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The Russian autocrat’s guide to silencing the free press—as updated by Donald Trump

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci
This article is more than 2 years old.

Less than two months into his term as US president, Donald Trump called mainstream press “the enemy of the people.” To a Russian like myself, the phrase isn’t just troubling—it also sounds deadly.

“Enemy of the People” was the official designation for those condemned under Article 58 of the Russian Criminal Code. Adopted in 1926, Article 58 gave the government broad power to arrest people suspected of counter-revolutionary activities—including “propaganda and agitation against the Soviet power.” Over the course of 35 years, it was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people.

It is no coincidence that Trump—like Russian autocrats past and present—is eager to designate the press as the enemy. The issue is not simply narcissism or an inability to handle criticism. Russian history teaches us that autocrats take on the press because authoritarian states cannot sustain themselves on coercion alone. A substantial chunk of the population must subscribe to their chosen vision of reality. The free press, with its mandate to provide opinions and alternative visions, is antithetical to this goal. A legitimate democratic government tolerates negative coverage because it doesn’t feel threatened. A leader whose competence can reasonably be questioned is the one who fights back.

“Weapons in the hands of the enemy”

Trump’s current battle against the press bears clear parallels to the tactics employed by Vladimir Lenin. After successfully leading the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin issued the “Decree of the Press.” It designated 10 major Russian newspapers as “weapons in the hands of the enemy”—the enemy, in this case, being the legitimate provisional government that Lenin and his associates had just overthrown. The papers were “temporarily” closed and their printing facilities were confiscated and handed over to the new government in order “to stem the torrent of filth and slander in which the yellow and green press would be only too glad to drown the recent victory of the people.” To anyone watching Trump’s handling of mainstream media in America today, the statement rings oddly familiar.

Like Trump, who certainly loved the estimated $5 billion worth of free coverage he received from the “dishonest media” throughout his presidential campaign, Lenin didn’t mind the free press when it helped him get to power. But once his party became the government, he began to care less about exposure and more about how the media portrayed him. The newspapers—including those in the socialist camp—uniformly condemned Lenin’s unilateral seizure of power. “It is our duty to unmask these traitors to the working class,” wrote Delo Naroda, an organ of Socialist Revolutionary Party to which the Bolsheviks technically belonged. The entire city of Petrograd was plastered with appeals. “Citizens! Do not trust the promises of the Bolsheviks! The promise of the immediate peace—is a lie! The promise of bread—a hoax! The promise of land—a fairy tale!”

The ban on “enemy” press quickly spread to other newspapers that had criticized Lenin’s vision for Russia as a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” A follow-up decree forbade advertisements in newspapers unless they were placed there by the government, forcing publications on the wrong side of the ideological divide to rely on private donations to stay in business.

Within two months, the Bolshevik government had shuttered 120 newspapers for “inciting dissent,” “pervasion of facts,” and “calls to resist the new government.” In January, three months after the order was passed, another decree prescribed “open trials” of opposition publications.

In March, Russkiye Vedomosti, a periodical that had published every classic Russian writer from Chekhov to Tolstoy, was put on trial for an essay lamenting the loss of the country. Fonar, a satirical magazine born out of 1905 Revolution, was also tried and closed for “articles that cause panic and alarm among the populace.”

In July, a few members of the Left Social Revolutionaries, a group that had until then begrudgingly participated in the Bolshevik Government, staged a failed revolt. The Bolsheviks used the revolt as a pretext to shut down the last opposition party in its entirely, along with remaining opposition media organizations. For the next 70 years or so, Russians were to live within the bubble of the Bolshevik’s reality. As someone who grew up at the end of this age, I can vouch that this reality was one of the most distorted in the world.

Putin and the free press

Is it possible to reenact Lenin’s war on press in the present-day US? Those who dismiss such a notion should look at what Russian president Vladimir Putin, who knows his Lenin history, has done with the Russian independent media.

