Pravda Stops Publishing--at Least for Now

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pravda, Russia's strident voice of working-class revolution for more than three-quarters of a century, is suspending national publication today because the country's march toward capitalism has landed the newspaper deeply in debt, its editor said Friday.

Shaken by the market forces that were long its ideological anathema, the former Soviet Communist Party organ is being forced to close for at least a week, said Gennady N. Seleznev, its editor in chief. He accused Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's government of exploiting Pravda's cash-flow woes to muzzle a critical publication.

"This is a political shutdown, using an economic pretext," the editor charged in an interview in his vast eighth-floor office, decorated with an oil painting of the revolutionary who masterminded Pravda's 1912 creation, V. I. Lenin.

One of the world's best-known newspapers, Pravda, like virtually all other Russian publications, has been caught in a maelstrom of rapidly rising costs for newsprint and communications, while being locked into subscription rates that oblige it to supply readers across the country for the equivalent of pennies a year.

Pravda--its name means truth-- carries an additional burden: Despite its name and recent cosmetic changes, such as the removal of the slogan "Workers of the World, Unite!" from atop Page 1, no former Soviet publication is more closely tied to the lies of the past.

Readers obviously agree; from a high of 13 million subscribers in the 1970s, when Communists were virtually under party orders to buy Pravda, circulation has plummeted to less than 1.4 million. Six-day-a-week publication has been cut back to three.

Once notorious for its high-spending ways, Pravda, which now purports to carry an independent, "centrist" political line, has run up a debt of 20 million rubles (about $200,000), despite Draconian staff cuts.

A letter Thursday night from Pressa, the nearby printing plant, alerted Seleznev that the presses would not roll again until the debt is paid, the editor said.

Seleznev said that an unidentified commercial bank has agreed to grant Pravda a loan--at a stinging 40% interest rate--to pay outstanding bills. But Pressa has refused to resume printing the newspaper until the money is paid into its account.

At direct fault for Pravda's current cash shortage, Seleznev charged, is Russia's government and especially First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar.

Seleznev said officials have done nothing to implement Yeltsin's Feb. 21 decree, mandating tax breaks of billions of rubles in state subsidies for Russia's press. He also hinted that Gaidar might be behind Pressa's sudden decision to stop the presses.

After vanquishing last August's attempted putsch by Kremlin hard-liners, Yeltsin temporarily shut Pravda down, an action that aroused a storm of controversy at home and abroad. Seleznev said the government is now trying a more clever way of depriving its critics of a forum in print.

"I don't think it's an accident that we have gotten this news on the eve of March 17," when pro-Soviet forces plan a congress in Moscow, Seleznev said. "Now, our newspaper won't be able to report on these events."

Today there will be a final press run of 100,000 copies of Pravda so readers in Moscow, at least, will be warned that they will have to do temporarily without the newspaper, Seleznev said.

He predicted that Pravda will be back in kiosks nationwide by March 21. "I think we'll be out of this jam in one week," said Seleznev.

Though the editor said he is optimistic about Pravda's prospects, he acknowledged that what was once the flagship of Soviet journalism will likely run up a 150-million-ruble (more than $1.6 million) debt this year.

To cut costs, Pravda has slashed the number of its foreign correspondents from 39 to 20 and may cut back further.

In the sprawling building on Pravda Street that serves as the newspaper's headquarters, office space has been cut from six floors to three and the editorial staff pared by at least 50 to 120.

Pravda for several years has experimented with accepting Western-style advertising. But the number of ads it has published has been negligible and the revenues from them have been sparse, at best.

Seleznev, who came to Pravda a year ago and was elected editor in chief after the failed August coup d'etat , said it would be a crime to permit the death of "the world's most famous newspaper."

Its revolutionary pedigree notwithstanding, the editor sees Pravda's salvation in a capitalist maneuver--forming a privately held publishing conglomerate to finance its operations, if need be with foreign capital.

"We want to buy this building; we're tired of all this rigmarole," said Seleznev, puffing on a cigarette in a carved holder.

"But to form a joint stock company, for example, we need changes in the law that outlaws privatization of publishing facilities."

As for his openness to foreign capital, Seleznev replied, "I want American publishing businesses to know that Pravda is not introverted, that it's seeking foreign partners, and maybe saviors."

What would Lenin have thought of wooing yesterday's class enemy to underwrite the onetime clarion of proletarian revolution?

"Our founder was a very intelligent person," the Pravda editor said. "I think that in our conditions, our founder would have said a long time ago: Do it."

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