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Profile : Chief Soviet Broadcaster Finds That It's Lonely at the Top : Leonid Petrovich Kravchenko promoted glasnost. Now the changes he helped the Gorbachev Generation make are the source of his troubles.

June 25, 1991|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — How has the Gorbachev Generation, so smart, so determined, so certain of its talents and the rightness of its cause, made such a mess of the Soviet economy and government in only six years? One of the most successful members of the ruling class mused the other day over what had happened to him and others--men largely in their 40s and 50s--who were carried into positions of power on the coattails of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.

"We tore down the house that we were living in, and began moving to a house that didn't exist yet," said Leonid Petrovich Kravchenko, his country's top broadcaster. An "entire system" was junked, and power handed to people without the skills or experience to exercise it, he added.

True, for the Gorbachev Generation, the game is far from over. A multibillion-dollar Western economic bailout, agreement on a new power-sharing deal between Moscow and the republics, prosperity via the Kremlin's "anti-crisis program"--any or all of these may prolong its hold on power for many years.

But whatever the outcome, it has been a long, strange and painful journey for the men who have done much to destroy Soviet socialism, without building much in its place, and nothing shows that better than the career path of Kravchenko. The onetime prophet and practitioner of glasnost says, only half in jest, that he has become his country's most unpopular figure, with one exception--Saddam Hussein.

The vistas seemed so different, so promising in the spring of 1986. At a watering hole in Greenwich Village, Kravchenko, then the No. 2 at the Soviet state broadcasting committee, known universally as Gostelradio, was schmoozing with other journalists and media executives taking part in a seminar on U.S.-Soviet relations at New York University.

A droll raconteur, Kravchenko talked devastatingly about how hard it had been to put a presentable video face on the wheezing Konstantin U. Chernenko, Gorbachev's immediate predecessor as Kremlin leader, or the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev, doddering in his final years.

In that bright dawn of glasnost, when it was enough to admit that prostitution existed in the Soviet Union to create a sensation, state television, though hardly as daringly muckraking as a newspaper like Moscow News, struck some impressive blows for a freer and better society.

Kravchenko, Gostelradio's first deputy chairman in 1985-88, with hands-on responsibility for what 290 million people saw every day on Soviet TV, can boast of being the godfather of a revolution in broadcasting--one that, ironically, his opponents say he later suffocated.

There were innovative "telebridges," emceed by Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner, that brought together the still suspicious rank-and-file citizens of the superpowers; there was "Spotlight of Perestroika," a 15-minute expose of official misdeeds that made bureaucrats squirm.

Kravchenko, now 53, proudly evokes the "radical renewal" of Soviet broadcasting. It seems a terrible irony that five years later, the man with the rebellious shock of white hair that keeps falling across his forehead has gone from No. 2 to No. 1 at Gostelradio, only to spend his time selling Gorbachev and his policies to an increasingly doubtful, even hostile public.

"We must occupy government positions and express the government point of view on the most important, principled issues," Kravchenko said in an interview, by way of explaining how he understands his role.

His commitment to "the government point of view" is easy to understand--unlike, for example, Roone Arledge of ABC or Laurence Tisch of CBS, Kravchenko's job depends on favorable ratings from an audience of one--Mikhail Gorbachev.

The offspring of teachers from the hilly Russian farm region of Bryansk southwest of Moscow, Kravchenko has the poise and polish that would make him fit in a Fortune 500 boardroom.

But behind the easy charm and telegenic good looks, there is the kind of determination and cool ruthlessness that his predecessor, Mikhail F. Nenashev, did not have. After an interval as general director of the official Tass news agency, Kravchenko took over at Gostelradio last November on Gorbachev's orders.

"This was not merely a sign of impending change in Soviet television, but in all of politics," said Lidia Polskaya, a writer on Literaturnaya Gazeta.

For something had happened in the Gorbachev years that made the Gostelradio job of crucial importance. As in the United States in the late 1950s or early '60s, Soviet politics had discovered the tube--or vice versa. A country that had grown accustomed to deciphering squibs in Pravda about closed-door meetings of the Communist Party Central Committee was galvanized by the televised spectacle of Andrei D. Sakharov, live from the Kremlin, denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Ironically, the Soviet leadership--which had, in Gorbachev, a screen star of the first magnitude--wasn't ready for what TV did to political life.

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