Vladimir Putin: 20 Years Of Telling A New Story of Russia

 

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St Basil’s cathedral and the Spassky tower of the Kremlin, Moscow, March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

This week, 20 years after Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia, I wrote for The Conversation about how Russia’s place in the world, and the technology used to tell its story, have changed since. You can read that piece here, and a complete text follows. It contains some of the ideas I explore at greater length in my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin.

IT WAS A DAY OF CHANGE. After the long Russian winter, spring had come to the north Caucasus. The air was warmer. Passing trucks and boots kicked up dust from the ruins of Grozny. The city centre was now bombed-out buildings and piles of bricks as far as you could see.

It was Sunday March 26 2000. Far to the north, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin was waiting to see if voting in Russia’s presidential election would confirm him in the post he had held in an acting capacity since the retirement of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin at the turn of the year. It did.

In the two decades since, Putin has defined what political power means in post-Soviet Russia. At the same time, Russia has also tried to control and define the way its story is told to the world.

In a sense, that process was already underway in 2000. Grozny, capital of the southern Russian region of Chechnya, had been through two wars in a little over five years. In the first, from late 1994 to 1996, journalists had been given great freedom to report what they wanted. Their access was restricted only by their own sense of risk.

It was different once the separatist conflict flared again in Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. The government in Moscow, then under the leadership of Putin as prime minister, had disliked the negative coverage of civilian deaths during the previous conflict which had resulted from Moscow’s attempts to bring the unruly region back under control.

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Russian soldiers in the Chechen capital Grozny, March 2000, the month that Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia. Photo © James Rodgers

I was there as a correspondent in Grozny that spring day because I had been able to travel there by military helicopter with Russian army minders. In one sense, that was reassuring. Westerners had been kidnapped and murdered, and travelling alone was even more dangerous than it had been before. It was the army, though, that decided the schedule, and we had very little chance to see anything beyond the places they chose to take us, and the people they permitted us to meet.

Something else was changing, too. For the first time, I saw a photojournalist file digital photos from a laptop. I was reporting for TV and radio that day. I could send radio reports via a satellite phone, but TV material had to be sent from a TV station far from the front line, meaning a long drive before it could be transmitted.

Since then, technology has changed the world of international correspondents in many ways. But some things have stayed the same. Throughout Russia’s modern history, its treatment of foreign correspondents has been the story of its relations with the rest of the world.

For my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin, I have researched the lives and working conditions of Moscow correspondents back to the time of the 1917 revolutions. It is fair to say that their experiences have varied with the political climate.

It was not just the weather that was changing that spring day in Grozny. Yeltsin’s relations with the West are seen now by many of his compatriots as a supine acceptance of US foreign policy. Putin, as he enters his third decade at the summit of Russian power, has chosen to reject and defy.

It has always been true in military and diplomatic affairs that you need not only to act, but to tell your story, too. That has become even more the case in our age, when so many people spend so much time consuming information.

Since 2000, Russia has made great and costly efforts to shape the way it is seen around the world. In 2005, it launched Russia Today, the TV channel now known as RT. It has made extensive use of social media platforms, both to distribute content from RT and other Kremlin-friendly media organisations – and perhaps to interfere in elections.

Within the country, a network of exhibitions “Russia – My History” has been opened to tell citizens which parts of their national story should be particular sources of pride.

With all these official attempts to tell Russia’s story, what hope do correspondents have? The truth is that they still have a great deal of influence. Russia may have spent many millions on RT, but few people watch it. It took a World Cup to polish the country’s image, and to make at least one correspondent wonder if things might change. Continuing diplomatic tensions over Ukraine and Syria, and the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter have not won Russia many fans.

For now, Putin’s 20-year story has become one of war and peace with the West. His presidency has already been longer than the great sweep of history which that masterpiece covered. It may go on much longer.

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New Book ‘Assignment Moscow’ Published In July

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. Photo © James Rodgers

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

My next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting On Russia From Lenin to Putin will be published in the U.K. and the U.S. in July.

It tells the story of Russia, and of its relations with the west, through the words of the correspondents who reported on Russia and the Soviet Union through war, revolution, and resurgence on the international stage. It also includes personal reflections of covering a country I first travelled to as a journalist in 1991.

You can find more details on the publisher’s website, here .

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There will be a number of events this summer and autumn where I will be discussing the book. I will share details of them here nearer the time.

Mr Brexit, Putin, and me, 20 years on

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An EU flag washed up on the foreshore of the River Thames at Hammersmith, West London, July 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

I first met Nigel Farage in the fall of 2000. I was newly arrived in Brussels as a correspondent after covering Vladimir Putin’s election to the Russian presidency earlier that year. Farage’s ideas about the U.K. leaving the EU were marginal, but now, with the British government having taken them on as official policy, his success is complete.

For his part, Putin has built a newly-nationalist Russia–and feels confident enough to declare provocatively, as he did in an interview with the Financial Times last year, that liberalism is ‘obsolete’.

For NBC News THINK this week, I wrote about those memories of the year 2000–and how the politics of the western world have changed in the two decades since. You can read the piece here.

 

‘Assignment Moscow’ publication date and pre-order

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. Photo © James Rodgers

Detail from the exterior of the Central Telegraph building, Moscow. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

My next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin, is to be published next summer as a hardback and e-book.

The book tells the story of Russia, from the revolutions of 1917 until the present, as reported by British and American journalists. It draws on their reporting, their memoirs, their letters, and, from the 1950s onwards, on interviews with the men and women who told the story.

With relatively few outsiders having visited Russia for themselves, the book makes the case that those correspondents who have been curious enough to go have had a huge influence–for better or worse–on westerners’ impressions of Russia. Readers will learn how audiences found out about the rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks; famine and show trials under Stalin; the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany; Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’; tales of imprisonment and expulsion during the Cold War. The last sections of the book cover the Soviet Union’s final years, and the eras of Yeltsin and Putin which followed.

The book will be published by I.B. Tauris, part of Bloomsbury. Details of how to pre-order here.

I will post details of promotional events and talks as I have them, but in the meantime please feel free to contact me by email at reportingconflict@hotmail.com, on Twitter, or LinkedIn .

Looking On A Page Of Holocaust History In The Czech Republic

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The Old Jewish Cemetery in Kolín, Czech Republic. Photo © James Rodgers

Earlier this year, an invitation to a bat mitzvah opened my eyes to an astonishing and tragic story from the blood-soaked years of Europe’s twentieth century. On a recent trip to the Czech republic, I got the chance to learn more. You can listen to my report on the BBC’s ‘From our own Correspondent’ programme here (from around 11’30).  This is the first part of the script.   

The story of the scrolls had moved me. It made me want to learn more. Earlier this year, a friend from my schooldays in Manchester invited me to his daughter’s bat mitzvah. At the appropriate time during the service, my friend’s daughter took her place in front of the synagogue’s congregation to read from the Torah, the law of God as Jews believe it was revealed to Moses.

The scriptures are written on scrolls. The scrolls from which my friend’s daughter read had a remarkable story of their own. They had been saved from a synagogue in Czechoslovakia—a synagogue where the worshippers had been wiped out during the Holocaust.

On a recent trip to Prague, I unexpectedly found myself with a free morning. The story of the scrolls had stayed with me, so I decided to visit the town from which they had come.

 

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Gravestones overgrown with ivy. The Old Jewish Cemetery in Kolín, Czech Republic. Photo © James Rodgers

Understanding the stories of others

Detail from a War memorial in Volgograd, Russia. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

I wrote this recently for the website Journalism Knowledge Exchange. You can read that version here. 

‘WE’RE NOT HERE TO GIVE PEOPLE A HISTORY LESSON.’ The editor’s succinct rebuke served to curb the enthusiasm of a reporter intent on telling the world about the latest international story in the greatest detail. During two decades dealing with newsrooms, I heard it several times in several places.

