A NUMBER of papers were shut down after the November revolution and the conservatives wagged their heads with a good deal of reason and said: "Well, you see how it is when the radicals come into power--they do the same things that we do." It was true and not true. In the first place, the Soviet government does not pretend to believe that the reactionaries should be allowed to control the press, that a handful of capitalists should make public opinion. They believe that the press should be the expression of the people as well as the government...
There was a great scarcity of paper in Russia and they argued that a just arrangement would be to limit the amount of press-paper, ink, etc., to the proportion of votes cast by each political party. A decree was passed to this effect which cut down the papers of the conservatives to a large extent.
Another reason for suppression was that many papers refused to obey the new advertising laws, making advertising a government monopoly. This law was passed in order to obtain funds for running the government and maintaining the army.
During the intenseness of the insurrection certain papers were stopped because they attempted to create panic and incited to riot by printing all sorts of exaggerated reports. An explanation of steps taken to combat this is given by Lenine in the Decree of the Press, which was passed by the Petrograd Soviet. It said in part:
"In the serious, decisive hour of the revolution and the days immediately following, the Provisional Revolutionary Committee was compelled to adopt a whole series of measures against the counter-revolutionary press of all shades.
"At once cries arose from all sides that the new socialistic authority was violating the essential principles of its programme. The Workers' and Soldiers' Government draws attention to the fact that in our country behind such a shield of liberalism is hidden an attempt to poison the minds and bring confusion into the consciousness of the masses. It was impossible to leave such a weapon as wilful misrepresentation in the hands of the enemy, for it is not less dangerous than bombs and machine guns.
"That is why temporary and extraordinary measures have been adopted for cutting off the stream of calumny in which the yellow press would be glad to drown the young victory of the people.
"As soon as the order will be consolidated, all administrative measures against the press will be suspended. Full liberty will be given within the broadest and most progressive measures in this respect; even in critical moments the restriction of the press is admissible only within the bounds of necessity."
It is possible for papers to exist in Russia without advertisements because the price of a newspaper is very high and they are only two-page affairs with no illustrations. The editors never heard of a "human interest" story. Papers are not delivered, except foreign papers. News vendors are sold out an hour after the papers appear on the streets, there being always the greatest hunger for news.
The most important official notices, since the revolution, were pasted on the walls of buildings or printed on handbills and distributed throughout the city.
The advertising decree was interesting; it included an elaborate plan for state control. Offenders of this law were promised three years' imprisonment, but no editor was ever sentenced, although many were convicted. The usual procedure was to close up the paper for a week and then allow it to reappear under another name.
A number of well-known Russian writers got out one issue of a paper called Journal Protest, with articles in it denying the right, under any circumstances, of suppression of the press. Among the contributors were Korolenko, Sologub, Kirakoff, Max Mijoneff, Professor Kiraieff and Eugene Zamiatin. The protest did not create any noticeable effect on public opinion and after one attempt was given up.
Zamiatin, who is by profession an architect, is considered by Gorky to be one of the coming Russian writers. A quaint little symbolic tale written by him as a defence of free speech which he gave me and which has never been translated into English before I reproduce here:
There were two brothers living in a wood; the senior and the junior. The senior was illiterate, the junior, learned. About Easter they began to argue between themselves. The senior said, "It's Easter Sunday, time to eat Easter meals."
But the junior looked at the senior and replied, "It's only Thursday."
The senior was furious and thought the junior obstinate, stubborn. He fell upon him with an axe, crying: "Will you not eat Easter meals? Say you it is only Thursday?"
"It is only Thursday."
"Thursday? Thou damned one!" bellowed the senior and hewed the junior down with the axe and hid him under the seat. Then he heated the oven, somehow ate Easter meals and sat under the ikons, contented. Suddenly under the oven the chirping of a cricket. Thursday--Thursday, Thursday--Thursday, Thursday--Thursday. The senior was furious and crept under the oven.
There he searched for the cricket and came out all sooted, dreadful, black. But the cricket was caught, hewed down and the senior perspired, opened the windows and sat under the ikons contented. "Now it's all over," he said.
But outside below the windows, heaven knows whence, came sparrows, singing -- Thursday, Thursday--Thursday.
More furious than ever was the senior. He went after the sparrows with his axe. Some flew away, some were hewed down. "Well, thank Heaven, it's finished--that damn word Thursday." His axe was blunt from so much killing. He began to sharpen it and heard it jingle--Thursday-Thursday, Thursday. The senior threw down the axe and hid in the shrubs and there he lay until Easter.
On Easter Sunday the junior, naturally, rose from the dead. He crept out from under the seat and said to the senior: "Thou fool, to try to hew down a word. We are both right. Come kiss me, it's Easter."
While the Soviets declared a temporary suppression of the press, they never at any time tried to interfere with public speaking or with theatrical performances which ridiculed them or the revolution. I have often watched a crowd of rich bourgeoisie bullying sailor guards in front of the City Duma and marvelled at the patience of the sailors. Street talks were common. Bed Guards would stand quietly listening to a speaker berate them without getting the least ruffled; they seemed often deeply interested in the arguments put up by their opponents. People do not shoot each other in Russia as a result of heated "discussions"; fist-fighting is practically unknown. Whenever there is fighting one can be sure that it is no personal thing but a mass action, a regular battle, no matter how small.
The Bolsheviki have been so long suppressed that when it falls their lot now to suppress other people they do it half-heartedly. This attitude was particularly beneficial to the prisoners in Peter and Paul Fortress. I went out to the prison one bitter day in January, because I had heard tales of the terrible hardships the prisoners had to undergo.
I was surprised and delighted to find that there were fires in all the cells, because in the government hotel where I lived we did not have enough fuel to heat the place and were literally freezing.
I walked along the corridor and found Bielinsky, the old Chief of Police under the Tsar, smiling with satisfaction. Even Sukomlinov, who sold out the army at the beginning of the war and who deserved death if any one ever did, was pleased with his treatment. For the first time since their imprisonment these men were permitted to walk in the courtyard and allowed to read the newspapers. All the prisoners were comfortable and had enough food. That was better than the rest of us on the "outside" could say.
We told the Bolshevik jailers and guards when we were leaving that we would like to take a room in the prison so we could keep warm, but they refused to joke about it. One of them said: "We know what it is like to be shut up for long days and nights. Nothing can make up for liberty." It is interesting to note that the political prisoners liberated through the tolerance of the Bolsheviki now form their principal political opposition abroad.