Journalism in Post Soviet Russia

“If our propaganda should ever be permitted to go lame… our state would surely collapse.”
Joseph Stalin, 1952

Without truly free media Russian democracy will not survive, and we will not succeed in building a civil society”
Vladimir Putin, 2000

Following glasnost, perhaps no social institution changed more than press in Russia, both in social role and internal structure.

Under the Soviet system, newspapers were organs of communist institutions, making their role, therefore, quite clear: to publish the news, documents, and opinions of communist institutions. Particularly after 1989, however, independent newspapers were founded and old newspapers began to distance themselves or break from communist sponsors. The crisis of identity that followed is apparent in the papers’ (often regular) publication of statements of purpose and philosophy. Nearly all declared themselves organs of “the people” and most began devoting a lot of space, often on the front page, to letters to the editor. Most also began to officially espouse the journalistic traditions of the west: objectivity and independent reporting.  Many, particularly provincial papers, began to market to national minorities by printing whole pages in native minority languages, a move which shocked and even angered some readers.

Some papers eliminated politics from their scope: a move welcomed by many tired of “official” stories and analysis.  Alternatively, many newspapers adopted a more western model: maintaining objective political reporting while also maintaining an editorial stance, even adding journalists’ commentary to readers’ letters.

Newspapers’ internal structure also changed significantly. 1989 saw a rush of independent newspapers founded. Most of these were published weekly in tabloid format, often with just 4-8 pages heavy with advertisements. Each had an official founder that was either a business (often a paper factory) or a government institution. Not until 1990 did the government pass an act allowing private citizens to own and operate media institutions. After the 1991 coup attempt, communist organizations were closed and, with them, the newspapers they sponsored. The surviving newspapers often changed their names and logos to distance themselves from their former sponsors. For example, Leninskaya pravda (Leninist Truth) became Severnyi Kurier (Northern Courier). In this chaos, the years between 1989-92 were a golden age for Russian Journalism: neither government nor business held extensive sway over journalistic content, but yet still subsidized its production. Most historians agree that the media during this time, with the unprecedented ability to publish diverse views and to give the average Russian a voice in politics, helped to unseat the Soviet state.

The economic crisis that followed the USSR’s collapse also saw changes to the press. Subsidies were ended and most newspapers were given to their journalists, who did not possess investment capital to support the papers. With skyrocketing costs, inflation, and poverty, many simply failed while “New Russians,” rising capitalist oligarchs and politicians such as Boris Berezovsky (of Logovoz) and Rem Vyakhirev (of Gazprom) bought others. The media became not only a capitalist organ, but again a political one, often used to smear political or business rivals. In one now-famous case, Berezovsky became critical of President Putin. In return, Putin nationalized two of Berezovsky’s television stations. The media’s profitability was boosted with the use of blat, the exchange of favors: advertising was purchased with the understanding that companies would be reported on favorably. To capture more market share, sensationalism became the order of the day: emotional stories and racy pictures. The effect of all this was that public trust in the press fell from 70% in 1990 to just 13% in 2000. Ironically, even with such low confidence, the audience for Russian media grow steadily between 1995 and 2000.

Today, Russian publications have largely stabilized, are now growing in circulation, and remember the western market more every year. Russian newsstands are filled with Russian issues of the best and worst of western magazines (e.g. Forbes, Newsweek, Playboy, and FHM). Russia is still inundated with racy tabloids such as Speed, it’s most popular.  Its most popular news source is Argumenti i Fakti, although many educated Russians prefer the less popular but still highly circulated Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Russian universities and institutes have revamped their journalism course offerings and philosophies and many now operate in conjunction with programs in Europe and the U.S, as the growing Russian has become more attractive to western media outlets and students alike.

About the Author

Josh Wilson
Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) and Communications Director for Alinga Consulting Group. In those capacities, he has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs.