By Nelly Loginova
In Soviet times, millions of letters from the public flooded into newspaper offices. Today this flood has petered out.
One day a young woman from the letters section of the national youth paper Komsomol’skaya pravda dragged a mailbag into our office, tipped about 300 unopened letters onto the floor and fumed: “I hate your department! You write your stuff and then we have to lug these sacks around! Six thousand replies to one article! It’s a nightmare! Can’t you write something different?”
She was not joking. My colleague asked her which department she liked best. “The foreign desk: Two letters a day. Because decent people work there,” she snorted. Then she stalked out, slamming the door.
This exchange took place in the early 1970s, when the newspaper started a column called “Letters from the courtyards,” devoted to the semicriminal leisure-time activities of teenagers. They would gather in droves in the courtyards and entrances to apartment blocks because there was nowhere else for them to go. The paper invited the kids to take part in the debate, and the editorial offices were inundated with letters. Now, some twenty years later, I look ruefully at the mailbags sitting in the corner of my office, at Literaturnaya Gazeta. I never did manage to become a “decent person”–I always ended up in the legal affairs section, or the section on children’s issues or social and domestic issues–where the bulk of readers’ letters went.
What were all these letters about? Some were just responses to articles: “Dear author–or rather, not ‘dear’ at all. How much did they pay you to write that libelous attack on our director? I’m not signing my name to this letter as I am writing on behalf of the entire work collective. You haven’t heard the last of us.”
There were readers with grievances. “I was fired from my teaching post after twenty-nine years of blameless service. The pretext was that I missed two days of school, but the actual reason was that I happened to see the head teacher being carried out of the apartment block by her drinking companions–blind drunk. I knew straight away that I was done for.” Or: “There are six of us living in one room measuring 12×12 feet; my brother is paralyzed and my grandmother sleeps in a drawer of the dressing table. We reached the top of the waiting list for an apartment two years ago. Can it really be that no apartment blocks been built in these two years?! Or is there another waiting list–for those with influence?”
Other readers sent their thoughts on life in general and on their own life in particular: “You don’t write much about us country folk. It’s as though we don’t exist. But we really know how to live it up! Only yesterday, the police came looking for hooch-making equipment–but we found out they were coming the day before and hid everything!”
Then there were anonymous letters and denunciations. “Check out where the foreign equipment for the X-ray lab went. For six months it was sitting in boxes in the hall. Now it’s disappeared. And we know where.” “How did the secretary get the job of laboratory assistant? Because she and the boss… you know what I mean.” “We draw to the attention of the editors the fact that your correspondent is either related to the suspect, or has been bribed by him, which is why she is defending him.” As for threatening letters, I well remember receiving an envelope addressed to me containing a sheet of paper with a drawing of a gravestone.
Why did readers send all these letters to the papers? Let me answer with another question: Where else could they send them? In the stifling atmosphere of a totalitarian society, people had nowhere else to turn for answers and advice about what to do if their lives didn’t fit the approved pattern. Newspapers assumed the role of lawyers, teachers, mentors, judges, police, financial advisers and psychologists.
And what the papers wrote seemed so true to life; their stories of the lives of ordinary people were so touching; they had such honest voices and seemed so full of righteous indignation. Surely that was where the most intelligent and fair-minded people could be found! Surely they would help. Moreover, they were close to the authorities; they could call directly to Brezhnev…. Many of our readers genuinely believed this.
