Glasnost in Print is an online exhibit that illuminates the transformation of Russian society at the end of the Soviet period. I call the site an “exhibit” because I imagine someone walking by a gallery or museum, noticing an interesting subject, and deciding to step inside to see what it is all about. I imagine them strolling from picture to picture, from frame to frame, pausing as something catches their eye, perhaps returning to take another look. The exhibit consists of the front pages of forty-four Soviet and Russian-language newspapers, flyers, and news-sheets, the vast majority of which were published between 1987 and 1993, that is, across the divide of the Soviet Union’s collapse at the end of 1991. They provide the visitor with a trace of the vast output of print journalism that played a vital role in the transformation of Russian society from the fall of communism to Yeltsin’s chaotic privatization of the Soviet economy. They evoke the complexity of what happened when Russian society, freed of the supervision and censorship of the Communist Party, began to print what was on its mind. These images are certainly fascinating as images, as arrangements of words, lines, drawings, symbols, fonts, and photographs. But to make the content of these newspaper images accessible to English speakers, I chose forty-four newspapers and translated some of their contents–an article, a notice, a letter from the editor, a news item, a table of contents–so that the visitor can better grasp the specific concerns of the paper’s authors as they manifested themselves on that day. These translations will appear in a pop-up window as you scroll over the page. These forty-four papers with translations appear in the Exhibit. I’ve included another fifty-two images appear in the Gallery page to provide more fascinating images to puzzle over and a larger archive for Russian speakers to examine.
Even without a knowledge of Russian, the visitor will hopefully be engrossed by these images of imagined-communities-in-formation; in their very ephemeral nature, they convey a society letting off steam, making previously forbidden jokes, stating formerly unprintable truths, and thinking through history and politics in new, unfamiliar ways. The visitor will likely perceive a great sense of urgency, both a fear of and yearning for the future, as well as disbelief that the world’s first worker’s state had collapsed, leaving those same workers grasping for explanations and strategies for survival.
This collection does not pretend to offer comprehensive coverage of all the papers that played important roles in this process. This is an exhibit, not a methodical, historical argument. My goal, rather, is to present a collection of images that help visitors to think about the ways newspapers, pamphlets, news sheets, tracts, etc., became powerful social actors in their own right.
The papers included in both the Exhibit and the Gallery show an extraordinary variety of visual styles, which can be contrasted with the gray, uniform, formal format of official, Soviet publications (of which there are also a couple of examples.). Some papers took up the task of enabling communications between members of a specific community; they feel a bit like newsletters in expressing a shared enthusiasm and commitment between like minded people, bringing members up to date with their leaders’ plans and decisions. Other papers appeared in order to articulate long suppressed points of view–nationalist, religious, politically liberal, philosophically nihilist. They feel as though they were acts of recovery as well as attempts to gather supporters to influence the outcome of the society’s self-examination. A number of papers styled themselves as continuations of 19th and early 20th century publications suspended by the Bolshevik revolution, restarted after a century of communist control. They remind us that newspapers can also be what the Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, called chronotopes, places that were also times. Still others identified themselves as expressing the viewpoints of Marxism before it was corrupted by the Bolsheviks and their Leninist dictatorship. The exhibit contains an amazing heterodoxy of viewpoints, accessible to the visitor as you delve into the translated articles.
Thus, as you “walk through” the Exhibit I hope you will linger over each page, zooming in to explore the graphics, the design, and the tone of each paper. Many images seem to display the moment of their creation on their surfaces. These sheets were not typeset, but printed with much simpler technology, for example, from typewritten sheets of paper taped to a backing, with all the spacing problems and issues of readability that such a method entails. This ephemeral printing feels like they are being propelled into the world with great haste, from people compelled to intervene in and say something about the dramatic events happening to their society, who shared a belief that newspapers were a way of acting in the world.
The images are presented in no particular order. They can be sorted by year from the top of the page. We have made every effort to use high-quality scans; in a few cases this was not possible, but most texts are still legible at close zooming.
The website also presents two essays that offer interpretive frames for the exhibit. The Glasnost Primer provides an account of the political background that led this unprecedented moment of social, cultural, and institutional change. It is a condensed account of late Soviet politics that fits glasnost in to the processes that led to the collapse of the USSR. It describes the loosening of censorship and the appearance of “free” expression, and presents some thoughts about the newspaper as a textual, cultural form. Backstory is a longer essay that grapples with what made this project possible. I briefly examine my uneasy coming of geopolitical age, my travel to the Soviet Union and China in 1987, and then graduate school where I encountered Soviet and Russian history in several curious and problematic guises. I also provide some sense of what it was like to be in Moscow with my family during the dismantling of socialism and at an intense moment in the emergence of “cowboy capitalism.” Being an American researcher in Moscow during that tumultuous time presented many opportunities for both surreal experience and intellectual challenge. I suggest that this exhibit is in fact a manifestation of the intertwined imaginaries of these two societies, and hopefully this essay will evoke the exhilaration and pathos involved in trying to make sense of their tangled relations.
Copyright 2022. Thomas C. Wolfe
University of Minnesotafirstname.lastname@example.org