Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Simon Huxtable's "News from Moscow"

Simon Huxtable is Lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck, University of London. His work focuses on the history of the Soviet Union, with a particular focus on mass media. He is the co-author, with Sabina Mihelj, of From Media Systems to Media Cultures: Understanding Socialist Television (2018) and has published a number of journal articles and book chapters on the history of the press and television in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Huxtable applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, News from Moscow: Soviet Journalism and the Limits of Postwar Reform, and reported the following:
Page 99 of News From Moscow places the reader in the middle of one of my favourite stories in the book. In 1960, in the town of Kirovgrad (today Kropyvnytskyi) in Central Ukraine, a group of schoolchildren found a letter in a cigarette case attesting an act of wartime heroism. News of the case reached the press, and a few days later, the Red Star [Krasnaia zvezda] newspaper was asking for information that would help identify this heroic partisan. A day later, the paper reported excitedly that A.S. Krishovskii, a museum worker in a nearby town, had been identified as the hero as positive evaluations from comrades flooded the paper. Before long, however, the story unravelled. Krishovskii was no hero - he had recently been imprisoned for sexual coercion and wounding a passer-by with a misplaced gunshot. Worse still, Krishovskii had never been a partisan: in fact, he had spent the occupation working as a forest warden for the occupying German forces. After an investigation, the KGB concluded that the accusations were true and that Krishovskii had probably planted the cigarette case himself. Meanwhile, the editor of Red Star found himself summoned to the Central Committee's Agitprop department for a dressing down.

Page 99 offers an excellent way into the book and its concerns. If we try to unpick the motivations of the different protagonists, we learn a lot about the Soviet media in the early 1960s. From the point of view of the unlucky editor, the hidden letter offered a sensational news story that might earn him and his newspaper kudos in the eyes of readers and political overseers. Soviet newspapers in the 1960s were not the unreadable rags of the Stalin era, but searching for fresh ways of reporting the news. Despite his mistake, the editor was not imprisoned or fired. Though his conversation at Agitprop was no doubt unpleasant, the result was probably nothing more severe than a reprimand; this climate allowed journalists and editors to take risks. Krishovskii's burial of the letter showed an awareness of the Soviet media's search for sensations, and its capacity to create heroes. In the years leading up to this case, newspapers had grown particularly interested in searching for documents about everyday heroes, often serializing their diaries and letters. And what of the 'comrades' who phoned the newspaper to share their positive evaluations? Given that Krishovskii was never a partisan, these stories, too, would seem to be untrue. So what was the motivation? Mistaken identity? A chance for material gain by bathing in the reflected light of a hero? Or just a desire to see one's name in print? Again, it seems that these individuals, too, were cognizant of the power of the press.

Page 99 is representative of some of the wider questions my book poses. What counted as good journalism after Stalin's death? And how did Soviet newspapers relate to their readers during Khrushchev's 'Thaw'? My book argues that the answer to these two questions are related. After the Secret Speech’s denunciation of Stalin, journalists recognised that their newspapers were boring and politically harmful. To remake them, they appealed to readers, in the sense of producing content that would make them eager to build communism, by acting as readers’ defender in the face of an often-faceless bureaucracy, and by drawing on content drafted by readers themselves. But, as the case of the poor Red Star editor shows, journalists often made mistakes, undermining the Soviet newspaper’s claim to infallibility. This case, and my book more broadly, shows that the Soviet propaganda machine was often prone to misfire.
Learn more about News from Moscow at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue