Magazine article Russian Life

The News That Peter Saw Fit to Print: 1703: Russia's First Newspaper

Magazine article Russian Life

The News That Peter Saw Fit to Print: 1703: Russia's First Newspaper

Article excerpt

LIKE IT OR not, we live in an information age, one in which we are inundated with news--some designed to inform, some to deceive, promote, or entertain. We are often left struggling to keep our heads above water in this never-ending torrent. But everyone knows that it was not always this way. Some of us can even remember life without mobile phones, constantly updated internet news, and social networks.

In bygone days, news traveled slowly, transmitted by word of mouth, gaining, losing, and changing details along the way. Royal decrees were spread by the tsar's messengers faster than ordinary news, but even here there was no getting around Russia's vast expanses. Back in the seventeenth century, for example, when the people of Irkutsk wrote to complain to the tsar about the corrupt and ruthless voyevoda who had been appointed to govern them and who was making their lives miserable, their petition took three years to reach Moscow. Additional time was needed to consider the matter, and then the response took more years to reach Irkutsk. In short, it was an eternity before the petitioners heard that the tsar chose to leave the voyevoda where he was.

Even though the country's rulers had a relative advantage when it came to disseminating news, it was they who were most frustrated by how long it took to get information to the populace. After all, in order to firmly integrate its territories and instill a sense of patriotism, a government needs to be able to publicize successes and circulate the official version of events. With the march of time, Russia's rulers increasingly wanted to influence the hearts and minds of their subjects. They gradually realized that newspapers could be a key tool in this effort.

Compared to other countries, Russia was in no hurry to establish newspapers. (Not surprisingly, one of the first politicians to promote the publishing of newspapers was Cardinal Richelieu, who clearly understood the value of shaping the opinions of France's educated classes.) Before the age of Peter the Great, both the powers that be and the populace were perfectly happy to have important news announced in churches or to have it spread via stories and rumors related by pilgrims, merchants, or vagrants.

Peter's father, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, had an inquisitive mind, and was interested in various Western innovations, so it is little wonder that he was the first to take a step in the direction of establishing a print news medium: he had his court secretaries put together special lists called Kurano (from the French courant, "current"), which included the most important or simply entertaining reports from abroad. This was no newspaper, of course. Kurano were handwritten and read out loud to the tsar and his inner circle.

Peter the Great was not content to settle for such a limited use of what, back then, could hardly be called "mass media." In December 1702 he ordered all government offices to forward their most important items of news to the Monastirsky Prikaz for circulation. (The Monastery Department might seem an odd choice for an editorial office, until you consider that it was created by Peter as part of his effort to undercut church authority; it was thus staffed with fellow Europeanizing progressives.) Peter expected his orders to be carried out expeditiously, and by late December news or vedomosti (sheets, lists, registers), as they were then called, began to be compiled and rewritten. …

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