Losing Pravda, An Interview with Natalia Roudakova

Losing Pravda

Losing Pravda, An Interview with Natalia Roudakova


Editor’s note: this text is excerpted from a transcript of “The Ethics of Soviet Journalism” podcast on Sean Guillory’s Sean’s Russia Blog. The interview features Natalia Roudakova, who was awarded the 2018 Wayne S. Vucinich Prize for Losing Pravda: Ethics and the Press in Post-Truth Russia (Cambridge University Press).

Sean Guillory: Your book’s title, Losing Pravda, has a double meaning, it seems to me. On the one hand it refers to the loss of the newspaper Pravda, which can be seen as a metaphor, for the Soviet Union in general. But on the other hand, it refers to the loss of truth. What are you trying to say with this double meaning of your book’s title?

Natalia Roudakova: Well, like any clever book title, it is supposed to simply attract attention. But the first meaning is pretty obvious, about the loss of the newspaper. The second meaning is about the loss of the need to seek truth, the loss of the value of seeking truth and telling it to others that I am arguing has occurred in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s this double meaning that I’m after. The cultural diminution of the value of seeking and telling truth to others, and especially to the face of power.

SG: A reader might find this quite ironic, or strange, because truthseeking isn’t usually associated with Soviet journalism. This is one of the things that your book begins with—a theoretical discussion of the problematic of truth in the Soviet Union—but also how we understand it more generally. You ask the reader to see truth not as a binary of true and false, but as an ethic, or as a virtue, and even an expression of sincerity. What do you mean by this ethical approach to truth in the Soviet context?

NR: As I claim in the introduction, any book that has the term pravda or truth in the title must address the question of the moral balance of the entire Soviet order, and so that is the big question that I raise. I am interested in approaching truth as a social product above all else, and by that I mean that it’s something that is produced by people together, something that has a big element of power to it, but is not reduced to it. I simultaneously follow Foucault and go beyond some of his more classic statements on the relationship between truth and power.

    I think of truth telling as a social activity, meaning that truthtellers need to be socially recognized as such. There are certain, tacit criteria, and so I use a lot of different kinds of theories about what it means to be tacit. What does it mean to be non-direct? What does it mean to signal something without explicitly saying it? To the extent that this wave or space of truth exists, it exists as a social practice, recognized as such. I claim in the book that there was such a space in the Soviet Union, and that it was occupied in particular by the practices surrounding journalism.

SG: Can you give an example of how a Soviet journalist works with the issue of truth?

NR: Yeah. I give a pretty extensive example of somebody named Yuri Shchekochikhin, a very well-known Soviet journalist and then Russian journalist and parliamentarian. He worked for the newspaper Literaturnaia Gazeta toward the end of the Soviet period, where he was known as their bravest, most courageous, honest, and hardworking investigative journalist.

    He wasn’t by far the only one in the entire Soviet Union, but he was one of the better-known investigative journalists in Soviet Russia. He went after a lot of cases of corruption in the Soviet government bureaucracies, very much acting on signals from below, as we know from historical work that has been done.

    There are a fair number of cases of whistle-blowing in the Soviet Union that I discuss, and officially Literaturnaia Gazeta was known as a place to which people could turn with a case of whistle-blowing. [Shchekochikhin] would take that up, and he would work for months on an essay, investigating an issue. Sometimes morally reprehensible behavior by officials, sometimes illegal behavior by officials. Not every story was published. In fact, more stories were left unpublished or never even written, but the journalist did the necessary legwork and follow up in order to try to correct the injustice. 

SG: This is really interesting, and goes to the role that Soviet journalism or Soviet journalists played within the system, within the society, because our general understanding—and I think this is something that you’re giving a good challenge to—is that journalism is just a place for propaganda, right? But you have these amazing stories of journalists actually being the voice of the population, of these whistle-blowers. So what is the role of the press within the Soviet Union?

NR: As I see it, the most important way to think of it is that the Soviet press was part and parcel of the governing mechanism of Soviet society, but then governing needs to be understood as an actual practice as opposed to a topdown relay of totalitarian tendencies of some leaders.

    One important role that I don’t address much at all in the book, because it has been addressed thousands of times elsewhere, is the role of representing the Soviet society, or rather Soviet power, to itself. So, the propaganda or what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls representative publicity, is showing to the king and his court how great their dominion is.

    That’s one very important part, but it was not the only thing that was going on in the Soviet Press. I even go as far as to argue that it wasn’t even the main thing in the Soviet press, or at least it wasn’t the main thing for which the Soviet press was read and respected. 

    In addition to propaganda or representative publicity Soviet journalism provided an imperfect check on power, an accountability role in the Soviet system. The press was pretty much the only institution of accountability in the absence of free and fair elections and the absence of a robust legal system to which citizens could turn with their grievances. The press was it.

SG: So censorship ends in the late 80s and then the Soviet system collapses. How did the end of this ethical system, these various practices of Soviet journalism, change?

NR: That’s a very dramatic, if not tragic, story in the end. It’s a combination of multiple factors that initially revived Soviet journalism. The late 1980s, the perestroika years, the Gorbachev years, the glasnost years, are precisely the years when that spirit of public-oriented truthseeking that I argue was at the core of Soviet journalism, if not Soviet propaganda, which I argue are two different activities, flourished.

    When that spirit started to unfold and to take full shape, for a brief period, there is a moment when the Soviet press was still funded by the government, but was no longer controlled by it at all. Journalists came into their full role of societal telossetters, as they call them: the people who are responsible, feel themselves responsible, for the direction in which the country is going to go.

