A parallel universe of positive Soviet facts

Editor's note: This is the second of three articles looking at the history of The Moscow News, from 1930 to the present day. Under Yakov Lomko, The Moscow News was something akin to a Russia Today for the 1960s and '70s.

From his fourth-floor office on Zubovsky Bulvar - two floors above the present-day offices of The Moscow News, in what was then Sovinformburo - Lomko controlled a huge multimedia operation, sending out positive images of the Soviet Union to dozens of countries around the world in several languages.

Now a sprightly 92, Lomko has no regrets about his role in putting out the official party line. As long as the paper was reporting facts - rather than aggressive propaganda - it was being objective, he says.

"Journalism without facts is nothing," said Lomko, in a recent interview at the People's Friendship University, where he still teaches journalism and international relations. "It's based on the ability to draw conclusions from facts."

Which facts the paper was reporting, of course, was a different matter - and one that was heavily controlled by censorship, both state- and self-imposed. Many of the most controversial events of those decades - from protests in the Soviet Union to uprisings in Eastern Europe and revolutions abroad - were simply ignored.

Pravda `light'

The newspaper under Lomko's editorship gives off an eerie feeling of having been transported to a parallel universe. The language is English, so you don't immediately envision a propaganda machine like Pravda. It looks like a newspaper, it feels like a newspaper.

It has pictures and headlines and cartoon illustrations. It has facts, figures and commentary. In fact, you would be hard pressed to argue with Lomko when he insists that he was producing an informative and objective newspaper.

There's not much that is uninformative or not objective in a 1979 headline: "Our readers say: Right breeds might and right is on Vietnam's side." It is a fact, after all, that a certain Siva Rama Prasad of India happened to believe that China committed a "wicked act of a wanton aggressor" against Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War, or that one R. N. Amatya thought that "Victory is on the side of truth."

Lest geopolitics becomes too slippery a slope, consider welfare - what's wrong with an expository feature titled "Keeping the kids healthy?" "A paediatrician must be able to reach each toddler, even the most capricious." Nurses keep track of all newborns in a district hospital. That is a fact, and in the degree to which it describes welfare practices in the Soviet Union, it is informative. That there are, inevitably, children with incurable diseases in any country is also a fact, but it is a fact that is hard to stomach because it cannot be eradicated. These children are not mentioned in the feature.

Reading the newspapers long enough, one notices a glaring absence: there are no negative facts about any aspect of life in the Soviet Union. Problems are not "challenges to be overcome," as they are in Western-style political correctness. They are simply never mentioned.

This simple omission is what defined propaganda in general and Soviet newspapers in particular, and it is key in understanding the task that lay before Lomko in producing the paper after Khrushchev's thaw and Brezhnev's stagnation. Only the relevant facts are revealed, and the right conclusion is always drawn.

Today, Lomko appears as steadfast in his convictions as he was when he took the helm of the newly re-launched weekly nearly 50 years ago: "Short term interests should not overshadow the geo-strategic aim," he said. "And the political aim of all people is to build a new world."

Anti-Semitic purge

By February 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's personality cult at the 20th party congress, the Soviet regime, and, with it, The Moscow News, had many negative facts to face up to. In the course of Stalin's purges, several million people (their exact numbers are not known to this day) were killed - either tortured, forced to confess to crimes they didn't commit, and sentenced to be shot, or died in the Gulag system of labour camps. Among the victims were three editors of The Moscow News, including longtime editor-in-chief Mikhail Borodin.

Nikita Khrushchev's thaw offered some wiggle room in acknowledging excesses committed by Stalin, but it was a far cry from freedom of information.

Why exactly Borodin was swept up in the 1949 purges connected with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee is unclear, except that he was Jewish (he was born Mikhail Gruzenberg in Belorussia, and adopted Borodin as his revolutionary nom de guerre). Jewish writers, intellectuals and doctors were particularly targeted in Stalin's final years, as the dictator became even more paranoid and anti-Semitic.

With Borodin's arrest, the paper closed down.

According to one account, the ethnic make-up of the editorial staff at The Moscow News could have been a factor. A 1948 letter from one senior Kremlin official, Dmitry Shepilov, to the party general secretary, Andrei Zhdanov, a key Stalin henchman, reported that the paper had: "One Russian, one Armenian, 23 Jews and three others."

Yevgeny Lanfang, a correspondent at the paper and later Lomko's deputy, agreed that anti-Semitism was behind Borodin's arrest.

"It was the closure of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee," he said.

When the government initiated the purge, many Jews who were not part of the committee were swept up, and accused of being "rootless cosmopolitans" who undermined Soviet culture. Lanfang explained that the closure of the paper had nothing to do with what it printed - it was closed simply because its editor had become a non-person. "Borodin was just a scapegoat. All this was on the orders of the father of all people [Stalin], he was looking for new victims."

Today, Lomko is conspicuously vague about the topic, only saying that no one told him why Borodin was arrested and the paper closed, and he did not ask.

"We did not rush to delve into these matters, which were not explained to us," he said.

"Maybe it was because the newspaper was late. Maybe as a daily it wasn't worthwhile to distribute it abroad, because the information would be dated."

Still a mouthpiece

In September 1955, the government decided to relaunch The Moscow News because other English-language magazines had failed to match it in popularity. This was done in the next few months under the auspices of the Sovinformburo news agency, where Lomko served as deputy chief.

