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Essay: Exploring Russian Writer’s Relationship to State in Cold War & Post-Soviet Russia

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  • Published: 19 February 2023*
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  • Tags: Cold War essays

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It seems like the United States media has been fascinated with Russia for a long time. More than a dozen movies that involved Russia in one way or another were produced during the Cold War, and recent movies such as Marvel’s The Avengers, Bridge of Spies and Red Sparrow prominently feature Russians spies. Since the 2016 Presidential election, Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have been in the spotlight of the United States media due to allegations that Russia interfered with the election. Russia was already in hot water with Western media at the time due the brutal murder of journalist Dmitry Tsilikin in Saint Petersburg earlier that year.

The United States press tends to attribute the current state of the independent press in Russia and the treatment of Russian journalists to President Vladimir Putin, but I think that is giving him too much credit. The relationship of the United States and Russia to their respective journalists, press and media has far more to do with history and ideology than it does Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. The United States and Russia inherently disagree because they have different ideologies, but there have always been dissenters in the sphere of Russian writing—from Boris Pasternak in the 1950’s to the editors of Novaya Gazeta today. Despite the efforts of the Russian state to silence anyone who dares to disagree with them, Western ideology has slowly gained a foothold in Russia through the work of independent journalists.


Freedom of the press has been ingrained in American ideology since the inception of the United States. In 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to write a “Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec,” hoping to convince the French Catholics there of the righteousness of American resistance to British rule. In that letter author John Dickinson listed a number of rights that Americans were defending, including the freedom of the press:

“The last right we shall mention, regards the freedom of the press. The importance of this consists, besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated, into more honourable and just modes of conducting affairs.”

Thus, Americans have been inundated with the idea that freedom of the press is a “certain unalienable right,” inherent to the nature of man and essential to the pursuit of happiness, since the birth of the United States. At the same time, Americans have also been inundated with a deep sense of community. The national motto of the United States is “E Pluribus Unum,” which means “out of many, one.” Therefore the United States government exists to both promote the general welfare and preserve individual rights. There have been (and continue to be) instances when the two come into conflict, usually in the Supreme Court, but I think in these cases the Court takes more care to not infringe upon the individual rights of United States citizens, such as freedom of the press.


By contrast, at the birth of the Soviet Union the Bolsheviks immediately curtailed freedom of the press. One of the first decrees signed by Vladimir Lenin on October 27, 1917 was the Decree on the Press (Murray 2). The Decree on the Press essentially outlawed newspapers that published views opposing the October Revolution. Furthermore, a tribunal to investigate and suppress newspapers and a state monopoly on advertising were also instituted in 1917 (McNair 36). The basic structure of the Soviet Union press was established via another decree fifteen years later, on August 11, 1930. That decree created a pyramidal structure of papers; at the apex were publications such as Pravda or Izvestia, which published official accounts of activities by the highest governmental bodies. Then, each of the fifteen Soviet republics had a corresponding paper for its own high governmental bodies. The structure went to increasingly smaller divisions, including city and town papers.  The government controlled rights to licensing papers, financing papers, training for journalists and appointment to high-level media jobs. Anything the government did not like was censored. As a result, news coverage was always positive about the state and always condemned the enemies of the state. This environment dominated the Soviet Union for the majority of its existence.

Occasional breakthroughs of limited free press did occur, such as during the 1920’s when Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin debated what The New Economic Policy of the Soviet Union should be. Journalists were allowed to criticize old policies and discuss the economic issues facing the country.  Nikita Khrushchev allowed criticism of Joseph Stalin and some of his policies after the Secret Speech in 1956. Unfortunately, this “freedom” was extremely limited. There were still bans on criticism of the state and its final policy decisions, which basically meant that the press could report negatively, but only on issues approved by the state and only in a manner approved by the state.

