Faces From the Fourth Estate

Vladmir Vessenski: On the Cutting Edge

To achieve success in the journalistic world, most Nieman Fellows have had to be careful about what they write. But Vladmir Vessenski's caution has extended far beyond concerns of accuracy and proper word choice.

Unlike most of his colleagues at the Nieman Foundation, Vessenski, a leading Soviet journalist, has for much of his career had to contend with tight official censorship procedures designed to weed out unflattering remarks about his country. The Soviet press has always been permitted a certain amount of criticism, he says, but only of individual officials and particular incidents--and, until very recently, never of the entire system.

But with the advent of perestroika in recent years, the nature of Vessenski's profession in the Soviet Union is changing. As a high-ranking editor of the influential newspaper Literatunaya Gazeta, Vessenski has been on the cutting edge of the country's drive towards openness.

"[The government] let Literatunaya Gazeta become a valve to let off steam for the boiling intellectuals," Vessenski says of his newspaper, which is owned by the independent and influential Union of Writers. "The newspaper had the right not only to criticize the case but also the system," he says.

The turning point came, Vessenski says, when the newspaper printed an interview about a decade ago with the Rev. Billy Graham, the ardent anti-Communist religious leader. The editor-in-chief of Literatunaya Gazeta was the friend of a member of the Soviet Central Committee, Vessenski says, and thus was able to secure approval for the piece.


Soon after, he says, the newspaper began publishing similar articles and interviews which were harshly critical of the country's political and economic systems--without even obtaining official consent. Instead, Vessenski says, the paper's editor-in-chief merely told officials that he had received consent from his friend.

Following Literatunaya Gazeta's lead, other papers began to follow suit by printing articles with stinging attacks on the Soviet structure, Vessenski says, eventually making such previously unprecedented criticism commonplace.

Soviet in South America

Vessenski hasn't always been on the forefront of the Soviet perestroika movement, but he has perhaps enjoyed more freedom in his journalistic career than most of his compatriots.

After years of being an administrator in the Soviet government, Vessenski started his career in journalism as a special correspondent in South America for Komsommorsky Pravda, the newspaper of the Soviet youth organization. Vessenski says Soviet officials were surprisingly liberal in letting his reports through without much censorship.

"You cannot indoctrinate youth with the slogans of adults," Vessenski says. "[Komsommorsky Pravda] had some possibility to write things that [the Soviet newspapers] Izvestia and Pravda didn't write."

After that initial journalistic venture, Vessenski began working at Literatunaya Gazeta, covering disarmament as well as world churches and their contribution to the peace movement. In 1983, he returned for five years to South America, where he was a correspondent in Argentina.

In 1988, Vessenski returned to the Soviet Union to head up an ambitious project to publish a Soviet-American English-language newspaper, the Literary Gazette. But he left after producing only six issues of the semi-weekly newspaper, he says, because he realized his heart lay in writing, not administration.

Besides being involved in the media for many years, Vessenski has put his knowledge of South America to use through writing six books and six screenplays on issues related to that region. Those works, which include documentaries on Chile and Brazil, explore topics such as the problems of South American cities and the perspectives and aspirations of South American youth.

Another of Vessenski's films is a fictionalized account of the story of Klaus Barbie, the ex-Nazi commander who was discovered hiding in Argentina by a team of journalists, including Vessenski himself. Barbie was wanted by the French for crimes committed during World War II.