Natalia Roudakova: Ethics and Accountability in Soviet Journalism

The following transcript is from Natalia Roudakova’s lecture entitled Ethics and Accountability in Soviet Journalism: What Could Western Journalists Learn From Their Soviet Colleagues? This event was hosted by the Center for Media at Risk on October 15, 2019 and took place at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.


In several venues that I have presented my work, I have focused more on the contemporary period in Russia, on the relations between media and the press, and the government and the audiences. I have also spoken about the Soviet period as well, because my book, Losing Pravda, spans both periods, because to understand what is going on in Russia today, in terms of media and politics, we need to understand what has come before. I have increasingly realized that, when I gave a talk on this contemporary period, there was a lot of misunderstanding of what came before. And so, I have decided to focus more on the historical period today, on the relations between Soviet journalists and their audiences, because that is the part of a story that we know very little about, general educated Western audiences.

I think those relations between Soviet journalists and audiences are very interesting, were very interesting, and have a lot to offer to the contemporary impact impasses that we find relations between media, and politics and audiences today. So, let me do that today. Let me first briefly start by talking about familiar misconception, of course, that the Soviet press, given that is was state-owned, was inseparable from state propaganda, and there was, perhaps, no journalism proper to speak of. We’re used to this image of the Soviet press, or perhaps this kind of image with a lot of official proclamations about the good deeds that the Soviet Union has to offer, or perhaps this kind of image with a little bit of art mixed in with the front page, but we’re not very used to this kind of image, the image of a department of letters that was typical in every Soviet newspaper. They received huge amounts of correspondence every day, to the point that, in large national newspapers, we would have up to hundreds of thousands of letters per year. And in regional papers, that was many times less, but nevertheless.

Why so many letters? Why did Soviet citizens write so much, and why did journalists pay attention, and dealt with it so much? So, as you know very well, after the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks made a number of key governing decisions, including outlawing multi-party elections, doing away with many forms of legal proceduralism, and with a liberal conception of freedom of the press, in favor of what they saw as more informal, and more flexible mechanisms for adjusting policy and delivering justice and accountability. Major emphasis was placed on soliciting citizens’ appeals, grievances, complaints, suggestions, criticisms and other kinds of inputs, as forms of popular control from below. Citizens were encouraged to bring their complaints against the authorities to different branches of government, especially the press, and many people did just that. Newspapers actively encouraged people to do it. Not all of those signals from below, as they were known, were published. Imagine publishing every single one of those letters. And I’ll explain in a second how those decisions were made for what was to be published, and what was not to be published, but every letter was dealt with in one way or another. And many letters did result in investigations by journalists exposing misappropriation of funds, negligence, malfeasance and other misdeeds at different levels of industrial and administrative bureaucracies.

This is, of course, was not to say that Soviet bureaucrats and managers did not try to actively prevent the publication of damaging information about them, to protect themselves against citizens’ accusations, bureaucrats try to discredit the character of a denouncer, questioning his or her integrity and motives. For this reason, some of the accusers sought anonymity, effectively asking to speak off the record, but newspapers did not guarantee that. In fact, they never guaranteed that. And yet Soviet authorities could not ignore this stream of public complaints, accusations and denunciations altogether, because that was the initial mandate of the Soviet press, is to allow for constructive criticism from below in this very form. This is also because Soviet officials could not afford to be seen as ignoring signals from below without jeopardizing socialism’s legitimacy. A public acknowledgment of at least some official wrongdoings, as unpleasant and risky as it was, was communicatively important for Soviet authorities, because it deformed a measure of justice, both to those affected by the wrongdoing, and to those watching the act of public judgment. This particular situation resulted in something very interesting, in my opinion. Soviet journalist ended up negotiating two kinds of social contracts, if you will, one with the Soviet authorities, and another with the public at large.

For its part, the Soviet state both distrust the journalists, and relied on them for the production of social values, particularly for holding up the idea that socialism was, in the end, a force for good, and that the Soviet state was open to constructive criticism. On the other end, Soviet journalists worked hard to establish their own communicative relationship with audiences. They worked hard at maintaining the integrity of those relations, and they were largely successful at it. Audiences across the Soviet bloc trust the journalists, even as they understood that journalists were limited in what they could air or publish. For the most part, the audiences understood pressed to be the most humane department of Soviet power. A department to which the average citizen, wronged by Soviet bureaucracies, could reliably turn for help.