The sentiment is sound, of course. Even if journalism is supposed to be the first rough draft of history, the material which journalists prepare for their audiences is supposed to be something different: new, and of the moment.

Yet in an age such as our own, when history is in western European politics to a greater extent than at any time since the middle of the last century, I am going to argue that to hold that view is to risk not telling the full story.

Before becoming a lecturer in Journalism in 2010, I covered international news for twenty years. The experience of covering events that changed the world as I had known it in my childhood taught me lessons about telling the stories of people living through war and revolution: the attacks of September 11th, 2001; the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A return to Russia earlier this year to research my next book, Assignment Moscow, gave me a chance to look again at a country I had not seen for ten years. It was a strange time to be there as a Brit: relations between Russia and the west were bad enough; relations between Russia and the U.K. worse than ever they had been since the end of the Cold War.

Russia was seen as a threat. The poisoning in the English town of Salisbury of the former Russian military intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, was one especially unsettling example; persistent allegations of attempts to use social media to undermine western democracy was another.

It attached itself easily to older forms of fear of the huge country on Europe’s western edge: cold war confrontation; nineteenth century cartoons of oversized bears helping themselves to chunks of the globe.

The ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in volgograd, Russia. March 2019. © James Rodgers

Part of my trip this year took me to Volgograd. As Stalingrad, as it was known in the 1940s, it was the site of the battle which halted the German army’s attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Soviet forces, newly energized and enthusiastic after defeating on their mighty enemy, began to turn the tide of the entire war.

The city skyline is dominated by a colossal statue of Mother Russia, a sword in her raised right hand. She looks back over her shoulder, urging her people to emerge from the places where they have taken cover, and go on the attack. The hill where she stands is the site of the decisive, final, battle for the city: 34,000 Russian dead lie buried beneath her feet.

All of this, I reflected, is relevant to explaining Russia as it is today. No, people don’t talk about the war every day any more than they do in western Europe but, boosted by official propaganda which serves as a constant reminder of Soviet sacrifice and victory, it shapes and influences Russia’s view of itself.

It also shapes the way that it sees the west. For if we have tended to see Russia as a threat (even the name, ‘the beast from the east’, given to the snowstorms in the spring of last year seemed to have a hint of Russophobia), then let us consider how the west must look when viewed from Russia.

The west may have brought new technology and new ideas to Russia. It also brought invasion and occupation from Napoleon and Hitler. More recently, it brought ideas of democracy and free markets at time when millions struggled to make ends meet. One consequence of that confrontation is that the word ‘democracy’ (‘demokratiya’ in Russian) is still sometimes subject to a pun which replaces the first two syllables with a Russian word, ‘der’mo’, meaning ‘shit’.

Reporting on Russia, as on any other country or culture, requires an understanding of that country and culture. That means an understanding of its history. In that sense, especially today, when identity more than ideology is credited with driving our politics, we do need to give our audiences a history lesson.

That lesson must explain how we understand the story of a nation, and its influence on the present. That is context, so frequently cited as an indispensable ingredient of good reporting.

The other lessons which correspondents need to heed is a lesson in listening: as you prepare your story, listen and watch carefully to the stories surrounding you. To report a story from a country, you have to understand the stories which the people there tell about themselves.

 

Reporting Revolutionary Russia — final part

This is the second and final part of my article, ‘Russia is All Right’, recently published in the journal ‘Media History’. It looks at the way that British newspapers covered the Russian revolution of February 1917. You can read the first part here. The photos are from my recent trip to Russia, part of my research for my forthcoming book, ‘Assignment Moscow’

The frozen River Neva, Saint Petersburg, March 2019, photograph by the author.

The optimism of the editorial columns

The cutting of communication had led the newspapers in London to expect big news. The Telegraph, in fact, reported on March 16th,  ‘For several days no news with regard to the political situation in Russia which, however, was known in well-informed quarters to be critical, had been received in London.’[i]  ‘Since Monday no word had come from Russia, and silence had fallen upon what was manifestly a serious situation,’[ii] wrote the Manchester Guardian once news finally made it to out. The Daily Herald decided that, ‘the information that is allowed to reach the outer world is often studiously vague.’[iii] Once the facts were confirmed, the revolution was widely welcomed: the leader columns echoing David Monger’s conclusion that, ‘Before the Bolsheviks’ emergence, propagandists interpreted the Tsar’s overthrow as positive for both Russia and the alliance.’[iv]  This was not confined to the fervently pro-war editorials in titles owned by Lord Northcliffe, although they led the charge. ‘The cause of freedom and of the Allies has triumphed,’ the Daily Mail’s editorial of March 16th, 1917 boldly announced. ‘The one power which will gain nothing from this great stroke will be Germany’[v], ran the final sentence. This belief was echoed in the edition of The Times which appeared on the same day, even if The Times was more reflective. ‘It is still too soon for entire confidence in the issue,’[vi] its editorial said – adding a measured note of caution to its categorical opening statement ‘A great Revolution has been accomplished in Russia’ – before continuing, ‘but the general trend of events and the attitude of the Army and of the more important elements of the population justify the Allies of Russia in optimism.’ Grounds for optimism were sought everywhere. The Times also carried a news story – headlined ‘Revolution in Russia’ – which included reports of military activity on the Somme, and in the Balkans. It appears to have been part of a daily series. The words ‘The War: 3rd Year: 225th Day’ appear between the headline and the story – a reminder of the true preoccupations of readers then, even if much of what was served up to them was characterized as part of one of the most shameful episodes of journalistic history.[vii] Beyond the newspapers’ welcoming change in Russia, optimism was scarce, perhaps one reason why the Times editorial also offered hope in the form of ‘the manifest eagerness of all parties that Russia should continue to wage the war with even greater vigour than she has displayed hitherto.’[viii] In another delayed despatch from the streets of Russia’s revolutionary capital, the Mirror told its readers on March 20th, ‘‘The workmen express the determination to employ themselves on overtime in order to make up for all the work that has been lost, and are loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory.’[ix] The Express announced confidently, ‘The Russian revolution has been accomplished, and the forces of reaction have been overcome.’[x] The Observer of Sunday 18th March reported the revolution with a series of stacked headlines, which included, ‘A marvellous rising’.[xi]

It is understandable that, with the First World War now well into its third year, and conscription having been introduced in 1916[xii], the effect which the revolution would have on Russia’s contribution to the allied war effort against Germany was the leading concern. It continued to be so for as long as the war lasted. Then, as now, the Sunday newspapers faced the challenge of trying to find new angles to the big stories of the week. The Sunday Times of March 18th was fortunate enough to have the text of ‘The Tsar’s Manifesto’[xiii] published in Petrograd too late on Friday to make the Saturday papers in London. The headlines of an analytical piece on the preceding page promised, ‘Fidelity to the allies’; the text ‘an energetic prosecution of the war by the new Russian government’[xiv]. The Financial Times of the following day was even more forthright: ‘There is now but one desire among the people—to fight on until Prussian militarism has been destroyed.’[xv] The Daily Mirror – which had published the ‘Russia is all right’ despatch – told its readers on March 20th, ‘The workmen express the determination to employ themselves on overtime in order to make up for all the work that has been lost, and are loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory.’[xvi] This was wishful thinking of the first water. The workers of Petrograd were among the reddest of the red: just the kind of constituency which would have been receptive to the argument that the war was being waged in the interests of aristocrats and capitalists, and at the expense of the workers. The Mirror, which had been founded in 1903 by Northcliffe, had, unsurprisingly, not lost its patriotic outlook since its sale in 1913 to his brother, soon to become Lord Rothermere. The Daily Express also published the Reuters ‘Russia is all right’ despatch – perhaps showing, among other things, that the Reuters correspondent understood very well that fulfilling his ‘first duty’ would have the added benefit of getting his despatch used more widely. The Manchester Guardian was another newspaper in which it appeared. The Manchester Guardian went even further than the optimism of the Reuters wire, in an editorial which brightly declared, ‘England hails the new Russia with a higher hope and surer confidence in the future not only of this war, but of the world.’[xvii]

