What is Pravda?

When the Communist Party of Russia came to power in 1918, they set up a newspaper that would be their official organ of propaganda until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They called it “Pravda,” which is Russian for “Truth.”

With its eventual monopoly on news, “Pravda” sought to define all of social reality for Russians, depriving alternative voices of any oxygen or standing. In 2022 Donald Trump set up his own media platform to disseminate his  views without fear of silencing or contest. He called it “Truth Social.” (Now in all caps: TRUTH SOCIAL.)

Observers should not be surprised that he has instinctively copied the Communist Party’s strategy, since his support for Vladimir Putin is well-known. This is just one more example, though veiled for those who may not know Russian.

What is important to observe is that all tyrants and totalitarians immediately seek to redefine social reality in order to stifle the possibility of dissent. That is, they seek to choke off the intellectual basis for public life. They know that genuine public life, and the republics that arise from it, depends on people’s immediate access to a truth that transcends their particular arguments.

The source of this truth may be science, sacred texts, or some ancient tradition, but it must truly transcend current power dynamics and be immediately accessible to participants. In the words of the American founders, it must be “self-evident.”

What this means is that statements about truth in a republic have to emanate from people who are not seeking or holding political power. Truth that is subservient to power is immediately corrupted and can no longer be the basis for genuine public life. Thus, religious truth must be institutionalized separately from political or economic power. Scientific truth, such as resides in schools and universities, must also be independent of political power. The collapse of this wall of separation between truth and power is a mortal threat to genuine republican life.

In our technological age we have assumed that truth and power can be united in the effort to dominate physical reality. The search for truth is harnessed to the quest for power over the planet and other life. The struggle over truth, technology, and political power gained dramatic form during the Covid pandemic, as we all remember to our great sorrow and consternation. Our present struggle with tyrants who would claim for themselves the TRUTH is one consequence of this collapse of truth and power.

When the Roman “procurator” Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews, and thus a clear threat to King Herod, Jesus responded that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate’s  contemptuous question “What is Truth?” sought to cut off all political power from the judgment of a transcendent truth. But in this interchange we come upon the heart of Jesus’s creation of an alternative reality to Roman rule and indeed to all our efforts to subject truth to power (John 18:33–38).

As the author of John saw it, Jesus was a living truth—a life of free self-disposal anchored in the Creator’s Spirit—that creates a realm of witnessing to the truth we know in our hearts and which we share freely with one another. It is this kind of trustworthy public life— this ekklesia in Greek terms—that finally stands in opposition to all forms of tyranny and human domination.

This election year we Americans, especially we American Christians, have a peculiar challenge to discern the truth that sets us free for public self-governance and reject claims to truth that are simply a propaganda shield for the lust for power by the tyrants, despots, and demagogues of our time. The continued vitality of our republic hangs in the balance.

6 thoughts on “What is Pravda?”

  1. I would like to add to my previous comment about the dictatorship of cynicism and contrast it with a statement of democratic belief. On June 1, 1950, Margaret Chase Smith, Republican senator from Maine, stood in the Senate and delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” aimed at the American dictator Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her. This is an excerpt from her speech defining the American Freedom of Speech.

    “THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF .AMERICANISM”

    Those of us who shout the loudest about
    Americanism in making character assassinations
    are all too frequently those who, by our own
    words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles
    of Americanism-

    The right to criticize.
    The right to hold unpopular beliefs.
    The right to protest.
    The right of independent thought.

    The exercise of these rights should not cost
    one single American citizen his reputation or
    his right to a livelihood nor should he be in
    danger of losing his reputation or livelihood
    merely because he happens to know someone
    who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us does
    not? Otherwise none of us could call our souls
    our own. Otherwise thought control would
    have set in.

    https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/SmithDeclaration.pdf

  2. The Russians I knew were all very aware that “their is no Truth in the News and no News in the Truth.” They were all very clear on the personal effects of this control of knowledge and countered with “There is no Joke in the Truth, so we find Truth in a Joke.” They lived in individual prisons of cynicism, because “Truth was …… whatever the bosses say.” When we are dominated by hierarchies, we have no choice but to obey and to suffer the consequences of cynicism. They had a phrase for this total subservience of the mind to the hierarchy ….. Yad Dooshi ….. The poisoning of the soul. The grim joke in the phrase is that ‘Yad’ is close to another word, ‘Ad’, which is Hell. All dictatorships must create variations of Hell, because all dictators, :”would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

  3. this argument reminds me of Martin Luther’s distinction between God’s governance of the life of his believers, the spiritual realm, ruled by love and forgiveness, and the normal social life of all people, the worldly realm, ruled by law, power and the threat of violence. This distinction makes every Christian a citizen of two realms, and carries the risk of a complete dichotomy of the spiritual and the political world with a tendency of letting the poltical realm have an Eigengesetzlichkeit (a kind of self-contained existence without any spiritual impulses). The decisive question is how the spiritual impulses of love of God, love of neighbor and even love of enemy, can enter the political world without becoming a spiritual totalitarian rule enforced by violence of the poltical and spiritual masters (as in the cooperation of Putin and Kyrill who exclude Ukrainians as subhuman fascists, or Hitler and the so-called German Christians who excluded Jews and Slavs as subhuman by definition.
    I never imagined that I should live to find a kind of comic and distorted way of a totalitarian power hungry would-be dictator in the States, “God’s own country”, which is an indication of inbuilt danger in American tradition.
    Let’s hope and pray that this disaster will not happen.
    Gerd

  4. Thank you for this, Bill. Yes, it should be widely published.

    When I took Russian in college, the main newspapers in Russia were Pravda (Truth) and Isvestia (News), and there was saying that in News there is no truth, and in Truth there is no news.

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