He hears no evil, at least from the post-Soviet Pravda. Photographer: Dmitry Dukhanin/Bloomberg News.
He hears no evil, at least from the post-Soviet Pravda. Photographer: Dmitry Dukhanin/Bloomberg News.

The Soviet-era Pravda, the publication in which Senator John McCain apparently wanted to print his opinion piece criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, has a long and noteworthy history -- one not particularly congruent with the message of freedom McCain intended to send.

In 1936, the year McCain was born, the almighty organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party published an article entitled "A Mess instead of Music," which nearly sent the composer Dmitri Shostakovich to the prison camps. Shostakovich had to write the traditional-sounding Fifth Symphony to win Josef Stalin's forgiveness, which was also expressed on the pages of Pravda.

In 1973, the year McCain was released from Vietnamese captivity, Pravda published a letter signed by 31 Soviet authors denouncing Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and human-rights activist Andrei Sakharov.

In 1982, when McCain was elected to the House of Representatives, a Pravda article titled "Bluebird Ragout" forced a successful Soviet rock band called Time Machine into the underground. The legends of the Russian rock stage are still active, and they still remember the Pravda piece.

But by 2013, when McCain decided to respond to a New York Times opinion piece in which Putin lectured Americans on peace and tolerance, the original Pravda was gone. It has succumbed to stiff competition on the fledgling Russian media market in the early 1990s, after the brief reign of a left-wing Greek investor called Yannis Yannikos, who one day simply disappeared.

Today, there are two Pravdas. One is a print newspaper with a rudimentary website, published by the modern-day Communist Party. The other, Pravda.ru, is an online-only affair whose publisher, Vadim Gorshenin, worked for the original Pravda in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gorshenin has close ties to the Kremlin, having participated in Putin's election campaign in 2012. The website's general orientation is pro-Putin.

It is Gorshenin's Pravda that published McCain's article. As Gorshenin recalled in an interview with another pro-Kremlin media outlet, the newspaper Izvestia, a journalist from Foreign Policy magazine "wrote the editor of our English-language version Dmitri Sudakov, asking, 'Can you disprove that you have no freedom of speech by publishing McCain's piece?' "

In the article, McCain seems to be speaking to the long-gone audience of the original Pravda. After stating he is "more pro-Russian than the regime that misrules you today," he affirms: "A Russian citizen could not publish a testament like the one I just offered." The column read as though McCain was unaware of the existence of Russia's highly vocal liberal press, or indeed of the not-so-subtle difference between Putin's authoritarian regime and totalitarian Soviet Communism.

"The very fact of publication proves that everything McCain wrote is a lie," Gorshenin told Izvestia. "If the entire press were controlled from the Kremlin, how could a piece like that appear on a website everyone calls pro-Kremlin?"

If McCain hoped that his article would make a splash in Russia comparable to the one Putin's article made in the U.S., he must have been disappointed. Pravda.ru's traffic was no greater than average. The Russian president may be an incorrigible dictator, but his publicists appear to have a better understanding of modern-day America than McCain does of Russia.

Granted, it's easier for Putin: There's only one New York Times.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)