Let me show in more detail how that relationship of trust was maintained. And I think that’s particularly important now, given that the trust in the press today, both in Russia, but now in the Western world as well, is at an all-time low. I have conducted field work for my book in a newspaper. Well, these days, it’s actually no longer a newspaper, it’s a collection of people who used to work for that newspaper, who are still around and in journalism, but I have done the archival work as well. I have done some oral interviews. I have spent quite a bit of time just reading the paper, and also talking, incidentally, with people who used to read it, so, readers of a newspaper. This was all done in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, which is now called that, but at the time, it was called Gorky. So, you may remember, or you may know that city by that name. So, let me show you an internal document from a newspaper that I studied there that existed at the time, that was called Luzhnetskaya Smena. So, that’s something I found at an archive in the city of Gorky. This was called the laws of Luzhnetskaya Smena.

I’ll just read you the text first, “Every day, hundreds of people visit and telephone our editorial offices.” It’s probably the editor writing I’m imagining. “Many of them have urgent and important questions with which they trust our journalists. A Luzhnetskaya journalist must warrant this trust with sensitivity, responsiveness, constant readiness, to help any person who came into the editorial office. Any hint of callousness, arrogance, indifference, among the LS collective must be cut short by taking the most serious measures.” You have to imagine that there must have been some disciplinary action on the part of the editor against the journalists going on. But nevertheless, the fact that this was reaffirmed like that is very important. “Our reader has a right to count on us to know that if he came to our editorial office on a work day, he will, as a rule, find people in every department of a newspaper.” So, being responsive to readers’ grievances became Soviet journalists’ holy grail, if you will. This close connection with readers was also journalists’ most powerful argument when they had to defend themselves, the journalists, in front of their party overseers after publishing a particularly critical article. It is important to note here, that a very important change took place in the censorship practices in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.

Newspapers began to be verified by the party overseers after publication, after the death of Stalin, rather than before, which was the case before he died. So, Soviet editors were therefore expected to exercise their own judgment over the suitability of any particular article for publication, except for a rather limited list of topics proscribed by the censors, such as state and military secrets, not surprisingly, questioning the leading role of a party in society, raising questions about the private lives of Soviet leaders, in a way, and about the desirability of communism as such. So, this is, more or less, the list. Other things were up for grabs, and to be decided case by case basis, by editors in charge. So, as the rule, Soviet editors and journalists were able to conduct investigations, and to publish a number critical articles, sometimes after a second or a third attempt, but nevertheless. And every time, party officials tended to react extremely nervously to any kind of criticism that they would encounter in the press, even though the party supposedly welcomed criticism from citizens. So, what ended up happening again and again was that the party officials regularly called on journalists to explain themselves, or face disciplinary actions.

So, journalists, usually chief editors, would arrive to meetings with their party overseers, armed with heaps of readers’ letters praising journalists’ work, and giving additional examples of official negligence, corruption, bungled planning, or whatever the problem was that had been raised in a critical article. This often put the party overseers in an awkward position of having to back down under the moral pressure from journalists. The most common kinds of complaints journalists dealt with had to do with the authority’s failure to provide citizens with what had been promised to them; apartments, benefits, pensions, college stipends, guaranteed job placements, daycare spots for children, hospital and rehabilitation care spots and so on. So, take a look at an example here of what that, holding the authorities accountable for what they had promised, looked like. This is an excerpt from an unofficial, actually, Soviet textbook for journalists published in 1978, and republished in 1999. The author of a text, Valeria Granovsky, who I’ll quote one more time toward the end, worked for many years in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a feisty newspaper for the youth that was the official outlet of the Communist Youth League.

