History of Russian Journalism

From Revolution to Glasnost: Soviet Press from 1917-1984

A free and independent press does not have a very long history in Russia. Control of the media by the government dates back to the very beginning of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks curtailed freedom of speech and press in Russia from the very beginning. One of the most important initial decrees passed by the Soviet of People’s Commissars and signed by Vladimir Lenin October 27, 1917 was the Decree on the Press (Murray 2). This Decree essentially outlawed newspapers that published views opposed to the October Revolution. Claiming such papers to be tsarist reactionaries, the communists closed 319 newspapers from 1917-1918 (Murray 5-6). Additional measures soon followed. A tribunal was established in 1917 to investigate and suppress bourgeois newspapers. Later in 1917, a state monopoly on advertising was instituted, depriving most papers of revenue (McNair 36).

The basic structure of the Soviet press was established by decree August 11, 1930. The decree created a pyramidal structure of papers that would reach down into all levels of Soviet society (McNair 45). At the apex of the pyramid were the all-union publications, such as Pravda or Izvestia, which published official accounts of activities by the highest governmental bodies. Then, each of the fifteen Soviet republics had a corresponding paper for its own high governmental bodies. The structure went to increasingly smaller divisions, including even city, town, or factory papers (McNair 45).

A number of controls existed which allowed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to tightly control media content (McNair 49) The government (and therefore the party) controlled rights to licensing and financing papers. Appointment to high-level media jobs, such as editors, was controlled by the CPSU and based on purely political and ideological considerations. According to one study, few Soviet media officials had significant experience working in the individual media they came to control (Murray 40). Training for journalists was completely controlled by governmental institutions and finally, if all else failed, governmental censorship was utilized. Contrary to a common belief that the Soviet Union widely practiced censorship, after an initial period of censorship and repression under Lenin and Stalin, the true controls over a free press were embodied in the close relationship between party officials and the media. Editors willingly made for compliant news outlets that followed the party line.

Controls over freedom of speech were not just limited to the press. Joseph Stalin was particularly infamous for his micromanaging of many cultural institutions. He personally interfered in the writing of plays, novels, movies, and even music, enforcing a cultural homogeneity that encompassed his vision of the new “Soviet man.” The party tightly controlled all mediums of expression. John Murray explains that “[t]he regimented views appearing in the press of the thirties constituted the party line, and none other” (Murray 21). Coverage was black and white, always towing the party line, no matter what it was, and always condemning the enemies of the people. This was the style of journalism that predominated in the Soviet Union for the majority of its existence. It would begin to be totally unraveled in the 1980’s when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev instituted his policy of Glasnost, in an attempt to revitalize the USSR. Glasnost was not the first period when censorship and control were loosened, though.

Brief Openings: Limited Press Freedom during the NEP (1921-1928) and Khrushchev Era (1953-1964)

The first period when competing ideas were allowed was during debates over the New Economic Policy (NEP), from around 1921-1927. After experiencing drastic economic disaster and displacement during the collectivization and industrialization of War Communism, Lenin and a leading Soviet economic thinker, Nikolai Bukharin, began a debate on how to structure the Soviet economy and achieve industrialization. Journalists were allowed to criticize the old policies and talk of the economic tasks facing the country (Murray 8). Unfortunately, the debate was extremely limited in scope. Lenin simultaneously in 1921 initiated a ban on factions within the party; and criticism of the party or its final policy decisions was strictly off limits (Murray 9). The press could simply report negatively on issues determined by the party in a manner approved by the party.

After Lenin’s death in 1924 and Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of power, all open debates ended. Soviet citizens would not enter another period of limited free expression until after Stalin’s death, with the rise of Nikita Khrushchev. After Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech that denounced the Stalinist years for its excesses, the Party allowed criticism of Stalin and some of his policies. Again, this was a very limited form of expression and did not extend to the creation of any free press or ability to criticize core tenets of communism or Lenin. The press was still utilized as a tool by politicians.

This was particularly true when the Soviet papers ignored the events of the Hungarian Revolution until it became impossible. Then they simply resorted to printing straight out lies about the situation (Murray 26). Khrushchev, who himself was a high-level party official during Stalin’s rule, was also deemed beyond criticism. Khrushchev would also use the papers to print articles in support of his economic changes, termed Reform Communism. The opening for expression was extremely small and with the rise of Leonid Brezhnev, what opening there was would be closed.

Throwing the doors open: Gorbachev and Glasnost, 1984-1991

Not until the mid-1980’s would dissonant voices of the party be heard. As part of his effort to revitalize the Soviet Union, General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged a policy of glasnost (openness). It began with Gorbachev and his allies voicing internal party dissent over a number of issues confronting the USSR, particularly with regard to the economy. Gorbachev encouraged papers to print criticisms of the government and to continue a reevaluation of the Stalinist period in an effort to force a change in policy direction.

Arrayed against him were a number of conservative party members, led by Yegor Ligachev, the head of ideology (Murray 45). While some papers did print criticisms, many held off, unsure of whether Gorbachev or Ligachev would win the battle of political wills. The conflict would culminate in a letter published (likely with support by Ligachev) in 1988 by a teacher, Nina Andreeva, who criticized Gorbachev and glasnost as harming the Soviet Union. Gorbachev would respond with his own letter in the paper and the affair marked the defeat of Ligachev, who would later be removed from his position of as Head of the Department of Ideology within the CPSU Secretariat.

