Transcribed for the first time online here, Victor Serge’s 1922 survey of the rich world of Soviet newspapers and periodicals that emerged in and after the Revolution, an aid and product of the campaign for mass literacy.
‘Newspapers in Soviet Russia’ by Victor Serge from Soviet Russia (New York). Vol. 6 No. 11. June 15, 1922.
IN the capitalist countries the immediate aim of the daily newspaper is to sell, and its ultimate aim is to mould public opinion to the advantage of the money interests, which own the press and are its undisputed masters. In order to sell, the newspaper must flatter the tastes, or rather the instincts, of the largest possible, i.e., the least educated number. Hence the private scandals, the “social” news, the gruesome murder stories and sensational canards on the first page. In order to shape public opinion in accordance with the unconfessed interests of the real masters of the country, they carefully sift the news, suppress or misstate the truth, resort to lies, inventions, calumnies. Hence all the false news about the war, all the stories about the Russian Revolution and the “nationalization of women” — as a daily policy in which bad faith is only outdone by stupidity.
The press in a Communist country must be something quite different. Its aim is to inform, to educate, to discuss. It does not pretend — especially in the period of civil war — to be “impartial”; but it is truthful, for its cause, in its own manner, with passion. As the matter of first importance is to initiate the working people in the management of public affairs its main business is the theoretical and practical popularization of science. On the other hand, it is not afraid to offend those habits of the readers which it considers objectionable, e.g., by refusing to furnish them with the daily pabulum of criminal records. The number of readers being a secondary consideration, it is not afraid to appear reserved, in its seriousness. It is not concerned with advertising, either directly or indirectly. (As a consequence of the New Policy, the newspapers at present have one page of advertising. But the general character of the papers has not been changed. — V.S.) It treats subjects which a bourgeois journalist would never think of treating; and it is more or less full of contempt for what is called “journalism” in the bourgeois world, i.e., that pseudo-literary profession, made of cheap vulgarization, of clever publicity, of tricks and stunts of more than doubtful honesty, of superficial cleverness.
The Russian Revolution, although it has not yet succeeded, in the throes of civil war, in creating a new press, has at least succeeded in destroying completely the old press, and in preserving only a minimum of its defects. This may be seen by comparing the two. The press of Moscow consists of three large dailies; the Izvestya (“Official News”) of the Soviet Government; Pravda (“Truth”) of the Communist Party; and Ekonomicheskaya Zhizn (“Economic Life”), of the Supreme Council of National Economy. We wish to point out right here that no- where except in Russia has the attempt ever been made to acquaint the whole public with the important facts of economic life. In all the other countries there are for this purpose special organs which take up these problems for the benefit of specialists.
In Petrograd the Pravda came out for a long time as a morning paper, while the Izviestya appeared in the evening. In addition, there are published: a trade union daily Makhavik (“The Flywheel”) ; a daily for the peasants, Krasnaya Gdzeta (“The Red Journal”) ; and a daily on art and theatrical matters. In general the Communist press pursues definite aims and appeals to a definite public, instead of being prompted by the desire of expansion and of always and everywhere doing “good business”.
What is important is not that the papers should be sold, but that they should be read. Distributed free of charge practically throughout 1921, the Soviet newspapers were also posted up in all the streets, which was necessary in order to have them placed at the disposal of the entire population during the paper shortage.
Let us consider the contents of these Russian dailies. Here is the March 21 issue of the Ekonomicheskaya Zhizn (“Economic Life”). Three articles on the front page are full of material and have the serious character of the better articles in foreign reviews. They treat the following subjects: Active Policy or Inertia (L. Shapiro), Division of Russia into Regions and Administrative Reform (Prof. Yasnopolsky), Wages in Kind (V. Vladimirsky). Moreover: “The Latest News”, information of economic and statistical character (fuel, metallurgy, foreign trade, provincial news). Do you know among the hundreds of dailies appearing in the other European countries, of a single one which treats all these subjects so carefully and conscientiously? Certainly not. They don’t need such serious treatment. It is assumed in those countries that the mechanism of the economic life should be known only to business men and, besides, it would be dangerous to give this information to the exploited classes, because this would mean betraying to them all the real bases of the thing that is known in democratic countries as “politics”.
