This week in 1912 saw the first publication of Pravda. From the front cover, Lenin gazes sternly towards the horizon, presumably towards a utopia of social equality and worker’s liberation. For over 70 years his baleful eyes greeted the people of Russia every day. And for millions of soviet citizens, this was the truth. Their present was defined in Pravda’s pages, official history being written before their eyes.
This power was not limited to state controlled media, although it provides an extreme example. All newspapers play a part in constructing political and social narratives, and by habit present their contents as the unchallenged truth. They are by definition ‘new’; an exact representation of the current state of affairs.
Pravda was such a crucial publication because it defined itself against other news. It monopolised truth, its title laying claim to ownership of reality (Pravda means ‘truth’ in Russian). Other sources of information were “malicious western deceptions” that should never be trusted by the denizens of the true socialist nations.
In a Russian population newly blessed with the skills of literacy, reading the news was a form of empowerment, entrenching the government’s image of civilising progress.
It is easy to assume that the lack of choice would have led to the abandonment of individual opinion. But people were aware of the extent to which they were being fed information. A popular joke in the late 50s involved the intensely competitive Khrushchev challenging Eisenhower to a foot race during the former’s visit to the US in 1959, which he loses and Pravda reports as “Our leader Nikita Khrushchev has captured second place in a world-class field, while the US president finished a humiliating second to last.” They consumed Pravda’s information but were able to challenge what they read, and this discourse is what gives the free press its vibrancy, forming disillusionment with the Soviet regime.
News discusses events, presenting themselves as the sole arbiter of the truth yet flexible enough to further develop its narrative. Being able to decide which story you want to follow is a luxury often taken for granted, but on this anniversary it is worth remembering what the alternative is. The Western liberal tradition is built on the foundation of the free press and the ability to choose and reject different narratives. Our here and now, unlike the Soviet Union’s, is one of our own choosing, a fact that no amount of celebration is sufficient for.