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Editor on Cutting Edge of Glasnost Sees 'Chance for My Generation'

REMAKING THE REVOLUTION. GLASNOST: Third in a Series.

October 29, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Vitaly A. Korotich was less than enthusiastic when he was offered the editor's job at the magazine Ogonyok (Little Flame) in early 1986.

"It was one of the dullest, most reactionary rags in our country," he said not long ago in an interview. "I only bought this magazine for the crossword puzzle."

Besides, he recalled, his father had warned him years ago about going into journalism when he was first attracted to it as a career right out of high school.

"Never work in a profession where you must depend on somebody else's point of view," his father had said.

Korotich took the job anyway.

"I understood that this was a chance not only for me but for my generation," he said, referring to the new spirit of glasnost that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has unleashed on the land. "It was a chance to do the things we wanted to do in the early 1960s but which were cut short."

Stirred Up a Controversy

Almost immediately the new editor stirred up a controversy. He had the symbol of the Order of Lenin removed from Ogonyok's cover--a change, he said, that was intended to make the magazine look "less official."

And he has continued to attract attention by publishing articles on such once-forbidden themes as Soviet prostitution and vagrancy, the life of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, police brutality and, particularly, Josef Stalin and Stalinism.

These articles have transformed the formerly dreary magazine into one of the most talked-about publications in the Soviet Union. And the magazine has put the stocky, garrulous editor on the cutting edge of glasnost .

Korotich, 51, an ethnic Ukrainian, is representative in age, outlook and experience of a striking number of Gorbachev's closest advisers and strongest supporters.

These are men in their 50s and early 60s who came to political maturity in a period of liberalization initiated by Nikita S. Khrushchev, who took power after Stalin's death in 1953 and ruled until he was deposed in 1964 by Leonid I. Brezhnev. They were too young to suffer personally from Stalin's purges of the 1930s, but most had relatives who did. And they were disillusioned when Brezhnev reversed many of Khrushchev's policies.

Korotich's father, a microbiologist, was arrested and held briefly under Stalin in connection with an alleged "imperialist plot" to destroy the Ukraine's pigs, which were dying in an unexplained epidemic. His father's life was spared, Korotich said, when he found the bacteria that was causing the problem.

The elder Korotich spent much of World War II in a German labor camp. He survived that, too, but "for all his life he was afraid of closed doors," his son said. "He never traveled in subways or airplanes."

His time in prison, when his life depended so precariously on the whims of others, no doubt explains the career advice he gave his son.

Korotich heeded his father's advice, but only partially. He went to medical school and became a physician. But he wrote in his spare time and produced several books before he gave up medicine to write full time in 1966.

That was the year he became executive editor of a Ukrainian magazine and secretary of the republic's writers' union.

Even when Khrushchev was ousted, Korotich said, he thought the basic trend toward liberalization would continue, "but then it started to change."

In 1969, Korotich was fired from both his magazine and union posts. He refused to discuss the reasons, but according to other sources, he was severely criticized for "modernism" in his work.

Still, he was able to travel abroad--he visited Canada and the United States--and he continued to produce essays, poetry and translations of Slavic poets into Ukrainian and English.

At Ogonyok, he has been a man in a hurry. He quickly changed eight of 12 members of the magazine's editorial board, bringing in such outsiders as a circus clown and an eye surgeon to give a fresh perspective to the publication.

He said: "I thought, 'I'm not so young. I'm 51. I'd better do it right away.' "

He also understands how perilous a course Gorbachev has chosen.

Using the Russian word that Gorbachev has chosen to describe his program for restructuring Soviet life, Korotich said wryly: "We have people who have lived through five or six perestroikas and come out on top of every one. But for me this is the last perestroika , and I want to win it."

Judging by Ogonyok's reputation, he is on the right track. The magazine's circulation, which is determined not by demand but by the amount of paper available from the state, is still 1.5 million. But, two years ago, "200,000 to 300,000 copies of each issue were dumped straight into the garbage," Korotich said, and now demand is so great that there is a black market for the magazine.

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