hurt with this statement, but I meant quite well.
...This I can easily understand as I have worked for 7 years in the Liberty Radio, in the mid-90’s. Unlikely from NTV, there Savik was the chief, while Kulistikov collected and hosted brilliantly the news program Liberty Live. And I was a stringer which means I offered and recorded – in case of approval given – the news and comments from the courts; this was my specialty. What was the news of the moment was decided by Kulistikov, he also decided the place and duration for the item. He defined all the news policy while Shuster made more general picture. They drank whiskey and they did it adroitly; that did not affect their working. Once Savik translated an article from Italian about Jewish fascism and he read it on the air in the program dedicated to the murder of Iskhak Rabin. The Jewish lobby in the US Congress, that financed the broadcasting station, raised a question of dismissing him, but the professional leadership managed to protect him.
Q: Savik, I consider myself to be your and Kulistikov’s pupil. As a news reporter, I never worked anywhere with such a pleasure. With you I became to realize that first thing about informational picture is its completeness and the second thing is objectivity. Today you let me in your office so that I can see how it all gets done here in Kiev and not ask you silly questions. I don’t think Volodya Kulistikov would allow me now to see the process of NTV news making.
A: Of course, he wouldn’t. If there are secrets, they can be seen in the process. As for me, I don’t have secrets, even professional ones. People come to me because I have established the rules clear and equal to everyone. When everyone can have a say, there is no room for censorship, the question is only about who is interesting and what is interesting.
Q: And if you had to make a canned program?
A: I would never do it, as nothing but live air is possible for the genre of political talk show. Otherwise, it would be some other genre, non-existing. The anchorman Larry King enjoys the trust level higher than any of President of the USA. But if he made one canned program, he would lose it all at once. As for what is being done in Russia by the hosts of so called talk shows, recording it for further editing in proportion of one to four, to my mind, is disrespect towards their own work.
Q: Do you ask “Why don’t they call me to come to some program for old sake’s sake? Just like you: if you came, you are welcome to my program. I have something to say”?
A: I don’t think there is a black list of persons or topics in Russian television, maybe it’s only for silly novices. Everyone understands. You may send a camera crew to Lyudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva, as she has just broken her leg. You may ask her how she feels. She is a person with good manners, so she will answer exactly about this. You can show the item even without off-screen text. Isn’t it glasnost? Well, the authority confided the broadcasting to people who think in a certain way, those people chose topics and news corresponding to their thoughts and they invited other “rightly” thinking people to say something about this or that topic. All that can be called anything, but journalism.
Q: And what is relation between general television-presented “edited” outlook and live broadcast that you always mention?
A: I reckon that presence of live broadcast does not always indicate that there is no censorship as it is possible to show only a single person on the live air. But the absence of the live broadcast is always an indication that there is censorship and no democracy.
...We were finishing our talk on the run to the studio. Savik put me on one of the two tribunes where some important Ukrainian persons were sitting. I didn’t know their names and didn’t recognize the faces, as I hadn’t tried to see into their problems. I looked furtively the backdrop traditionally set with models of volumes “Constitution of Ukraine”, “Collected works”, War and Peace, Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Plato, G.Skovoroda. Besides the experts on the two benches, there were about 200 people in the auditorium. They looked like a mob scene and held something like fantastic joysticks in their hands. The signature tune started with a sign “Liberty by Savik Shuster”. Then he appeared himself and said “It’s only time and me who restrict the liberty in this program”. The anchorman speaks in Russian, the bench opposite to us (they turned out to be liberals) speak expressly in Ukrainian, our bench (they turned out to be the left) speak expressly in Russian, and sometimes in Ukrainian. The audience doesn’t seem to be worried about it, as they show no reaction to the language spoken.
The first question is the hottest one: the interior minister to bash up the mayor of Kiev. The minister had sent his assistant Lieutenant General Moscal dressed in civilian way. The latter cried out from the bench something like “when two men are fighting, it’s no women’s business”. The audience reaction was disapproving: one should speak to the public. Coming up to microphone, the general began to argue like “it happened after the State Council meeting, and was unofficial incident”. Some female politician from our bench retorted competently in Russian that if today the minister gets away with it, tomorrow all the conflicts in Krechshatik (Kiev’s popular street) will be settled this way. There was nothing to say to that, but “look at yourself”, after which the general lost, being negatively voted by the audience in the hall – the result of voting is projected to the screen in the studio.
The second topic seemed more interesting to me: Shuster had just learnt about the bill proposed to the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) about organizing the Presidential Guard. The proposed Guard resembles a new special service and may be armed significantly better than regular army units. The former defense minister convinced from the liberal’s bench in Ukrainian that no one was going to violate human rights. Our bench, talking in Ukrainian too, said that the laws about the Guard are passed not for a particular President, and the current President is not suspected of anything bad, but why do the President’s guards have to have machineguns? The audience voted against the machineguns with the majority of 70%. I began to think who in Russia would discuss with us, for example, the bill about arming the Gazprom, and what it would result in. When the commercial began I left the studio as I was sleepy and was afraid of falling off the tribune (the time difference between Kiev and Moscow is one hour).
In the morning I had time to take a walk around Kiev as Savik makes his program after midnight and so he sleeps till late morning. The city seemed to be good-natured and rather clean to me. A box of cigarettes Parliament, that just went up to 50 rubles in Moscow, is 7 hryvnas in Krechshatik (that’s 35 rubles), a Snickers chocolate bar is 3 hryvnas. Nice clothes in boutiques are half as cheap again compared to our boutiques. The price for a room in the hotel is comparable to a large city in Russia, with the exception of Moscow and St Petersburg. However, their salaries are less too. No traces of dissidence and further devastation can be seen in Kiev. They say it’s even less noticeable in the country. Orange revolution is only remembered by those who are interested in it. The level of aggressiveness is considerably lower than in any Russian city. I think Russians or Tartarians feel well in Kiev. And I feel sorry for Moscow that was disfigured, which was not necessary to be done. And I wonder why we are being gagged about “devastation” in the Ukraine.
Q: Savik, what are your general feelings, how are you doing here?
“Well, I lived well in Moscow and I am living well here” Savik says, ordering a rather expensive wine in a café. “You are asking the wrong person”.
Q: Then I have a few specifying questions about the program. Does it meet any objections that you speak in Russian?
A: Well, first there were questions, but it’s them who invited me. From my point of view, the program is a kind of communication, and we must understand one another. I said I can also speak Italian, and I my command of other languages is not enough to host a talk show on them. They said ok, let it be Russian. I was allowed to do it because I am not Moscal (rather offensive nickname given by Ukrainians to Russians), everyone understands it. But at first, in a cultural sense of the word, Russian speaking TV host was a phenomenon. Now the issue of the language is no actual, they have other problems. Before, it was fashionable for Fronde to say something in Ukrainian. Now the signs are in Ukrainian but mainly people speak in Russian, except the Supreme Rada. In the western part where previously people talked only Ukrainian, now it’s getting fashionable to speak Russian for Fronde. People in Switzerland speak three languages. Gogol (a great writer) wrote in Russian, but this argument will be good for Russia not for long.
Q: I noticed you speak very little in your program, you mainly nod.
A: This is equal for Russian and Ukrainian. Yuchshenko, Yanukovich and Timoshenko – all of them seem rather sympathetic to me; all of them have their strengths. I believe their attitude to me is rather good too. However, the main reason they come to me is the program’s high rating. When our program is on the air it’ is watched on every third TV set in the country. Accordingly, a good move or an awkward move may cost a politician plus or minus 10% of the votes.
Q: Don’t you have a temptation to play on someone’s side? I don’t mean for money – you are clever, and you understand that this way you would lose more. But you have your own views.
A: My views are liberal and I realize them through observing the rules and decency. It would be interesting for me to make debates between presidential contenders in Russia. However, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be invited as they need exactly those who play up, and that’s a kind of censorship. This allowed Putin to refuse participation in the debates at all. Here such a thing is just impossible. Those who refuse taking part in debates, they lose at once. When I had the live air on NTV, United Russia tried to boycott it realizing their public competitiveness is not high and actually they don’t have many arguments. Then, though, they began to visit it again, as they had to. And now, with the absence of the live air, they all became “masters”.
Q: Who are those people with joysticks in your studio? Do they represent people?
A: Exactly, this is an expensive thing; we signed an agreement with a sociological institute. They make a random sample. People from all over the country are sent invitations and most of those invited come, as they are paid transportation and daily allowance by the program.
Q: Do you think these people will go out if your program will be closed down?