An issue of the Izviestya or of the Pravda always contains on the first page two or three editorials. The leading editorial (unsigned in Pravda, signed by Yu. Steklov in Izviestya), articles about production, about international policy, party activities, polemics, criticisms of abuses, sometimes very bitter. At least half of these articles are signed by the most responsible militants, headed by Lenin, Radek, Bukharin, Trotsky, who usually contribute to these papers and who are thus ideologically in constant touch with the masses. On the second page there is information on political matters, with important subdivisions, such as “The Struggle Against the Famine”, “Foreign Affairs”, “Communist International”, letters from the provinces, some sketch on historical or literary matters (but never a sensational novel in installments or a short story of the same character); law court news, letters from the readers, bibliographic notes. There is no ”town gossip” — a very excusable deficiency, because the hard times, the lack of space, the paper shortage, make the elimination of every matter that is of little practical importance a thing of necessity. “Miscellaneous News” (fait divers) was reduced to the most simple expression : three lines of concise news items.
But there is an element which is very striking in all the dailies of the revolution, which are after all official organs of the ruling party, an element which is not found anywhere else: namely, the element of self-criticism. It is a rare thing to find a Russian daily which does not contain several articles of merciless criticism directed against a court, a bureaucratic administration, a village Soviet, against a Commissariat, the management of a factory, a Communist group. Anybody can write, as long as he adduces facts which can be checked up, and as long as he takes the responsibility for what he writes. The most merciless, the most bitter truths are published this way, because the Revolution is not interested in creating illusions as to the difficulties of its tasks — the contrary being rather the case. And very often counter-revolutionists have thought that they might be able to exploit arguments taken from our own Russian press, but they have really not benefited by this practice. For our criticism, even if it is severe, differs essentially, in its spirit, in its aims, in the forms which it assumes, from criticisms written by enemies of the Revolution.
In the struggle against bureaucracy, and in the incessant elaboration of the new forms of industrial organization, the Communist press has thus played an important part.
It is inclined to the use of special issues (for the Trade Unions, the Woman’s Movement, the Young People’s Movement, the Red Army, the great anniversaries, etc.) arranged in such a way as to give complete information on the given subject. It publishes regularly pages for the young people, the working woman, on the Trade Unions, the famine sufferers, which advantageously replace the fashion pages, the comic section, and even the literary department of the large dailies of capitalist Europe.
Unlike the bourgeois press, whose columns are open only to insiders, this Soviet and Communist press continuously exhorts the peasants and workers who are its readers, to become its contributors; it publishes their letters, articles and recriminations. “You peasants who are coming to the city” — Krasnaya Gazeta of Petrograd, prints in big type — “let us know of your troubles and the complaints you have to make”
It is easy to see that the press in Red Russia differs profoundly in every respect from the capitalist press; and although I see its numerous defects, as to basic contents, form, and organization — ^it faithfully reflects all the defects of a transition period — I can conclude with impartiality that the difference is entirely to its advantage and that it already affords an approximate view of what the press will be in the future, in a society of free workers.
Soviet Russia began in the summer of 1919, published by the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia and replaced The Weekly Bulletin of the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia. In lieu of an Embassy the Russian Soviet Government Bureau was the official voice of the Soviets in the US. Soviet Russia was published as the official organ of the RSGB until February 1922 when Soviet Russia became to the official organ of The Friends of Soviet Russia, becoming Soviet Russia Pictorial in 1923. There is no better US-published source for information on the Soviet state at this time, and includes official statements, articles by prominent Bolsheviks, data on the Soviet economy, weekly reports on the wars for survival the Soviets were engaged in, as well as efforts to in the US to lift the blockade and begin trade with the emerging Soviet Union.
PDF of full issue: (large file): https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/srp/v6-7-soviet-russia%20Jan-Dec%201922.pdf