Glasnost Primer


Press and Soviet Government

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was established in 1917 by a small group of communist revolutionaries led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who drove his party to seize the institutions of Russian government in the course of the collapse of the Romanov dynasty during World War I. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) then ruled the territory of the Russian Empire for the next seventy-four years. The party created, developed, and supervised a vast system of mass communications whose main goals were to mobilize readers for the building of socialism, to inform readers about the global progress of the communist movement, and to stoke the Soviet population’s hostility towards the West. At the system’s core was print journalism. The party also constructed a formidable institution of censorship that supervised every aspect of public speech. The result was a vast, tightly integrated, and conservative mass media, produced by journalists who after Stalin’s death in 1953 struggled to create a professional identity for themselves within this closed and monolithic political system. The Soviet press was enormous in both geographic reach and the sheer abundance of its printed, published material. Common genres of articles proclaimed the right way to understand a popular movie;  denunciation of corrupt lower-level, party officials; and interviews with agronomists and scientists about technological breakthroughs.

The policy of гласность (glasnost), or openness, emerged out of a small circle of advisers around Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. After his promotion to the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, Gorbachev began to confront the social and economic stagnation that plagued the party and the country he led. His idea of social and economic reform, referred to by the Russian word перестройка (perestroika), or rebuilding, sought at first to jumpstart the Soviet economy. He quickly came to understand, though, that these early policies, focused more on the behavior of Soviet workers than on economic fundamentals, would not succeed, and that more fundamental changes were necessary. 

Two more events, the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power generating station in April 1986, and the successful landing of a private plane by the German pilot, Matthias Rust, in Red Square at the end of May 1987, convinced Gorbachev that the party-state apparatus, including the military, had become sclerotic and incompetent, too fearful and cautious, and a drag on the Soviet economy. At this point he stopped believing that the system by which the Soviet Union had grown so powerful was the one that could take Soviet society into the 21st century. Trips to the West helped convinced Gorbachev that European style social democracy was in fact the best model for the Soviet Union, and he and a handful of colleagues began to plan this transition.

Gorbachev and his allies began to argue that the reform of society required a new attitude towards information. This included the admission that the party did not have all the answers, and that solutions were to be sought in the society’s open discussion of the problems they faced, whether it be about crime in a Moscow neighborhood, absenteeism in a Leningrad factory, or alcoholism on a Siberian collective farm. The policy was also directed towards the intelligentsia, those educated, cultured and intellectual layers of Russian society who had long fought the party’s efforts to co-opt them. Gorbachev encouraged them to think big about the nature and direction of their society; official papers published transcripts of the long meetings he held with prominent intellectuals, hoping that the appearance of new styles of journalism, the publication of long banned books, and the general sense of opening to democracy would lead them to support and participate in perestroika. 

Beginning in 1987 the party began to give a few, select newspaper editors the freedom to publish on topics that had previously been out of bounds, and to write in styles that had not appeared in the press since the 1920s. It was not yet clear whether or not this was to be another version of earlier efforts by the party’s top leaders to reform the party, attempts that ultimately had very little real impact on the Soviet system. But gradually senior editors and journalists concluded that Gorbachev was indeed serious about his intentions to change Soviet government and to energize Soviet society, and that they had a role to play. Particularly important was the introduction in March 1989 of elections for a new legislative body, the Congress of People’s Deputies. The Communist Party’s Propaganda Department began to allow a wider scope of topics to appear in print, and everyone who worked for the Soviet media were encouraged to think of their work in a new way. Journalists were encouraged to believe that they possessed a new kind of agency, not as the “conveyor belt” of the party’s policies, but as participants in a culture of democratic decision-making. A political public sphere took shape; newspapers began to support particular political figures and causes; editorial boards began to take political stances, thereby also solidifying a market of readers.

