The spark that lit a revolution

We continue our series on rebel newspapers with a look at Pravda, the paper of the Russian Bolshevik Party

By Matthew Cookson

PRAVDA, meaning truth, was a key part of the great wave of upheaval that swept Russia before the First World War. It played an important role in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It was the paper of the revolutionary wing of the Russian socialist movement. Lenin was the major figure in this movement as a leader of the Bolshevik Party.

Heavy repression under the Tsar, the Russian dictator, meant that the Bolsheviks had to produce illegal newspapers and magazines that were highly difficult to distribute.

But Russian revolutionaries began to publish Pravda, a legal daily newspaper, in April 1912. This followed a period of defeat in which socialists felt isolated.

Pravda was launched just after troops shot dead 500 striking miners in Siberia. A wave of struggle swept Russia in response. On May Day 400,000 workers struck.

Pravda took off as a paper because it reflected the militancy and anger of this new upsurge. Much of the paper was made up of letters from workers.

In one year 11,000 articles, letters or items of correspondence from workers were published.

Zinoviev, one of the Bolshevik leaders, said: “These letters spoke of the everyday life in the factory or the workshop, barracks or factory district.

“These letters better than anything else expressed the growing and seething protests which afterwards burst out in the great revolution.

“The newspaper became the greatest teacher of the labouring masses and the workers themselves largely contributed to it.”

Because of this Pravda was hugely popular, selling 40,000 copies daily.

Pravda suffered censorship and repression. The Tsarist authorities raided Pravda’s premises, confiscated issues, imposed fines, arrested editors and harassed the newsboys selling the paper.

Distribution outside St Petersburg was very difficult. But still the paper continued to be published.

The Bolsheviks were still operating as an illegal party. By using Pravda the Bolsheviks could build up a network of people who corresponded with the paper, distributed for it and took collections in the workplace.

Half the papers sold in the city of St Petersburg were sold inside the factories. The activists selling the paper were finding a legal way of organising supporters of an illegal party.

Workers gave one kopec a day for the paper. These collections became a way of giving the party a donation.

The level of support for Pravda can be seen in 2181 groups of workers giving money to the paper in 1913. The paper was almost entirely dependent on the financial support of workers.

Lenin had written in 1902 that the revolutionary newspaper “can be compared to the scaffolding around a building under construction.

“The organisation which forms around this newspaper will be ready for anything, from upholding the banner, the prestige and the continuity of the party in periods of acute revolutionary depression to preparing for the nationwide armed insurrection.”

This was certainly true of Pravda. It did not just reflect workers’ experience, it also organised them in the struggle to change society.

Lenin argued that the revolutionary newspaper had to expose the conditions that workers suffered and provide an “all round exposure” of society as a whole.

The paper had to campaign against the Tsarist state, explain the development of capitalism, the role of different classes and unite the struggles against oppression and exploitation with that of the workers.

Lenin moved from Geneva to Krakow in the German-controlled part of Poland to be near to Russia. This meant he could direct the paper and write hundreds of articles for it.

All of these were written in straightforward language, aimed at ordinary workers.

The revolt against Tsarism was halted by Russia’s entry into the First World War. The authorities clamped down on criticism and Pravda was closed down.

The Bolsheviks used the networks that had developed out of Pravda to distribute illegal newspapers throughout Russia denouncing the war. The war intensified the suffering of the people and produced an even bigger movement against the Russian state.

Pravda was able to reopen again in February 1917 when a revolution overthrew the Tsar and brought about a Provisional Government.

Highly democratic workers’ councils, known as soviets, sprung up in workplaces and the army. These created a situation of “dual power” between the soviets and the Provisional Government.

Pravda was selling 90,000 copies a day in July as the Bolshevik Party grew massively due to the radicalism.

Lenin used Pravda to guide Bolshevik Party members through the twists and turns of the revolution. It played a central part in enabling the working men and women of Russia to make their own revolution.

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