Soviet Media's Role Traced In Exhibit

Library of Congress chronicles the demise of restrictions on the press. WORLD PRESS

THE history of the vanishing Soviet Union appears on the red walls of a section in the Library of Congress where the "Press of Freedom" exhibit has just gone up.

The exhibit traces the radical changes that have taken place in the former Soviet press, once a monolithic government entity exerting total control over what was printed. Then came the stirrings of an underground press, called samizdat, or "self-publishing," and by 1990 the emergence of a new press, so that the old press, like Pravda, had to learn new ways of editing, coverage, layout, emphasis.

You can stroll through the show in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress and see it happening. Pravda: before and after, from an eight-column broadsheet to a streamlined version in which all the symbols of Communist control have been removed from the front page. You can see the carbon copy flimsies of what is really the samizdat newspaper Ekaterinaberg #2, the Lithuanian Independence Day newspaper, dated Feb. 16. There is also a St. Petersburg newspaper called Anti-Sovietskaya Pravda, or "the a nti-Soviet truth."

In an area on religion, there is a section on "the unsuccessful attempt to enforce atheism underscored by the great revival of religion in Russia" with illustrations that cover the walls: a Jewish magazine called Menora, the Baptists' Khristianskoe Slava, the Islamic newspaper Islam Nu-y, and the Russian Orthodox Church's Pravoslavnoe. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev lifted restraints on the religious press in 1985.

With the breezes of freedom, magazines have emerged far from the repression of pre-Gorbachev days: Orientir DiP with a cover that includes an expose on Madonna, nude sun-bathing, and alleged UFO visits. In an issue of Strolitsa, one of the main magazines, a zipper covers the mouth of the person on the cover. Moscow magazine, which boasts articles on "The changing lifestyles of Moscovites," has a cover story "Yeltsin: The Interview."

As the show illustrates, after 70 years of hewing to the party line in print, formerly off-limits subjects like UFOs, astrology, the paranormal, and the occult are thriving in the open press. So are social problems like substance abuse, crime, AIDS.

The "Press of Freedom" also includes a section on political freedom itself, pointing out how glasnost suddenly allowed not just one political party, Communism, but a multiplicity.

This is seen in diverse publications, including the Monarkhist, which calls for the return of a czar; the Latvian Party of Social-Democrats, which publishes the Menshaevik; The Wind from the Baltics, which the Byelorussians publish, and a variety of others.

To prove that masks and decorative objects can be as political as newspapers and magazines, the show includes a satire of a commissioner on an Easter egg, a papier-mache mask of Stalin, and series of the nestled dolls known as Matrioshka done up as world leaders from President George Bush to John F. Kennedy.

The man who tracked down this glimpse of the former Soviet Union press in transition is Eric Johnson of the Exchange and Gift Division of the Library of Congress. It was the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who decided in 1989 that the library should be collecting this material.

In February 1990 they opened up an acquisitions office in downtown Moscow, headed by Mikhail Lerner. "And in the summer of 1990 I was sent to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to [find] the same kinds of material he had in Moscow," Mr. Johnson says.

He landed in Lithuania, and found he had to cover most of the territory with foot power because there was no gas.

"I was the first Library of Congress representative to visit the Baltics in 54 years. I was treated like visiting royalty ... everyone in the library community was incredibly friendly and helpful. I went looking for these materials, showed them, and they took over [finding them], gathering similar materials for their own library collection.

"I was surprised to find people willing to talk about almost anything. Back in l983 when I was last there, no one said anything in public, so it was a marked change."

Also contributing to the "Press for Freedom" exhibit - which is scheduled to run indefinitely - were Michael Neubert and Harold Leich, both of the European division, and exhibit director Andrew Cosentino of Interpretive Programs, as well as the library's acquisitions agent in Moscow, Mr. Lerner.

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