It is worth recalling here the admonishment which Stanley Washburn remembered receiving from Lord Northcliffe about the importance of ‘the Cause’. While press barons’ and their readers’ shared desire for an allied victory may have led to some wishful thinking, the press barons’ ties to political elites – such as Northcliffe’s role as ‘director of propaganda’ – were another factor. As Alice Marquis wrote, the British system of censorship during WWI  ‘consisted of a close control of news at the source by military authorities, combined with a tight-knit group of ‘press lords’ who (over lunch or dinner with Lloyd George) decided what was “good for the country to know’”[xviii]. While it may be, as Curran has argued, that, ‘The press barons are usually accused of using their papers as instruments of political power’[xix], this was one era when they were largely happy to place that power, real or imagined, at the service of the state.   

A view of the Admiralty, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. Photograph by the author.

Strong eyewitness reporting

Telegraph links restored, the newspapers enthusiastically caught up with the news. The Times printed almost 6,000 words from its correspondent. In accordance with the convention of the time, he was not named. The correspondent can be identified as Robert Wilton, both from his own memoir, Russia’s Agony, and from the less than complimentary opinions of his coverage from Philips Price, and, later, by The Times itself. Its own history, published in the 1950s, concluded that, ‘Wilton’s service, often important, was erratic,’[xx] and that the newspaper felt that ‘their writer did not command full confidence’[xxi]. Such a verdict presumably delighted Morgan Philips Price – who, given that he died only in 1973 – would have lived long enough to read it.

For all that Wilton has not been remembered favourably – Russia’s Agony, his rather flawed account of the revolutionary year of 1917, rushed out the following year, may have something to do with that (the book was dedicated to the Cossacks, who, Wilton maintained, would soon drive the Reds from Russia) – and the reputation he had ‘in Zionist circles, and even into the Foreign Office’[xxii] of being an anti-Semite, his coverage of the February revolution was lively and informative. Especially given his relatively advanced years for a war correspondent – Wilton was born in 1868, and so was approaching fifty when the revolution started – Wilton did a first-rate job of getting to the action, and getting the story. He was rewarded with as much space as The Times could find for everything he had sent. Wilton’s story appeared under stacked headlines: ‘Abdication of the Tsar’; ‘First News from Petrograd’; ‘Revolution Complete’[xxiii] (one the sub-editors might later have wished for the chance to rewrite), even though, despite the middle of those three, the paper had to admit, ‘we are still without news of the first outbreak’[xxiv]. Even though they finally had news from Russia, they did not appear to have all that their correspondent had sent, or to have it in the right order. Wilton’s prose gave his story pace, even if the passive voice in lines such as ‘Warnings not to assemble were disregarded. No Cossacks were visible’[xxv] seems, to modern readers at least, to soften the sense of urgency. Walking the streets of Russia’s revolutionary capital, Wilton suddenly found himself in the middle of the fighting

…as the armoured cars, which all appear to be in the hands of the revolutionaries, have been dashing through the streets around The Times office, fusillading the Government machine guns, all attempts to get from one place to another were attended with the greatest risk[xxvi]

Wilton went on to tell his readers that, returning from calling on the British ambassador, he ‘was walking through the Summer Gardens when the bullets began to whiz over my head.’[xxvii] For all this excitement, The Times was very keen to situate Wilton’s coverage in the wider context as it was seen from London. Under the headlines, but before the reader reached Wilton’s ‘History of the Movement’, there was a paragraph explaining that Andrew Bonar Law, who was then in the war cabinet, had told the House of Commons that the revolution ‘was not an effort to secure peace, but an expression of discontent with the Russian government for not carrying on the war with efficiency and energy.’[xxviii]

