Scholars of the Soviet Union have written at length about the consolidation of Soviet state control over the media, the establishment of Glavlit and other censorship organs, the expectation of conformity with socialist realism, and how individuals circumvented censorship. The active repression of the opposition press, on the other hand, has received somewhat less attention; instead, it is generally taken for granted as a “natural” component of the Bolsheviks’ steady progression toward totalitarianism.
Given Lenin’s early writings on the necessity of a centralized party press, it is indeed tempting to cast the gradual monopolization of news media by the Bolshevik party as the deliberate and continuous realization of his vision. Closer examination, however, reveals that the acceptance of Lenin’s ideas, even within the party ranks, was neither complete nor inevitable. Indeed, the rejection of press freedom was not predetermined; rather, it was formed amid the uncertain conditions of the Russian Revolution and Civil War as a response to rivals for authority and the alternative political realities they represented. As I argue, a crucial factor in the formation of Soviet state media and censorship was the parallel development of a distinctly Bolshevik discourse based upon the alleged invalidity of press freedom itself. This paper traces the evolution of this discourse as it was expressed in Pravda and Izvestiia. These publications offer a broad spectrum of contemporary opinions—at least, insofar as the editors were willing to represent them—and show how various Bolshevik writers publicly engaged with other voices in the political and literary arenas. Their writings indicate that their enthusiasm for press freedom declined markedly after October 1917. Most notably, party members began to openly reject “freedom of the press” as a concept, condemning it as unrealistic and its proponents as insincere and oppressive. Thus, a 1918 article in Petrogradskaia pravda informs the reader that in capitalist societies, “freedom of the press, for the people, was ‘freedom from the press.’”
How and why did Bolshevik writers and editors, who had fought for press freedom themselves before coming to power in 1917, come to so vehemently denounce it afterwards? I find that this turnaround was not merely a rhetorical sleight of hand, designed to legitimize increasing single-party control. Rather, it was a product of civil war, of competing visions for the society that would emerge at its end and for the role of the press within that society. As calls for press freedom grew louder within their own territory and abroad, the Bolsheviks honed their critical portrayal of “freedom of the press” in the party news organs, transforming the phrase itself into a linguistic device with which to discredit their enemies as agents of the bourgeoisie.
I. Before October: In Pursuit of a Free Press
Lenin developed his philosophy on the free press long before the Bolshevik party came to power, and his ideas would form the basis of its policy. In a 1905 article, “Party Organization and Party Literature,” he embraced the idea of a free press. His definition of freedom, however, was a complex amalgamation of independence from capital, noninterference on the part of the tsarist authorities, and a collective adherence to Social Democratic values and goals. He also laid the groundwork for censorship within the party, presenting it as the freedom to associate or not associate with different ideological groups:
“Freedom of speech and the press must be complete. But then freedom of association must be complete too. I am bound to accord you, in the name of free speech, the full right to shout, lie and write to your heart’s content. But you are bound to grant me, in the name of freedom of association, the right to enter into, or withdraw from, association with people advocating this or that view. The party is a voluntary association, which would inevitably break up, first ideologically and then physically, if it did not cleanse itself of people advocating anti-party views.”
He thus defends the legitimacy of ensuring ideological continuity within the party—a notion that would remain in force years later, as the Bolsheviks attempted to snuff out the opposition parties and the freedom to associate with them.
Furthermore, Lenin commented in the 1905 article that “[bourgeois] talk about absolute freedom is sheer hypocrisy.” An “absolutely free” or wholly independent press cannot exist, as any press is necessarily dependent on societal forces; the “bourgeois” press claims “absolute” freedom but in reality is dependent on capital. Lenin himself aimed to create a press culture that was openly dependent on the proletariat rather than covertly dependent on the bourgeoisie.
Historian Peter Kenez notes: “In 1905, Lenin did not foresee that his party soon would be in a position to suppress the opposition… Under the circumstances, suppressing nonsocialist papers was not an issue, because it was not a realistic possibility.” Only with the downfall of the tsar and the abolition of censorship would the Bolsheviks begin to “compete with old, established, and well-financed papers for a mass audience,” and thus to consider the relationship between their own press and that of other political parties.