In general disapproving voices would not be heard until the 1980’s under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev encouraged a policy of “Glasnost” (openness), and he and his allies demonstrated it by voicing dissent over a number of issues confronting the USSR. Gorbachev encouraged the newspapers to print criticisms of the government and to reevaluate the Stalinist period in an effort to force a change in policy, economic policy in particular. However, during the early Glasnost period journalists were still hesitant to report freely.  At this point, they were so used to government suppression of their work that I’m not sure they knew how to “report freely.”

Eventually they warmed up to their newfound freedom, and in June 1990 Law on Press Freedom further affirmed and protected the independence of journalists and newspapers.  However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, newspapers and independent journalism faced a difficult transition to a market economy. After years of state subsidization, they were forced to compete in an open market and the results were predictably bad. These journalists had, after all, no experience writing what they wanted to write and building a readership of people who enjoyed what they wrote so much that they were willing to pay for it.

Russian journalists did not have long to adjust to this new world. President Vladimir Putin was elected in March 2000, and since then journalists have been re-introduced to the old ideology that exemplified the Soviet Union. Putin perfectly understood the power of the media that helped propel his famously unpopular predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, to power in 1996. So it’s not surprising that the first thing he did after assuming office in 2000 was begin hostile takeovers of all of the popular TV channels (still the preferred medium in the country).  According to a 2006 study, 91% of news coverage in Russia focuses solely on Putin and the Kremlin leaders; three quarters is positive, one quarter is neutral, and none is negative.  Independent publications do still exist and the government does not formally censor them, but their ability to spread their work is still limited.

It’s limited because many of these independent journalists receive death threats if they continue certain investigations. Thirteen journalists, all notable opponents of the Kremlin, have been killed since the beginning of Putin’s presidency. Perhaps the most notable murders were Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, and Anna Politkovskaya, who worked primarily for Novaya Gazeta. International pressure for protection of journalists and press freedom has been severely curtailed by a Russian law requiring Non-Governmental Organizations to reregister with the government for greater oversight, and this is makes it difficult for organizations like the Human Rights Watch or the Committee to Protect Journalists to fight for press rights within Russia.

2018 has not shown signs of improvement. In March, there was a terrible fire in a Kemerovo mall that claimed dozens of lives, including children, and the late reaction of Moscow brought people out into the streets to show their solidarity with victims’ families and to protest toxic dumps in the Moscow region. The state immediately criticized the protestors and Parliamentarians proposed legislation to limit reporting on the tragedy.  In July, three Russian journalists who were supposedly investigating the activities of a private military contracting group with ties to the Kremlin were killed in the Central African Republic.  In October, a Novaya Gazeta journalist was sent a death threat in the form of a funeral wreath and a severed animal head—with a note calling him a traitor.


“Traitor” is a harsh word… and yet in Russia it seems like it is thrown around quite a bit. Investigative journalists who dare to write negatively about the Kremlin and President Putin are “traitors.”  So are ex-KGB or FSB agents who grew disillusioned with Russia and committed espionage or defected. I find it unbelievable that a journalist can be given the same label as a super-spy. Yes, there are traitors in the United States, and the United States government labels those who commit espionage traitors (Aldrich Ames comes to mind), but I like to think that if the United States government began labeling journalists “traitors,” there would be serious public outcry. Certainly a journalist would never be imprisoned or killed for his or her work in the United States like a spy would. But in Russia, journalists and spies are labeled the same way and they both often pay the same way for their actions—with their lives.

Despite this fact Russian citizens generally have positive feelings towards the Kremlin, President Putin and “Mother Russia.”  A poll of Russian citizens determined that Russians generally support Putin’s concentration of political power and strongly support the re-nationalization of Russia’s oil and gas industry, and Russians generally support the political course of Putin and his team. A 2005 survey showed that three times as many Russians felt the country was “more democratic” under Putin than it was during the Yeltsin or Gorbachev years, and the same proportion thought human rights were better under Putin than Yeltsin.

Even persecuted independent journalists are usually patriotic and love their country, despite persecution. Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago and one of the most famous Russian writers of all time, wrote to Nikita Khrushchev after the Soviet government threatened to exile him: “Leaving the motherland will be equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.”  Pasternak very nearly paid the ultimate price for his choice to have Doctor Zhivago published illegally in Italy, and he declined to receive the Nobel Prize he was awarded for the book because of threats to him and his family.

