A new breed tells it like it is The journalist: A former slave to the old Soviet censors can report the truth, using criticism as his stock in trade.

August 24, 1996|By Clara Germani

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia - When the arsenal buried in this military port's hilly, San Francisco-like downtown exploded into a giant fireball four years ago, people for 50 blocks around ran for their lives.

But Andrei Ostrovsky, a skinny, hyperactive newspaper reporter, scrambled straight to the inferno to report a story of lax military discipline in which a soldier's cigarette ignited stored torpedoes, mines and rockets, killing two.

And when two more military arsenals blew up in subsequent years, Ostrovsky was first on the scene and first with the stories of what had happened: Soldiers playing with a rocket and maintenance personnel burning grass over a berm full of explosives were to blame.

Those stories never would have been reported in the old Soviet system, especially from this once secret, closed port on the Russian Far East coast. Telling the truth wasn't part of a Russian reporter's job.

"Five or 10 years ago, no one would have reported this," says Ostrovsky, a senior reporter and editor for Vladivostok Daily.

Ostrovsky, who is flourishing under a free press, was just an unremarkable slave to the old Soviet censors.

In the 1980s, as a government maritime radio reporter, Ostrovsky traveled aboard fishing, military and trading ships plying the Pacific, and he saw a lot he couldn't mention.

"It was always a problem to tell about horrible things that took place - like the barbarous fishing accidents when tons of fish would die and were thrown away because the trawler couldn't get to a processing plant or base," Ostrovsky recalls.

"A good journalist used to be the one who could put a beautiful phrase together and obfuscate. So Andrei's was considered weak journalism," says longtime friend and colleague Vladimir Oshenko.

Being a journalist was once a constrained, 9-to-5 civil service job. No one even reported evening or weekend news.

Unauthorized criticism wasn't permitted because it meant the system wasn't perfect, Ostrovsky explains.

A dangerous life

Today, criticism is Ostrovsky's stock in trade. Democracy has freed human curiosity. If your city blows up, it's natural to ask why and to explain, says Ostrovsky, 37. That philosophy makes him part of this nation's new breed of journalists.

Not always objective, and alternately timid and overly aggressive, the Russian press is evolving from the stultifying, gray Communist Party organ of the Soviet era to a variety of publications ranging from tabloid scandal sheets to broadsheet knockoffs of the Wall Street Journal.

Many news organizations won't hire anyone who worked as a journalist under the Soviet system.

Ostrovsky's newspaper - though beholden to local business backers - is a feisty upstart that has driven its competition into the ground. Its investigative reporting has made Vladivostok Daily the most widely read newspaper on the Russian east coast, with a circulation of 130,000.

As in all of Russia, Vladivostok's power structures - the press, the government and the new capitalism - co-exist uneasily.

The reaction to truth sometimes has been lethal. Since communism fell in 1991, journalists regularly have been hauled into court on criminal libel charges; they have been shot dead, blown up and threatened into hiding. Ostrovsky himself has gone into hiding.

Irreverent, profane and intense, Ostrovsky is a journalistic gadfly. He has sources from the bombed-out villages of Chechnya a half-continent away to the sailors, soldiers, traders and mobsters of the craggy, blue inlets of this harbor city of 700,000.

Vladivostok suffers all the economic pains of Russia's reform. But with its plentiful Asian-imported cars, food and clothes, it has a distinctly upbeat and open attitude more common to the vibrant Pacific Rim countries than the brooding Russian heartland.

'Wild East' openness

Ostrovsky's reporting is a reflection of this "Wild East" openness. His stories regularly irritate the governor, enrage the mayor, cause mothers to cry over their sons fighting in the Chechen civil war, and inflame the Cossacks sent here long ago to guard the border with China.

His worn jeans, mussed hair, ever-present cigarette and impatiently bouncing knee are the universal signs of a hard-bitten reporter. His writing is laced with attitude - his opinionated, common-man style often reads like the transcript of a schmoozy conversation with a source over a bottle of beer.

A recent Page 3 article he wrote included opinions that would only be found on the editorial pages of an American newspaper.

The article took Mayor Konstantin Tolstoshein and a Maritime Region official to task for holding a closed meeting on the city's frequent blackouts, which have left more than a quarter of the population and industry without power most of every day this summer.

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