Nikita Khrushchev, in his memoirs, observed that Joseph Stalin, his despotic and bloody-minded predecessor, referred to “everyone who didn’t agree with him as an ‘enemy of the people.’ ”
“As a result, several hundred thousand honest people perished,” Khrushchev said, underestimating the number of dead from Stalin’s mass repressions by many millions. “Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal.” Countless men and women—artists, journalists, farmers, intellectuals, engineers, scientists—were shot in the back of the head or banished to the vast system of labor camps that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described in “The Gulag Archipelago.”
As a military and Communist Party leader, Khrushchev himself had played a role in that butchery. He dutifully signed arrest records. He turned a blind eye to the executions of innumerable Party comrades. And yet, in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, he bravely delivered a secret speech to the Communist Party’s Central Committee, in which he repudiated Stalin’s “cult of personality.” He described in shocking terms how the term “enemies of the people” had been an instrument of the “physical annihilation” of so many human beings now buried in frozen earth, from Murmansk to Magadan.
Khrushchev’s “thaw,” his project of de-Stalinization, quickly met with firm resistance from within the Party. He barely survived a coup attempt in 1957, and he was finally ousted in 1964. The manuscript of his memoirs had to be smuggled to the West; it finally ended up in the hands of editors at Little, Brown, & Co. and Life magazine. But in that fleeting period of liberalization a new generation came to maturity. A very small number of men and women became dissidents, incurring tremendous risks as they typed up forbidden manuscripts, spoke out against the crushing of the Prague Spring, in 1968, and protested other acts of violence against human rights and dignity. Many more became the so-called shestidesyatniki, men and women who came of age in the sixties and who worked within the system, making myriad compromises of the spirit, all the while searching for openings to change Soviet society. Their great chance came in 1985, with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev’s crucial insight––his ideological foes would call it his ruinous insight—was that the Soviet Union, for all its success as a nuclear military power, was otherwise frozen in time, economically and technologically backward. “Upper Volta with rockets” was how the joke went. Without an honest reckoning with history, without truthful reporting on contemporary realities, without intellectual freedom, the Soviet Union would fall deeper into a state of isolation and torpor. And so Gorbachev initiated a policy known as glasnost, or openness. That meant the publication of forbidden authors: Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, Brodsky. Historians began to scrutinize not only Stalin but also Lenin, the regime’s founding father and ideological deity. Foreign writers who had previously been considered threats to Soviet security—Orwell, Huxley, Havel—were published. And, perhaps most essential to the political moment, Gorbachev and his liberal allies in the leadership sanctioned the editors of the Moscow News, Ogonyok, and other publications to print articles on corruption, poverty, the war in Afghanistan, homosexuality—a range of subjects that had not previously made their way past the censors.
After a millennium of tsarist autocracy and seven decades of Communist totalitarianism, this was a revolution of consciousness, a period of liberation and potential without precedent. As if out of nowhere––and with great inspiration from the West—a free press, and a freer Russia, was being born. “The difference between ‘the thaw’ and ‘glasnost’ was a difference in temperature,” Len Karpinsky, one of the leading liberal journalists of the Gorbachev generation, told me, in Moscow at the time. “If the temperature under Khrushchev was two degrees above zero centigrade, then glasnost pushed it to twenty above. Huge chunks of ice just melted away, and now we were talking not only about Stalin’s personality cult but of Leninism, Marxism, the essence of the system.”
This was three decades ago. It’s nearly impossible to relay now how thrilling that time was, how disorienting it was, and what a challenge all this truth was to millions of people raised in the Soviet system. It’s even harder to imagine having so much of that progress taken away—which is what happened in Russia not long after Vladimir Putin rose to power. To watch Russian television news now is to be thrown back in time; the level of propaganda and the slavish fealty to the Great Leader is familiar to anyone old enough to have lived in the years before Gorbachev.
All this foreign history should not feel quite so foreign now. It should serve as a warning to Americans in the era of Donald Trump about the fragility of principles and institutions, particularly when those principles and institutions are under attack by a leader who was ostensibly elected to protect them. This week, dozens of American publications are publishing editorials in ardent opposition to President Trump’s assault on the press and his use of that poisonous phrase “enemies of the people.” The refusal to bend to that assault, and the protection of practices and institutions that are more fragile than we usually care to acknowledge, is essential to the future of American democracy.
Nearly every day, Trump makes his hostility clear. He refers to reporters as “scum,” “slime,” and “sick people.” They are cast as unpatriotic––“I really think they don’t like our country,” he says. They are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” Trump has smeared critical news organizations as “fake news,” a term gleefully adopted by Putin, Bashar al-Assad, and other autocrats who are delighted to have their own repressive reflexes endorsed by an American President. Trump has threatened to sue publishers, cancel broadcast licenses, change libel laws. He betrays no sense of understanding, much less of endorsing, the rudiments of American liberty. During a visit from the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Trump told reporters that he thought it was “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.”
By casting the press as an “enemy,” Trump is not merely joining a long list of Presidents who have bristled at criticism. He goes much further than his predecessors, including paranoiacs like Richard Nixon, who assembled a secret “enemies list” and raged in the Oval Office to his chief of staff about barring the Washington Post from the White House grounds. Trump’s rages are public. They are daily. And they are part of a concerted effort to undermine precepts of American constitutionalism and to cast his lot with the illiberal and authoritarian vements now on the rise around the world.