Changing Journalistic Styles

Many of the early publications of perestroika were indeed discussions on the left about the left. Gorbachev used the official press to argue for his generally social democratic line, contradicting the slogans that a generation of Soviet citizens had learned at school and work about the party’s benevolent dictatorship. He and his allies had to deal with conservatives who were largely satisfied with their position in society, and wanted above all to defend the stature that the Soviet Union had achieved in world politics. They agreed that reforms were needed, but not reforms that questioned or undermined the conviction that the Soviet Union held world-historical importance as the world’s first socialist society. They quickly felt the awkwardness of the position that Gorbachev had put them in: how were expressions of criticism and doubt in fact acts of loyalty? What did it mean to be loyal to the ideals of the Soviet state when the party leadership was asking people to question its authority? What were the implications for people’s attitudes towards the USSR’s founder, and towards the inspiring and terrible leader that took over after the founder’s death? Was criticism compatible with fealty to the general philosophical ideals that animated the socialist movement for over a century? And practically, how did one conduct politics openly, honestly, directly, rationally? These questions became that much more urgent when it appeared that in fact Gorbachev would allow some features of capitalism in the Soviet Union. 

During perestroika the look of the Soviet press also began to change. Especially after March 1990, when Gorbachev ended the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and dissolved the Soviet institutions of censorship, the old Soviet press was quickly joined by a wide variety of new publications, published by a wide variety of institutions, groups, organizations, individuals, and clubs. Some new publications were basically newsletters, informing members of a group about events and discussions; others were strictly commercial enterprises, like small papers that published images and articles about sex and about the paranormal. But most striking was the explosion of political papers, representing every shade of political thought. It quickly became easy to find anarchist, Leninist, Stalinist, social democratic, liberal, national-religious, and even fascist papers for sale at the local Soyuzpechat kiosk. New styles called out the dull, formulaic quality of the old Soviet press. New designs, instantly visible on front pages, represented new concepts not just of reading but also of identity. Old Soviet papers, which supported Gorbachev, did their best to upgrade their looks, becoming more “newsy,” as well as more sensationalist. Some publications appeared for just a few issues because Gorbachev’s introduction of market mechanisms meant that publishers had to make money. The press gradually moved from the barely regulated abundance at the beginning perestroika to pure commodity form, objects produced at a cost and sold at a price determined by the market, at the end of perestroika. 

The explosion of the printed word created in many Soviet citizens a certain giddiness and euphoria. Writers who had for decades occupied the fringes of official Soviet culture leapt at the chance to finally express themselves. This included everyone from the relatively small number of virulently anti-Soviet members of the Russian intelligentsia, dissidents who had suffered for decades as the object of KGB repression, to non-political, non-conformist thinkers convinced that Russia needed the range of opinions and publications that were normal in the West. The former group was by no means unitary or unified. This numerically small, but symbolically substantial subculture of active dissidents included everyone from followers of the messianic evangelist of Russian national resurrection, the novelist and philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, to writers who were ironic, satirical, and humorous, and whose politics is best described as anarchist. Some of these writers entered the political fray to express the opinion that the history of Russia, and of the entire west for that matter, proved that politics and government as spheres of life and action were inherently corrupt, and that people didn’t need institutions to govern them. Needless to say, these were people who before Gorbachev had had no access to paper, ink, and professional printing equipment. Their publications had a generally amateurish, DIY look to them, which enhanced their sense of legitimacy and authenticity. Newspapers appeared that had diametrically opposed visions of Stalin and his meaning for Russian identity. One large network of ideas and publications concerned the need for market capitalism in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of socialism in Russia publications appeared that did the most basic kind of education about how banks worked, where taxes went, and how crucial advertising was for market economies. Many other publications sought to make a rouble through new vehicles of entertainment, many of which, however, were often introduced to the public as helpful, either as a distraction or as educational. 

Collapse and Contradictions

In retrospect, all historians and commentators note that glasnost quickly became something more than what Gorbachev and his allies wanted it to be. The press rapidly became the scene for discussions that only created more centrifugal energy. The public sphere was in fact flooded with such varied forms of expression that even the idea of the existence of a common, political and social life became more and more elusive. These publications prompted an enormous variety of feelings and attitudes towards the very idea of the public itself. 

