Wanted: workers for the new ministry of truth

by Boris Kagarlitsky (1993)

Boris Kagarlitsky is a writer and member of the Party of Labour in Russia. In 1982 he was arrested for ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ and released without trial. His published works include `The Thinking Reed` (19-88) and `The Disintegration of the Monolith` (1992), both published in English by Verso.

The dissidents have won the battle against Communism and truth reigns single and supreme Soviet censorship died a year before the Soviet Union. But even before it had been abolished officially, journalists felt they were fairly free; they enjoyed enormous influence and authority in society. People did not grudge spending money on newspapers and journals; they were keen to pick up any news and eager for the next scandal. Numerous ‘banned’ books had flooded the market and emigre writers were giving interviews on state television. 

Alas, all that is a thing of the past. In Russia today hardly anyone reads newspapers and even fewer people believe what they say. Our television screens are filled with tedious propaganda and monotonous adverts for things which are beyond the pocket of 90% of the population. Occasionally, viewers are shown specially selected representatives of the opposition — either the most ineffectual moderates or blatant extremists. Against this background, Mexican soap operas are fast becoming the only pocket of fresh air for millions of television viewers disillusioned with government propaganda. 

The only alternative is the St Petersburg programme ‘600 Seconds’, presided over by Alexander Nevzorov, who praises Saddam Hussein and promises Russia law and order at the hands of an authoritarian Orthodox regime modelled on Iraq. The authorities tried to close it down but could not bring themselves to do it because of the mass public protests, not all of which were from fans of’600 Seconds’. 

Public opinion is increasingly of the view that any alternative is better than none at all. After their final victory over ‘dreaded Communist totalitarianism’ in 1991, the new authorities carried out a purge of radio and television, removing everyone they suspected of sympathising with the ‘reds’. Even technical staff were dismissed or hounded out, as a result of which there were continual ‘hitches’ on television: the wrong graphics were transmitted, the sound was lost, the picture disappeared. But at least there were no more ‘red’ technicians. The journalists who were left, or the new ones who joined them, the ‘democrats’, soon discovered that even a sincere hatred for Communists, socialists and anyone on the left would not insure them against trouble. They had not only to frighten viewers continually with the bogey of Communism and praise the government, but to do it in a way that pleased the authorities. 

For one unsuccessful broadcast about events in the Caucasus, the head of the Ostankino television company, Yegor Yakovlyev, lost his job. When he was editor of Moscow News, Yakovlyev had done more than anyone else in Russia to promote the idea of a new Russian state. Once he had done his job he was no longer needed. He was suddenly transformed into a feeble old man, begging help from his colleagues. They rallied round and issued a collective statement in his defence. It went unnoticed by President and government; the next day, the same colleagues were continuing to proselytise the government’s reforms as if nothing had happened. After Yakovlyev, other leading figures were forced out of television for trying to assert their own points of view. 

True, even now not all broadcasts reflect the government line. Thanks to chaos in the country, the ineffectiveness of the bureaucracy and confusion in television, it is simply not possible to keep total control of everything that emerges on the airwaves. Anything can be bought in Russia, even time on state television — a fact which is actively exploited by the new entrepreneurs, who are scarcely distinguishable from the old mafia. But trade unionists and people on the left must resort to the same media when they want to remind people of their existence. A one-hour programme on the fourth channel featuring one of the leaders of the Party of Labour, Andrey Isaev, cost trade unions in Moscow relatively little — a mere 200,000 roubles (US$250). Television bosses do not extort bribes, they ask for ‘sponsors’ donations’. 

Government circles talk frequently and in great depth about some private television of the future which will ensure genuine freedom of information. However, no one says a word about providing television time for people who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxies. Private television will promote the same ideas as state television — something no one even tries to deny. And the same forces and the same people will be in charge of it. The privatisation of the Moscow television channel placed most shares in the hands of local bureaucrats and people in charge of the propaganda agencies. From being highly-placed officials, they have become property owners as well. In this way, the privatisation of television produced the same results as every other privatisation project in Russia: it was the same group of people who took ownership of the new sixth channel of Russian television in 1992. 

Numerous free and independent newspapers depend on the government no less than state television. Without huge direct and indirect subsidies from the authorities, most of them simply could not survive. The government’s policy on the press and the mass media is coordinated by a powerful state committee under Mikhail Poltoranin, which journalists have already dubbed the ‘Ministry of Truth’. No one can even remember the official title of Poltoranin’s outfit. In 1991-1992, however, the city authorities in Moscow set up their own ‘Ministry of Propaganda’ under Pavel Gusev, the editor of the tabloid newspaper Young Communist of Moscow. This paper might be compared with the London Sun, though the comparison would be in the Sun’s favour. 

The ministry has provided generous help to newspapers preaching the US way of life, Coca-Cola, the values of free enterprise and a ‘strong executive branch’ — all of which, taken together, is what we call ‘the ideology of democratic choice’. After a number of scandals, the Ministry of Propaganda was obliged to reconstitute itself, but its policy on the press remains unchanged. Subsidies, of course, come not only from the authorities. Entrepreneurial groups at the government’s elbow give generous subsidies to journalists and to ministers alike. Thanks to this system of ‘cross-pollination’ everyone stays happy. 

