I use Soviet newspapers and the translations available in The Current Digest of the Soviet Press in teaching both the history of the Soviet Union and the history of the Cold War. There is no better source than the Soviet press to discover how the great events of Soviet history were seen officially from inside the country or how Soviet leaders wished to be pictured at home and abroad.
The press was perhaps the most controlled of Soviet institutions. After seizing power in 1917 in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin initiated a virtual monopoly over public information, and his successor, Josef Stalin, oversaw its fullest realization. The Moscow newspaper Pravda (Truth) was the official voice of the party leadership. It occupied the summit of the hierarchical system of official public expression, and during Stalin’s long rule, informed readers believed that Stalin used it to express his views.
Historians today for the most part agree. For roughly three quarters of a century, the Soviet press embodied an official vision of the world and of Soviet daily life. Since there was no competition and little if any opportunity to challenge its representation of events, the official press served to explain daily life and the wider world to those who believed in communist rule as well as to those who questioned it. Even critics of the communist system often utilized its stock phrases and formulations as early as the mid-1920s because they had become accustomed to these familiar forms of speech and were unable to invoke a rival language of public expression. The press figured importantly not only in Soviet domestic life but also in Soviet foreign relations. Western diplomats and journalists who commented on the Soviet Union used Pravda and other central Soviet newspapers as a chief—if not the chief—source of regular information.
The press was also the conduit of the Stalin cult—the endless celebration of the leader as inspiration of the communist system and its living ideal. Stalin served as the symbolic center of this officially imagined world. Publicists made the regime’s claims seem real by praising Stalin for the presumed success of such policies as rapid industrialization and collectivization. The press celebrated Lenin as a deceased leader and the founder of the system. Stalin was celebrated as a living god. He was not only Lenin’s heir. He outshone Lenin as the creator of Soviet economic and political power. His cult was part of a system of official political theater in which public figures outdid themselves in praising the leader and crediting him with for all accomplishments. Everything positive in Soviet life was coupled with his nameĖfrom the Stalin Constitution of 1936 that promised freedoms that in practice were denied, to the victory in World War II.1
Stalin’s death was a critical moment in the history of the Soviet Union and of the Cold War. Stalin had a stroke or was poisoned in the evening of February 28, 1953, or early the following morning. He survived without regaining consciousness until the evening of March 5. Pravda reported a serious illness on March 4 and cited his failing health on the following day. His death was announced on the radio and in the press on March 6. Over the next few months, Stalin’s successors used the press to present themselves to Soviet citizens and to the world.
Students can learn several things from the text of the announcement of Stalin’s death in Pravda. It is most of all a good example of the power of the cult. The picture of Stalin that accompanied the announcement of his death on the front page of Pravda, which is reproduced in the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, is typical of the doctored pictures of Stalin that appeared in the newspapers during and after World War II.2 Stalin has his hand in his tunic in a Napoleonic pose. In the announcement he is credited with the victory in the war and for his program to build communism in the U.S.S.R.
Yet the announcement also reveals the first sign of a shift of authority to the Communist Party. In the text, the Party is also credited with leading the Soviet people to “historic victories of socialism.” The announcement is signed by the Central Committee, the Council of Ministers, and the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. The formation of a new government was announced in Pravda and Izvestiia (the News), the official government newspaper, the following day and only then could the public begin to recognize the new leadership.
Reading the announcement, students encounter Soviet official language. The fact that Soviet leaders spoke in this formulaic manner even in their secret meetings explains much about the absence of genuine criticism in the country and the failure to address serious shortcomings in the Soviet system. In addition, students can readily see that all the would-be successes of the Soviet government are attributed to Stalin personally and none of the glory is shared. Students can also sample the official rhetoric in the funeral orations of Soviet leaders G. M. Malenkov, L. P. Beria, and V. M. Molotov, which are also translated in the Current Digest of the Soviet Press.3
Stalin’s successors wished to impress foreign leaders as well as Soviet citizens. Malenkov, who gained sway soon after Stalin’s death, launched a “peace offensive” that may have indicated a willingness to slow the arms race. A sign of a possible change in Soviet policy was the statement that Soviet foreign policy was always “a policy of international cooperation and development of business relations with all countries.” This was followed by other references to improved relations in the funeral orations of Malenkov and Beria. Malenkov, after praising “the great genius of mankind,” affirmed the “policy of international cooperation and development of business relations with all countries, a policy based on the Lenin-Stalin premise of the possibility of prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition of two different systems, capitalist and socialist.” By attributing peaceful intentions to Lenin and Stalin, he kept within the bounds of the official public speech but also made his policy initiative seem to be no initiative at all.
I suggest that students use the press’s commentary on Stalin’s death to answer the question: How important was Stalin’s cult to the functioning of the Soviet system? I also ask students to speculate as to whether the system could operate without a figure such as Stalin. Lastly, I have the students consider the formulaic quality of the official language that is apparent in phrases in Molotov’s speech such as “the abolition of exploitation of man by man,” “the unity of the party and the people,” and “faithful servants of the people.” The effect of such phrases was to block all discussion of actual political issues and interests.
I further point out to students the conflict in the reports that are issued. On the one hand, there is the repeated expression of “confidence that our party and the whole Soviet people in these difficult days will display the greatest unity and cohesion” (p. 4). On the other hand, from the first, the publicists and officials repeatedly emphasize Stalin’s role in single-handedly leading the country. For example, the statement on March 6 reads: “Comrade Stalin led our country to victory over fascism in the second world war. Comrade Stalin armed the Party and the entire people with a great and clear program of building communism in the U.S.S.R.” (p. 5).
Secondly, I have the students compare the photographs from Pravda on March 6 and March 10. Note the size of Stalin and the way in which the photographer for both Pravda and Izvestiia on March 10 makes the coffin and the words Lenin and Stalin dwarf the figures of the leaders of the government. These pictures reinforce the memory of Stalin’s cult and make him seem all but irreplaceable. In that respect, it is no wonder that his successors tried to establish cults of their own.
1 See Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
2 The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Volume V, No. 6 ( March 21, 1953), 4-5, 24.
3 The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Volume V, No. 7 ( March, 28, 1953), 8-10, 43.