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Meet Vladimir Pozner, Russia’s Larry King

An insider with a penchant for ruffling official feathers, popular television host Vladimir Pozner pushes boundaries while still toeing the party line.

Pierre Avril

MOSCOW - Is it possible to be an independent journalist in a country where the media is constricted by both self-censorship and the State's firm grip? Vladimir Pozner, a leading journalist for the Russian TV station Pervyi Kanal, seems determined to find out, venturing out on a proverbial tightrope every Sunday at 11 p.m. His live show is simply called "Pozner," like the recently retired American "Larry King Show." The similarities between the two would probably not stop here, if only Russia were more familiar with the freedom of press.

One of Russia's most popular broadcast journalists, Pozner does what he can to reinforce the press as a pillar of democracy. Recently, he politely ridiculed Alexandre Tkatchov, governor of Krasnodar, the region which is hosting the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. During the show, Pozner told his guest he would be submitted to the Proust questionnaire (a form of interview made famous by French writer Marcel Proust). "I am sorry to say that I have never met this gentleman Proust," says Tkatchov apologetically. "I will introduce you to him if you like," Pozner bluntly replies.

The journalist's first question, "What is your greatest regret?" gets a tasteless "None." Pozner goes on to ask "Which talent would you have liked to have?" For the second time, the answer is "None." Throughout the interview, Pozner makes his guest look like a complete idiot.

Looking back on the episode, the journalist is more upset than amused. "Not only has Tkatchov never heard of Marcel Proust -- an error for which he might be forgiven -- but he never even bothered to find out what my show is about," Pozner says.

For him, this kind of behavior shows just how disdainful Russian authorities are of the media. "All TV channels belong to the government, but the politicians don't even know how to use them properly. For them, news and propaganda are one and the same," Pozner says.

Black List

Pozner inherited his love for writing and literature from his French mother. His father, a Lithuanian Jew who strongly believed in communism and worked as a spy for the NKVD (precursor to the KGB), gave him his hunger for nonconformity. Both parents worked in the film industry in Paris (his mother for Paramount and his father for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer) when Vladimir Pozner was born, in 1934. Seven years later, the Pozners fled Paris and the Vichy regime, and sailed to the United States. There Pozner Sr. headed the Russian language section of the U.S. War Department films in Washington, D.C. For the authorities in Moscow, the double agent was knows as "Plato."

But the Pozner family's life in the shadows did not last long. With the arrival of McCarthysm, they were forced to flee again in 1948, this time to East Berlin. That is where Vladimir started to learn Russian. "It was a rather difficult period," he said. "I hated the Germans and I wanted to go to the Soviet Union, thinking that I would find a land of freedom and justice, without any poverty." His dream came true in 1952 when the family moved there, only three months before Stalin's death.

In the Russian capital, Vladimir studied the biochemistry of the brain, translated English poems into Russian, and eventually took up a job as a journalist for the newly created Ria Novosti official press agency. "What I did at that time makes me a little ashamed now, but this first job allowed me to find my real vocation in life. It also gave me a chance to travel. Plus, my salary wasn't all that bad." The events in Prague in 1968 opened the young journalist's eyes. Later, perestroika gave him the opportunity to tear up his Communist party membership card.

But in 1991, Pozner moved to the United States after being sacked from Russian national television for his open criticism of the Gorbachev regime. Trouble followed him there as well. After working for CNBC for five years, Pozner's American employers complained about his alleged bias towards left-wing figures. Accusing them of censorship, the embattled journalist went to live in Moscow again. "Back then in 1991, I learned how to fight fear. Today I make enough money to have a comfortable life. I have three passports (U.S., French and Russian) and I have a lot of freedom."

It is undoubtedly because of his fame and self-confidence that Pozner thinks he can sometimes defy the government and get away with it. Just over a month ago, when Putin made an impromptu visit to Pervyi Kanal, Pozner raised the possibility that the channel invite some opposition figures to be guests on the program. Putin's answer is easy to guess.

"The prime minister and I have very different political thinking: he believes the country is not yet ready for independent television. I share President Medvedev's opinion that we will never learn how to swim if we never make the plunge."

In the media business, not everyone agrees with Pozner's half-way approach. "It is kind of humiliating for our trade as a whole to see this media patriarch asking for permission from the prime minister to invite leaders of the opposition," says Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, one of the few independent radio stations in Russia.

For the time being, Pozner respects his boss' wish to blacklist seven key opposition figures, including former Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. Like many others, Russia's Larry King is no doubt waiting for Putin to retire.

Read the original article in French.

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