Organs of the Press

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The Bolsheviks were journalists long before they were state leaders, and they never forgot the impact of a well-aimed message. Newspapers were the life-line of the underground party. Formative ideological and political debates were conducted in them; reporters and deliverers evolved into party cadres; and readers became rank-and-file supporters. At times, newspapers smuggled from abroad kept the Party alive; and Lenin’s editorials often forestalled factional division. Revolutionary struggle taught Bolsheviks the value of mass media, and confirmed their belief that culture is inherently partisan. In times of political turmoil, they exploited it skillfully. Illegal front-line newspapers helped turn soldiers against the Great War; effective propaganda helped win the Civil War.

Yet the revolutionaries knew that the same weapons could be used against them. When they took power, they protected themselves by denying the opposition access to public opinion; printing presses, theaters, movie houses were all eventually confiscated and placed under state monopoly. The Bolsheviks considered these measures necessary and just. Soviet authorities were never ashamed of their monopoly on culture. Culture was a weapon of class struggle. Allowing the enemy access to mass media would have seemed criminally stupid. To debate the ethics of censorship was a waste of time; the Bolsheviks’ concern was how to mold popular values, how to reach the masses, reflect the wishes of the state and censure alien ideals.

The early twentieth-century media suited Bolshevik purposes. Under Bolshevik sponsorship, they spoke with one powerful voice, unweakened by dissent or excessive subtlety, unencumbered by complexity. Red propaganda depicted a world of stark contrasts: Bolsheviks were valorous and self-sacrificing; the Whites were cruel and debauched. It was no time for half-tones or self-conscious irony. Bolshevik propaganda might seem heavy-handed, yet judging by its success, much of the public did not resent the overbearing tone. Opponents on both the left and right were no match for the Bolshevik blitz, and some, like the Whites, were particularly ineffective in shaping public opinion.

Discussions of Soviet mass culture have usually dwelt on its administration and rhetoric more than content and reception. This is unfortunate, because mass culture was a rare example of equilateral negotiation in Soviet society. The culture gap could not be forced like a river crossing at war. The economy could be socialized by fiat; industry could be whipped into higher production; and citizens could be made, at tremendous cost, to behave as they should. But socialist society demanded not that people just say the necessary things, but also think them in private. Socialism had to be internalized. Many Bolsheviks saw the mass media as the path from ideology to internal thought. It converted abstract phrases into concrete images. Propaganda demanded the cooperation of three groups: the Party and state, which provided the content; the skills of writers and artists, who made ideas into image; and the audience, which received and digested the images. Leaders, artists, and citizens all acknowledged the wishes of the other. The audience craved interesting material; the state needed its values represented by symbols; artists desired an arena for their creative energies (and a respectable living). One side-the audience-stayed mute about its thoughts, yet even at the height of tyranny, no mass audience could be forced to watch a movie or read a book.

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