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Military Journalism in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia - Conversations (2)

Interview with Nikolai Starodymov1, military journalist from 1970 to 2003, Moscow, 23 October 2013

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski

Dedication is grateful to Suzanne Gentz who edited this interview.

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Writing was a vocation

PIPSS.ORG - How did you become a military journalist?

Nikolai Starodymov: I've always wanted to write. I had started writing at school in 4th grade. Then I went to the Donetsk Military School (Donetskoe Voennoe Uchilishche) to become a sapper (sapior). This was at the end of the 1960s. A network of military schools had been opened at that time to train political officers. Spiritual education was lacking in the military. These schools were opened for each branch of the service. I studied in the Sapper faculty. In parallel, there was a very important structure for military construction troops. For them too special schools were created ; but only a few and those were not very popular. For us it was degrading to serve in the construction batallions. Nevertheless after graduation we were all sent to the stroïbaty (construction battalions). There I took part in the construction of the "Rus'" sanatorium (military medical rehabilitation center).

But let's go back to military journalism: when I was in the military school I contributed to Zvezda, the school publication. I wrote several pieces on our current studies, and then published in military district journals.

A law-abiding student

PIPSS.ORG - Did you receive censorship orders at that time?

Nikolai Starodymov: There were no orders about what to write or not to write. The selection was simple: you brought your pieces to the editorial office and you were told "this - we will publish, that - we will not publish". There were very few journal issues and a lot of us wanted to be published.

Today it is very popular to say – in fact everybody says - that they struggled with censorship at that time, but I did not struggle. Not because I am a coward or anything like that. I simply always thought that the Soviet rule despite all its shortcomings was good. I was never a dissident, and cannot say that I actually opposed the state. Some did. But I just thought the system needed to be improved.

PIPSS.ORG - What did you write about?

Nikolai Starodymov: I remember very well that I wrote about the fact that very little time was devoted to aestetics, and dance in the school curriculum.

The rules of secrecy were very strict. Today, I think that the limitations that were imposed on us were too high. The threshold could have been lowered.

But I wrote articles from the point of view of a "normal" law-abiding student, who acknowledges the system whilst recognizing that the system could be - not reformed- but improved.

The stroibaty as first assignment: a dissapointment

PIPSS.ORG - What first your first assignment?

Nikolai Starodymov: The stroibaty (construction battalion). But I did not appreciate being sent to the Construction Battalion. I was an officer, as was my father, and the stroibat provided no possibility to move up in rank; no career was possible. You could not move higher than Major.

Althought I was serving near Moscow I asked to be transferred. I was ready to be sent anywhere just to leave the construction battalions. In the 1980s, after the Olympic Games, I was offered to go to Afghanistan. During my career I found myself in four different wars. I never asked to go there, but never refused to go either. I am a military man. I receive an order. I obey. However, when I completed the form for Afghanistan I wrote that I accepted to go provided that I was transferred definitively from the stroibaty. The response was negative, and even though I said I would not go, I was sent there anyway.

Turkmenistan: trained as a military journalist

PIPSS.ORG - So you landed in Afghanistan?

Nikolai Starodymov: I was sent to Afghanistan, but actually never made it there: instead, I was sent to Tashkent where the General Staff was located. 35 of my fellow officers from the same school were sent there as well.

  • 2 kezil means krasnyi [N.S.]

By chance my very good friend from school, Tolia Koroliev, was among them. - I want to underline here the role of coincidence in my career - in a corridor of the military district general staff he overheard by chance that they needed journalists. In December 1980, I thus became a journalist and was sent to Turkmenistan. I found myself in the city of Kezil-Arvat2. I served there for five years. Our division was controlling the border with Iran. I became a correspondent for Krasnaia Znamiia, the newspaper of the 58th Division. I learned everything there. I was trained by Sergei Dishev.... Colonel of the Militia (MVD).


PIPSS.ORG - What were the topics of your articles?

Nikolai Starodymov: Twice a year, the battalion was conducting a series of military training exercises. Each soldier was starting with a personal training followed by a training with his unit, and so on, up to the division level. They were trained in the moutains and in the desert. I described this training.

Then I wrote for Gazeta Polka (The Regiment newspaper). I was given clear instructions about what to write or not to write. Nothing was to be said about the division itself. In the Division there was a censor. He was the permanent director of the secret division, and was called "sekretchik". He was not a military. The editorial team included the editor, a secretary and a correspondent. We would bring the proofs to the editor and he would say what to keep or not. Only when he had stamped all proofs could we print the newspaper.

Annoyed by censorship in Afghanistan

PIPSS.ORG - When did you start to be annoyed by censorship?

Nikolai Starodymov: Censorship began to annoy me when I was sent to Afghanistan, and I started to struggle against it. In Kezil-Arvat, there were good moments and bad ones: it was borring, but I had to go through this. When I arrived in Afghanistan, I was completely ready as a military journalist. I had a lot of experience.

  • 3 The veterans of the division gather each year on the Poklennaia mountain on May 5th at 5pm. [N.S.]

They sent me to Afghanistan in 1985. Gorbashev had just come to power. Perestroika and glasnost' had emerged when I received a call from the Directorate of Staff of the military district. I actually was asked if I wanted to go to Afghanistan, so I answered "no". The Directorate of Staff told me: "You are refusing to perform your international duty?" And I replied: "No. I am not refusing, but you asked me if I wanted to go there. As an officer I will obey, but I do not want to go". I went back home for a few days to see my son who had just been born. Then I left for Afghanistan. The journal for which I worked there was called Gvardeets (The guardsman); the newspaper of the 5th Division.3

PIPSS.ORG - Did you take part in any military operation?