Journalism had blossomed following Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, or open discussion of political and social issues. But at the beginning of Putin’s presidency, in the 2000 state of the nation address, Putin divided the media into “state” and “anti-state” publications. He attacked the latter’s private owners for turning newspapers into “mass misinformation outlets.” He then used “selective targeting” to harass specific publications, hoping that as a result the rest would self-sensor. Trump’s effort to divide the media into approved and condemned categories is already underway, as evidenced by his team’s decision to bar select publications, including the New York Times, CNN, and Politico, from a recent White House press briefing.

Putin also made his own updates to the Bolshevik playbook. These included the criminal persecution of “dishonest” media owners on “business” grounds followed by the expropriation of their assets. Following warnings from the state censorship body, Roskomnadzor, media owners fired editors with “extremist” views and replaced them (and journalists who quit in protest) with loyal ones. Cable providers and building lease owners dropped channels that aired stories that Kremlin finds unpalatable. And state-run bodies bought out independent media companies to reshape them into “patriotic” organizations despite their staffs’ protests.

RIA Novosti, Russia’s largest news agency, was shut down wholesale by an executive order in 2013. New laws, which limited foreign ownership of media publications and allowed the government to close “extremist” sites without a court order, further decimated press freedom.

These attacks on the free press worked. In 2016, Russia ranked 148th out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index. It also has one of the highest numbers of unsolved journalist murders in the world.

It can happen here

Americans might comfort themselves by arguing that in the Information Age, a few marginalized newspapers here or there isn’t such a big deal. We have a lot of news sources, after all. Some citizens may even agree with Trump’s criticisms of select news outlets.

But all Americans—regardless of their political affiliation or opinions on mainstream news coverage—should be worried about Trump’s attitude toward the media. That’s because, according to the Russian autocrat’s playbook, the attack on press is merely the precursor to a much larger attack on liberty for all people. The press amplifies dissent. Once the amplifier has been silenced, dissent itself becomes the target. In 1917 Russia, Lenin’s crackdown on the media was followed by terror campaigns, civil war, party purges and, ultimately, a totalitarian state. In the Russia of the 21st century, Putin’s attack on the press brought in its wake the crushing of civil liberties, the murder of opposition journalists and politicians, and the war with Ukraine.

This does not mean the worst-case scenario is inevitable in the US; history never repeats itself with precision. But signs are not encouraging. Besides viciously attacking the press on Twitter and in public talks, Trump’s administration has repeatedly labeled reports of Trump’s low approval ratings and other unflattering stories as “fake news.” Meanwhile, Trump is grooming his own “alternative facts” press, in the tradition of Lenin’s Pravda and Putin’s Russia Today. His administration treats radical right-wing news outlets like Breitbart and World Net Daily as legitimate alternatives.

Given Trump’s repeated vows to change libel laws and “sue [media] like you never sued before,” it is not impossible to imagine a rise in predatory lawsuits against liberal media. And White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has summed up his own wishes for the press in a truly Leninist way, calling the media “the opposition party” and advising it to “keep its mouth shut.”

There are, however, a few ways in which the Russian playbook may fail Trump. It neglects to take into account the American people. Russians, battered by centuries of foreign invasions and autocracy, have historically not been in a good position to stand up for the free press. But generations of Americans have grown up in a country where freedom of speech is not just an idea but a way of life—taught, practiced, and guarded.

Americans also still have an opposition—and the decisions of the Democratic party will help determine the media’s fate. The Democrats owe the US a clear alternative vision for the country’s future; one that is grounded in America’s founding principles of democracy, equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Articulating this vision is essential if the Democrats hope to reach beyond their base and engage with the 95 million non-voting “silent majority.” And if Democrats begin to stand up and make news themselves, they will also extricate the mainstream media from the constant spin cycle it has found itself in since the election, obsessing over Trump’s every move, word, and lately, the modality of his tone. If the press is a weapon, as Lenin maintained, let us not exhaust it with dry shots.

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