MOSCOW — After 80 years of bashing capitalists, Pravda has sold out to one.
The stridently conservative newspaper, once the mouthpiece of the Communist Party and now a harsh critic of Russia's reformist government, has ceded a controlling interest to a Greek businessman in exchange for financial security.
Battered by a mass desertion of subscribers, the sudden withering of once-lavish Communist Party subsidies and skyrocketing production costs, Pravda has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for months. Its problems were so severe that it had to shut down its printing presses altogether for 23 days in March and then cut back to three issues a week.
Desperate to save the paper, top editors have been scrambling to attract investors from abroad--even while Pravda's pages continued to browbeat Russian leaders for groveling for Western aid and selling off the country's assets to foreigners.
Readily forgoing principles for cash, Pravda's staff voted last week--with only one nyet-- to create a joint venture with Steellight Holding Co., a Greek firm run by Jannis Jannikos, a Greek magnate in his 60s who--to the obvious relief of Pravda's editors--has ties to the Greek Communist Party.
Jannikos' party connection may be enough to satisfy his new employees in Moscow, but readers, accustomed as they are to the paper's weekly invectives against greedy international investors, may resent the fact that a foreigner is in charge.
"It will be difficult to explain," conceded Alexander Ilyin, deputy editor in chief of Pravda, "but we needed to somehow ensure the paper's existence. If this arrangement ends Pravda's financial problems, that is the most important thing."
Die-hard believers, however, disagree.
Vladimir Gubarev, a senior editor at Pravda who cast the lone vote against the joint-venture project, argued that "the name Pravda doesn't just belong to the people who work here now--it belongs to history. Selling the paper is shameful, an embarrassment."
Speaking slowly and sadly, Gubarev added, "If no one wants to read Pravda, it would be more honest just to close the paper."
The new joint-venture company, Pravda International, will soon take over publication of the four- to six-page newspaper, although the details of financing have yet to be worked out, Ilyin said. The Greek partner, who refused to comment on the deal, will reportedly control 55% of Pravda International's stock.
Nonetheless, Ilyin insisted that Pravda would retain complete editorial freedom--something the newspaper has enjoyed for less than one year.
The Communist Party rigidly controlled Pravda's contents until after the failed coup by Communist conservatives.
"Pravda will still be Pravda," Ilyin said of the newspaper founded by V. I. Lenin in 1912. "We will preserve Pravda's political line, defending the interests of the common people."
As the official organ of the Communist Party, Pravda ("truth" in Russian) was for decades the Soviet Union's leading daily. The circulation peaked at about 13 million in the mid-1970s, despite the predictable dull speeches transcribed in full, trumped-up accounts of heroic factory workers and glowing paeans to the joys of life on a collective farm.
But, after a brief moment in the spotlight last August when Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin temporarily banned the paper after facing down the hard-line coup attempt, Pravda has all but vanished from public view.
The newspaper's circulation plummeted to 1.2 million in January and dropped below 1 million this summer, Ilyin said.