Nikolai Starodymov: Starting from this mission, I took part to in more than 20 combat operations. I took part in combat and I took part in the raids; but I did not kill anyone. In October 1985 there was an important operation in a city. I observed how one kills, how one dies. And I was confronted with the problem of censorship, because we were not allowed to write about anything. Friendly fires occured. But we were forbiden to publish anything about it. Nor about the blood - a sea of blood - the corpes, the smell...

During several operations I was with the doctor - a friend of mine. I had no place to sleep so I slept in the ambulance that transported the wounded and the dead. "Tabletka" they called it. My friend was horrified because the inside was covered with blood. He was supposed to operate their too when needed.

I repeat: I was not against the Soviet authorities. I understood the ideology and the limitations on information, but I considered that censorship was too tight. At that time I wrote for different newspapers: the military district newspaper, Krasnaia Zvezda etc., but very few of my papers went through. A censor helped us to erase what could not be said. Most of the work censored was mine. I understood that I could not fight against the system. I thought that in the end it would reach somebody. The censor was a great person; he came and sat with us and said "let's try to find a way to bypass censorship". And all together we chose what to change and what to cut.

Promotion denied

PIPSS.ORG - What else were you not allowed to write?

  • 4 N.A. Starodymov, Boevoi dnevnik Afganskoi voiny, Eksmo, Moskva, 2009.

Nikolai Starodymov: During all that time I was writing a diary. It was not allowed, but tolerated. My Afganski dnevnik was published in 20094. I wrote in it whatever was not allowed. We could not mention the dead, the wounded. We were not allowed to write about helicopters, about hepatitis. It oppressed me. I did not get any stripes because I crossed too many lines. They thought I was not ready to command. Probably because I was responsible for too many transgressions. My stay in Afghanistan lasted a year and a half.

Self-censorship in Ashkhabad

Nikolai Starodymov: Then I asked to be transfered to Belorussia (Belarus today) because my mother lived there. I was denied the possibility and sent to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan to the 61st Division with my family. I became editor of the newspaper Za Rodinu (For the Motherland); I collaborated with several other newspapers, with the radio, with television. There was not much we could really write about. Each text was submitted to censorship. Although, at that time, I had already learned how to censor myself. I started to write less and less about the military. Instead, I started to write more about veterans. This topic was less censored.

Then I became correspondent of the Tashkent newspaper "Frunze" in Turkmenistan. I also conducted a radio program about the army in Ashgabat. It was the only programme on the military in the Soviet Union at that time (with Serdar Ovlakuliev). There were a lot of Armenians there and a lot of conflicts - but no blood.

As usual, chance played an important role in my career: there was a meeting in Tashkent between officers at the hotel I stayed at. An officer I knew stayed in the room next door, and asked me: "Why don't you enter the Academy". I was 34 at that time. He said he would help me. In the end he did not help, but his advice nonetheless inspired me to go to the Lenin Academy in Moscow. Today it is called Moscow Military University. I spent three years there from 1991 to 1994.


PIPSS.ORG - Were you in Moscow during the events of 1991?

Nikolai Starodymov: No, I was not in Moscow during the events of 1991. I arrived afterwards. But then the nightmare started. In 1992, we got no salary for several months. I began to write for civilian newspapers, Golos (The Voice) for instance. I also worked as a security guard: I guarded a shipment of sugar and I protected construction sites. I did some business. I was a bouncer in a nightclub for homosexuals. For a year I wrote for a student dorm publication - until the end of 1994 when I joined the newspaper Krasnaia Zvezda. I worked there until 1998.

Chechnya: "In the sub-units, no one knew each others' name"

Nikolai Starodymov: In March 1994, I was sent on mission to Chechnya. My first mission there was to Gudermes. There were real combats I was shocked: it was our land, our people! In the sub-units, no one knew each others' name. The officers did not know their subordonnates' names either. I saw Grozny destroyed, but I was not there during the bombing. My second mission was to Shatoy. This was my most productive visit, and I was awarded the Russia Prize for journalism. This was a well organized operation, and I described it as such.

PIPSS.ORG - What material did you use for your field work? And did you have any protection?

Nikolai Starodymov: Just a dictaphone. No protection. I always managed by myself.

PIPSS.ORG - How strong was censorship in Chechnya?

Nikolai Starodymov: I was not troubled in Chechnya. We were allowed to write about the dead, the wounded. Sometimes they would ask to shorten an article, but I was never summoned. The second campaign was better organized. My third mission during the first campaign sent me to Arekhovo. Information was blocked for civilian journalists. In contrast to them, we got information from the top. Some newspapers revealed crucial tactical information.

PIPSS.ORG - When did you leave the army, and what did you do then?

Nikolai Starodymov: I left the army in 2001, and became chief editor of the veterans magazine Boevoe Brastvo (Military Brotherhood) from 2001 to 2008. I also worked for the newspaper Voinskoe Bratstvo (Military Fraternity), for Prezident, and Energetika from 2008 to 2009.

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2 kezil means krasnyi [N.S.]

3 The veterans of the division gather each year on the Poklennaia mountain on May 5th at 5pm. [N.S.]

4 N.A. Starodymov, Boevoi dnevnik Afganskoi voiny, Eksmo, Moskva, 2009.

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Electronic reference

Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski, « Interview with Nikolai Starodymov, military journalist from 1970 to 2003, Moscow, 23 October 2013 », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 16 | 2014, Online since 30 January 2015, connection on 29 March 2017. URL :

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Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski


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