Losing Pravda: Ethics and The Press in Post-Truth Russia, Natalia Roudakova. Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 274, £27.99; ISBN 9781316629772. Language: English
Natalia Roudakova’s debut book Losing Pravda: Ethics and The Press in Post-Truth Russia (2017) arrives at an apt moment. President Donald Trump’s accusations that the US news media publishes ‘fake news’ look increasingly like an attempt to bully journalists into more sympathetic coverage, a situation that suggests a new era in the journey of the free press under global capitalism. Roudakova’s Losing Pravda offers an alternative prequel to this era of fake news, mapping the trajectory of journalism in Russia over the past 20 years. The volume traces what Roudakova calls ‘everyday morality,’ and how the very substance of truth as a virtue came to be questioned with the increasing marketization of media in the postsoviet era.
Combining history and theory of media with ethnography, Losing Pravda follows newspaper journalists in one Russian city from the late Soviet Era into the long first decade of the 21st century. Westerners, having absorbed generations of popular depictions of the Soviet Union, might assume that the Soviet media was all propaganda, and that the fall of the Soviet Union new brought press freedoms. Contrary to that narrative, Roudakova argues that for her interlocutors—journalists working in a regional metropolitan newspaper—it was the rise of democratization that led to political corruption and propaganda masquerading as news. In Roudakova’s account, the role of the journalist shifted from one of a citizen-watchdog tasked with speaking truth to power and organizing civic engagement in the 1970s and 80s, to that of a content producer pressured to craft stories that are profitable either to the media company or to a regional politician with sway over the platform.
Roudakova’s entry offers much to both media history and area studies. Since Ellen Mickiewicz, very little contemporary Anglophone scholarship has focused on the journalist’s experience in Russia. While the period of study suggests both marketization and digitization, Roudakova’s focus is less on media technologies (she only mentions changing technologies in passing), and more on the role of journalistic communication in the shifting moral world of Russia’s postsocialist political economy. To that end, Roudakova takes up a question raised by anthropologist Alexei Yurchak and sociologist Alena Ledeneva: what counted as a normal way of living in late socialism? Roudakova tracks truth-telling as an element of ‘ordinary Soviet morality’ (p. 15-18), to argue that journalists are another exception to ‘the common view that it was either the party or the dissidents who held a monopoly on truth-telling in the former Soviet bloc.’ Instead, she demonstrates that ‘[… c]ourageous speech was a rare but highly valued occurrence across many different strata in Soviet society [… and] it was particularly important and meaningful for journalists’ (p. 20).
In the second half of the book, Roudakova shifts her focus from the ethnography of late socialism to the media climate in Russia in the 2000s and 2010s. In a fascinating chapter on cynicism, she argues that the goal of propaganda in post-Soviet Russia was not to promote a particular point of view, but rather to confuse the media consumer. Following Hannah Arendt, Roudakova argues that confusion breeds cynicism, and thus is a potential tool of the fascist. In this way, Roudakova writes, today’s media climate in Russia is confusing by design, because if confusion fuels political apathy, it helps those already in power to maintain their grip.
Roudakova’s book is animated by a concern with how citizens come to value speaking truth to power, and is grounded in a careful retelling of the oral histories of newspaper journalists and first-hand observations in the newsroom. Roudakova complicates the discourse about contemporary Russia prominent in Anglophone media. Losing Pravda’s theoretical proposition—that a shared moral ground, predicated on the value of a shared truth, is essential in staving off new iterations of Fascism—comes at a critical time, and not only for Russia.