Freedom to know about the world

Today, most Europeans live in democracies where the press is free, political opponents express their views without fear, and citizens are responsible for electing their own leaders. We have access to largely uncensored, round-the-clock news from all over the world; the right to learn about other countries, cultures and people; and the right to make informed decisions about how we are governed.

But prior to the revolutions of 1989, things in the Soviet Union looked very different.

For one thing – the government censored the press. This meant that any news that reached the public would have been vetted, so it was unclear what was real and what was the communist regime’s version of the truth.

Press freedom first came under attack right at the start of the Soviet period, when Lenin became head of government of Soviet Russia, and later the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1924. Under his administration, Russia became a single-party communist state and took control of the entire media, a state of affairs that lasted until the dissolution of Soviet Russia in 1991.

State-sanctioned newspapers were distributed within the­ Soviet Union as a means to spread communist propaganda. The major national newspapers were Izvestia (the voice of the government) and Pravda (the voice of the party), both of which served to push communist propaganda on citizens of the state.

The government censored the press. This meant that any news that reached the public would have been vetted, so it was unclear what was real and what was the communist regime’s version of the truth.

The Soviet Union ensured that each publication was censored before release under an organisation called Glavlit – a representative of which was present in every newsroom.

Both Soviet journalists and foreign correspondents who wrote for Western publications would have to send articles and information to Gavlit representatives to be censored prior to release. The government, which was careful about what information was shared, would check each and every article.

It wasn’t just newspapers that caught the eye of the Soviet censors. Novels, poetry, journals, radio, television – all were subject to a strict censorship regime. On coming to power, the communists had destroyed many pre-revolutionary and foreign books, and later even many Soviet publicationswere ‘deleted’ due to changes in the regime and what was deemed politically dangerous at the time.

With information so tightly controlled and no free press, there was no one to hold leaders to account, and no way of highlighting the regime’s failures or abuses.  Soviet citizenswere given no option but to believe what the state told them.

Real people: Vladimir Bukovsky

Despite strict censorship laws being in place, there were ways to subvert them. Bukovsky was a Soviet dissident and heavily involved in Samizdat (Russian for self-publishing), which involved people reproducing censored publications by hand and passing them among friends.

Punishment was severe if you were caught but it was a cunning and resourceful way of finding out what was really going on in the outside world.

Bukovsky summarised it as follows: “Samizdat: I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself and spend jail time for it myself.”


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