One letter in every ten would begin: “I’ve tried everything, and have found no justice. You are my last hope.” This phrase always depressed my colleagues and me: We knew the limits of our abilities, yet people from deepest Siberia thought our paper was omniscient. The column “In the wake of our campaigns” in particular raised false hopes in our readers. What it contained was the truth: this swine was sacked after our article; that man was charged; this man was released from prison after a special review of his case…. One day, Literaturnaya Gazeta published an article by the famous journalist Arkady Vaksberg called “A picnic lunch.” A married couple and their two children had gone down to the river one weekend and were sitting peacefully on the grass with their bread and sausage and tomatoes spread out on a tablecloth. Three drunken youths appeared, trampled the tablecloth and smashed the food. Then they grabbed the wife by the arm and tried to talk her into going into the woods with them. Her husband put up a fight, then ran to his car. The youths followed him. He snatched up a wrench, there was a struggle and one of the youths was fatally injured. The husband–an honest worker and a good family man with no previous criminal convictions–landed up in prison for “exceeding the limits of justifiable defense.” Recounting the story, Vaksberg argued that in any dangerous situation the “limits of self-defense” are an elusive concept and that any of us could “exceed” them. The court had ignored the fact that he was defending his wife and children, that there were three of them against one of him, and so on.
For a full month after Vaksberg’s article appeared, the newspaper received sack upon sack of letters, each stuffed with documents attesting to similar miscarriages of justice. Thousands of letters with one and the same theme from all corners of the country–and all bearing that terrible phrase “You are our last hope.” What could the editors do? Well, they published a review of all the correspondence, citing the most extreme examples (such as the woman under investigation for hitting a burglar over the head with a frying pan); they reiterated the argument that the “limits of self-defense” were a chimera and that the courts should thoroughly scrutinize the who, when, how and why of every case. But then what? What people wanted wasn’t just an answer, what they wanted was for the paper to reveal their own specific case and for a court to conduct a judicial review of their sentence. We were even asked such questions as “How much do I need to pay for you to select my case from all the others?”
Time and again we explained that it was the newspaper’s job to rally public opinion in defense of the multitudinous declarations that the authorities produced but were unable of implementing. Time and again we explained that newspapers were not a substitute for the police, inquests and the courts, and asked people to send in copies rather than original documents. It was all in vain. With a circulation of six million, the paper’s popularity and sharp quills brought in up to 250,000 letters a year, each of which had to be answered. This obligation–to reply to every letter–dated I think from the dawn of the Soviet era, when barely literate shepherds and farm workers suddenly started writing to the newspapers from the far reaches of Russia. Their letters told the truth about the famine and executions in the provinces. Newspaper publishers, who did not yet feel intimidated, were in awe of these letters and published them unedited (one cannot read those papers today without tears coming to one’s eyes). Fifty years later, in a totalitarian country (even after the denunciation of Stalin and the horrors of the Gulag), the newspapers still automatically published what they “had to” publish and what they “could” publish. Literaturnaya Gazeta and a handful of other papers were only “slightly” oppositionist, but even this negligible fact, like a shaft of light in a dungeon, attracted millions of readers (hence the circulation and the avalanches of mail). But the editors forgot–or did not dare, or did not know–how to abolish the rule about replying to every letter: To do so would have contravened their “concern for the person in the street.” Hence the absurd situation in our legal affairs department. I can still picture my colleagues surrounded by mailbags, and cupboards overflowing with letters, and bulging briefcases which they would take home with them to spend half the night answering the correspondents: “We have read your letter carefully, and sympathize deeply with the plight that has befallen your family. Alas, we are unable to help. It is not within our competence to review your son’s case.” I can still picture the floor of my flat, completely covered by hundreds of letters each with my penciled comment: “Print,” “Send to prosecutor’s office,” “Urgent visit!,” “Detailed response,” “Standard response.”
I remember in particular one urgent visit I made on the strength of a letter. It was the one I quoted above, about the teacher with twenty-nine years’ experience who was fired on a trumped-up charge. This happened in Bashkiria. The letter contained one unbelievable fact: The teacher wanted to sue, but was told that the hearing had already taken place and her complaint had been thrown out. She went to the courthouse, and was shown the official court report, including lawyers’ speeches and the testimony of witnesses, and even her own speech (!) offering a feeble excuse for her absence. “Believe me, I am not mad,” wrote the teacher. “There was no hearing! It has all been faked.” I flew straight out there, and was soon reading the court report. I spoke to the court officials, who lied through their teeth. Then I talked to the “witnesses”–teachers from the same school–who started out with lies but who soon began to beg me not to reveal their names, because they were terrified of the head teacher. I published an article–one voice in the chorus of protest that was then rising all over the country–railing against the humiliation of ordinary people, their lack of rights, and the general falsity in all areas of life. We achieved real results too: The head teacher and one of the court officials were fired.