Covering revolutions is one of the biggest challenges for journalists. Philips Price even found himself in the wrong place – he was reporting from the Caucasus at the time – but showed enough initiative to get to Moscow, and thence to Petrograd. On the way, he caused the resignation of the foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, by reporting unguarded remarks the minister had made about Russia’s war aims[xxix]. Those who were in Petrograd faced not only the difficulties of coming by reliable information, but also great danger. Wilton was not alone in having bullets pass close by. Alfred Fletcher of Central News, whose report was published in both the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph on March 16th, wrote of streets, ‘full of the whizzing of bullets from rifles and machine-guns’. Apparently unable to contain his own excitement, and just in case his reader had not got the message, he explained, ‘In short, we are faced with revolution in the truest sense of the word.’[xxx] Not wanting his professional activity to draw unwanted attention, Donald Thompson became a pioneer of secret filming. He cut a hole in his camera bag to, ‘get pictures with this gyroscopic camera of mine without anyone knowing what I am doing.’[xxxi] This was prudent. The revolutionary streets of Petrograd could suddenly become the scene of deadly acts of violence. An Associated Press despatch, published in the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mirror on Saturday March 17th described, ‘Regiments called out to disperse street crowds clamouring for bread refused to fire upon the people, mutinied, and (slaying their officers in many cases) joined the swelling ranks of the insurgents.’[xxxii]

Given the strong political views of their owners, and the dangerously unpredictable circumstances in which they were working, the correspondents deserve credit for the picture which they were able to paint of Petrograd at the end of autocracy.

His despatches delayed as those of Robert Wilton and others had been, the Daily Mail’s correspondent finally got his work into print once the telegraph links had been reopened. As with Wilton, the Mail’s correspondent is not named. He may however be assumed, on the basis of bylines which appeared the previous month, to be Henry Hamilton Fyfe. On Friday March 16th, the Daily Mail, like The Times, published a series of reports together. Readers were informed at the beginning that the section datelined ‘Saturday’ (and presumably all that followed) had been ‘transmitted on Wednesday at 9.55am’. Fyfe did not seem scared by the fact that walking the streets was, in Wilton’s words, ‘attended by the greatest risk’. Hamilton Fyfe brought the atmosphere of the streets of revolutionary Russia to the breakfast tables of Britain. The weeks leading up to the February revolution were a time when ‘Bread had to be queued for, and its availability was unreliable.’[xxxiii] The queues were so long that the people of Petrograd had sometimes to wait for hours, even during Russian winter nights. One of Thompson’s first impressions on arrival was to ‘notice bread lines in front of bakeries, and, in fact, at every place where food is sold.’[xxxiv] In one memorable passage, he wrote

Bread shops are besieged by hungry people. Last night I did not retire until nearly 2:30 and I could look out from the back of the hotel from my window and see the people lined up in front of a bakery. In the morning when I got up some of those same people were still standing there.[xxxv]

