9. The Soviet Press Face to Face with the Earthquake
“Oh, how to write about all this? … No story was born with such difficulty and pain. Sometimes it seemed that fulfilling the editorial assignment was something beyond force, [as if] an extremely heavy load had fallen on you” is how Pravda Ukraine newspaper correspondent V. Nikipelov frankly confessed that which, of course, many journalists felt (“Difficult Time of Hardship,” Dec. 14, 1988).
Another journalist simply assumes that he’s gone crazy. “The most magnificent burial (perhaps I too have lost my mind, in writing such things) that I saw those days had a procession comprised of seven people” (those years it was common to go to the funerals of even the most distant relatives and acquaintances). The article itself is titled “Pain and Sorrow Face to Face” [H. Maghakyan, Yerekoyan Yerevan (“Evening Yerevan”), Dec. 15].
Cases where journalists describe the complexity of their or their colleagues’ work, even more rarely praising or criticizing it, are few, but there were such cases related to the earthquake. “Photojournalists and TV reporters work driven by their conscience. They’re not afraid to prowl under the rubble with the rescuers; they go with the patrol team to the villages. But for some what’s important is the background,” writes correspondent for the Belarusian newspaper Znamya Yunosti Oleg Gruzdilovich on Dec. 18, 1988 (though it’s incomprehensible why “going with the patrol team to the villages” is worth mentioning — there was no threat awaing the journalist or the patrol officer there).
We can and should understand journalists — abroad, they would have received psychological assistance. In the article “6 ways journalists can cope when covering tragedies like the Colorado theater shooting,” Beth Winegarner says when she was reporting a particular story she “gathered some gruesome details” — “They didn’t wind up in my article, but they stuck with me.
“I was shaken for days afterward. When I asked our human-resources department for advice, I discovered that reporters got just three free counseling visits per year.” Winegarner points out that only large news outlets offer such services, while on our side of the world no one had heard about such a possibility.
Twenty-four years after the Spitak earthquake I tried to find out how the “most quiet” journalists and photographers (i.e. those who talk the least) dealt with what they saw — as well as how they reached the disaster zone the first time, what they left out of the shot, and how they developed the best photographs.
The earthquake in northern Armenia was unprecedented in terms of not only compassion from the world, but also (or due to) the plenitude of foreign media coverage. “Perhaps the American media has never paid as much attention on any topic, even if it had to do with a terrible catastrophe,” writes Sovetskaya Kultura correspondent M. Kuznetsov from New York in the article “From the Hudson [River] to Sevan” (Dec. 18, 1988).
Also in the Soviet Union, of course, the topic was for weeks among the top headlines in the media, which was much more influential, and the print run too was several times greater than it is today. And so, for example, the Yerevan-based Komsomolets‘ “Disaster Zone” article reports that “the next issue of Kayts newspaper was published […] Only 10,000 copies were able to be printed in the printing house affected [by the earthquake]” (A. Gazazyan, M. Diloyan, Dec. 18, 1988).
Published at “only 10,000 copies,” Kayts was the official newspaper of the city of Kirovakan (present-day Vanadzor), which has a population of less than 200,000; meanwhile, since the end of the 1990s, the Armenian press has dreamt of obtaining such a print run. Further evidence of the importance of the media those days is that local newspaper Lusardzak, led by Avant-garde deputy editor Aydin Morikyan, one of the leading journalists writing about the Movement’s ideas in the press, resumed publishing only days after the earthquake.
Among the Yerevan “paratroopers” (using the lexicon of the day) were also poet Aghvan Vardanyan, journalist Mesrop Harutyunyan, photographer Zaven Khachikyan, and others.
It would be appropriate to notice that the state and issues of the Armenian press were special in a few respects. Many journalists had lost their relatives and were busy with funerals or with moving those still alive, while, on the other hand, the aforementioned Komsomolets, for example, was publishing “on a charitable basis” the Information Bulletin, a leaflet solely dedicated to the search for victims.
A serious issue was censorship — carried out by both the official body implementing it (the Glavlit) and editors and even journalists themselves (in terms of self-censorship). Since subject to censorship was also information about written work subject to censorship, it’s hard to decide after all this time what was and what wasn’t permitted to be published. Fortunately, there is evidence that gives an idea of the nature of censorship in 1988.