In the wake of the February Revolution, some Bolshevik writers rejoiced that freedom of the press had been achieved—at least in name—and began to refer to it as a kind of stepping stone toward the resolution of other problems under the Provisional Government. “We have achieved freedom of speech, press, assembly,” wrote A. Lomov. One М. I-nа wrote that the Revolution “gave the working class, among other freedoms, freedom of the press,” which would “more brightly illuminate the way for the working class to rally more supporters, in order to sooner achieve the most desired goal: the complete liberation of the working masses from all shackles, and the establishment on earth of the bright kingdom of socialism.”
In a letter to Pravda, B.G. Danskii agreed that “press freedom was won by the revolution,” but stressed the need to quickly inundate the workers, the soldiers, and the countryside with printed materials in order to combat the well-established bourgeois newspapers. He was so invested in this cause, in fact, that he enclosed 25 rubles “to fund the printing device” the proletariat would require. Other writers shared his concern about the disparity of resources between the bourgeois and the revolutionary press, and they proposed various solutions, including fixed prices for printing and the redistribution of presses and other equipment.
The soldiers at the front were an important base of support for the Bolshevik drive for press freedom. Party newspapers printed letter after letter describing how soldiers’ access to socialist papers was woefully restricted. The bourgeois papers, wrote one soldier in Pravda, “are delivered in good order. But our workers’ papers, standing guard over our interests, such as Pravda and Rabocheskaia pravda, to our great sorrow, do not reach us.” The same issue contained a petition with about a hundred signatures demanding that all periodical publications be freely delivered. The petition alleged that bourgeois capitalists were attempting to hide “the real truth about the conduct of the war and its aims,” replacing the soldiers’ free thought with empty slogans of “war until victory.”
In July, the closure of Pravda and other Social Democratic newspapers by the order of Alexander Kerensky, then the head of the Provisional Government, helped turn the Bolsheviks against the country’s new leadership. In the preceding months, freedom of the press had been secured in theory, burdened as it was with structural inequalities; now, this “inviolable” right had been “ruthlessly expelled from a democratic Russia.” In September, an article by Lenin published in the paper Rabochii put’ explained that “the capitalists (followed, either from stupidity or from inertia, by many SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries] and Mensheviks) call ‘freedom of the press’ a situation in which censorship has been abolished and all parties freely publish all kinds of papers,” while in reality this constituted “not freedom of the press, but freedom for the rich, for the bourgeoisie, to deceive the oppressed and exploited mass of the people.” Significantly, press freedom, in the hands of political opponents, was itself cast as a means of exploitation. In the months and years to follow, this exploitative element would become a cornerstone of the typical Bolshevik conception of the free press.
II. After October: Transition to a Single-Party Press
On October 25, 1917, as the Bolsheviks took over the Winter Palace, they also occupied the printing facilities of the paper Russkaia volia; many other printing offices would soon follow. The Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) “issued a resolution temporarily forbidding the publication of bourgeois papers and counterrevolutionary publications,” and on October 28, the press decree of the newly formed Council of People’s Commissars appeared in Izvestiia:
“Every one [sic] knows that the bourgeois press is one of the most powerful weapons of the bourgeoisie. Especially at the crucial moment when the new power, the power of workers and peasants, is only affirming itself, it was impossible to leave this weapon wholly in the hands of the enemy, for in such moments it is no less dangerous than bombs and machine-guns. That is why temporary extraordinary measures were taken to stem the torrent of filth and slander in which the yellow and green press would be only too glad to drown the recent victory of the people.
“As soon as the new order becomes consolidated, all administrative pressure on the press will be terminated and it will be granted complete freedom within the bounds of legal responsibility, in keeping with a law that will be broadest and most progressive in this respect.”
The Bolshevik decree portrayed press freedom as a weapon that needed to be temporarily confiscated from counterrevolutionary enemies within. It was a comparison that would be made throughout the Civil War; the “free press” would even be directly blamed for resistance against the Bolsheviks. A November 1 article in Izvestiia read: “Trotsky was right: in the name of freedom of the press the uprising of the junkers was arranged, war was declared in Petrograd and Moscow.”
