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It's All About Freedom of Speech for Shuster

Published: December 10, 2002 (Issue # 827)



  • Shuster says that he never compromised his principles in the NTV takeover dispute.
    Photo: Vladimir Filonov / The St. Petersburg Times

MOSCOW - As if to confirm the fabled addiction of television people to scanning their ratings numbers, the first thing Savik Shuster did when he came to his office for an interview last week was to switch on his computer and look at that day's graphs of how many people watched NTV's news programs, which he helps run as deputy chief of news.

"I don't know why, but the best day for news is Thursday," said Shuster, who turned 50 three weeks ago and was congratulated by guests in the middle of his live political talk show "Svoboda Slova," or "Free Speech."

Yet Shuster is not your average Russian television star. And not only because, at the age of 50, he sticks to using the diminutive version of his name, Savely, or because of the controversies that seen to have followed him throughout his career.

Most recently, it was President Vladimir Putin's apparent fury at NTV's coverage of the Moscow hostage crisis, particularly at Shuster's Oct. 25 show featuring passionate pleas by hostages' relatives to end the war in Chechnya and not storm the theater. Afterward, several newspapers reported that the NTV leadership was under pressure to fire Shuster.

"Thank God someone can make money, but not at any cost, not on the blood of your own citizens, if, of course, those who do this consider these citizens to be their own," Putin said at a meeting with media managers late last month, in remarks that were widely perceived as directed at NTV and its head, Boris Jordan, a U.S.-born descendant of White Russian emigres.

Speculation was rife in Moscow media circles that Putin was directly referring to Shuster, a Lithuanian-born Canadian citizen.

"If he indeed meant NTV, this has nothing to with Jordan, because it is hard to imagine blood more Russian than Jordan's," Shuster said. "Therefore, he meant me or people like me. As for me, there is no such thing as foreign blood."

"And the very way in which the question is raised is wrong. If we say that terrorism has no borders, it means that blood has no borders."

Shuster is married to an Italian, and his family presently lives in Florence. His parents emigrated from their native Vilnius via Israel in 1971, when Shuster was 19. A distant uncle, who was vice president of the oil company Shell Canada, intervened with Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin on their behalf. Shuster earned a medical degree in Canada and then moved to Florence to continue his studies. There, he began writing for a local newspaper after realizing that he "did not like sick people."

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