‘Enemies of the people’: Fake news and Bolshevik manipulation of the press in early Soviet Sormovo

By Laura Sumner

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One of Donald Trump’s references to ‘fake news’

 

‘The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!’- Donald Trump (17th February 2017)

‘This strike is subordination… In short, they [Mensheviks and Right SRs] acted as enemies of the proletariat, the enemies of the people, like true Whites.’- ‘Sormovskaia Zhizn’’, Rabochii- Krestianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok  (18th May 1918)

‘Fake news’ was named word of the year in 2016.[1] It was one of the buzz phrases used by sections of the media and politicians against apparently false news stories and campaign claims. Whilst endorsing fabricated news stories himself, Donald Trump has appropriated the term ‘fake news’ to use against sections of the American press which are critical of him. This supposedly ‘post truth’ era in 2017 may seem like the beginning of a slippery slope of backhanded political campaigns from which we can never return. However, there is nothing new about fake news or accusations of fake news. In fact, Trump’s hostile language towards the press is sharply reminiscent of the attempts of the early Soviet state 100 years ago to shape a revolutionary discourse during the Civil War.

Sormovo was a large metalworking factory and industrial complex situated in Nizhegorod province. It had a skilled and literate workforce which had a lot in common with metalworkers in Moscow and Petrograd. However, unlike Moscow and Petrograd it was not the Bolsheviks but the Socialist Revolutionaries, or SRs who commanded the support of Sormovo workers. They won a majority of Sormovo votes for the Constituent Assembly in

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Sormovo workers in the foundry workshop, 1923

November 1917 and continued to have a presence inside the factory and in the Sormovo soviet until mid 1918. The Bolsheviks sought to create a negative discourse about their moderate socialist opposition in Sormovo in an attempt to elicit the support of Sormovo workers. Smith argues that the monopolisation of revolutionary discourse by the Bolsheviks was one of the main reasons they managed to secure state power during the Civil War.[2] The power of the Bolshevik discourse of ‘class war’ is revealed in the Soviet state’s ability to portray the moderate socialist opposition as enemies not only of the new Bolshevik state, but of the people, despite their enduring support in the provinces.

 

After the moderate socialist press was shut down in Sormovo in January 1918, it was extremely difficult for the SRs and Mensheviks to openly challenge Bolshevik policies and rhetoric. Bolshevik newspapers were now one of the only official sources of information. The Sormovo Bolsheviks utilised the local press to speak directly to metalworkers in a section called ‘Sormovo life’ (Sormovskaia Zhizn’). This cemented a Soviet discourse not only about the political opposition but about workers and the Bolsheviks themselves. The Bolsheviks explained labour activism in Sormovo by creating and establishing a discourse that labelled the moderate socialists as ‘bourgeois’ enemies. They were blamed for acting falsely towards workers by trying to dupe them into the destruction of the Soviet state and were used as scapegoats for ongoing unrest amongst labourers. During a strike in 1918 the Bolsheviks publicly accused the Mensheviks of infiltrating certain workshops in Sormovo and persuading workers to be violent during a strike:

‘The Mensheviks and Right Socialist-Revolutionaries have long inserted themselves in Sormovo to agitate against the Bolsheviks and Left SRs. They enjoy all the difficulties that the country is going through. [They] excite the workers against the Soviet government policy and against the dictatorship of the proletariat.’[3]

This type of language is suggestive of a Bolshevik siege mentality and is remarkably similar to Trump’s twitter rants which have accused sections of the mainstream media of lying and deceiving the American people. Like Trump, the Sormovo Bolsheviks created a discourse about themselves in reference to their relationship to workers. Indeed, published Bolshevik resolutions often began ‘we Sormovo workers agree…’. Like Trump’s populist presentation of himself as a successful self-made businessman representing the ordinary working man, the Bolsheviks presented themselves as workers and as the party of the workers, which represented their views and best interests. The Bolsheviks’ was based on what the moderate socialists were not. The moderate socialists were bourgeois and the Bolsheviks were not, the bourgeoisie exploited workers and the Bolsheviks did not.

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Bolshevik newspaper Rabochii-Krest’ianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok

 

The Sormovo workers were given no agency in the narrative of labour activism in Bolshevik local press. They were merely puppets being manipulated by the moderate socialists. In private, the local and provincial organisation in Nizhnii Novgorod were in a continual state of fear about Sormovo workers, of their labour activism, ingrained support for the SRs and their integral role in the production of munitions for the Civil War. In private, Soviet reports about the causes of strikes are not steeped in ideological language. In a report of another strike in 1919 the Bolsheviks reported how they believed the strike had begun:

‘The reason for the outbreak of the strike was mainly about the insufficient amount of food issued per month to workers.’ [4]

This reveals a major discrepancy in the Sormovo Bolsheviks discourse about workers. In private correspondence the Bolsheviks were aware of how the food crisis in Sormovo was a prominent grievance of Sormovo workers. In the public press the workers themselves were not publicly blamed for the strike as this would have raised ideological questions about the nature of the Soviet state being a workers’ regime and representing workers in Sormovo.

By using labels such as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘enemy of the people’ to identify enemies of the state, the Bolsheviks created a powerful revolutionary discourse. The use of labels as a means of distinguishing the opposition had no base in reality but was a means to distinguish the state’s allies from its enemies. The fluidity of these labels created an atmosphere of fear and became a coercive tool, which was a formative experience for the Soviet Union, not unlike the ‘fake news’ phenomenon at play at present in the United States.

Laura Sumner is a final year ESRC funded History PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her research ‘Ideology and Identity: ‘Knowing’ workers in Early Soviet Russia, 1917-1921’ explores discourses about worker identity in the Early Soviet Period with a focus on the factory complex Sormovo in Nizhegorod Province. You can find her on Twitter:

References:

[1] ‘’Fake news’ named word of the year by Macquarie Dictionary’, The Guardian (24/01/2017) [https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jan/25/fake-news-named-word-of-the-year-by-macquarie-dictionary]

[2] S. Smith, Captives of revolution: The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Bolshevik dictatorship, 1918-1923 (Pittsburgh, 2011) pp. xiv-xv

[3] ‘Sormovskaya Zhizn’’, Rabochii- Krestianskii Nizhegorodskii Listok (18th May 1918)

[4] GOPANO (Gosudarstvennyi obshchestvenno-politicheskii arkhiv Nizhegorodskoi oblasti ) f.34, op.1, d.61: Sormovskii Raikom RKP(b) Nizhegorodskaia Gubernia: Materialii Komissii po zabastovki na Sormovskii zavoda (27th March 1919)

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: Author’s screenshot of Donald Trump’s 25/02/2017 tweet

Image 2 (Sormovo workers in the foundry workshop): V.A. Kazakov, Revoliutsei Prizvannye: Ocherki ob ychastnikakh revoliutsionnogo dvizheniia v Nizhnegorodskoi Gubernii, vstupivshchikh v partiiu v 1917 godu (Gorky, 1987), p.142

Image 3: Author’s own

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