    As the archives opened up, as topics that couldn’t be written about then became available to be written about, as many journalists ran for office in the new elections to the Russian representative branch of government, there was this incredible kind of high going on. Many different journalists opened their own newspapers, television stations, and radio stations.

    However, as we all know in the field, the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of new liberal reforms in the 90s were accompanied by a very deep and profound economic crisis, when there was simply no currency to be collected and hyperinflation. There was no money in the budget, no money for businesses to spend on advertising, and no money for citizens to pay for these outlets. And so at that very moment when lots of journalists are wanting to start their own enterprises to become beacons of public thought and opinion, they end up without money.

    Tracking the origins of corruption in journalism, what begins to happen is, what do you do when you have no money but want to continue to do what you’re doing? You start to look for money, and that concern for money becomes all powerful. I will never forget one phrase that a journalist told me: “In the Soviet Union, we were taught not to talk about money and not to think about money. And now we have to think about money all the time.” And so clearly that’s where things started to unravel professionally for journalism.

SG: You also note that this had a profound impact on the ethics oftruth-seeking and truth-telling, so much so that you speak of a cynical zeitgeist hanging over the profession by the early 2000s.

NR: The setting in the cynical era actually happens very quickly. I start to see the beginnings of it in ‘93, ‘94. Many journalists from the Soviet period simply could not go on in this atmosphere of having to constantly look for money. Others, though, kept thinking, “All right, I can make some compromises but not others,” because, some of them have simply told me, “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want to do advertising, I don’t want to learn another profession, I love journalism, that is what I do, and now is a new time, so I’m just going to figure out how to stay as true to myself as I can under the pressure of this search for money.”

    And the search for money often meant, on the part of media managers, the search for political sponsorship, because oftentimes money came during election campaigns.

    So some people simply couldn’t do it, others stayed in it, and still many, many others came into the profession, young people, usually, without having had any of that previous training in Soviet journalism, and hence without that commitment to truth-seeking at the core of the profession that was trained into Soviet journalists over decades of mentorship.

    When readers and viewers consumed news and tried to make sense of what was going on in the 1990s, already in ‘93, ‘94, from the sources that I have, I see that readers and viewers were starting to question the sincerity and the honesty with which journalists work. It doesn’t take very much for a reader or a viewer to start to smell something is fishy when all of a sudden the kind of coverage of politics that they’re used to starts to change in subtle and sometimes notso-subtle ways.

    That’s when, I think, the cynical zeitgeist starts to take place, and then it accelerates through the so-called wars of kompromat, which were at their height as the modern oligarchy was being formed in Russia, from the mid 90s to the early 2000s. And then, towards the end of the book, I look into the situation where this cynical zeitgeist is permeating all spheres of life, including entertainment media and the kinds of public statements that public officials make, starting with Putin and all the way down.

SG: But there is some hope, because since, really, 2011, 2012, you do see a growing cadre of dedicated, very good young journalists who are working and doing some fabulous work. So how do you understand the current state of the ethics of Russian journalism amongst this new cadre?

NR: I think things today, in 2018, are a lot clearer, ethically, morally speaking in Russian journalism than they were even in 2013, 2014. Basically I talk about the long 2000s as the most cynical period in contemporary Russian history, where it seemed like there was no hope for any kind of revival of the spirit of truth-seeking and -telling. The mass protests of 2011 and 2012 that I ended up taking some part in convinced me otherwise.

    I do rely a lot on the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s theorizing for my thinking on cynicism. He talks about how modern cynicism is a very multi-layered phenomenon, and it has that tacit component when we withdraw from politics, when we give up on a way forward, when we turn away, when we become apathetic. But then he says only those people who have once been enchanted can be disenchanted.

    So, at the heart of cynicism, he says, there is always a little kernel of idealism or truth-seeking in it, and it gets activated by the exorbitant, cynical dis-inhibition of the powerful. I am starting to see that there is a kind of double tension or double process going on related to that. On the one hand, officials in Russia are increasingly good at showing to everybody that they’re just in the business of governing, or rather in the business of governing the country as if it was a private fiat, that they do not care about citizens, that they do not care about the notions of justice.

    And the more they do so, it seems, the more there is an understanding, especially among the young, and I don’t think only the young, that maybe enough is enough.

SG: And finally, what can today’s journalists in Russia learn from their Soviet forefathers?

NR: One of the things that went out the window really quickly, I remember seeing it in the newspapers of the early 1990s, is the concern for the reader and viewer themselves. I remember seeing something like this: “The newspaper finally no longer has to answer every letter and every phone call, and we consider this as a certain kind of freedom of the press.” That was very informative to see that freedom of the press for some in the early ‘90s was freedom from the reader and from their responsibilities to the reader that the Soviet system had instilled in journalists.

    So, this kind of deep connection to readers and viewers and audience members is, I think, very telling, and a crucial component of what Soviet journalism was about. In today’s world, when trust in media is at such a premium, it is looking out for the reader’s interest, for the public interest, really, that today’s journalists could probably take away most.

Natalia Roudakova (@roudakova) is a cultural anthropologist working in the field of political communication and comparative media studies, with a broad interest in moral philosophy and political and cultural theory. She has worked as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication at UC San Diego, and is now a visiting scholar in the Media and Communication Department at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Sean Guillory (@seansrussiablog) is the Digital Scholarship Curator at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies. He hosts Sean’s Russia Blog podcast. Guillory’s entire interview of Roudakova can be found here.