Another example, this time of a “detailed response.” A woman wrote that a famous band had been playing in their town, and her 16-year-old daughter was excited to be invited to the musicians’ party after the concert. The lead singer–the star of the group–talked her into having sex with him (for the first time in her life), after which she landed up in a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases. “I never want to see her again,” her mother wrote. “I won’t visit her, I don’t want her to come home. That’s not how I brought her up.” I wrote the woman a long letter, trying to convince her that it was her duty to stand by her daughter when the child was in trouble. Later I learned that the mother swallowed her pride upon receiving my letter, and went immediately to see her daughter. “We have become very close,” she wrote, “and are coping with the misfortune together.”
Eighteen months ago, the letters section of Literaturnaya Gazeta was closed down–for lack of interest. With a circulation of 30,000 (as opposed to six million in the Soviet era), the mail has dried up. The journalists pick up their “couple of letters” from reception on their way in. I rang around some other national newspapers: Some of them retain one or two staff to deal with letters (as opposed to the thirty they used to employ). And almost every paper now carries a postscript on the back page in small print: “The editors cannot enter into correspondence.”
What happened? Why did the dialogue with the readers cease? There are several reasons, but the main one may be summed up as follows: People have no time; they are too busy. The Iron Curtain came down, the country opened its windows to the world, and people stared out: “Hey, look–the West hasn’t rotted away yet, as they’ve been telling us for the last seventy years.” And then they went to see it for themselves. Factories closed down: Millions of people lost their jobs and by no means all of them have been able to adapt to the new reality. Who’s got time to write to the newspaper when everyone has to try and eke out an existence; to find some land to plant vegetables (today many people survive only by doing that); retrain; do a little business somewhere; send their daughter to China to buy goods; get their son a job as a security guard; and so on. The market and competition (concepts unknown in the Soviet Union) have divested half the population of their stable monthly wage of 150 rubles (US$5 at today’s exchange rate), which was the amount taken home by a janitor. All this shook society, which has not yet recovered and still pines for the communists (“at least they paid us our wages!”). Moreover, journalists have discovered democracy and are no longer seen as extensions of the authorities. What’s the point of writing to the papers if journalists themselves are being murdered in stairwells or imprisoned on trumped-up charges? To put it another way, we journalists have merged with the people and become their mouthpiece; previously, we used to be seen by the population as able to secure them a flat or get them out of prison. Newspapers used to be organs of the Communist Party; nowadays hundreds of lawsuits are filed against journalists (no politician or businessman is afraid to sue when he realizes that a newspaper will not reveal its source).
In the Soviet period, too, people saw themselves as cogs in a massive project to build a new world. When they wrote to the newspapers, they used also to make suggestions about how the situation could be improved and the shining future brought closer for everyone. Nowadays, people have become more individualistic. They no longer see themselves as members of a single society; instead, they have come to believe that they can rely only on themselves to improve their lot. It is accordingly about individual gripes which most people now write to the papers. As for the “couple of letters” you’ll get on your way to work tomorrow, they’ll be the same as yesterday’s: One to thank you for an article, the other a tirade against the dramatic change which has occurred in our way of life over the past decade.
Nelly Loginova is a columnist with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. For seventeen years, she was a columnist with the legal affairs department of Literaturnaya Gazeta. In the 1990s, she wrote for Demokraticheskaya Rossiya, Ogonek and Moskovskie Novosti. In 1997, she was named “Journalist of the Year” by the Union of Journalists.