John Murray explains that during the early Glasnost period newspapers were hesitant to report freely, but the extreme opposition they garnered from Ligachev demonstrated the growing independence of the media from governmental and party control (Murray 47). The June 1990 Law on Press Freedom further affirmed and protected the independence of journalists and newspapers (Sakwa 332). Forums were opened to debate Soviet economic and foreign policy, but also to debate the merits of breaking up the Union.

The Yeltsin years: 1991-2000

Newspapers and independent journalism thrived during the Glasnost and early post-communist years, but the transition to a market economy was particularly difficult for the media. After years of state subsidization, papers were forced to compete in an open market, the results of which were predictably uneven (Sakwa 332). Some papers took the route of reporting sensationalized news of sex and scandals, while some that were sympathetic to the government found limited subsidization. Still others, but definitely a minority, survived through quality reporting and meeting the needs of their readership while maintaining their independence.

Unfortunately, many others were bought up, or created, by the newly enriched billionaires of the Russian Federation, known as “the Oligarchs.” They purchased newspapers and television stations, appreciating their value in presenting to the public a rosy view of their shady business practices. Richard Sakwa quotes Boris Berezovsky (an oligarch who was particularly close to President Yeltsin) as buying newspapers not for their business potential but because they were a powerful lever of political influence (Sakwa 333). Berezovsky would buy the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta (The Independent), which had previously been a major supporter of the democratic intelligentsia of the country. NTV (Independent Television Network), the independent and innovative television station of Vladimir Gusinsky, another Oligarch, was know for its criticism of the government and fearless reporting of the first war in Chechnya. The state gas monopoly, Gazprom, subsequently forced Gusinsky to sell a significant stake in the station, and later it was completely taken over by the state during the presidency of Vladimir Putin. During Yeltsin’s years, the media was faced with a difficult transition to capitalism. But, some form of independent press still operated throughout these years. Criticism of the government’s policies in Chechnya was particularly prevalent. With the election of President Vladimir Putin in March 2000, the media faced an entirely new set of challenges; not from market forces this time but from the government.

Contemporary Russian Journalism: The Putin Years, 2000-2007

Since Putin’s assumption of the presidency, journalists have faced an increasing number of challenges in trying to report the news. The first hurdle is the tremendous governmental centralization of control over the press. During the Yeltsin years, citizens could get the news from three different viewpoints on three different televisions stations. As explained above, this coverage was not always flattering to the government.

According to a 2006 recent study published by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, 91% of news coverage focuses solely on Putin and the Kremlin leaders, with three quarters positive, one quarter neutral, and none of it negative (Smith). Control of newspapers by the government has not been through explicit nationalization, but through transfers to government affiliated or supported organizations, like Gazprom. Berezovsky’s media empire was almost completely seized by Gazprom after Berezovsky was driven into exile by Putin. Independent publications still do exist and are not formally censored by the government, but their ability to spread their viewpoint is extremely limited. Many of these publications struggle to reach a circulation of just 100,000 in a country of 143 million people (Smith). In 2006, most Russians got their news through government controlled television. Recently, Russian radio stations were pressured to stop broadcasting reports from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America (Smith). As journalist Michael Specter remarked on the February 1st episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, the government lets journalists write whatever they want to, as long as no one reads the paper it’s printed in.

Even more significantly, journalists have been faced with death threats if they continue certain investigations. Thirteen journalists, all notable opponents of the Kremlin, have been killed since the beginning of Putin’s presidency. Most notable amongst these murders were Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, and Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading anti-Putin journalist who worked primarily for Novaya Gazeta. No one has been convicted for any of these 13 murders (Ricchiardi 52). International pressure for protection of journalists and press freedom has been severely curtailed by a new Russian law requiring Non-Governmental Organizations to reregister with the government for greater oversight. This is making it difficult for organizations like Human Rights Watch or the Committee to Protect Journalists to fight for press rights within Russia.

The curtailment of a functioning free press in Russia could prove to have possibly devastating effects on their continued transition to democracy. When taken with the curtailment of opposition political parties in the country and consolidation of political power in Moscow, the lack of a free press is even more alarming. Without active journalists working to help keep the public informed of debates on issues, it will be extremely difficult for Russians to keep government power in check and stop a return to the former days of the Soviet Union.

Works Cited

McNair, Brian. Glasnost, Perestroika, and the Soviet Media. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Murray, John. The Russian Press from Brezhnev to Yeltsin: Behind the Paper Curtain. Aldershot, Hants, England: E. Elgar, 1994. Print.

Ricchiardi, Sherry. "Iron Curtain Redux." American Journalism Review 29.1 (2007): n. pag. Web.

Sakwa, Richard. Russian Politics and Society. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Smith, Sebastian. "Unreality Television." U.S. News and World Report 17 July 2006, Vol. 141 ed., Issue 2 sec.: n. pag. Print.