MOSCOW -- With a prerevolutionary Russian flag as its emblem, correspondents in Armenia dodging Soviet Army bullets and satire aimed at Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Russian Federation Television made an irreverent debut yesterday.
The advent of six-hour-a-day broadcasting from the first television company in the largest Soviet republic represents an important victory for Soviet reformers and especially for Russian leader Boris N. Yeltsin, whose access to Soviet television has been tightly controlled.
Although its creators promise to present a range of views, Russian television remains state television -- representing the Russian Federation rather than the Soviet Union. Whether reporting that is critical of Mr. Yeltsin will make it on the air remains to be seen.
Mr. Yeltsin was shown last night in an official visit to Czechoslovakia. Former Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, who is emerging as a major conservative challenger to Mr. Yeltsin in the Russian presidential elections set for June 12, was the target of several jibes in last night's comedy broadcast.
Russian television has three news broadcasts a day, called "Vesti," an old Russian word for news. The reports open and close with an emblem incorporating the red-white-and-blue tricolor of pre-Soviet Russia. Their aggressive, fast-paced approach contrasts with the long-winded formality and Communist allegiance of the Soviet news show "Vremya" (Time).
"Last night, as a group of journalists including our brigade tried to get through on this road," a Russian TV correspondent reported from the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, "two artillery shots proved unambiguously the serious intentions of the Soviet Army tank-men."
"They probably took you for guerrillas," an army officer replied, shrugging his shoulders.
There is every indication that the Russian TV reporters intend to be information guerrillas, battling Mr. Gorbachev's attempt to restore strict control over TV broadcasting.
The other reports from "Vesti" included Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, who is almost never shown on "Vremya," predicting full independence for the republic despite more military aggression from the Kremlin. It also reported a story in the Sunday Times of Great Britain on the defection of a high-level KGB spy.
In the middle of the 8 p.m. news, anchor Svetlana Sorokina said that in the Ukraine the Russian broadcast was being replaced by old films, and in Stavropol -- Mr. Gorbachev's hometown -- by scenes of a local resort.
"Scarcely is that a misunderstanding. More likely, our battle for the right to be heard is just beginning," said Ms. Sorokina, well-known for her reporting for Leningrad television, which until now has offered the most independent broadcasting.
She remarked that perhaps the only information on Russian TV that would coincide with that offered by "Vremya" would be the weather report.
Born as the result of a long struggle with Mr. Gorbachev's Soviet government, Russian television is staffed by many of the most popular and talented young television journalists in the Soviet Union.
Some had been fired or banned from the air by Leonid Kravchenko, who cracked down on outspoken reporting after he was appointed chief of Soviet TV last fall by Mr. Gorbachev.
Mr. Kravchenko has said that state television should reflect the official views of the state, and in particular that they should not be critical of President Gorbachev. Asserting that people are tired of politics, he has killed some of the most popular and controversial public affairs programs and replaced them with song-and-dance reruns.
Later on Russian television last night, an old woman sang a satirical song accusing Mr. Gorbachev of setting out to ban vodka and ending up
by banning food.
In the popular comedy show "Around Laughter," one comedian held a mock auction of a videocassette supposedly containing touchy moments cut by censors from earlier shows -- before the program switched to Russian TV.
Comedian Mikhail Zadornov described a year 2000 in which food rationing has been canceled because people ate the rationing coupons, and in which the Soviet leadership wins a Nobel Prize for "the destruction of socialism."