Staffing Newspapers and Training Journalists in Early Soviet Russia

Article excerpt

It is generally believed that the Soviet press was an integral part of the Bolshevik Party's propaganda machine and that Soviet journalists were propagandists for the Bolshevik Party/state. This view first arose in the 1930s but was not articulated fully until the Cold War, when Western scholars assumed that Soviet newspapers and journalists had always possessed the attributes that they identified for the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods.(1) Although recently several scholars have explored important aspects of the history of the pre-Stalinist press, none except myself has reconsidered our conceptualization of that press or challenged the fundamental assumption that equates Soviet newspapers with propaganda and Soviet journalists with propagandists.(2)

The accepted image of the Soviet press is too narrowly conceived. Propaganda was indeed a primary function of the Soviet press, but it was not always its only function. In particular, during the New Economic Policy (NEP, 1921-28), the Soviet press was expected to achieve important non-ideological objectives. It was supposed to disseminate news and information, educate the far-flung and ignorant peasant masses, be a bulwark against corruption and nepotism in the emerging state and Party bureaucracies, and, through the worker-peasant correspondent (rabsel'kor) movement, facilitate communication from the masses to the regime.(3) Likewise, during NEP Soviet journalists were not supposed to be propagandists, they were supposed to be cadre/professionals, people who were both ideologically steadfast and professionally competent. NEP journalists were expected to accept the authority of the Bolshevik Party/state, to try to achieve the goals it set, and also to possess or acquire the skills and habits of the professional journalist.(4)

When NEP began there was a shortage of all types of journalists, and those that did exist generally were neither ideologically stalwart nor professionally proficient. The newspapers that these journalists produced were almost universally regarded as amateurish and inadequate. Leaders of the press corps repeatedly asserted that for the press to accomplish its manifold tasks it was necessary to produce intelligible, interesting newspapers that were relevant to readers' lives, and that such high calibre papers could only be produced by competent professional journalists. For example, when Illarion V. Vardin, the head of the Press Subsection of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Central Committee, complained that Soviet newspaper articles typically were "long winded, unpopular, boring and far from always politically and technically literate," he argued that the cause of this problem was that no true "journalists" existed because the profession was unrecognized and there were hardly any trained workers.(5) In a 1923 report to the Press Subsection, Konstantin Novitskii, the first rector of the Moscow Institute of Journalism, also noted the shortcomings of Soviet press workers, in particular those working outside of Moscow and Petrograd. Provincial journalists, he said, were usually "comrades lacking not only specialized knowledge, but even minimal general educational and political preparation."(6) According to Novitskii, such a state of affairs was unacceptable because the "journalist should be able to . . . respond to a whole series of complex questions about social, political, economic, trade, literary-artistic, theatrical, and religious life." The requirements of journalism meant that even "a general education is insufficient for the journalist - he needs a suitable specialized education."(7) Vardin also stressed that the widespread incompetence could only be rectified by a sustained commitment to specialized training. "The Soviet press," he declared, "must have a sufficient cadre of its own specialists. . . . [T]he fate of our press to a considerable degree depends on the fate of our Institute of Journalism."(8)

At the same time that press corps' leaders focused attention on the need to raise professional standards, they also stressed the continued importance of strong fidelity to the Bolshevik Party (partiinost'). …