Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Thankfully We Failed as Soviet Propagandists

Only about two years ago I noticed a letter to the editor in one of our main newspapers with the headline "They Stole My Life." The author was a middle-aged woman who had just returned from her first trip abroad, a vacation in Germany. There -- as we have heard so often -- a whole new, completely unexpected world opened up before her, and she suddenly understood that it is possible to live otherwise and that all those years of communist propaganda had really been the most shameless deception. All the fairy tales of the paradise of socialism and of the sufferings of ordinary citizens in the hell of capitalism disappeared in an instant.


I remembered an article I had seen a few years earlier in one of the American news magazines. The correspondent ended the article by citing the words of an elderly woman in Novosibirsk who told her, "I'm glad that you could come here and have a chance to eat as much you want. After all, people are starving in America." My colleague wisely resisted the temptation to add some sort of comment -- everything was clear enough as it was.


This is exactly the kind of talk we heard right up to the beginning of the current reforms, even during the days when people in cities like Novosibirsk were lining up all day for milk and could only dream about finding some sausage. It was then that I realized how effective we propagandists had been. And how right Stalin and his successors had been to preserve their rule by hermetically sealing the country's borders to keep Soviet citizens from communicating with those other worlds and from realizing that their lives had been stolen from them for the sake of some bright future for humanity.


I was one of those propagandists. It would be a mistake, though, to think that all of us who were harnessed to the chariot of propaganda thought in unison and that none of us ever had any doubts about what we were doing. Many people suppose that we were devoted servants of the ideas of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. After all, that is the way party leaders loved to refer to us, openly declaring that it was our duty to propagandize the Soviet lifestyle and to contrast it against the decadent West.


It would also be a mistake to say simply that this propaganda consisted of nothing but blatant lies. Nothing of the sort. It was all much more subtle than that. The truth was leavened with innuendo and a little bit of the author's imagination to give the reader a distorted view of actual events.


We journalists -- especially those of us in the central press organs -- were, of course, considerably better informed than our readers about the real situation at home and about what our leaders were doing. Moreover, we made pretty good guesses about the things that we did not know for certain, although it later became clear that even we had only a partial idea of what was really going on.


Among ourselves, we openly discussed many problems and issues, and we even tried to bring some ideas out in our articles, especially for those readers who were able to read between the lines. Western analysts long ago noted our technique of introducing long quotations from our "enemies," ostensibly to refute them. But clever readers understood us. I think that a lot of our editors understood us too and sympathized with us. Though there were many exceptions.


I remember, for example, an article I once wrote about automobile production in Great Britain. The article was essentially technical in character, describing the production processes that enabled British producers to achieve such high-quality results. It did not even occur to me that some political question might arise. But it did.


One of the deputy editors read the article and saw in it nothing but propaganda for Western industry, slavish subservience to the West and an indirect condemnation of Soviet production techniques. He even accused me of not being patriotic. The interesting thing is that even the main editor shuddered before such demagogy. In the end, though, the article was published, but only because one of the country's leaders happened to mention in a speech around that time that the Soviet Union must make an effort to benefit from the experience of other countries.


I had supposed that my article would give some food for thought to our engineers and plant managers, but the deputy editor saw in it nothing but a chance to demonstrate his own diligence and to prevent the propaganda section of the Central Committee from accusing him of losing his class consciousness. Incidentally, I also had the opportunity to meet many of the people who worked in the Central Committee's propaganda section, including Alexander Yakovlev, who later became a guiding spirit of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. Most of them, especially in informal conversations, were extremely sincere in their concern for the country's real problems.


Nonetheless, it staggers the imagination to think how many idiotic things were done in the name of ideological vigilance and political purity. And it was these stupidities that brought our country to a dead end and that even today force one to think about our future with anxiety.


For my own part, it would be wrong to say that I suddenly realized what an unfortunate position my country was in only after I became a journalist. On the contrary, my parents had already been helping me in this direction, occasionally dropping subtle hints that there did indeed exist another world and more worthy values. But they were afraid, naturally enough, to discuss this openly even among the family. I later acquired an even better understanding that all was not right at home during the closing days of World War II. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany -- even scarred and damaged as they were -- showed me that other world in which people, not so long ago, had lived that other life.


Nonetheless, journalism did give me a new perspective and a new way of understanding what I saw going on around me. This was especially true when I became a foreign correspondent in the fall of 1960. I vividly recall the first German city we reached on the train from Moscow to London. Aachen. There, our car was decoupled from one train and we had to wait for the arrival of the next. We had several hours free to walk around the city. It seems a little trite to talk about it now, but I cannot forget how my wife and I were literally stunned to see the stores there and their rich abundance of goods. We saw the most beautiful fruits and vegetables being sold on the streets, many of which we were seeing for the first time in our lives, not having the slightest idea how to eat them. The only close comparison we could think of was Soviet exhibitions of "economic achievement," where something of this sort could be seen but only under glass display cases.


Soon after I arrived in London, I found myself at a reception at which one of the other guests happened to be an old Georgian Menshivik who had long ago emigrated. When he found out who I was, he launched into a desperate attack on my country. I could immediately tell that he had a very good understanding of what the situation was in the Soviet Union. In front of the other guests, it was impossible for me to respond. I learned an important lesson about political discussion, for which I was not prepared by my years in a society where, outwardly at least, everyone thought alike.


In the fall of 1966, I received an invitation from London's Grosvenor Gallery. "We request the honor of your presence at the opening of an exhibition of paintings by David Burlyuk."


It couldn't be that Burlyuk, could it? Mayakovsky, Kamensky, Burlyuk, the stormy first quarter of the twentieth century. These names may say little to the Western reader, but for Russians from the early days of the century, they are associated with a whole era of Russian culture that was cut off by the 1917 revolution. Burlyuk and so many others were completely erased from the minds of the Soviet people.


The point of the invitation, I later learned, was to enlist the help of Soviet journalists in bringing Burlyuk to the attention of the Soviet people and in showing that his paintings, such as "Stalingrad, 1942," were not "anti-Russian." Although Burlyuk had returned to the Soviet Union several times since the end of the war and had met with the culture minister, not a word about him had appeared in the Soviet press.


Likewise, the Soviet people did not hear anything about Burlyuk as a result of this gathering, although I am sure that many of us would have much preferred to write about him than to crank out another article about Britain's homeless and unemployed. But we all knew that, not only would such an article not be published, but the author would have to answer for his "political immaturity." Those were the rules of the game.


In January 1967, the London Times published a long obituary for David Burlyuk, who died completely forgotten in his native country, to which he had been so strongly drawn.


In the mid-1980s, I began delivering lectures in various Russian provincial cities. I usually began my talks with some remarks about foreign affairs, which is my specialty. But the talk always quickly turned to domestic affairs, since that was really all that people then were interested in. They were eager to talk to someone from Moscow about the new policies and about political personalities.


I remember one officer in the Ukrainian town of Svetlovodsk, who remarked: "We have long thought these things to ourselves, but this is the first time we have ever heard them openly." In general, these conversations coincided perfectly with the people's secret thoughts, and the reactions of my listeners gave me hope that the transformations that were only just beginning were supported by a firm foundation. I think that subsequent events have proved me right. It is remarkable how quickly we have thrown over things that just yesterday were considered irrefutable and self-evident. And this happened because despite -- or perhaps as a result of -- the work we propagandists did, many people were somehow inwardly prepared. Inside their minds, voices were already speaking of the necessity for a complete change.





Viktor Rodionov was the London correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda from 1960 to 1967. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.