A: You mean, are they my supportive group? I’d like to think so, but I don’t think they are. Taking part in the program is just a happening in their lives, it’s just a fun. When NTV was finished in Russia, no one went out to protect it, and people in Czechia did it when their independent TV was closed. But if I am killed, there will be crowds in the streets like in Politkovskaya’s case. They learnt to appreciate the value of human life, but as for value of freedom of speech - not yet.
Q: And what is going to happen to the interior minister whom people in your program condemned for the affray with the mayor?
A: Who knows! We shall see. No one called me today yet. If something had been decided, I would have had a call (when we verified the text of this interview it turned out that the criminal case was started against the minister –L.N). There was a case when transport minister had a trip to France with Miss Ukraine. Afterwards, he had to come here to make excuses. He was not very successful in that. He said he took that trip at his own expense. We hadn’t arguments to “kill” him on the air. And no further reaction followed. He is at large, which I had wished to him on the air. But I still think that the tax for corruption is less here than in Russia; it’s due to high political competition.
Q: In Russia, when you tell the truth, even if you still have where to say this, there is very small chance that it can influence the taken by authority decisions. This is to the question of so called forth power. The matter is not that journalists want someone to be put to prison, they just want to ask some questions to an official who might not want to answer them. Our newspaper’s office in Samara was closed and I came there to ask questions to a few officials, but no one wanted to have a talk with me. The secretaries promised to call back and failed to do it. In such a case my “forth power” is equal to zero. As for you, I wouldn’t say so.
A: Ukraine today is an open country. Post soviet open country. There is corruption, financial matters are hidden in the shadow, and there are no journalists of such a level that would allow them to dig up all that. But all that is subject to discussion which is unlikely Russia. It’s you who should explain it to me, as you came from there.
Q: I will try. The cities – on the background of the ruined village – really show some signs of life getting better. Everyone has taken credit and bought mobile phones and those smart have even bought cars. Let us suppose, I come and say “you know it’s all holds on by a hair and will get ruined soon”. They would stone me! I think at the moment people in Russia prefer fooling themselves with illusions. And we have a lot of talk shows, though, they are different from yours. Our news programs are frightening us with possible disorder in the country. By the way, I haven’t noticed the traces of orange revolution in Kiev.
A: At the end of the day, I think, my live air is its trace. Many here will tell you that people are disappointed and the orange ideals are betrayed. It seems to be true – romanticism cannot last for long. But what happened then (I only know it from other people’s account as I came here later and as a consequence) and what actually repeated here in a less degree when opposing was seen again along the East-West line? People just stood on the square and realized they didn’t want to fight. It’s only one person that died during the orange revolution, and he died from heart attack. They just looked at one another and realized they are the nation. Here, in the west and in the east of the country people think in different ways, they can be on the edge of disagreement, like it was in Czechoslovakia, or even on the edge of bloodshed, but that does not occur. Instead, they develop mutual understanding and real political competition. I would compare it to Baltic countries of the end of the 80’s last century. Russia did not have anything the like. The year of 1991 only involved Moscow, while the province stayed indifferent. No breakthrough occurred in people’s minds.
Q: Are they really different from us here? We seemed to have equal soviet mentality.
A: Russians and Ukrainians never were alike. Initially, I asked here same question in its different variations. I asked for example, why there were so many Ukrainians among famous sergeants in the Russian army before the October revolution, and why there were many Ukrainians among policemen recruited by Nazis in WWII. When I managed to get a frank answer, you know what it was like? They said “we are practical”. I translate it for myself as “we are less communal, and we are more inclined to liberalism”. But you want me to act like an expert, and I’m just a TV talk-show host. Being expert is no my role.
Q: Then maybe the last question. Why have you passed to another TV channel here?
A: I didn’t want to be some oligarch’s man on the previous one. I might pass to another channel tomorrow if like it more or if it will have better coverage of the territory. Though, now our channel covers 97% of the country’s territory. We have a lot of commercial accounts, so our program has already solved its financial problems. But I might not like something anyway.
Q: And I guess they pay you more here?
A: Of course. I like to be a well-paid specialist and that’s it. When NTV drama happened, those who had shares found themselves in a more difficult situation than those who had not it. It’s always necessary to search for freedom.
Q: Well, here’s to liberty! And to your health!
A: To your and our liberty! And to your health!