In the 1918 edition of his book, the page following is a photograph of a bread queue, perhaps the one he describes. A thick line of dark figures in heavy coats and fur hats stand patiently and apparently motionless on the snow-covered street.  There were suspicions that what bread was available was not being shared fairly. The hungry, their patience exhausted, sometimes took the law, and bread, into their own hands. Hamilton Fyfe reported one such incident. ‘A baker’s shop well known for its profiteering had its windows smashed, and the place looted.’[xxxvi] Hamilton Fyfe explained that ‘large quantities of bread [were] being kept for richer and more fortunate customers.’ In a forthright tone of the kind which might still be found in the Daily Mail today, Hamilton Fyfe was blunt in his assessment of the incident. ‘Such conduct,’ he wrote, ‘when people have to stand from 5 till 11 o’clock in a queue deserves punishment.’ Hamilton Fyfe’s reporter’s eye for detail helped him to bring to life for his readers the Russian capital as it responded to the news that the autocracy was no more. It was on the Tuesday – as his paper waited for news that Hamilton Fyfe, walking around the streets of the Russian capital, began ‘to meet incongruous sights. Here a soldier, rifle-less but with an unsheathed officer’s sword in hand, there a civilian carrying, somewhat gingerly, a rifle with fixed bayonet, and farther on a delighted youth with a carbine.’ The details which Hamilton Fyfe picked out form a pattern within their apparent randomness: a pattern of shocking change, which mapped the reversal of the old order. In the same issue of the Daily Mail, that of March 16th, once the news floodgates had been opened, Hamilton Fyfe wrote of an encounter between a group of mutinous soldiers, on foot, and two mounted officers. Faced with guns, the officers backed off. ‘This slight incident showed what was really happening,’ Hamilton Fyfe wrote. The confrontation seemed to represent in miniature the failure of tsarist authority. On March 19th, the Daily Mail even hinted at the revolution’s socialist future reporting ‘Order No. 1’, the Soviet edict which declared that soldiers should be answerable to the committees which they formed amongst themselves, and to the Petrograd Soviet, rather than to officers or the government. In the Mail’s view, Order No. 1

‘shook the old army to its foundations’[xxxvii]. Even if the correspondent judged it a ‘treasonable incendiary document’[xxxviii], they understood it was newsworthy.    

The reporting of Wilton, Fletcher, and Hamilton Fyfe and others provided eyewitness accounts of what was happening in the revolutionary capital: eyewitness accounts which added indispensable context to the celebratory editorials which were being gleefully written in London.

Conclusion

Was everyone then really as optimistic as the leader columns seemed to suggest? In his autobiography, the bulk of which was written, as Rupert Hart-Davis said in his prologue, ‘between 1949 and 1961’[xxxix], Arthur Ransome gave an account of a lunch in London on November 7th 1916 with two government ministers (one of them, Francis Acland, apparently not put off by David Soskice’s earlier concerns about Ransome) ‘I told them,’ Ransome wrote, ‘that I thought we should be considering the possibility that, if we could not bring the war to an end in 1917, we should have to manage without the help of the Russians.’[xl] It would clearly not be beyond a writer of Ransome’s talent to have put a shine on this in the intervening decades. In the following chapter, which covered the coming to power of Lenin and the Soviets, Ransome conceded, ‘Forty years after the events I find it hard to remember the actual dates of this or that happening at which I was present.’ He was referring there to the way the October revolution unfolded, but the point could arguably be more widely applied. Nevertheless, even if those of his fellow correspondents who were reporting from Petrograd in February 1917 were able to give detailed accounts of what was happening, the analysis, the weighing up of the significance of those events in the London editorial columns, was less impressive.

As John Reed showed in Ten Days that Shook the World, his influential account of the October revolution, the Bolsheviks understood that the British press was against them. Reed described a revolutionary laughing defiantly at an editorial in The Times which had thundered, ‘The remedy for Bolshevism is bullets’[xli]. At the time of the February revolution, the Northcliffe papers did not see Bolshevism as such a threat. Even after the October revolution they insisted that Lenin’s government could not last. Headlines such as ‘Leninists paralysed’[xlii]; ‘Lenin losing control’[xliii]; ‘Bolshevist split’[xliv] were common during November 1917. This did their readers no favours in terms of informing them, in terms of helping them to understand what the west was dealing with.