“The [USSR] State Committee for Television and Radio emerged in obviously not easy conditions in February and March of that year. The content that Ostankino was showing caused in the [Soviet] states not only a negative reaction, but also outright outbursts of indignation. Journalists were called nothing other than traitors. This, in that case, when local special correspondents tried to prepare reports as transparently and honestly as possible, but what they saw on the screen was the exact opposite image,” describes TV reporter Vladimir Mokusev, who was sent on assignment to Armenia and Artsakh in 1988 (Spitak Memorial: 1988–2008, pg. 341).
Another “trial and tribulation” for the Soviet press were cliches, ideas the existence of which likewise was due to creative restriction to a great extent. It’s enough only to compare the headlines: “The Wound of Armenia” (Van Bayburdyan, Soviet Georgia, Dec. 16, 1988); “Armenia’s Wounds” (Literaturnaya Gazeta, Dec. 16, 1988); “Armenia’s Wounds” (Viktor Lushak, Andrei Pralnikov, Moskovsikye Novosti, Dec. 18, 1988); “Armenia’s Wounds” (M. Melkonyan, Meditsinskaya Gazeta). Very much appealing to Russian-language writers was the common Armenian expression that roughly translates to “let me take your pain away”, which modified in different ways likewise became a headline template: “Take the Pain of Others” (V. Ksenofontov, Vozdushniy Transport, Dec. 16, 1988); “I’ll Take Your Pain” (I. Verdiyan, Sovetskaya Kultura, Dec. 16, 1988); and “I’ll Take the Pain Yours” (David Guy, Vechernyaya Moskva — this later became the title of a book).
John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent spawned similar titles and headlines, such as “The Land of Our Discontent” (A. Abdulin, Rabochaya Gazeta, Dec. 10, 1988) and “The Days of Our Discontent” (TASS agency, Dec. 9, 1988), while some articles were titled outright “The Winter of Our Discontent”.
Also used extensively were the words “misfortune” and “mercy” and the phrase “there is no such thing as someone else’s sorrow”. One article to the next compared earthquake devastation to destruction from a bomb: “Overall, Leninakan’s neighborhoods remind one of a city after several bombings” (“Difficult Time of Hardship,” Dec. 14, 1988), poet Hrachya Hovhannisyan remembers the Battle of Stalingrad and the “horror of destroyed villages” in the Battle of Kursk [‘Remarks on Pain and Manliness,” Grakan Tert (“Literary Newspaper”), Dec. 9, 1988], and others.
Earlier I pointed out that a significant portion of the Soviet media reports were like state departmental reports. The other extreme of this is declamation: “Ancient Armenian land was awash with people’s infinite grief and heartbreaking lament,” writes Van Bayburdyan in the article “The Wound of Armenia”. “And though the centuries-old friendship of Armenian and Georgian peoples — all peoples — was not buried, these days it seems we dug it up once again” — Emma Khachatryan quoting the words of Georgia’s ԼԿԵՄ Tbilisi’s First Secretary Gigla Baramidze in the article “Legends Create People” (Soviet Georgia, Dc. 17, 1988). It seems in the last example the journalist is not at fault, but actually she could’ve guided her interlocutor to use clearer and more human expressions in the interview.
That the human aspect, the human factor, had been brought to the bare minimum in the Soviet press appears in another detail. The vast majority of the articles were signed with the authors’ last names and first initial, which made it impossible to know their gender. And the authors themselves didn’t include the first names of the people in their stories, only their last names — not mentioning the last name was also possible, even when referring to real heroism.
Articles on the condition of villages overshadowed by the tragedy of destroyed cities were scare in the press.
“We approached the dilapidated school. Here, 53 village children had died.” David Guy’s “One Week Later” article on the village of Nalband gives an idea of the dreadful blow also to small settlements with low-storey houses (Vechernyaya Moskva, Dec. 14, 1988), while A. Morgachov, the correspondent of the “professional” publication Selskaya Zhizn, describes the “black days of Jajur”.