Yet the decree also stressed that these measures would be temporary, and that “complete freedom” would be restored. Whether or not the leadership actually intended to reinstate “complete” freedom of the press, its promise to do so may have been among the last official statements that freedom of the press for all parties was a possibility under the new regime.
For the time being, official policy toward press freedom remained unclear. The November 1 article stated that “the avoidance of a strictly principled attitude toward freedom of the press… caused the most resolute opposition of our Party.” On November 4, members of the Central Executive Committee attempted to develop a more coherent policy toward press freedom, debating the extent to which they were willing to suppress bourgeois publications. Two days later, according to Kenez, they banned “the printing of proclamations calling for armed struggle against Soviet power, but allowed all papers to publish.”
The party newspapers printed after these measures were passed reflect a variety of interpretations of the state of press freedom. One writer suggested in Rabochii put’ on October 31 that “anyone who, having lost confidence in the ‘need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press,’ thinks of taking them away from the Russian workers, will meet more concerted and powerful resistance than in the Kornilov days”—in other words, according to the author, the free press was alive and well, even after the MRC resolution. In Izvestiia on November 8, another writer responded to complaints that the Bolsheviks had “destroyed all civil liberties.” Were there not, he asked, numerous newspapers operating “without hindrance,” including “Volia naroda, Drug naroda, Rabochaia gazeta, Edinstvo,” and other publications “openly calling for armed rebellions against the Soviet government, deliberately provoking civil war, sowing unrest and panic among the population with obviously false information? What kind of freedom of the press do they need?… Is the war over? Has [White commander Alexey] Kaledin laid down his arms? In Petrograd, do his supporters not continue to work on rallying the forces of counter-revolution in preparation for a new military coup…?” According to this article, press freedom had been preserved, even to the point of endangering the security of the fledgling Soviet state.
These diverse analyses are indicative of the general state of confusion as the Bolsheviks debated who should be allowed to publish in the new political order. Bourgeois and even opposition socialist presses came under attack sporadically; papers were ordered to shut down, editors placed under arrest, and “detachments of sailors” sent to printing offices that failed to comply. By February 1918, formal rules were in place against publishing “slanderous information discrediting the Soviet power,” and a Revolutionary Tribunal of the Press was established to enforce them.
In March 1918, the Mensheviks put forward a proposal in the Petrograd Soviet to end the “persecution of the socialist press.” The proposal was flatly denied before even making it onto the agenda, with one Bolshevik representative noting that even the tabloids were “better behaved” than the “pseudo-socialist” papers. The persecutions continued in earnest, one Menshevik source stating that 47 newspapers were shut down that very month. Despite the legal existence of multiple political parties, the Bolsheviks barred their opponents from full access to the press. This discrepancy and its consequences illustrate the difficulty of severing free press rights from political representation.
Peter Kenez writes: “The final closing down of all liberal and socialist newspapers in the middle of 1918 was a natural step in the process of ever-increasing repression.” It was not entirely final, however; some opposition papers were briefly allowed to publish again in early 1919. The SRs, for example, began to print new issues of Delo naroda, featuring articles that were highly critical of the Bolshevik regime. Circulation quickly reached 100,000, with peasants traveling from the countryside for a chance to read the paper. After only ten issues were published, the Cheka, the Soviet state security organization, shut down Delo naroda, destroyed its editorial office, and “arrested and jailed everyone who entered.” Hundreds of Mensheviks and SRs were seized across the country, and the opposition press was once again effectively banned, though the parties themselves were still technically legal.
As one historian has written, “[d]espite the Bolshevik monopoly on newspaper publishing, the socialist opposition retained a dialogic presence in the Soviet press.” So long as the Bolsheviks persisted in challenging SR and Menshevik ideas, the opposition parties maintained a voice in the press; they were still perceived as constituting a significant threat. Even after they were banned from politics, they remained active in underground societies, in the territories embroiled in civil war, and abroad. It was in these contexts that “freedom of the press” remained a frequent theme in the Bolshevik press.