There was, therefore, a contrast between the perspectives which the correspondents offered, and those which appeared in the editorial columns. In some ways, the correspondents, drawing on a more detailed knowledge of the country and its affairs than that possessed by press barons or political elites, did an admirable job. There were exceptions: the message that ‘Russia is all right’ filed from Petrograd, and widely published, being among them. The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent also wrote, ‘Let it be said at once that so far as the common cause of Great Britain and Russia is concerned, the revolution gives no ground for anxiety—or, at least, very little’[xlv]. The focus on food shortages, demonstrated by people breaking into bakeries suspected of hoarding, gave an insight into the state of the country. It also, implicitly if not explicitly, cast doubt on the idea that Russia could continue the war, even supposing that it wanted to. For if a country’s infrastructure was so weak that it could not feed its own capital city, how might it feed, clothe, and arm troops at the front? Even taking into account the ‘unseasonably cold’[xlvi] winter of 1916-17, and the effect it had on rail transport, the system was not working efficiently. Even those correspondents, Wilton being the leading example, who came to loathe the Bolsheviks, and to yearn for their downfall, had not allowed themselves to be blinded to the nature of the revolution, and the shortcomings of the Tsarist Russian army. During the war, Wilton’s reporting even threatened to sour relations between the British and Russian governments because, as Keith Neilson put it, ‘The British idea of fair reportage found little sympathy in Russia. Even during the war, Wilton’s condemnation of ‘unduly optimistic’ reports concerning Russia’s war effort was viewed by the Russian censors as ‘tantamount to treason”’[xlvii]. Perhaps sensing that their publics did not wish to hear of Russian weakness, and possible abandonment of the cause, the newspapers’ owners, through their editorial columns, did not offer it. They, too, preferred to think that Russia was all right.

This was nothing but wishful thinking of the most fanciful kind – as Lenin’s later, and enduring, revolutionary success with the slogan, ‘Peace-Bread-Land’, would come to show. Both editors and the political elite wanted desperately to believe that revolution in Russia would not be bad for the overall allied war effort. In consequence, those were the terms in which events in St Petersburg were portrayed.

Statue of Lenin outside the Smolny Institute, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. Photograph by the author.



[i] Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[ii] The Manchester Guardian, 16 March 1917, 4

[iii] Daily Herald, 17 March 1917

[iv] Monger, Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain, 130

[v] The Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 4

[vi] The Times, March 16th 1917, 7

[vii] See, for example, Knightley, p. 97.

[viii] The Times, March 16th 1917, 7

[ix] Daily Mirror, March 20th 1917

[x] The Daily Express, 16th March 1917

[xi] The Observer, 18th March 1917, 6

[xii] Taylor, The First World War: An Illustrated History, 114.

[xiii] Sunday Times, 18 March 1917, 7

[xiv] Sunday Times, 18 March 1917, 6

[xv] Financial Times, 19 March 1917, 3

[xvi] Daily Mirror, March 20th 1917

[xvii] The Manchester Guardian, 16 March 1917, 4

[xviii] Marquis, ‘Words as Weapons’, 476

[xix] Curran, Power Without Responsibility, 44

[xx] The Times. The History of The Times, The 150th Anniversary and Beyond 1912-1948, Part I, Chapters I-XII 1912-1920 (London, The Times, 1952), 242

[xxi] The Times. The History of The Times, 244

[xxii] The Times. The History of The Times, 248

[xxiii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxiv] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxv] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxvi] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxvii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxviii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxix] Philips Price, My Three Revolutions, 52-53

[xxx] Financial Times, 16th March 1917, 3; Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[xxxi] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 64

[xxxii] Associated Press despatch printed in The Manchester Guardian, 17th March 1917, 7

[xxxiii] Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin, (London: Penguin, 2003), 32

[xxxiv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 26

[xxxv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 26

[xxxvi] Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 5

[xxxvii] Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt, 187

[xxxviii] Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 5

[xxxix] Rupert Hart-Davis, prologue to The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 9

[xl] Ransome, The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 204

[xli] Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, 74

[xlii] Daily Mail, 12 November 1917, 3

[xliii] The Times, 12 November 1917, 8

[xliv] The Times, 22 November 1917, 5

[xlv] Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[xlvi] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 272.

[xlvii] Neilson, Britain and the Last Tsar,46

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The version of record of this manuscript has been published and is available in ‘Media History’, published online June 26 2019. doi.org/10.1080/13688804.2019.1634526