“We have always had one theme and area we couldn’t criticize — the president. Not all Soviet journalists felt persecuted because it was impossible to write that Brezhnev was an idiot. Would it have been worth the cost of sacrificing a career just to say that Brezhnev was an idiot, which everybody already knew?
“I don’t recall once when a guy would show up in a horrible gray suit and say, ‘You can’t write that.’ ”
On the contrary, Yuryevich points out, a number of party bosses lost their jobs because of reports printed by muckraking Soviet journalists.
Yuryevich tells me he left journalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, as he observed new freedoms and commercial imperatives result in a wave of tabloid journalism that, Yuryevich says, replaced a tradition of great investigative reporting.
I mention Anna Politkovskaya, the ferociously brave journalist critical of Vladimir Putin’s war in Chechnya, who was shot to death at her Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006 — coincidentally Putin’s birthday.
Yuryevich cringes and concedes that the horror of that assassination was undeniable.
“The purpose of journalism is to speak for the people who have no voice, to cleanse the society,” he says. And, in this never-ending era of Putin, he sees signs of that tradition returning, along with some government-funded social programs that were also gutted during the ’90s.
Yuryevich reflects for a moment before making an extraordinary confession: “Maybe I was doing propaganda,” he says. “How free you are depends on how free you feel.”
A sudden, strong breeze stirs a paper cup that had been resting peacefully in a gutter. It dances and rolls for a few seconds before retreating into its bed.
Now, with Russian troops advancing on Gori, in central Georgia, Yuryevich, on a crackly phone line across continents, notes that whatever Georgian President Saakashvili thought he was doing by attacking Ossetia remains a riddle, that Georgia is of little consequence to either Russia or the United States, and that the bloodshed and misery are part of a larger test of wills between the world’s one remaining superpower and the former superpower relegated to the balcony.