III. Challenges from Abroad
During 1918 and 1919, the phrase “freedom of the press” appeared less in debates about the future of the Soviet state than in reference to free press violations in other countries, and it increasingly appeared in mocking quotation marks. In fact, “Freedom of the Press” became a frequent heading in the papers’ foreign news sections, describing such abuses as the closing of a socialist newspaper or the jailing of a Berlin editor who called for class justice. Standing alone against the criticism of the capitalist world, Bolshevik newspapers fought back by highlighting the hypocrisy of its so-called “press freedom,” thus discrediting the liberal alternative other nations represented.
The archives of Pravda and Izvestiia show that the Bolsheviks were still doing battle with the “bourgeois press” long after such a thing ceased to legally exist in Soviet Russia. Foreign and émigré papers weighed in on the free press question from France, Germany, the United States, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Finland, Romania and elsewhere. In a 1921 Pravda article, G. Krumin described the “united front” of writers who attacked Lenin’s New Economic Policy by means of the foreign press. Menshevik leader Julius Martov had published an article titled “Lenin Against Communism” in Freiheit, the daily newspaper of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany; meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, the right-wing Kadets affiliated themselves with the Berlin-based paper Rudder, established by Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov. According to Krumin, the members of this united front agreed on “the inability of the communist party to implement a new economic policy” that would entail “freedom of speech and the press,” among other freedoms, for Mensheviks, Kadets and other opposition parties.
In a speech printed in Pravda in February of 1921, Lenin expressed frustration at the influence of émigrés abroad, who were hampering Soviet Russia’s attempts to bring an end to the two-year war with Poland. While the Soviets offered concessions in the hopes of laying “the foundation for a union of workers and peasants of various nations,” opposition leaders used the foreign press to “prevent peace” and push Poland toward continued violence. “In respect of Poland,” Lenin declared, “this policy [of concessions] has been largely frustrated by the Russian whiteguards, Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who enjoy ‘freedom of the press,’ ‘freedom of speech’ and other wonderful ‘freedoms’…”
It may have been useful to place the blame for failed diplomatic endeavors on the émigrés and on the countries that now afforded them freedom of the press. The influence that the exiles supposedly wielded over Polish foreign policy illustrated exactly what the Bolsheviks feared in political opposition and in press freedom in general.
Yet even as he warned of the destructive power of the opposition writers abroad, Lenin downplayed the significance of their commentary on the dismal state of Soviet affairs. According to him, the Soviets freely admitted to their poor transportation infrastructure, food shortages and other hardships, reporting truthfully and hiding nothing in their newspapers. The gloating of the foreign bourgeois press was therefore of no consequence:
“And now, when we say that our affairs are in poor shape, when our ambassadors report that the whole of the bourgeois press is saying ‘The Soviet power is doomed’… we say: ‘You can shout your heads off, that’s what freedom of the press on capitalist money is for, you have as much of this freedom as you want, but we are still not in the least afraid to speak the bitter truth.’ Indeed, the situation this spring has worsened again, and our papers are full of admissions of this bad situation. But we say to the foreign capitalists, the S.R.s, the Savinkovites, or whatever else they are called: just you try to cash in on this and you will find yourselves in a far deeper hole.”
It seems likely that Lenin went to such great lengths to disparage the émigré press for the benefit of domestic audiences. After all, Bolshevik editors may have had reason to believe that even as Pravda and Izvestiia were being read abroad, foreign opposition newspapers were finding their way into Soviet Russia. For example, André Liebich has described how underground Mensheviks managed to maintain ties with their party counterparts in Berlin throughout the 1920s. Smugglers, particularly diplomats from the Latvian embassy in Moscow, regularly supplied them with hundreds of copies of the party newspaper, Sotsialisticheskii vestnik. The paper “validated the Mensheviks’ claims that they were not an exile group but a functioning party.” Evidence of such cross-border connections would have given the Soviet regime even more reason to publicly criticize international Menshevik activity.
The final years of the Civil War, however, would show the Bolshevik leadership more than ever that the desire for an alternative political reality was closer to home and more widespread than they had supposed.
IV. Challenges at Home
For most of its first three years in power, the Bolshevik regime and its newspapers had insisted that “freedom of the press” necessarily entailed the subordination of the proletariat. Yet in late 1920 and early 1921, a wave of peasant rebellions in the countryside, strikes in the cities, and mutinies in the armed forces challenged the notion that the single-party press represented the best interests of the working classes. Though often sparked by economic grievances, these uprisings were undoubtedly political and targeted the policies of the Bolshevik government.