"I could see how interest in us was growing," said Lomko. "So we decided that the paper had to start coming out again. They made it come out three times a week."

French and Spanish editions were launched to cater to interest in Soviet developments, touted as "attracting attention worldwide."

But if the founding editor, Anna-Louise Strong, had initially formed a newspaper for foreigners and run largely by foreigners, by 1956 it was a wholly Russian project and a Russian newsroom. Staff wrote in Russian, said Lomko. "I created offices for translators, editors and copy-editors. There were [Russian] copy-editors who came from the United States and France for two years, so that they had command of modern language. If they spent too much time here, they would lose that proficiency."

Colleagues who worked on the paper with Lomko, however, said this policy stripped the paper of whatever liveliness it had in the very beginning, under Strong.

"You can't make a paper without foreign specialists who understand the subject matter and who they are catering to," said Lanfang. Copy-editors are not enough, he said, recalling an incident from 1956 when the newspaper was 24 hours late. "Our specialists spent hours over tea and crackers arguing about what article should be placed before a particular noun. And the printing press had to wait, later issuing thousands of rubles in fines."

Consultations or censorship?

Olga Martynenko, a culture writer at The Moscow News who later stayed on with the Russian edition, Moskovskiye Novosti, until its ultimate closure in 2008, has an even starker memory of Lomko as a tyrannical ideologue. "There was nothing good about him," she says. "He strictly adhered to the line of the party and the government. As a person, I think he was very cruel."

Was censorship a fact at The Moscow News? According to Martynenko, it certainly was - "I'm sure Lomko sang many marvellous songs about no censorship," she scoffed.

Invariably, a censor would sit in the newsroom, and his job was to read the paper. But Martynenko said that the vigilance of the editors made the censor's job virtually redundant.

Lomko, however, insists that censorship was far milder, and only for reasons of national security. "We had an agreement with the Central Committee that I would write only about the facts," he said. "I had a right not to send articles to the Foreign Ministry or the Central Committee. But sometimes I would send articles because I needed their consultation. It wasn't so much political censorship as state censorship: don't reveal state secrets and that kind of thing. But they have that all over the world."

Lomko was defensive, however, when pressed about coverage of controversial events. The brutally suppressed Novocherkassk riots of 1962 were obviously not covered, he said, because there was no information about that incident.

But what about other, better known events?

"There were a lot of events in the 1960s. Khrushchev's dismissal - was this an event that interested anyone in the West?" Lomko asked rhetorically. "No, no one except a narrow circle of anti-Soviet people."

Khrushchev's forced resignation in 1964, at the age of 70, was covered briefly by the paper: an article from an Oct. 24, 1964 issue states plainly that the party "complied with N. S. Khrushchev's request to be relieved of his duties... owing to his advanced age and deteriorating health." The issue also features an introduction of Leonid Brezhnev, who died while still in office in 1982, aged 75.

The paper covered Soviet troops' suppression of the Prague Spring, but in its own way: "Agreement has been reached on a speedy normalisation of the situation in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic," said the August 31, 1968 issue. "We instructed our armed forces to give the working class, the entire Czechoslovak people, the necessary help in defense of their socialist gains," read an appeal to Czech citizens.

The paper did not cover the actual Prague Spring that led up to the invasion, however.

Lomko said modern interpretations of the Prague events are plain wrong.

"Today we are ignoring the facts that happened then," said Lomko.

In 1962 The Moscow News published Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," a short novel that baldly tracked the typical routine of a convict in the Gulag. Lomko was not testing the limits, however. He was simply being practical.

"I argued that there was a lot of interest in this from readers," he said. "Also, it would undermine speculative interest in the West to publish him before the Russians had published him. It is easy to forget that it was published in Russian already. The fact that we published him in English gave us additional authority."

'World of Problems'

Mikhail Gorbachev must have known what he was letting himself in for when he appointed Yegor Yakovlev, an editor at Izvestia, to head Moskovskiye Novosti in 1986. Perestroika and glasnost required that problems - the negative facts that had been covered up for decades - must come to the surface. For a society not accustomed to this, it took courage from Yakovlev.

The Russian edition was launched in 1980 just ahead of the Moscow Olympics. That year, Lomko had left the newspaper - he was never too keen on a Russia edition in the first place.

"Yakovlev was active, he pushed everything through," recalled Martynenko. "First he was careful. There was such control still. You had to confirm every interview."

With official censorship still in place, it took Yakovlev's will alone to turn the paper around. "In a television channel or a newspaper, very much depends on the editor in chief," said Yevgeny Kiselyov, a former NTV general director and TV presenter who would head Moskovskiye Novosti in 2003. "And I know examples from the 1980s and 1990s when a brave, daring editor who could also be diplomatic and build relations with his colleagues and which the power structures, with the Kremlin, with the Communist Party - he would expand the limits of glasnost."

By 1987, strange words started appearing on the pages of The Moscow News.

"The World of Problems," was the title of one editorial about nothing in particular in the February 21, 1987, issue. "Life is getting more complex, but fairer," said a headline on the front page a month later.

Like other periodicals in the late 1980s, The Moscow News had stumbled into a world that they had never seen before: the world of problems. That world was so at odds with the one that many in the Soviet Union wanted to pretend that they lived in that it ended up toppling the country.

"When the paper started publishing articles against the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro, I was told, stopped distributing it," said Lomko. "'Why do we need another libelous paper against the Soviet Union?' he asked."

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