Revolution in the air

Those who control the media control the state. Lenin knew this, but by 1991 his Soviet successors had forgotten, to their ultimate cost.

Ben Jones

This is a time of battles between international media organisations and national governments. Think of the decision by the BBC’s China correspondent, John Sudworth, to move to Taiwan after ‘threats’ and ‘increased surveillance and harassment’ because of his reporting of Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs, or Russia designating Radio Free Europe as ‘foreign agents’. Political elites seeking to establish and increase global influence place great emphasis on how their stories are told. To understand why it is worth considering the very different ways in which the world came to know about the end of imperial Russia and the eventual collapse of the Soviet regime that replaced it. 

Thirty years ago, in August 1991, a group of hardline Communists seized power in Moscow. Their aim was to save the Soviet system as they knew it. They did not follow the plans of their Bolshevik forbears when it came to controlling the coverage of their coup. Their failure to do so betrayed a lack of planning that helps to explain why their time at the summit of Soviet power lasted a mere three days. 

In Russia’s revolutionary year of 1917 things were different. When, in February, the last tsar, Nicholas II, abdicated, ending three centuries of Romanov rule, the outside world was left guessing as to what was going on. ‘No News from Petrograd Yesterday’, wrote the Daily Mail on 14 March. The article that followed was barely 50 words long, beginning: ‘Up to a late hour last night the Russian official report, which for many months has come to hand early, had not been received.’ Days earlier, an American photographer, Donald Thompson (who, as the revolution unfolded, became a pioneer of secret filming, cutting a hole in a bag so that he could operate his camera ‘without anyone knowing what I am doing’), had received a warning of what was to come. His unsuccessful attempt to send a telegram to the United States had ended when ‘the old lady in charge … told me not to waste my money – that nothing was allowed to go out’. Starved of their own sources, newspapers in the US searched in vain for any news that might have reached London. The desire for information was so great that the Daily Mail’s non-story was even picked up by the New York Times under the memorable headline ‘Petrograd silent; London mystified.’

They would not have to wait long. Within days the telegraph links from what was then the Russian capital had been restored and thousands of words poured westwards to satisfy the insatiable curiosity of editors and readers. Much of the British coverage, aside from eyewitness reporting (Robert Wilton of The Times ‘was walking through the Summer Gardens when the bullets began to whiz over my head’) was focused on one question: would the revolution lead Russia to abandon the allied cause in the First World War? The correspondents who watched the end of the Romanov dynasty were convinced that Russia’s commitment to defeating the Central Powers would only become stronger. Petrograd workers, the Daily Mirror reported on 20 March, were ‘loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory’. A Reuters despatch that featured on the front page of the same paper four days earlier, as well as the Daily Express and the Manchester Guardian, had confidently asserted that: ‘Russia is all right as a friend, ally, and fighter. The very trials she is undergoing will only steel her heart and arms.’  

 

Misplaced confidence

Such confidence would prove to be misplaced. While the provisional government under Alexander Kerensky did keep Russia in the war, its military reverses in the summer of that year led to growing support among the ranks for renewed revolution. Such sympathies seem to have been less widespread among the Women’s Battalion of Death, whose enthusiastic participation in the offensive made a big story for one of the few western female correspondents covering revolutionary Russia, Rheta Childe Dorr. ‘Russian Girl Soldiers meet with Losses: Rheta Childe Dorr with Death Legion’, ran the headline in the New York Evening Mail. If the purpose of sending the women’s battalion to the front was, as the historian Orlando Figes has written, to ‘shame the rest of the soldiers into fighting’, it did not work for long. Later that year, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, promising ‘peace, bread, land’ (a slogan made for any media age), took power.

They also made sure to take control of the narrative. Even the British newspapers owned by the implacably anti-communist Lord Northcliffe were reduced to relying on Bolshevik communiques as sources. ‘Coup D’Etat in Petrograd / Lenin Deposes Kerensky / “Peace and Bread”’ was The Times’ headline of 9 November. Any modern spin doctor would be delighted to see one of their lines reproduced in such a way.