In December 1920, in the midst of a massive peasant rebellion in Tambov, the Union of Toiling Peasants that emerged at its head issued a list of demands including “freedom of speech, the press, conscience, unions and assembly.” On February 22, 1921, the workers of the newly formed Petrograd Assembly of Plenipotentiaries declared that they had “united on the basis of the following goals: overthrow of the Bolshevik dictatorship, free elections to the soviets, freedom of speech, press and assembly for all, and the release of political prisoners.” On February 28, the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base listed among their 15 demands “freedom of speech and press to workers and peasants, to anarchist and left socialist parties.”
All three sought the removal of the Bolsheviks from power and the establishment of a more democratic, representative system that would guarantee the basic civil liberties of free speech, press and assembly. Though the rebels may not have known it at the time, “similar attitudes surfaced not only in Kronstadt and Petrograd but in Moscow, Kharkov, Tula, Saratov, and almost all other industrial centers of Russia and Ukraine.” Clearly Bolshevik warnings about the dangers of the free press had not entirely discredited it in the minds of the populace.
On April 2, an article in Izvestiia commented on the dangerous implications of the peasants’ demands in Tambov: “Naturally, once the landowners and capitalists are granted all political rights… they shall also be given unrestricted freedom of the press, speech, association and assembly.” Ultimately, the writer asserts, the bourgeois would demand the return of the factories into capitalist hands. On April 5, another writer, Em. Yaroslavskii, wrote of the Kronstadt rebels: “Freedom of speech for all parties to our enemies… means the deprivation of freedom of speech for the poorest part of the population, as it does in all capitalist countries where all these ‘freedoms’ are declared.”
In a country that purported to possess a press system that catered to the working classes, the fact that these same workers, soldiers and peasants were rejecting Bolshevik rule and demanding press freedom must have been devastating. All the Bolshevik papers could do was repeatedly alert the population that the demands for a free press were, in fact, a deception meant to enslave the proletariat.
If the rebellions of 1921 had weakened the regime’s case against free speech, the 1922 show trial of prominent SRs did much to strengthen it. The defendants were questioned about their activities in Samara, which for several months in 1918 was under the control of the counterrevolutionary Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly (Komuch). The trial, three years after the event, was an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to dress down their opponents in a public forum. Through the early summer of 1922, writers for Pravda and Izvestiia gleefully described the hypocrisy of rival socialist parties that had suppressed press freedom during the Civil War. The SRs had always been champions of press freedom, yet in Samara many press organs were shut down immediately—“even the Menshevik ones,” according to one account, while those newspapers that were allowed to remain were “clearly Black Hundred”—that is, they supported the reactionary and pro-autocratic principles of the Black Hundred movement. Another writer went into more detail:
“So freedom of the press existed only for the ‘state-minded’ part of the population … The Internationalists, under which name the Bolsheviks often acted during the period in question in Samara, once tried to release a small weekly newspaper. The little paper was small and colorless. Yet it was closed down on the second issue. Even the Menshevik ‘Sundown,’ which sometimes allowed itself very mild criticism of government activities, caused displeasure on the part of those in power. They summoned its editor to the Czech commandant of the city, the manager of the Samara province, and suggested to him how he must conduct a ‘state-minded’ newspaper.”
M. Kolesnikov began an article by mocking the mythical press freedom of the SRs on Komuch territory: “Here is freedom of the press! Most important and most necessary for the Socialist-Revolutionaries! After all, they advocate it!” Not surprisingly, the subsequent testimony of former SR Iakov Dvorzhets contradicted the myth: “Complete freedom of the press, there was not. The newspapers of the Social Democrats and Internationalists were closed by administrative order on the second issue. Newspaper editors were often given appropriate suggestions by the administration. Only SRs and SR Kadets freely used the press, and even then not always.” He gave an example of an SR newspaper that was closed: Zemlia i voli. The questions continued:
“‘And was there censorship?’ asks Gendelman, truly thinking that the witness has well forgotten ‘things of bygone days.’
