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In Search of Freedom of the Press

Friday, 20 February 2004 12:00 AM

Freedom of the press, and it was in search of it that we emigrated from Soviet Russia to the United States in 1972.

To begin with, in Soviet Russia all publishers and other media outlets, including copying machines, belonged to the “government” or the “state,” as the dictator was respectfully called.

The ubiquitous government communications media, the arts and scholarship inculcated what was known as “ideology,” though if the only difference between ideology and religion is God, it should be recalled that Stalin intended to become not just God, but the Trinity—in the spirit of Byzantine emperors, about whom Stalin had learned in his Orthodox Church seminary.

According to the ideology, Soviet society was the best of all possible societies, which was to inherit the world and to deliver, for example, the Americans from all payments for medical care, from a high rent, and from university tuition fees. Hence the obligatory mood was optimism: Let the Sun be brighter and bigger, Let it scorch us with its rays, Comrade ahead, where is your vigor? Lively! Forward! No delays!

To many, the problem of freedom of the press seems clear-cut and simple. It is not.

The rule of Tsar Nicholas II and the very word “tsar” have been associated in the United States with the worst tyranny. Of course, there was no freedom of the press!

Actually, it was less abridged than in the United States of that time. Lev Tolstoy declared that all Christian churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, originating in Byzantium, had distorted the teaching of Christ. Tolstoy wrote the true Christian novel, entitled “The Resurrection.” It was published in Russia without a hitch.

In the United States? The translators had to censor out what seemed to be too “sexually explicit,” though Tolstoy’s novel was no more “sexual” than the Gospels. Tolstoy believed that all sexual activity should stop even if the propagation of mankind stops as a result. Yet, for the United States, the novel was too sexually indecent.

It was difficult not to recall that in Victorian England the leg of a table, a chair, or a grand piano was obscene and hence was wrapped up, because it was the same word as in “the leg of a woman” and hence could not be seen “naked.”

The semi-constitutional monarchy of Nicholas II never so much as hinted that anyone should feel happy living in Russia. The country’s greatest poet wrote in the first poem of the third volume of his poetry, which at least three generations of educated Russians knew by heart: Everyone living knows: There is no happiness on earth, And reaches for a gun in death throes, In the quickest quest for death. And yet again we live laughing and crying. Why? The problem has been solved and settled. We will die.

But the paradox of freedom of the press under Nicholas II does not end here. The time between his abdication in 1917 and the early 1930s was the time of the greatest efflorescence of culture, and in particular, poetry, in the history of Russia.

In charge of culture under Lenin and Stalin was Bukharin, who acted as a Medici during the Renaissance in Italy. Many publications were “controversial,” while the novel “And Quiet Flows the Don” (which later won a Nobel Prize) glorified the Cossack anti-Soviet uprising.

When we came to the United States, some Americans laughed at me for my naïve belief that there is a freedom of the press in the United States. “There is freedom of huge corporation presses as well as of electronic networks. You complain that the ‘New York Times’ did not publish your news that you brought to them about the Soviet development of post-nuclear weapons. That’s it! The ‘New York Times’ or ‘Washington Post’ will never publish a line of yours. They publish themselves.”

Are these Americans right? Again, the reality is far more complex and ambivalent. Published in New York until the early 1990s was a daily founded by Rev. Moon and called “The New York City Tribune.”

The editors of the “New York Times” believed that my message about the Soviet development of post-nuclear weapons was nonsense until the newly elected President Yeltsin of Russia opened to international inspection in 1992 the gigantic Soviet project of development of bioweapons.

Now, the editor-in-chief of the “New York City Tribune” Robert Morton and the editor Chris Ruddy liked what I had been writing and I began to publish in the daily my regular column, which the “New York Times” staffers read diligently, as one of them told me privately. Surely this is freedom of the press if in a somewhat convoluted form . . . owing to which the staffers of the “New York Times” read my column, but its readers do not.

If another example is necessary, my “Commentary” article of 1978 about the virtual nonexistence of the CIA was reprinted and outlined by more than 500 periodicals all over the world, which was a wider reach that William Safire has ever achieved.

In Britain, I could not publish a criticism of the British Secret Intelligence Service, and in many societies the intelligence service would have killed me if I ridiculed it as I did the CIA.

What about the CIA?

In my “New York City Tribune” column I continued to criticize the Western intelligence services, including the CIA. Every Monday, when I was at the “New York City Tribune,” the PR department of the CIA called me and begged me to stop criticizing the CIA.

“But look,” I would say, “Answer me! The ‘New York City Tribune’ will publish your answer with pleasure!”

But no! They would rather call me at the newspaper every Monday, and beg me to stop criticizing the CIA.

Certainly this is a vital aspect of freedom of the press. Instead of killing me, the top government intelligence agency begged me to stop criticizing them!

However, John Stuart Mill predicted in England in 1859 a far greater threat to freedom of the press in the form of government, which came to be called “democracy” in the 20h century. Mill made world-known the word “conformity,” that is, thinking alike.

In a tyranny, a tyrant may find it necessary to impose and maintain a conformity by force and propaganda for his own benefit. Thus, in the last year of Stalin’s life, the bulk of Soviet culture was persuading the population that Stalin was God if not yet the Trinity, and those who disputed it, like myself, even privately, risked death from a bullet or in a “labor camp.”

But Mill said that a conformity that is not imposed and maintained from above, but is just shared by conformists themselves may be as destructive for freedom of the press as is a conformity imposed and maintained by a tyrant.

No one in England in 1938 imposed the conformity that Hitler was after peace, and no one shot those Englishmen who would say, “No, Hitler is after his war for world domination.” Yet, the conformity was as mentally potent as any conformity imposed and maintained from above by propaganda and bullets.

An outsider in the West today may think that in the past ten years or so, anyone who said “No, the dictatorship of China is not after peace, but after the annihilation of the West or its unconditional surrender,” was shot or sent to a labor camp, and all Western culture has been in charge of “government officials” who toe “the party line.”

Not a single Democrat presidential candidate and not a single voter in the primaries has mentioned even the word “China” if only to spite the Republicans and/or show that “we, Democrats, are different.”

You bet! Just say “China” and you will be in front of the KGB investigator asking you what you mean. And just try to assure him that you mean that sweet peaceful country, known to some Americans who spend their vacations there and even eat Beijing duck.

The link to my book online is www.levnavrozov.com. You can also request our

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Friday, 20 February 2004 12:00 AM
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