Actually, the Luzhnetskaya Smena, the newspaper that I studied in Gorky, was also a youth newspaper, and that’s pretty significant because, youth news newspapers tended to be a little bit more credible, a little bit more feisty, a little bit more intense in publishing things that people were more interested in, because the Soviet authorities understood that, if you are going to start lying to young people from an early age, you’re not going to be very successful. So, youth papers were often subscribed to by people of all ages, and even though they were called youth papers, and that’s how things went. So, this is behind the scenes work conducted by journalists that Komsomolskaya Pravda in the first five months of ’75. That is, all of these things that journalists made sure to fix for the audiences, they were done without the writing of articles, perhaps with an investigation, perhaps just with a phone call, but nevertheless. So, there’s a few reasons why, often, they wouldn’t be a publication for something like this. First, the number of complaints journalists received would be enormous, of course, and then deciding what to do in each particular case, journalists weighted the circumstances, the history, the severity of violation at hand. They also weighed their own editorial and extra journalistic resources, and intuitive existing political conjectures. For instance, the party’s receptiveness to certain kinds of criticism rather than others.

Some of the complaints would be too specific to warrant publication. In these cases, journalists took an active role and became literally readers, moral and legal even, representatives before other Soviet bureaucracies. They would write letters, make phone calls and even make personal visits to relevant organizations on reader’s behalf, until the reader’s problem was resolved. Other complaints from citizens that reached Soviet newspaper offices dealt with malfunctioning infrastructure, public transportation overcrowded, or not running on time, construction sites abandoned, sports facilities closed during working hours, low quality food served in cafeterias, recycling centers turning people away and so on. Still, other complaints were classic whistleblower signals about cases of workplace corruption, including tip-offs about goods being siphoned off from factories and warehouses for private use, or complaints about tyrannical bosses making the lives of their subordinates unbearable. Because of the range of complaints, there was no standard response to them. Sometimes the complaints from a citizen would be published as is, especially if the editors didn’t deemed it typical. Such letters would be accompanied by a note from the editors warning that the newspaper is expecting a response from the relevant officials, or organizations in whose power it was to fix the problem. If the response was not received in a timely manner, or was unsatisfactory, journalists would publicly shame the officials or their organization and repeat their demand on the newspaper pages and would then report on the outcome.

Whether the complaint from a citizen arrived by mail, by phone or in person, it had to be registered by a department of letters, usually the largest department in every newspaper. So, I give you another example of some department of letters. This makes me think of a book about when computers were women. It was always women who were working in these kinds of departments, it was always very menial, but also very careful work. So, the procedure involved in keeping written track of citizen signals from below was elaborate. A written record of processing every letter had to be kept. And that illustrates better than anything else that the Soviet press, in many ways, functioned as a genuine government bureaucracy. You can see that in the back of the first image on the left. There are, actually, filing cabinets for arranging letters into certain categories by whether action has been taken, whether the action is being taken, whether there is an expected outcome, or the outcome has already been achieved, and so on. So, once again, the editors of Luzhnetskaya Smena, in an internal document from 1984, spelled out the rules according to which the letters and the other signals from below, now, were to be handled. Now, I’ll just read it out loud to you here and what that was about.

“Every letter that arrives to the newspaper is to receive a response within 10 days, regarding of whether it’s going to be published, forwarded for an investigation, used in a story by a correspondent, or turned over to the archives. In cases where the decision on the letter might take longer than 10 days, but no longer than a month, a preliminary response is to be sent to the author of the letter. Letters from military personnel are to be examined immediately, and no longer than seven days from the day the letter arrived.” I love the details of this document. “If a letter is to be forwarded for an investigation to an organization higher up, such investigation is to be placed under special control. It is explicitly forbidden to forward readers’ letters to organizations and officials whose actions constitute the subject of the complaint. Letters forwarded for an investigation are to be accompanied by a note signed by the head of a relevant department, and to be put under its department heads control. The same concerns all critical publications. All responses received from officials and organizations are to be recorded. The relevant department must know, at any particular time, what kind of critique has taken place, and what is being done about it.”

So, staff working in departments of letters dealt with the original welter of mail, like I was just describing, dividing letters into different categories based on topic, urgency and newsworthiness. Many letters were classic letters to the editor expressing an attitude to an article that had been published in the newspaper, others want a journalist simply to answer a question or provide information or give advice. In the pre-Internet age, Soviet journalists often ended up working as search engines for their communities. In almost every issue, Luzhnetskaya Smena was answering some inquiries from readers; where to return defective goods, where to learn a particular skill, which factories were offering summer jobs, where to find lyrics for a popular song, where to fix a particular piece of equipment and so on. So, in the interviews that I’ve done with journalists, and in memoirs, they all recall working with readers’ letters as an enormous burden, but also as a source of deep professional satisfaction. And so, it was a matter of duty and pride to take letters from readers seriously.

Here’s a good example for you of how it felt like from inside. One former journalist, a former head of Russia’s Union of Journalists, recalled, for instance, in a memoir, the following, “I remember watching an episode in some Western movie about a journalist, and how he’s handed a stack of letters that came in response to a high profile story. And I remember my horror when I saw him laugh and throw those letters into garbage. We read every letter, kept track of it. Many letters were published if they developed a particular theme. When I came to work the next morning, I could not calm myself down. What cynicism? How can one behave like that?” Interviews, memoirs, and archival data all show that Soviet journalists understood the imperative to maintain a close connection with readers as a moral obligation. Keeping that relationship with readers active was a significant, morally speaking or ethically speaking, as keeping a promise. Readers knew it, if they brought a valid complaint to the attention of the newspaper, they were guaranteed a response. It was also socially expected that, if a problem had been written about in the newspaper, measures would be taken to correct it by officials, and often quickly. Such inevitability of response. Journalists are bound to respond to readers and officials bound to respond to newspaper criticism; this is the foundation of lasting moral orders and for other theorists of moral obligation.

It is what anthropologists and sociologists call the non-contractual elements of contract, on which meaningful social relations depend. Let me briefly, now, talk about a slightly different set of interactions between Soviet journalists and their readers, through which the integrity of the social relations between journalists and readers was maintained. Few people know that Soviet newspaper offices were, in many ways, public places. You already saw in the example above how there is a mention that every day there are many, many people who come to the editorial offices. So, newspaper offices in the Soviet Union offered many opportunities for face to face interactions between journalists and readers. Every former journalist from Luzhnetskaya Smena I spoke with, they recalled that, especially in the evenings, the editorial offices were swarming with visitors. Young and not so young people came in on specific days of the week when a particular club was in session. The club of high school correspondence, for instance, or of college student correspondence, of working youth correspondence, the film authors club, the cartoonist club, and so on. For instance, right here is an invitation to readers to join the student correspondent club that meets on Thursdays. So, journalists would run an ad saying, “Anybody who wants to come please come. And, it will be fun.”

So, journalists took turns chairing these clubs, and commonly these meetings would turn into writing and reporting workshops, because Soviet journalists had also an obligation to make sure that at least half, if not more than half of the writing that appears on the newspaper, comes actually from people who are not journalists. So, this was called non-staffers writing, and it had to be 1600 lines of newspaper text per month, whereas the journalists themselves had only 1000 lines of newspaper text per month to produce from themselves, on their own. In practice, this quota was not strictly maintained. Some non-staffers were not very good writers, so journalists ended up heavily editing, or simply rewriting some of the non-staffers prose. Nevertheless, it was important to be seen as someone who is constantly on the lookout for new non-staff talent, and works closely with those people on their writing skills. Another explanation for the inclusion of readers into the editorial process was the mandate for every Soviet newspaper to serve as collective organizer. To put it less formally, and in the ways that journalists actually understood it, the newspapers served as a clearinghouse for various community activities.

Although not advertised, the weekly editorial meetings were actually open to the public. Editorial offices also served as a space where readers could meet local dignitaries, the city’s artists, writers, scientists, who are often invited by Luzhnetskaya Smena for an informal conversation over tea. And then, a student or somebody who wanted to write up a report about these kinds of gatherings would do so with the help of a journalist. Finally, in line with the mission of collective organizing, the newspaper initiated many different public drives. In the early ’80s, it was known, the newspaper, was known for several public mobilization initiatives to protect the region’s lakes and rivers, for instance. So, this is a piece from E3 about the bad quality of air in the city. There’s a piece from ’84 about the problems with a particular lake where there’s a lot of dumping of toxic waste that’s going on. This is a piece from ’88, bureaucratic air. You can see that the aesthetics is changing in ’88. Right here, we basically have no pictures, and here we have a little bit more of a rougher story. Let me see …

And finally, I want to briefly mention a couple of drives that a journalist actually initiated in the late ’80s. This one was a drive by the journalists to save the old historical center of Nizhny Novgorod from basically being demolished in order to allow for the construction of the subway station. So, as you can see, the sign up there says, “Construction of the subway underground”, and they want to protect the city. So, journalists even pitched tents against the impending construction, and they, more or less, saved it, but unfortunately, in the capitalist period of the early ’90s, things didn’t turn out as well, and those buildings were, after all, demolished. Another campaign that the journalists of the newspaper were very active in was against the construction of a nuclear plant in the region right after the Chernobyl disaster. So, it starts in ’86, and the campaign, led by journalists, and goes all the way till ’88. In ’86, it starts off by an interview that someone named Boris Nemtsov, who is a young person at the time, an interview that he does with Andrei Sakharov, who is a well-known nuclear physicist, and he was in exile in the Nizhny Novgorod, a well-known dissident who was in exile in Nizhny Novgorod until ’86.

And almost, Gorky journalists claim that it was after the interview was published in the Luzhnetskaya Smena, the first interview that was published in the Soviet press with Sakharov, that Gorbachev had phoned Sakharov and told him that his exile was over and he could return to Moscow. And Nemtsov, of course, went on to become a governor of Nizhny Novgorod, and then a very well-known politician in Russia, then he went on to be a well-known leader of Russian opposition who was assassinated a few years ago in plain sight in the middle of Moscow. So, as you can see, there were some demonstrations even, and the newspaper was an active organizer of this drive, not just reporting on it, but organizing as well.

Let me now turn to the last aspect of relations between Soviet journalists and readers that I want to highlight. I want to address a particular kind of conversational style, the how, perhaps, rather than the what of those relations. A style that many readers came to enjoy that resonated particularly well with their readers lives and experiences. I kept wondering, as I was doing the research, “What made the Luzhnetskaya Smena such a successful newspaper with young people at the time, and not only young people?” Because the people, to this day, they remember the paper, they remember reading it, they remember enjoying it. What made it interesting and not just important? How and why did many of those texts come to feel real important and true to Soviet readers? And here I need to make a little theoretical detour really quickly. I want to introduce the notion of passionate speech as it was put forward by philosopher Stanley Cavell, and you have a little picture of him up there. Cavell was a student of John Austin, the founder of well known speech act theory that recognizes that all speech performs a certain kind of action. Cavell takes Austin’s theory a little further, focusing, not on the conventional effects of saying something, but more on unconventional yet very powerful effects of what he calls passionate speech, or passionate utterances.

Put differently, Cavell is searching to explain why certain utterances and texts may resonate very strongly with audiences, while others might fall flat, leaving readers and listeners unperturbed. Cavell wants a systematic recognition of the presence of passion and desire for moral theory. He says that recognition has been almost entirely lacking in moral theory. He says that this recognition has been almost entirely lacking in moral philosophy, because of philosophers’ gendered bias toward passion as passive rather than active, and because of a general tendency, he says, in analytical philosophy, to discount the role of pathos and human life. So, Cavell sets out to study the production of texts with moral designs upon their readers, and what makes them successful. He comes up with several criteria that might make such passionate utterances happy or unhappy, felicity criteria, following the formula from Austin use performative utterances. So, I’ll just run through these criteria, and then I’ll demonstrate some examples from the newspaper that I studied, how this might work in practice.

Criteria number one, the speaker declaring needs to declare that they have a moral standing with the addressee. Number two, the speaker needs to single out the addressee as the one to whom the speech is addressed. The speaker needs to actually feel the passion when speaking from passion. This is following through Austin’s criteria, but modifying them a little bit. The speaker needs to demand the response from the addressee in kind. The speaker needs to demand the response now, and the addressee may contest the speaker’s invitation to exchange in this way at any of the points above, that is, the addressee may say, “Who are you to be speaking to me anyway? Why are you singling me out? How do I know that you mean what you’re saying? Why should I respond to you? Why should I respond now?” And, “Don’t bother me.” Whatever the case may be. In other words, it’s very, very important for Cavell that passionate utterances, utterances and speech that carries a very strong moral force, that it allows this deflection on any of the counts above, and it’s very dialogic, and it keeps going on and on and on in this way. So, in Luzhnetskaya Smena, there’s plenty, plenty, plenty of examples of what Cavell means here. One may even say that, Soviet journalists indulged in what Cavell would categorize as passionate utterances.

There were a number of regular columns where such texts appeared in the Luzhnetskaya Smena in particular, including titles like face to face with reader, sensitive issue, candid conversation, hotline, you asked feedback, and other kinds of columns, regular columns. Such publications were usually spurred by a difficult letter that had arrived in the mail, and that journalists decided to publish to stimulate dialogue. Meeting most of Cavell’s criteria for passionate utterances, such publications were an opportunity for journalists to openly confront their readers, to declare their moral standing with them, to single out a particular group of readers as being the appropriate audience, and to expect the readers to reciprocate in passion, in kind. Some of the discussions that availed themselves particularly well to these kinds of passion exchanges, appear under the rubric that was called discussion club. The most interesting topics included uncomfortable but enormously popular topics such as, the value of money and consumption versus the ideals of modesty and concern for intellectual pursuits.

The tension between a form of approach to Komsomol, Komsomol being the Communist Youth League that all the young people were supposed to belong to, and the substantive approach, a conversation about boredom, loneliness, and depression, and why they persist in a socialist society, when they shouldn’t, presumably, a related discussion about individuality versus collectivity, and whether, and when one should try to change oneself to fit in, an argument over what it means to be a modern young person in the ’80s, and I’m talking about the late Soviet period here that I studied, and a debate whether listening to Western rock bands, for instance, which was an under the radar activity in the Soviet Union. So, listening to those bands without understanding the lyrics still counted as supporting those bands, glorification of self indulgence, navel gazing, egotism, and other capitalist vices. Let us take, for instance, a debate about the value of money. I’ll give you two examples. The debate about the value of money, and the officially denounced desire for fashionable clothes, vinyl records, vacation trips, and so on.

The debate starts with the letter by a certain Tanya, who begins with, “You will never publish this, but I’m writing anyway.” And then continues to express disbelief and the sincerity of people who claim that material values are not important to them. In Tanya’s opinion, money decides everything in life. A flurry of letters comes to the newspaper in response. Many people are aghast and denounce the shallowness of Tanya’s character, many feel sorry for her, and some letters, several of which the newspaper publishes, come from readers who share Tanya’s consumerist thrust, and who applaud Tanya for her honesty, and even her bravery in speaking out. Over the next several weeks, the journalists work through the letters together with student correspondence, and several very interesting publications come out. A story about how a fashionably dressed person can, in fact, be a good Soviet citizens, for instance, if the money she spends on clothes is earned through her own hard work, or, to take another example about the formal versus the substantive approach to Komsomol activities, the Communist Youth League activities. That was a very sensitive topic with which journalists dealt quite often.

Unlike with the Communist Party membership, almost every young Soviet person between the ages of 14 and 25, was a Komsomol member, and local Komsomol organizations exist in every school, college, and workplace. As a Communist Youth Organization, Komsomol was responsible for young people’s social lives. But the challenge was always churning a disparate group of individuals studying, or working together, into a close knit unit of friends who would want to spend even more time together beyond their school or work hours. The formal solution was to follow the routine activities that were usually perceived as tedious attributes of Komsomol life, such as formal group meetings, joined newspaper reading sessions, joined cleanup of neighborhood territories, and so on. But in coming up with ways to spice up social life, groups of young Soviets were encouraged to improvise, and to think creatively about spending time together that could also count as Komsomol work. Those things included, for instance, camping, canoeing, high earning summer jobs, exploratory trips out of town, science projects, music concerts, amateur theater performances, discussion clubs, debating contests, dancing parties and so on.

