a fertile mind
by Jean-François Berger
Prominent Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner is the presenter
of one of his country's most popular television shows, the current
affairs programme Vremena ("The Times"). He is also
a man for whom humanitarian issues are of deep concern. Recently,
he joined the exclusive circle of international advisors to
the ICRC. Red Cross, Red Crescent interviewed him in Moscow.
You are a journalist who has pursued a career under two
very different systems. What has that been like?
I am not a journalist by training. I studied biology for five
years at Moscow University. But I didn't really have a head
for science. One day in 1961, a friend called me to say that
a news agency, Novosti, had just been created and they were
looking for people who spoke English and French. I was hired,
on a good salary, after a half-hour interview. I worked with
the Novosti agency until 1970, when I moved to radio, the
Voice of Moscow, which was directed at the United States,
where I lived until 1986. I must confess it was not journalism
but propaganda. In the Soviet Union, a journalist was an "ideological
soldier", ready to defend communist ideas. Now, the mission
of a true journalist is to find out what lies behind the power
wielded by the political authorities.
Things changed, didn't they, in the 1980s?
Definitely. Little by little I realized that the Soviet way
was terrifying and had no bearing on those lofty ideals of
equality and justice for all. Basically, when Gorbachev came
to power in 1985, I began presenting a "television bridge".
It was a satellite link between Leningrad and Seattle, where
a well-known US journalist, Phil Donahue, hosted a talk show.
The programme enabled 200 Americans to speak to their Russian
counterparts face to face - for the first time - on huge screens.
We talked about things that were never mentioned on Soviet
television: anti-Semitism, travel restrictions, the one-party
system. It was an instant success and suddenly I was a celebrity.
Have you left the Communist Party?
I left it in 1989. That same year, Phil Donahue asked me to
work with him. I accepted and for six years I worked in television
with Donahue in New York, before returning to Moscow in 1997.
You are currently presenting a current affairs and interview
programme on ORT, a leading Russian semi-private television
station, in which the state has a majority holding. Do you
ever have to deal with particularly sensitive topics?
In any country, there are some subjects that are considered
more sensitive than others. On state television, the touchy
issues are immediately obvious - anything to do with the government
or head of state. If it's a private channel, there are also
sensitivities to take into account, such as those that might
affect advertising revenue.
What are some of the most recent topics you have dealt
The sinking of the Koursk, HIV/AIDS, drug abuse and the reform
of the judicial system.
You have long explained the Soviet Union, and now Russia,
to those who live outside. Is there still a "Soviet"
culture in Russia?
I think so. The main characteristic of this Soviet culture
is the widespread belief that the state is responsible for
the individual. Or, if you prefer, many believe the state
is more responsible for the individual than the individual
himself. This belief is at the root of many of today's problems
and is manifested by a lack of initiative.
How do you feel about the social inequalities in Russia?
It's huge, it's tragic and it's unacceptable. Today, at least
one-third of the population lives in poverty. Another third
lives on the borderline. These
people have to face questions such as: What will we have to
eat tomorrow? What will I do if my child falls sick? How will
I pay the rent? They are so bogged down by problems that they
are not receptive to anything else. That is why civil society
is so weak.
In 1999 in Geneva you, along with other personalities,
launched a solemn appeal to mark the 50th anniversary of the
Geneva Conventions. Your message centred on the promotion
of a "culture of peace" necessary "to bury
the culture of war". Did this public appeal have any
I am convinced that you have to try, or nothing happens, except
the worst. Violence is ever present. We are not killing any
less, we are not stealing any less, we are not raping any
less than before. So, if I say that I am in favour of a culture
of peace and that I would like to be there the day we can
bury the treaties we have signed on how to conduct war, I
do so because I believe it is important for this point of
view to become an integral part of human ethics. Can it really
happen? I don't know. But we have to try. And as I said earlier,
I have produced propaganda for many years, I have served a
certain government and a party, and having lost my illusions,
I told myself that never again would I do that. As a journalist
and human being, I want
to do anything I can to be useful to people.
Such as become an international advisor to the ICRC?
When I was asked to work with the ICRC, I was surprised by
the invitation. Usually, former prime ministers and generals
are invited, and I am a journalist. I wasn't expecting it.
But I was delighted because it gives me the chance to do everything
I can for people to live more humanely. And to do that even
for just one person is already not bad!
As an international advisor, on what specific issues would
you like to focus?
Each time we meet - twice a year - we receive a list of issues
drawn up by the ICRC on which we are consulted. The subjects
are fascinating, but I can't reveal what they are, as those
are the rules of the game. And as a journalist I respect that!
I also have the feeling of doing something important as a
group, which gives me energy.
The Red Cross has many activities in the region, especially
in the northern Caucasus. What do you think of the work being
done? For example, ICRC visits to prisoners in Chechnya?
First, you have to have a lot of courage to do that sort of
work. It is very dangerous. Then, you really have to love
people: it is cold, it stinks. Something has to be there in
the heart to do that. And when I see the people who do this
work - without boasting about it - I am inspired. Truly. Because
there are so many awful things happening everywhere and the
only thing that seems to matter is money. Yet, the work of
the Red Cross tells us that that isn't true; humanity exists,
in Chechnya and elsewhere.
Among the Fundamental Principles of our Movement, are
there any that are more significant to you than others?
For me, the most important is impartiality. It is the key
which opens the door for the Red Cross to assist people in
circumstances in which no other organization can act. Of course,
as a journalist, that puts me in a difficult position. Either
you help a person who has been tortured because you are there,
or you speak out publicly to the world and that person will
probably be killed. It is an obvious dilemma!
The media have enormous power. They can alert the international
community and by doing so, prompt so-called humanitarian interventions.
What are your views on this?
The big problem is that the media - at least most of them
- are above all a business. A journalist must therefore be
sensationalist in order to grab attention. And sometimes,
it's tempting to make things up or embellish a fact. It's
extremely dangerous, for the media are beginning to believe
what they say. When a humanitarian action is built on such
a basis, it is no longer humanitarian; it is political and
no longer has anything to do with the Red Cross.
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