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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 17:54 GMT
'Kremlin digger' is a wanted woman
Sarah Rainsford
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent in Moscow

Readers in Russia have been snapping up copies of a new book that claims to reveal secrets of life in the Kremlin.

Elena Tregubova has written a spicy expose of her time as a Kremlin reporter - one of the so-called "pool" journalists allowed unrivalled access to the corridors of Russian power.

Elena Tregubova
Elena reveals a secret web of professional back scratching
It appears the Kremlin is not amused by the "Tales of the Kremlin Digger".

In one chapter, its author describes a flirty sushi lunch with Vladimir Putin, then head of the Russian security services, the FSB.

"I couldn't decide if he was trying to recruit me - or pick me up!" she gushes.

There are tragi-comic tales of regional factory bosses and their fumbling attempts to impress the visiting president.

And the author revels in some awkward gaffes by Mr Putin on tour, hushed-up by his PR men.

It is a highly gossipy, often boastful account but Elena Tregubova claims her tabloid style is a deliberate device.

She says her main aim is to expose a Kremlin crackdown on the press re-introduced under Vladimir Putin.

Publish at peril

She wanted to make a bitter message sweeter for her readers to swallow.

"It's like Soviet times again. The Kremlin press pool is strictly censored by the president's administration," Elena told me.

"You have to play by the rules, or lose your accreditation to someone more loyal."

Man reading Elena Tregubova's book, Tales of a Kremlin Digger
The Kremlin digger's memoirs are flying off the shelves
Elena claims Kremlin reporters have effectively been transformed into a branch of the civil service and warns the rest of the Russian media is heading the same way.

"There is not one chief editor left here who wouldn't drop a story or a reporter if he was told to do so by the Kremlin," Elena maintains.

As if to prove her point, an interview with the author was pulled from broadcast this week by NTV - a channel once renowned for its critical reporting.

NTV said it was a matter of taste not pressure from the Kremlin but the decision sparked cries of political censorship.

The item had been trailed on the channel all day.

Alexei Volin features heavily in the memoirs in his former role as PR man for President Yeltsin.

There's a gentlemen's agreement with the press
Alexei Volin
Lolling on a leather chair in his publishing house, Alexei accepts that Vladimir Putin brought new game-rules to the Kremlin but says he doesn't see it as repression.

"There's a gentlemen's agreement with the press," he explains.

"You agree not to criticise the Kremlin or write about the presidential administration and you get to go on all the foreign trips."

Spokeswoman?

Alexei is highly sceptical of Elena Tregubova's new identity as champion of the free press.

"The main message from this book is that the author is clever and attractive and saw a lot of things," grins Alexei.

"The main message is about Elena Tregubova herself."

Former Kremlin PR man, Alexei Volin
Journalists play along to keep in work, says Alexei
Other critics point out that the "Kremlin Digger" part of the book's title was born after Elena was sacked from the Russian press pack in 2001.

Elena insists she wants to make her countrymen sit up and think - to examine the direction their country is heading in.

"I want people to see that my problem is a much wider concern," she says.

"That without free speech, there can be no reforms."

Readers in one Moscow bookshop were divided over the notion of a Kremlin crackdown.

The glossy blue book is piled high on booksellers' shelves: freely available and disappearing fast.

Some shoppers point out they only heard about its launch from the media.

"I'm buying the book out of solidarity," Ilya said.

"You have to do what you can, whether it's this, or filling your car at a Yukos petrol station," a reference to the arrest of Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which many here believe was politically motivated.

But like most people, Anton said he was buying out of curiosity.

He wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

As for press freedom: he gave a resigned shrug of his shoulders.

"I've got far more important things to think about!" Anton said, and wandered out of the shop.


SEE ALSO:
Russian court rejects media law
30 Oct 03  |  Europe
Timeline: Russia
22 Oct 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Russia
22 Oct 03  |  Country profiles


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