Whether the social life of a particular group of students was meaningful or boring, depended to a large extent on the Komsomol organizer known as Komsorc, Komsomol organizer. Of the primary work or study unit, that position was an elected position, and using the modern language, those elections were relatively free and fair, if you will, but the irony of it, like with so many things under state socialism, was that very few people ever wanted to be elected to that position. So, for one, being a Komsorc meant performing a large amount of bureaucratic tasks, and formal ideological work, like, keeping demographic records on members of the unit, collecting membership dues, charging meetings, planning group activities, and regularly recording those activities, and then submitting records of those activities to the district Komsomol office. Every administrator in this room who has ever held an administrative position must feel for the Komsorc of the Soviet period, I imagine. But aside from the bureaucratic hurdles of being a Komsorc, the bigger challenge was the social psychological one.

Ideally, Komsorcs needed to know how to motivate, persuade, reward, and discipline their peers. In short, they needed to have real leadership skills. But not every group of young people studying or working together had a charismatic leader among them, and where such people did exist, they did not always want to take on the formal leadership position. So, real leaders were rare, but every Komsomol unit had to have one. And it was often the young men and women least able to resist peer pressure, who ended up being elected Komsorcs. Luzhnetskaya Smena, the newspaper often returned to the sore point in Komsomol governance in its publications. Commonly, a particularly striking letter would arrive raising the issue again, and the newspaper would publish the letter, and would explicitly encourage readers to write and express their opinions. One particular letter, for instance, arrived from a conscientious Komsorc who complained of being buried by Komsomol reports, records, and minutes of meetings to the point that she has no time for anything else. Another ineffective Komsorc had written confessing that he was afraid of, was not respected by, and did not know what to do with the peers he’s supposed to lead, and pleaded the newspaper and the readers for advice.

Like with the debate around the value of money, different kinds of responses to these problems were regularly aired on newspaper pages. Many writers were understanding of these young people’s problems, suggesting they do not despair, take more initiative, be firmer, more forthcoming, and more open in their relations with their peers. A few cynical and disillusioned responses would also be published once in a while. “Don’t ask yourself unneeded questions.”, writes a certain Sergei in response to this timid Komsorcs letter. “Live like everyone else. You won’t be able to change anything. All of your summons and appeals will remain just that. That’s how it would be in our class.” More complex and multi-layered perspectives, both from journalists and from, what seems like older contributing writers, were also published. As much as we want Komsorcs full of initiative, one astute writer points out, for instance, “We’re often wary of people who are overly active. We suspect they might be in for career climbing, or for self validation, rather than out of a genuine interest in the group’s well-being.”

I thought that was the most sophisticated take on it that I have found. So, what we may now ask made these conversations pragmatically successful, or meaningful for Luzhnetskaya Smena readers, what made them real? First, the newspaper acknowledged readers’ right to deflect society’s moral design upon them. Even non conforming readers are treated seriously from the position of respect, and therefore satisfying Cavell’s criterion number six here. There is, of course, also demand that those readers explain themselves, which is, I guess, number four and number five right here, if they explain themselves to their peers and their journalists. So, this is Cavell’s declaration of standing with an addressee, singling them out and demanding a response in kind. In all fairness, discussions about sensitive topics such as Komsomol governance, and attitude to money, also generated official formal answers that were strikingly different in tone from what I have presented here, but such responses were in the minority. On the debate about the value of money, for instance, there’s a long piece in one of the issues written by the department head of patriotic upbringing, the head of department of patriotic upbringing, admonishing his young audience in none other than the following terms, “Soviet people must cut short all manifestations of philistinism. Those who are give in to philistinism, throw away their dignifying title of Soviet citizens.”

Or on the debate about the bureaucratization of Komsomol, there’s the piece from a district Komsomol secretary who warns the timid Komsorc whose letter had been published, and saying the following, “Now, about keeping those written records of Komsomol meetings that you so badly don’t want to keep, those records are historical documents, and must be preserved for posterity.” The inflated pathos of these phrases, their categoricalness, likely closes off these utterances to dialogue, thereby failing to secure any kind of uptake from readers. To give you an idea of how journalists themselves thought about what they were doing, with respect to passionate utterances, let me quote again from the Soviet journalism textbook that I have done once. This is again Valeria Granovsky, who is a very well known Soviet journalist whose father was even more famous journalist, whose brother was also more famous one. But this one is the one who wrote the textbook that is very good.

