RUSSIA: Book prompts angry reaction from Kremlin

Reporter Yelena Trebugova has been told she'll never work again after writing a book detailing censorship and calling presidential officials 'mutants'

The Taipei Times
Thursday, November 20, 2003

A scandal over the biting memoirs of a former Kremlin pool reporter has lifted the veil of secrecy over the tight censorship wielded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, weeks before key parliamentary elections.

The book, by 30-year-old Yelena Trebugova, describes in sarcastic detail the Kremlin's daily life in former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's waning years and his successor Putin's ascendancy.

Branding presidential officials as "mutants," Trebugova reveals inTales of a Kremlin Digger how Putin's press secretary personally vets all questions to Putin and excludes all but tame journalists from the coveted Kremlin pool.

With Kremlin ire apparently provoked by the reporter's tale, the state-controlled NTV channel late Sunday abruptly pulled from the air an already advertised report on the book, provoking liberal protest about censorship.

"Immediately after Putin's victory in the presidential elections, his press secretary Alexei Gromov completely, openly, without embarrassment, announced to journalists that censorship would be introduced in the Kremlin," Trebugova says in the book.

"Of course, you can write any articles you like. But then don't be surprised if we don't include you in the list of accreditation to cover the next presidential activity," Gromov said according to her account.

Trebugova, who was stripped of her Kremlin accreditation in late 2000 for refusing to submit her articles for authorization, was fired three weeks ago from her job as political observer for the respectedKommersant daily.

Her editors denied it had anything to do with the controversial book.

Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin read the book and remarked toKommersant's chief editor: "Does Trebugova realize she will never get work again?" Trebugova said the editor told her.

NTV general-director Nikolai Senkevich defended his abrupt decision to order the report off the air, though it had already been advertised and even broadcast in Russia's Far East, which is seven hours ahead of Moscow.

But the decision provoked strong protest, with the deputy leader of the liberal Yabloko party, Sergei Mitrokhin, criticizing it as a blatant "act of censorship that confirmed the state's stranglehold on national TV since Putin's administration took over all independent channels.

Prominent media rights defender, Glasnost Defense Fund's chief Alexei Simonov, agreed that the channel's move may have followed the Kremlin's voiced distaste for the book.

The book "must be really disliked by someone on the very top, and this reluctance was passed down," Simonov said.

Apart from a behind-the-scenes view of Russian political life, Trebugova also describes a close encounter with Putin in late 1998 when he was head of the feared FSB (ex-KGB) security agency and invited her out for a private lunch.

A chapter entitled How Putin Fed me Sushi offers nothing compromising but details a meeting in which Putin -- a married man with two daughters -- takes over the most expensive Japanese restaurant in Moscow for the date and hints that he would like to spend New Year's Eve alone with her.

She also recounts a story of how, just weeks before his election as president in 2000, Putin met a young boy who was injured by a car while jaywalking.

"In a hospital in Petrozavodsk, instead of expressing sympathy to the small boy on crutches, Putin told him `From now on, you won't be breaking traffic rules anymore,'" the book said.