KomPrav’s Archives Burn

The offices of Komsomolskaya Pravda were destroyed by fire on Tuesday. The building was a prime Soviet symbol. A classic 1930s constructivist structure, the building once housed Pravda, the main organ of the Communist Party. For several years it has been home to Komsomolskaya pravda, the former main organ of the Communist Youth League, or Komsomol, Parlamentskaya Gazeta, Tribuna and Sovetskaya Rossia. According to reports, there was one death: one Yelena Karpova, who worked on the sixth floor in the newspaper’s stolovia. But according to an article in the London Telegraph the loss goes beyond that of human life and avant-garde architecture. It seems that much of KomPrav’s archives have been lost.

“Perhaps the most important casualty of the blaze,” the Telegraph article reads, “believed to have been caused by an electrical fault, was a library that housed literature banned by the Soviet regime as well as a collection of transcripts from Stalin’s show trials.”

The collection was owned by Pravda’s sister newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, whose offices were gutted by the fire. Among the works lost were first-edition copies of Tsarist-era poetry outlawed by the Soviets as well as the more modern writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak and John Le Carre.

The court transcripts were rare, officially approved copies of recordings from the 1938 trial of Nikolai Bukharin, the former head of Comintern and an ex-editor of Pravda. Accused of conspiring with western powers to assassinate Joseph Stalin, Bukharin was executed after the last of the Great Purge’s show trials.

“It’s a huge loss,” said Komsomolskaya Pravda’s deputy editor, Andrei Dyatlov. “It was the only library in the USSR where such documents were officially classed as unclassified. We have also lost the entire newspaper archive dating back to 1925, including the very first issue.”

As someone whose research depends on KomPrav, this is a huge loss. I was hoping to one day get access to the archive in hopes that it contained letters readers wrote to the paper in the 1920s.

Komsomolskaia pravda began publication in 1925 as the main organ of the Komsomol. It was the third main Komsomol paper, but quickly overcame the Komsomol’s other organs Iunyi kommunist and Iunyi proletarii in scope and importance. The readership of KomPrav was extensive. As one of the cheapest national dailies in the Soviet Union, it was the most widely read paper in the country.

Its format in the 1920s, like all Soviet newspapers, was predictable. The front page was devoted to international news, which in the late 1920s prominently featured daily stories on Chang Kai-Sheik and the brewing Chinese Revolution. All the column inches to Chinese seemed to not only be read, but mobilized young communists to action. As a few files in the Komsomol archive attest, many Komsomoltsy wrote letters to the paper and Komsomol General Secretary Nikolai Chaplin urging to be sent to China to fight imperialism.

International news was followed by sections on Komsomol news from around the Union, culture, sports, and games. What might be unknown to many is that the paper also featured articles on youth sex and other disconcerting moral issues. It was the paper that first broke the famous Chubarov Alley gang rape of “Liubov B.” in Leningrad in 1926. The gang rape, which was quickly dubbed chubarovshchina, involved forty youths, five of which were Komsomol members. The incident became a national scandal and made rape and hooliganism a Komsomol obsession. The incident and trial was widely chronicled in KomPrav and the Komsomol journal Smena in all its lurid details. Apparently, the incident generated much interest considering that a book of the court proceedings was published in 1927. (B. S. Brik, ed., Chubarovshchina, po materialam sudebnogo protsessa.) I got a photocopy of it from the Historical Library in Moscow (Kitai gorod metro). Those interested can also read about the Chubarov case and its meaning in NEP Russia in Eric Naiman’s splendid Sex in Public.

When I was doing my dissertation research last year, I was hoping to find reader letters on Chubarov in the archives. All I found was internal Komsomol studies and reports on its members’ sexual habits and incidents of rape. Interesting stuff for sure. However, I was hoping to perhaps get access to the KomPrav archive. But now it seems too late.

There is still some question of whether the KomPrav building ever had materials from the 1920s. According to the guide of the Komsomol archive’s holdings, much of the collection was destroyed, like so many materials, during the archival evacuation during the war. Still, the loss of any archival material is a tragedy.

Suffice to say despite, or shall I say, out of spite for the fire, KomPrav defied commentators and published this week. No longer an organ of the Komsomol, it still publishes lurid sex tales. However, these no longer are a propaganda weapon against staryi byt. Or a daily rag that exposes the evils of polovoi raspushchennost’. It now serves the masters of the market. It sells sex for the culture industry.