So, he writes, “Regardless of what rumor has it about the moral constitution of journalists,” so rumor does have something to say about the moral constitution of journalists, “we are the way we write, and we write in ways that reflect our moral constitution. The reader sees, feels, guesses what kinds of persons we are, sincere or hypercritical, cynical or not, intransigent or compromising, generous or do-goody, with clear or with dirty conscience. Are we ourselves able to act in the ways we call on our readers to act? Our moral hue can be glimpsed through the selection of words, through our turns of phrase, through our intonation, no matter what rhetorical contraptions we resort to. No matter how much we might try to conceal our essence, in the eyes of the reader, our own texts create and disrobe us, and the reader either trusts us, or he doesn’t.”

So, I will now conclude. I have focused today on describing the very concrete social relations that Soviet journalists maintained with their audiences, at a historical time and place, when trust in journalism was particularly high. That trust was not based on some sort of blind brainwashing of Soviet audiences by state propaganda, as totalitarian school proponents would have us believe at the height of Cold War. These were real human relations within specific institutional settings, conducted for the most part, in good faith, and with a full awareness, both on the side of journalists, and on the side of readers, of all the limitations and shortcomings of those institutional settings. I have asked in the subtitle of the talk what kinds of lessons Western journalists might draw today, from the historical experience of their Soviet colleagues. The most important lesson that emerges, in my opinion, is that every process of communication involves a social relationship among active human beings, and we often forget that. And media institutions simply cannot afford not to actively maintain the integrity of those human social relations, in whatever ways they can.

In the case of Soviet journalists, a very large part of those relations was based on creating moral ties that bound journalists to readers. Those binding relations of journalists promising to speak up for readers unjustly wronged by bureaucracies, were meticulously maintained, and in that, it was like maintaining a promise. Keeping a promise, like keeping to other kinds of obligation, is usually one of the most powerful ways of maintaining moral integrity. The other thing I focused on today that made journalists writing so compelling in the Soviet period, was their courage, I dare say, to approach openly difficult moral questions, to step into the moral fray, so to speak, and to invite others to do the same, leaving themselves open to rebuke or deflection of their moral designs on readers, as the following Stanley Cavell’s advice. It is in this respect, I think, that professional journalists in the United States, in particular, would have the most difficult time.

As journalism scholar, Daniel Helen, has long ago observed, American journalists tend to draw their professional identities from framing moral and political questions as, essentially, technical questions, or questions of strategy and tactics as if identifying the most effective means by which, say, a politician or a candidate for office, is or is not likely to attain their aims. For all kinds of historical reasons, professional American journalists are wary of openly stepping into the moral fray, but such reluctance may only be contributing to the continuing erosion of whatever is left of the integrity of their relations with their audiences; the relations that used to be very high in trust several decades ago. It may well be that the era of technical reporting and technical angles on politics, is fast coming to an end even in the United States. And so, lessons from journalism from different periods and historical epochs, as I present them today, might become especially useful. Thank you.


Natalia Roudakova is a cultural anthropologist (Ph.D., Stanford University, 2007) working in the fields of political communication, journalism, and media studies, with an interest in moral philosophy and political and cultural theory. Roudakova has a broad international research and teaching profile, having worked as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication, University of California in San Diego; as Visiting Professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Netherlands); and as Researcher in the Department of Communication at Södertörn University, Sweden. In 2013-2014, Roudakova was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, California, where she completed her award-winning book, Losing Pravda: Ethics and the Press in Post-Truth Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Losing Pravda examines the spectacular professional unraveling of journalism in Russia during the 1990s and 2000s and its societal ramifications. More broadly, Losing Pravda tracks how a post-truth society comes into being, illuminating the historical and cultural emergence of “fake news,” disinformation (kompromat), and general distrust in politics and public life. Roudakova’s new research is focused on the phenomenology of news perception in the digital age. Specifically, she is studying how young adults in Russia perceive and practice news, and how news is made meaningful in their everyday lives.

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