“But the witness was to remember: ‘We had military censorship, and apart from it there was a censor of the provincial and district commissioner’s committee that dealt with the press at his discretion…’
“Such was the SRs’ vaunted freedom of the press!”
These discussions at the 1922 trial naturally invited comparison with the press under the Bolsheviks. In the June 10 issue of Pravda, which featured a full-page spread devoted to the trial, one writer recounted the argument of D. Kurskii:
“Press freedom, in the bourgeois sense… we do not really have: that means that we do not let the capitalists, the bankers, create ‘independent’ newspapers for the administration of the national consciousness. But our press more fully reflects the real interests and feelings of the working people.”
Interestingly, he does not make the case that this especially “reflective” press could be considered “free,” as a commentator might have in the early days of the Revolution.
The writers of Pravda and Izvestiia were now able to repeat the old warning about the dangers of “press freedom”—not in reference to a vague group of bourgeois capitalists, or to a group of rebelling peasants or proletarians, but to the political opposition: “Mensheviks and SRs… stand up for freedom of the press, that is, for the freedom of the bourgeoisie to deceive the workers, for the freedom of the counter-revolution to organize, for the freedom to overthrow the workers’ authorities.”
A quote from Karl Radek, then a member of both the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Executive Committee of the Communist International, drives the point home: “For the same reason… we cannot allow anyone freedom of the press. If we give it to the Mensheviks, they will allocate a piece of newspaper to the SRs, and they, in turn, a small scrap to the bourgeoisie. Economically the counter-revolution must be nipped in the bud.” Paper shortages had plagued the Bolsheviks’ propaganda efforts by this time, and Radek’s comment highlights the economic dimension of the battle for control over the press.
With the Civil War nearly over by 1922, and perhaps a less obvious need for the exclusion of opposition parties and publications from the political sphere, the Bolsheviks may have hoped to remind the people why these restrictions had been imposed and to justify the fact that they remained. The Mensheviks and the SRs remained a threat, and an unrestricted press would always present an opportunity for opposition parties and individuals to subvert the authority of the proletariat. Nevertheless, for all their talk of press freedom, the SRs had failed to implement it in the territory they controlled. During the trial of 1922, the Bolsheviks celebrated their victory over their military and political enemies, but also over an alternative vision of “absolute” press freedom.
Before October 1917, the Bolsheviks’ idea of a “free press” was based on leveling the playing field so the workers could have a voice; they demanded equal, but not exclusive, access. After the Revolution and in the first years of the Civil War, some maintained the belief that a free press was beneficial, that it had already been achieved for the working classes in the act of revolution, or that it would be expanded when wartime restrictions were lifted. Opposition parties never stopped calling for an end to the “repressions” hindering their press freedom. Yet in time, “freedom of the press,” originally a goal to aspire to, became a rhetorical tool with which to accuse enemies of exploitation. As Lenin had explained in 1905, “absolute” press freedom was understood to be impossible.
Why was the free press the subject of so much discussion in the Bolshevik press, even when the Soviet regime no longer considered it a feasible reality? The writers of Pravda and Izvestiiawere constantly responding to and defending themselves against opponents who often considered press freedom not only feasible, but indispensible. Discussions of “freedom of the press” most often appeared in the papers in reference to a complaint or criticism lodged against the regime, and the editors were kept busy defending their government’s policies. These complaints came from other movements, other parties, other nations, and literary society at large; the Bolsheviks themselves openly acknowledged the volume of the criticism.
The regime thus faced immense pressure to implement freedom of the press, but its leaders had neither the desire nor the ability to do so. Instead, they developed an anti-free press discourse informed by Marxist-Leninist theory, the threats the Bolsheviks faced during wartime, the ongoing debate about the role of parties in the new government, and the presence of political alternatives that promised a less restricted access to the press. They denounced the disingenuousness of so-called press freedom not only to justify the suppression of the opposition press, but also to delegitimize their opponents’ claims that “freedom of the press” was anything more than a fallacious, insidious illusion.
Footnotes Here “Pravda” refers to sources contained in the Pravda Digital Archive, including Pravda, Petrogradskaia pravda, Rabochii i soldat, Rabochii put’, and others. All source material from Pravda and Izvestiia was accessed through their online archives.
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