A left-wing press still does exist. Socialist publications keep body and soul together with the help of trade unions. Pravda is published with the money of a Greek millionaire who, malicious tongues claim, used to launder Soviet Party funds in the West. The Communist press, however, is cut off from a mass readership. It is of interest only to people who would support Communists even without it. 

As the economic crisis deepens, so the popularity of the alternative press rises. Solidarity, the newspaper published by Andrey Isaev with the money of the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions, increased its circulation from 5,000 in 1991 to 40,000 at the end of 1992, and is continuing to grow. On a Russian scale of things, however, this is a drop in the ocean. The euphoria that was experienced in 1990 and 1991 by millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe who believed a new, free and happy life was drawing near, has been replaced by disillusion and apathy, behind which it is not difficult to read the signs of the political storm that is brewing. But this time round, neither journalists nor intellectuals can make any claim to be the people’s defenders. Wittingly or unwittingly, they have deceived the public by concealing from them the truth about the dangers that awaited them in the world of the ‘free market’. They supported the anti-Communist campaigns, and the purges which began in the state apparatus of the Russian Federation half a year before the famous August coup. 

It must be recognised that those who lost out in Russia and Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991 were not the Communists so much as the dissidents. The Communist Party is once again attracting thousands of people to its banner, including young people, up-in-arms at the selling-off of the country and wholesale corruption, while the slogans of the human rights activists of the 1960s and 1970s nowadays seem abstract and old-hat. 

The defeat of the dissidents was resounding and, more important, irreversible. To a significant extent, responsibility for this lies with the dissidents themselves. Platitudes about how revolutions devour their own children do not explain anything. The dissidents were not devoured by the Moloch of revolution, they did not perish in the fire of civil war, did not mount the scaffold, nor fall victims to repression. They simply fell out of political life, having used up not only their political influence but also their moral authority, when they proved unable or unwilling to speak out against the new injustice. People who prided themselves on their capacity to say ‘no’ to the old regime, who called themselves ‘dissenters’ and ‘non-conformists’, turned out to be surprisingly passive in the new conditions and, more important, incapable of resisting the prevailing orthodoxies, slogans or moods. Paradoxical though it may seem, when they saw much was going wrong, the thing they feared most was again becoming dissidents, pitting themselves against a new regime, being isolated. The fear of remaining in a minority paralysed them. 

Under the Communist regime they had been only an insignificant minority, while the passive majority fully subscribed to the ideas and values of the regime (in Russia) or, at least, was fully reconciled with them (in Eastern Europe). But back then, the majority simply kept quiet or repeated ritual phrases. In 1990-1991, by contrast, a powerful wave of new propaganda brought crowds of people onto the streets, enthusiastically chanting anti-communist slogans. Liberal-minded intellectuals who were disconcerted by these aggressive crowds were even more alarmed by the aggressive unanimity of the ‘free’ press. This repeated on demand any nonsense about national renewal under the guidance of US experts, the need for wholesale privatization, the advantages of a religious education over a secular one, or of paid, as opposed to free, medicine. Having stood up for their spiritual independence under pressure from hostile Party propaganda, the ‘free’ press has unexpectedly capitulated to the new anti-Communist propaganda, apparently without regard for the fact that the ‘new’ ideas are being promoted with such zest by the same publications and the same people who yesterday were speaking about the ‘building of Communism’. 

Dissidents opposed to nationalism and witch-hunts, and at odds with the extremes of total privatisation, were prepared to move into the opposition, but only as a respectable and recognised political force. Paradoxically, the thought that as supporters of freedom in the East they would face new, long battles, often in total political isolation, struck them as so dreadful that almost none of them could bring themselves to take this step. They feared being accused of Bolshevist sympathies, and rejected any contact with people of the former Communist camp even though after 1989, when the Party elite had chosen capitalism, it was the most sincere and decent (though not always the smartest) people who were left there. A primitive opportunism and conformism has triumphed in the ranks of the intellectual elite. Realising there could be no thought of freedom or justice under the new regime, the latter preferred to keep quiet and support the people in power for fear of being thought ‘red’, or from reluctance to join the struggle, or simply because many of them had been bought off. Criticism of the reforms has been faint, pathologically cautious, and unintelligible. Any dissenting opinions which have been expressed have been put forward in such a way that it is impossible to understand how they differ from the majority view. 

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to speak of the defeat of freedom in Russia. Truth never triumphs over force without itself becoming force. That takes years of solid organisational work — and millions of people who have learned from their own experience to be discriminating in politics, to struggle for their own rights and for their own interest. Eastern Europe and Russia are still a long way from this. In such circumstances, people genuinely dedicated to the principles of democracy have only one possibility of staying true to themselves: to opt, once again, for the role of dissident. It is precisely this role which many participants of the old opposition movements have striven at all costs to shed. However, nature abhors a vacuum. The ideological capitulation of the dissidents means either that in some countries neo-Stalinists have started to play the role of the opposition, transforming themselves from persecutors to persecuted, or that a new generation of political activists has begun the struggle from the beginning once more. 

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson, INDEX ON CENSORSHIP 5&6/1993