Gorbachev followed this energy in the direction of a multi-party, pluralist political system, without fully taking account of the fact that the relatively fast opening up the public sphere was leading to the fragmentation, and not to the creative reconstruction, of the static bureaucratic system that maintained social order. He had assumed that the press would be a place for policy debate, where long repressed segments of society could bring their ideas to the table where they were debated and integrated into a general plan of reform. He believed deeply that this is what people wanted most: perestroika, restructuring of government, rebuilding of society, freedom, human rights–the basics of a western European style society that used competitive, party-based politics to both set limits to the market and to encourage social flourishing and solidarity. 

But instead of leading to a more efficient, productive, and purposeful society and economy, Gorbachev’s reforms led to the growth of nationalism in the Soviet republics and to the haphazard fracturing and eventual break up of the Soviet Union. After the Baltic Republics declared their independence, things fell apart. Gorbachev resigned as the President of the Soviet Union, and decreed the official non-existence of the USSR on December 25, 1991. Soviet government broke into fifteen governments based on national ethnicities. The political force that had mesmerized and terrorized, but also inspired and energized, people in every part of the world for three quarters of the 20th century disappeared. National governments began to pick up the Soviet pieces and begin again. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the reestablishment of a Russian government on the territory of the former Russian Soviet Republic. Led by Russia’s first democratically elected President, Boris Yeltsin, the new leaders dedicated themselves to the building market capitalism on the ruins of a centrally planned, state socialist economy. The first two years of the post-Soviet era saw social upheaval as inflation soared, unemployment rose drastically, and entrepreneurs and businessmen turned their back on the entire Soviet era in pursuit of wealth. 

During these early years of post-Soviet Russia many people still felt the energy that had been unleashed by glasnost, but it was also clear that for vast majority of the population these changes had become wrenching, disorienting, and tragic. A legal, free press continued to grow; but as many cultural observers pointed out at the time, the party’s rigid control was replaced by the iron rules of the market. By 1993 the ephemera, tracts, and publications that were a kind of “thinking out loud” were disappearing. What remained was the expression we can refer to with the general term “nationalist,” both from highly educated circles, promoters of a grand “Eurasian” geopolitical vision, and from tiny, fascistic groups organized around a charismatic individual. These were groups whose intolerance and generally authoritarian and racist orientation make them anathema to social democracy, but whose presence brought new attention to the question of censorship. These groups threatened Yeltsin’s capitalist reforms, and were the target of his violent attack on the Russian parliament building in October 1993. But far from fading away these strands of Russian nationalism have been gathered together by Putin. They became an important flavoring in the populist stew that constituted the official orientation of government in the 2000s. 

In the hindsight of thirty years, the ironies around glasnost are glaring. As mentioned, the most obvious was the way that a policy of openness led to political closure. Gorbachev’s confidence led in a roundabout way to the velvet and sinister authoritarianism of a former KGB official hired by oligarchs to keep a lid on the chaos that threatened Russian and its near-abroad at the end of the 1990s. Then there is the irony that this efflorescence of print journalism occurred at the moment when the internet was about to reconfigure the entire structure of media and culture. In the 1990s the world of politics was on its way to being an online world. Instead of enabling what some of its visionaries promised–a renewed democratic culture–the internet produced the ever morphing, ever grasping cultural-informational bubbles that in the course of the 1990s the Russian state condemned as “chaos.” Even though different countries possess very different political traditions and possess different mechanisms and structures of government, social media shows a tendency to turn pluralism into the juxtaposition of isolated, rigid, and intolerant performers. Believers in the greatness of the Russian state have a low threshold for dissent and disagreement, the societies in the west, with their own tortured histories of democracy, have slightly higher tolerance. The Russian press during glasnost appears as a last moment when a print public sphere, printed with ink and paper, had something to promise.