Six journalists for Novaya Gazeta have paid that price. But, Novaya Gazeta holds another record as well: for the number of prizes and professional awards, including a recent Pulitzer Prize.  While the state-controlled media report on growing GDP, President Vladimir Putin’s achievements, and Western conspiracies against Russia, independent journalists report on purges in Chechnya and mass protests across Russia’s biggest cities. “The choice is very simple,” says Milashina, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, “If you want to be a journalist, you work for RBC or Novaya Gazeta. If you want to be nothing of the sort, go to the federal media.”  It seems like the West recognizes the quality of these writers’ work and the steep price they have paid (and continue to pay) to deliver it, even as Russia does not. In this year’s special anniversary edition of Novaya Gazeta, editors wrote:

“What will happen to the world? We can guess. What will happen to the country? We don’t know that either. What will happen to us? Here, there is clarity. As long as the newspaper is published, it will retain its signature and approach. In outline: the basis of the profession is talent. The rights of the individual are greater than the rights of the state. Obscurantism is a crime. Corruption is apartheid. ‘Do not hit or lick below the belt’ (Yuri Schekochikhin). We will not betray these principles.”

The way I see it, these principles are very Western in nature. “The basis of the profession is talent,” sounds similar to the capitalist idea that the more skilled you are the higher your chances are of being successful. “The rights of the individual are greater than the rights of the state.” This is a fundamental ideological difference between the United States (and the West in general) and Russia. Most Russians believe that the rights of the state are greater than the rights of the individual; Americans and citizens of other Western countries believe the opposite. Each side believes that the other is backwards and broken. Russian independent journalists are the exception; they challenge their party’s ideology by essentially demonstrating to the government that their individual right to write and publish what they want is greater than the state’s right to silence them. “Obscurantism is a crime. Corruption is apartheid,” I interpret this to mean that they will report instances of obscurantism and corruption, wherever it is found, even if that means they are often reporting on the Kremlin or President Putin. “Do not hit or lick below the belt,” I think this means that these journalists are going to report the fair and honest truth; they won’t go for a low blow and they also won’t kiss up to anyone.

I’m not sure Russian independent journalists would have accepted Western ideology such as this without Western encouragement, which started in the 1950’s when CIA agents arranged for an illegal printing of a Russian-language version of Doctor Zhivago. The illegal books were then distributed at the Brussels World Fair in 1958, and the CIA also used its own press in Washington to print miniature pocket-sized copies of the books. Their efforts paid off—the reported price of the book on the black market in Moscow was close to a week’s wages.

The CIA chief is quoted as saying during the Cold War, “Books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.”   Through a number of front organizations the CIA subsequently purchased, printed, distributed, and commissioned a number of books with the goal of promoting Western values. This included novels by authors such as George Orwell, Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce. The CIA got as many as one million books to Soviet readers in Russia by smuggling the books in everything from food cans to Tampax boxes. Nowadays it is far easier, thanks to the Internet, for anyone to access international media. The Internet has also made censorship increasingly difficult because of its sheer size—there are so many sources of information that it’s nearly impossible to sift through them all.


Boris Pasternak, Yuri Shchekochikin, Anna Politkovskaya, the current journalists at Novaya Gazeta, and countless others are known for their fearlessness to tell the truth about everything and everyone, including the highest leaders of the land and their closest circles. That choice has never been the most popular or the safest in Russia throughout its long history.  Novaya Gazeta in particular is a newspaper that, logically, should not exist in Putin’s Russia. It’s ideology stands in direct contrast to that of Russia and is more akin to the ideology of the United States.  Joseph Stalin described writers as “the engineers of the human soul,” and added that, “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.”  It seems like the spark of Western ideology in Russia that began with Doctor Zhivago and the CIA has grown into a tiny flame nurtured by Novaya Gazeta, and if writers really are the engineers of human souls I have hope that the small flame will continue to grow.

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