Let a thousand flowers bloom… “I am not embarrassed by the word ‘propaganda.'” With that tasteless phrase Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said Russia will spend heavily on advertising to improve its image in the United States. Lesin was reacting in part to the State Department’s annual human rights report (see, which criticized the government’s “numerous, serious human rights abuses” and its “pressure on the media,” including police and tax investigations, libel suits, denial of access and required pre-publication approval of certain stories.

Perhaps on the theory that the best defense is to give offense, Lesin said freedom of speech is greater in Russia than in America, where the media “basically belong to fifty major corporations,” as opposed to “about a thousand companies” in Russia. (In fact, the State Department said that “in key respects, private media organizations across the country [remain] dependent on the government” for accreditation to cover events, for advertising revenue from state-owned companies, for office space, for supplies of newsprint, for distribution of printed material, for access to the airwaves, and the like.) Lesin said his ministry may give grants to American groups that are fighting for freedom of speech.

Lesin may also be reacting to reports that the boss is unhappy with his work. President Vladimir Putin is said to be still seething over Lesin’s offer to drop fraud and embezzlement charges against Media Most chairman Vladimir Gusinsky if Gusinsky would turn his interest in the company over to state-controlled energy monopoly Gazprom. The offer was clumsy in itself, but worse yet, Lesin put it in writing, in a document signed last July by Lesin, Gusinsky and the chief of Gazprom’s media operations. And, worst of all, he acknowledged the deal when Gusinsky reneged. That is not the way Putin’s old KGB or new FSB would have run the operation.

(Readers may wonder why a natural-gas producer has a media division. That is because Gazprom, Russia’s largest corporation, is one of the “thousand companies” that own press, radio and television outlets.)

According to Moscow rumors, Putin’s dissatisfaction with Lesin will lead to creation of a soon-to-be-announced special directorate for information and propaganda within the office of the presidency. The directorate would function as an in-house press ministry, draining power away from Lesin and increasing the president’s personal control. The likely head of the new operation is said to be Sergei Yastrzhembsky, now the presidential spokesman on Chechnya and once a respected political strategist for Moscow’s Mayor Yury Luzhkov.