Closer to the Masses: Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers (review)
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Reviewed by
Matthew Lenoe, Closer to the Masses: Stalinist Culture, Social Revolution, and Soviet Newspapers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 315 pp. $49.95.

This ambitious and forcefully argued book contains three distinct but related elements: a carefully documented study of the transformation of Soviet newspapers from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s; a broader interpretation of the emergence of Stalinist culture; and an attempt to describe Stalinism more generally as a form of "neo-traditionalism" rather than a variation on modernity. Lenoe's archive-based historical account is an impressive accomplishment; his use of it to interpret Stalinist culture is problematic but deserves attention and debate; and his case for neo-traditionalism has obvious flaws.

The book emphasizes how the "mass journalism" of the 1920s pioneered a style of exhortative, shrill directives and slogans set within a vocabulary of war and struggle. In newspapers such as Rabochaya Moskva, Rabochaya gazeta, and Komsomol'skaya pravda, mass journalism was intended to mobilize rank-and-file party activists for political and economic tasks. In the late 1920s the mass-journalism paradigm became attractive to Soviet leaders as an effective way of reaching key cadres, scapegoating enemies, and mobilizing workers for the industrialization drive. During Josif Stalin's "Great Break," mass journalism took over the central press, chiefly Pravda and Izvestiya, altering their tone, layout, and coverage in significant ways. Lenoe's study is noteworthy for its systemic coverage of the Soviet newspaper network and for its analysis of economic as well as political-ideological factors shaping the press, operating as it did within the emerging command economy of shortages. The book is also notable for its biographical portraits of key journalists. Archival research illuminates with unprecedented clarity the political battles and processes behind the "Stalinization" of the press, especially during the self-criticism campaign of 1928–1929 and Stalin's consolidation of power. Lenoe goes well beyond a top-down explanatory framework, stressing the institutional base created by mass journalism in the 1920s and the social similarities of mass journalists themselves to the vydvizhentsy, the cadres promoted by Stalin in what is described as a state-sponsored social revolution.

Intertwined with this account of the changes in Soviet newspapers is a set of arguments about the emergence of Stalinist culture. The most important of these revolves around the demise of what Lenoe calls the "NEP mass enlightenment project," which involved utopian goals of shaping a "new person" and a commitment to studying reader response in order to shape the outlook of the differentiated "masses." Stalinism jettisoned this agenda and turned instead to "pragmatic methods of mass [End Page 162] mobilization" (p. 248). Not only did the press system become more homogenous, but the new party elite (which Lenoe a bit misleadingly conflates with obshchestvennost', a broader rubric) became the prime audience. Far from trying to transform the nature of man, therefore, the Communist Party under Stalin selectively released information, often through institutional or collective newspaper subscriptions, to a hierarchy of status groups. Indeed, Pravda and Izvestiya were not even available in kiosks in the mid-1930s. For Lenoe, then, the year 1930 is the "key break point" (p. 248), and the changes of the late 1930s and the rest of the Stalin period flowed from it.

This two-stage model shifting on a 1930 axis creates dichotomies that are oversimplified and ultimately unsustainable. The most important of these is the opposition between the "enlightenment" of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the "mobilization" of Stalinism. Aside from the fact that "enlightenment" was a contested term in the Bolshevik lexicon from the outset (it was associated with populism), Lenoe's construct implies that the primacy of mass enlightenment as pursued in the press and the concern with reader-response studies during the NEP were integral parts of "NEP Bolshevism" as a whole (p. 12). Lenoe's blunt style avoids all phenomena that do not fit his framework. The legacy of the agitational journalism during the Russian Civil War barely enters into the account (p. 33), and he ignores the kul'turnost' (culturedness) drive of Stalinism, perhaps the most successful Soviet "project" ever—a project that had its roots...


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