In Dec. 1988 there was an attempt to assess the Soviet Armenian press of those days, or more precisely, the quality of the journalism. Only in the article “Bridges and Rifts: Armenian Journalism during the Dramatic Days of National Misfortune” Izvestiya special correspondents V. Boyarkin and G. Kilosidze mainly report on this, on how the Armenian press condemns the national movement and the Karabakh Committee’s work. That supposedly they are interfering with the rescue work. Meanwhile, these types of media reports were called to justify the arrest ordered by Moscow of the Committee’s 10 members and many of the activists, and publication of these reports made it possible to break the back of the Movement, as a result of these arrests.
But what had changed, what was “the earthquake in the Soviet press”? “Reconstruction,” in the first place, gave freedom to talk about misfortune, since till then natural disasters in the Soviet Union were followed by an official statement that “there were neither victims nor destruction.” A whiff of change in the air were also the press conferences, which General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and Chair of the Council of Ministers of the USSR Nikolai Ryzhkov gave in Armenia (though it’s true, there was the impression that there was agreement on the content of the questions).
Progress was signalled by the fact that journalists followed the fate of victims not only at ground zero, but also in those places where they had found temporary shelter. In the article “The Warmth of a Big House” Yu. Belanov describes how in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, retired Armenian teachers were found for Naira, Armen, and Razmik Hakobyan who had arrived from Leninakan. Simon Hakobyan sent correspondences from Rostov and settlements and sanatoriums in the North Caucasus on the day-to-day activities of earthquake survivors.
The other important thing the media acquired was the freedom to criticize, as shown from the examples already depicted in the fourth instalment of this series of articles. It’s true, the criticism wasn’t thorough — particularly, journalists weren’t familiar with or didn’t publish the conclusions of the committee working on finding defects in the construction, as well as those guilty for setting the low level of seismic safety.
One of the reasons was that time had accelerated — Armenia was being drawn into the [Nagorno-Karabakh] War, and the earthquake was constantly being pushed out of the list of urgent topics. Furthermore, there was the thought that taking the guilty to court would strike a new blow to Armenian families. Let readers of this article series respond: I was and still am in favor of exposing the theft and criminal negligence, for it to become a lesson for everyone.
Journalists’ fight against crime in the region after the earthquake likewise was not enough, as is apparent in, say, Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia’s Central Committee Oleg Lobov’s recollections, in which he describes flagrant violations in the distribution of residential apartments (Spitak’s Memorial: 1988–2008, pg. 40). In this environment, appropriating assistance was a regular occurrence, and even murder had happened and had been covered up, which was made public “on the occasion of” the 20th anniversary of the earthquake.
A half-Armenian, half-Russian soldier who was granted vacation leave to bury his relatives noticed how one woman going from coffin to coffin was removing rings on the fingers of the deceased, by either biting or breaking their fingers. The young man standing next to his mother’s coffin bludgeoned the woman to death by hitting her over the head with a hammer. He was released by Lieutenant Gneral V. F. Masenko. “Your fate is now in your hands. Live and always remember: there is nothing more horrible and irreparable than killing a person […] And so I carried such a grave sin on my soul. My action is justified only by the fact that in the matter of the soldier, I wasn’t mistaken” (Spitak’s Memorial: 1988–2008, pg. 57).
The strengths and weaknesses of the press, and the media in general, are exposed particularly during force majeure situations. The story of coverage of the Spitak earthquake, which I presented to you through this series of articles, shows how important the media is, what it could have and didn’t do ahead of the tragedy and afterwards, and the freedoms and functions that have become attainable due to new political realities, allowing us to better serve the public and the country.
Internews Media Support NGO’s Lratun media museum project, within the framework of which this research was conducted and interviews with photographers were videotaped, aims to showcase the last 25 years of history of Armenian news media through local coverage of major events in Armenia — the national liberation movement, presidential and parliamentary elections, independence, war, referendums on adopting the Constitution and making constitutional amendments, the Oct. 27, 1999 Armenian parliamentary shooting, and the sanguinary events of Mar. 1, 2008.
Lratun will be a unique media museum, organizing exhibits in Armenia’s regions that will give visitors a notion of how news is made and how it reflects our tragic and difficult times.
As was the case of the earthquake in Spitak.
The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.