Newspapers, readers and the “managed public sphere” during the Soviet sixties

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A collage of newspaper titles from across the Soviet Union, shown in Leninskaia Pravda, item 4 in the list at the end of the post.

The third CamCREES seminar of the term saw Dr Simon Huxtable talk about the changing role of the newspaper in Soviet society.  Under Stalin, papers focused on official and ceremonial information; actual news had a relatively small and controlled role to play.  This changed hugely under Khrushchev, with the rise of the sobkor and analysis.

The Soviet newspaper before Khrushchev’s time did not fulfil the function that one might expect – the conveying of news was not its main concern.  Dr Huxtable quoted Lenin on the role of the paper: ‘The newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, but also a collective organiser’ (page 11 in volume 5 of our main Lenin set, 231.d.95.88).

Soviet papers were therefore more interested in the spread of ideas and ideals than of actual news.  They were also remarkable for their uniformity even in terms of the news they contained, with the press agency TASS providing standard fare across titles.  Taking random examples, Dr Huxtable demonstrated that official information standardly took precedence over actual news.  For a further example, I’ve looked at Pravda for 17 February (the date of the CamCREES seminar) 55 years ago, in 1950.  There are a couple of factors we should first take into account, though.  Firstly, Pravda was formally the paper of the Communist Party and political pieces were therefore its staple.  Secondly, 1955 saw the election of deputies to the Supreme Soviet.  Nevertheless, it is still a strange experience to look at a newspaper whose first five pages (of a total of six!) are dominated by election-related articles, including an address to voters from the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party which takes up the first 1.5 pages.  Almost no actual news is contained before page 6, other than a piece on Stalin’s lunch with Mao and the occasion of a Moscow party conference.

It is only on the final page of the newspaper, then, that we find what we would consider standard news.  Interestingly, the news is almost entirely from foreign countries; the few pieces of internal Soviet news to be found relate either to sport or to culture (a skiing competition in Sverdlovsk, for example, and a trip to Moscow by Bulgarian writers).  Most of the foreign pieces (all attributed to TASS) relate to Soviet political interests in one way or another.  The page is illustrated with a cartoon from the satirical title Krokodil about the forthcoming general election in the UK.  It shows Churchill and Attlee as batons held threateningly against a figure in the middle.  The hands that hold them come from the same person. While we don’t see their face, we are shown their cufflinks.  They display the US dollar.

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The front covers of items 1 and 3 in the list at the end.

As Dr Huxtable explained, the role of news was debated actively under Stalin, but the journalistic tide changed for the first time under Khrushchev.  Papers’ contents were more populist and sensationalist than in the more politically and socially restrained past.  TASS’ prominence as the uniform provider of news slipped with the rise of the sobkor (short for sobstvennyi korrespondent, the paper’s own correspondent).  Moreover, the way in which news was treated changed.  Not only did news become a much greater part of the newspaper’s contents, but so too did analytical news pieces.

A major figure from this time was Aleksei Adzhubei.  The editor of major newspapers, he was nicknamed the king of the Soviet press (as remembered in his obituary in the Independent).  Credited with many of the shifts seen in the Khrushchev-era press, Adzhubei eventually lost his hugely influential position in Soviet society when Khrushchev himself (who happened also to be his father-in-law) fell from power.  The University Library’s copy of Te desiat’ let (Those ten years), the book by Adzhubei about the Khrushchev era, is at 586:92.d.95.446.  In the years that followed the fall of Khrushchev, the debate about news intensified; the more closed traditions of the past gradually came back.

Among the books Dr Huxtable mentioned in his talk were: Thomas C. Wolfe’s Governing Soviet journalism : the press and the socialist person after Stalin (705:7.c.200.231), Matthew E. Lenoe’s Closer to the masses Stalinist culture, social revolution, and Soviet newspapers (available electronically to Library readers), N. G. Pal’gunov’s brief 1955 work Osnovy informatsii v gazete : TASS i ego rol’ (The foundations of information in newspapers : TASS and its role; not held in the UK, but available for interlibrary loan request: Worldcat record here).

The University Library provides access to a few Soviet newspapers.  Chief among these are Pravda and Izvestiia, both available electronically to our readers through East View.  Our Soviet newspaper holdings are largely otherwise somewhat patchy, often based on selected issues passed to us as part of a wider donation.  Soviet newspapers are, however, well served in terms of books about them.  The Library of Congress subject headings to use as a start would be: Russian newspapers; Soviet newspapers; Journalism—Soviet Union.  Among the titles I’ve looked at as a result of these searches are:

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The front cover of v. 1 of Gazetnyi mir Sovetskogo Soiuza (item 2 in the list to the left).

1. Zhanry sovetskoi gazety (Genres of the Soviet newspaper; Mor.70.47); this1959 publication contains chapters on 10 different genres, including reportage, interviews, and satire.
2. Gazetnyi mir Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1917-1970 gg. (The newspaper world of the Soviet Union; PRL.901:4.5); the first volume of this 1970s set covers central papers, the second covers papers from the regions and republics.  It’s a robust and detailed resource for the researcher, providing a clear picture of the titles in circulation over the period listed; both volumes are also well indexed.  The first volume goes in chronological order and the second is ordered geographically.
3. Gazeta i sovetskoe stroitel’stvo (The newspaper and Soviet building; Ud.8.3442); an interesting if brief compilation from 1957 of pieces by journalists and editors about the role their papers play in terms of the building (both literal and figurative) of the Soviet Union.  Several pieces start with accounts of how boring people assume their subject must be.
4. Leninskaia Pravda : 1912-1962, a pictorial compilation celebrating Pravda’s 50th anniversary (Morison.a.70.6)

Mel Bach

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