How Soviet dissidents ended 70 years of fake news

Gal Beckerman writes: In the summer of 1990, at a fulcrum moment when his country was tipping from reform to dissolution, Mikhail S. Gorbachev spoke to Time magazine and declared, “I detest lies.” It was a revolutionary statement only because it came from the mouth of a Soviet leader.

On the surface, he was simply embracing his own policy of glasnost, the new openness introduced alongside perestroika, the restructuring of the Soviet Union’s command economy that was meant to rescue the country from geopolitical free-fall. Mr. Gorbachev was wagering that truthful and unfettered expression — a press able to criticize and investigate, history books without redacted names, and honest, accountable government — just might save the creaking edifice of Communist rule.

For the Soviet leader, glasnost was “a blowtorch that could strip the layers of old and peeling paint from Soviet society,” wrote the Baltimore Sun’s Moscow correspondent (and now Times reporter) Scott Shane in “Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.” “But the Communist system proved dry tinder.”

We in the West have always praised Mr. Gorbachev for his courage in taking this gamble — even though he lost an empire in the process — but he did it under pressure. The idea that a better relationship with facts might be liberating for a corrupt and ailing Soviet Union was not new. Mr. Gorbachev was echoing and appropriating the arguments of a dissident movement that, for decades, had made an insistence on truth its essential form of resistance.

If the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s greatest example of a regime that used propaganda and information to control and contain its citizens — 70 years of fake news! — the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution is an important moment to appreciate how it also produced a powerful countercurrent in the civil society undergrounds of Moscow and Leningrad. [Continue reading…]

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