As a long-time student of political attitudes expressed on radio, TV, and in newspapers, I have recently been thinking about what I am seeing on the new social media. Many people are posting comments on Facebook claiming that America no longer has a free press. These claims, freely transmitted over the internet, would seem to contradict themselves. And they make me wonder if these people have any understanding of what life was like in a country that really did not have a free press: the Soviet Union prior to Gorbachev’s glasnost (free speech) and other reforms.
The Soviet government employed 80,000 people in the central censorship agency, Glavlit, and nothing could be published—not even a message on a book of matches--- without permission from this agency. It spent huge sums of money, and electricity, broadcasting jamming signals so Soviet citizens could not listen to shortwave radio stations like the Voice of America and the BBC. One had to have a license from the police to own a typewriter, which was obviously considered a dangerous weapon, and copy machines were rare and tightly controlled.
Boris Pasternak defied these controls when he smuggled the manuscript for his novel, Dr. Zhivago, out of the country in 1956 after Soviet authorities refused to allow publication, since they considered it hostile to their regime. Pasternak had been subjected to tremendous pressure not to do this, and after it was published abroad his situation became so intolerable that he briefly considered killing himself.
Meetings were held by the Writers Union in which dozens of his friends and colleagues were forced to denounce him in the most vicious terms. He was expelled from the Writers Union by a vote the leader of the meeting deemed unanimous even though one dissenter shouted “Not true! Not unanimously! I voted against!” (Ironically, the dissenter was the sister-in-law of the late dictator, Josef Stalin!)
Earlier in his life Pasternak had gotten in trouble for refusing to sign petitions demanding execution of “enemies of the state.” “Don’t yell at me,” he told some fellow writers at a public meeting. “But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.”
Then the controlled press got into the act. Letters denouncing Pasternak were published, along with articles reviewing Dr. Zhivago in the most negative possible way. Naturally no rebuttals were allowed. Some of the reviewers admitted that they had not read the book. Probably none of them had read it, since it hadn’t come out in Russian yet and copies in other languages could not be brought into the country.
Of course the Soviet editors who allowed these “reviews” to be published were under the thumb of the authorities and knew they would be fired (or worse) if they defied their orders, But the situation reminds me of one of my students at Adrian College, Tiffany B., who was one of the editors of the College World newspaper. There was a very controversial book, The Bell Curve, at the time, which was based on statistics in which the IQs of white Americans and black Americans were graphed with the distribution of the scores of the black people somewhat to the left (i.e. lower) of the distribution of the scores of white people. The interpretation of these facts in this book was very doubtful and drew lots of well-founded criticism.
One of our black students asked Tiffany if he could write review of it for the College World. She replied, as any good editor in a free country would have, “of course, but you have to read it first.”
Where was Tiffany B. when the Soviet Union needed her?