The Daily Mail reported Kerensky’s flight and admitted that ‘as his opponents control the telegraphs, wireless, and censorship, it is their version of events that we are receiving’. It was the only version of events that was reaching the wider world, at least in the short term. Like all successful revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks understood the media landscape in which they were seeking to consolidate power. 

 

Creaking narrative

Their ideological heirs in the late Soviet Union showed no such ability. By the summer of 1991 the Soviet economy was creaking and separatist movements were gaining in confidence and strength. Six years of reform, launched when Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, had brought unprecedented press freedom, both for Soviet journalists and foreign correspondents based in the USSR. Bridget Kendall, who began a posting as BBC Moscow correspondent in 1985, remembers a time when ‘The official line was very interesting.’ Even government press releases, not often sources of great excitement for editors, were newsworthy. It soon became apparent that the self-styled ‘State Emergency Committee’, which took power from Gorbachev on 19 August 1991, did not understand the way things had changed. It did make some attempts to control the media message: music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Swan Lake replaced normal programming on state television. Then the plotters gave a disastrous news conference. 

Schooled in a Soviet Union where the press had largely followed the party line, they had not understood the effect of the greater journalistic freedom that had been an important part of Gorbachev’s reforms. Foreign correspondents were fascinated by what was unfolding, while their newly liberated Soviet colleagues were anything but cowed. Mary Dejevsky, then in Moscow for The Times, remembers ‘the very aggressive questioning from the Russian correspondents’. 

The news conference is remembered now in archive footage for the trembling hands of Gennady Yanayev, who had put himself forward as Soviet president in Gorbachev’s stead. Nerves and vodka have both been suggested as causes for his abject performance.

Dejevsky had been woken on the first morning of the coup by a phone call from an Australian radio station. Expecting movement around Moscow to be severely restricted, she was astonished to find armoured personnel carriers on the streets of the Russian capital, ‘mingling with the ordinary traffic. You got trolleybuses, buses, pedestrians, and this great column of military gear’. Equally surprisingly, those correspondents who were not in Moscow – it was August, so some were on summer holiday – were able to return. 

 

Out of control

Beyond taking control of state television, the coup leaders made little effort to take charge of the gathering or distribution of information. Even though a small number of international news organisations had recently been given permission to transmit material from their bureaux, rather than having to take a video tape to the Moscow television centre at Ostankino, north of the city centre, all the connections to the satellites that sent the pictures overseas still ran through Soviet television. The flicking of a few switches by apparatchiks and government sympathisers would have made it much harder for TV pictures of tanks among the rush-hour traffic, or Yanayev’s trembling hands, to reach the world’s news bulletins. Ralph Nicholson, then bureau chief for Visnews (a television news agency, which was one of the foreign companies with permission to transmit from their office), suggests that the coup plotters made three mistakes:

They never shut down the TV centre which allowed us (and others) to get a signal out of the country, they never shut down Sheremetyevo [Moscow’s main international airport] which would have prevented us getting any further journalists, crews, equipment, etc, into the country. And they never shut down the rail stations, which meant we were able to move around the country.

Given that all three weaknesses in the plan could easily have been addressed, it is remarkable that they were not. It may only have been 30 years ago, but media technology was very different then and much more easily restricted than it could be today. The coup plotters did not understand that controlling their image was part of controlling the country. Allowing themselves to be seen trembling in the face of aggressive questioning from journalists was an avoidable error. 

Three decades on, a newly authoritarian Russian leadership makes no such mistakes. The Kremlin administration of President Vladimir Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century, has shown a much better understanding of the media landscape and developed its tactics accordingly. As Dmitri Trenin persuasively argued in his 2016 essay, ‘Should We Fear Russia?’: ‘Rather than hushing up criticism of Russia and its leaders, which the Soviet Union practised all the time, the Russian state-run media attack this criticism immediately, head-on, and seek to demolish the western story.’ Yet skilful use of social media by Putin’s opponents during recent protests has left Russia’s political establishment sometimes looking flat-footed. Russian history suggests that wielding power successfully depends on also understanding the media.

James Rodgers is the author of Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin (Bloomsbury, 2020).