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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FACES & VOICES: Hooked on 'Sovietland' Propaganda




When I was cleaning out my cupboards the other day, I came upon some old magazines called Sovietland, published in English in the 1930s to persuade foreigners that Josef Stalin had built a brave new world. No sooner had I blown off the dust and started reading than I was gripped.


Printed on thick paper (no expense spared for the foreigners), Sovietland glossed over the labor camps and mass starvation that were Stalin's real gift to his people and extolled the achievements of hero workers living in a land of milk, honey and ethnic harmony.


With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to laugh at Sovietland with its crude attempts to hoodwink the naive and idealistic. "Crime is out of date," reads one reassuring headline. "The weaker sex comes into its own," trumpets another. "Life is joyous among the many nationalities."


The language is never anything but uplifting. The Jews who were sent off to the back of beyond to found the republic of Birobidjan in the Far East are described as a "regenerated people, enjoying a better life thanks to their pioneering and selfless work." The accompanying pictures show smiling Jewish women carrying overflowing baskets of grapes.


Another article headlined "Toilers at Rest" tells how former palaces of aristocrats on the Black Sea have been converted into sanatoriums for the workers. "Boating is tremendously popular and rowing and yachting are winning ever new free-time adherents. The kiddies rest in deck chairs."


For the hours of fun I have had with these illustrated magazines, I should thank Stas, a failed artist and boozer, who died a few years ago. Stas never threw anything away, not even bus tickets. The printed word was sacred to him. "It's all history," he used to say.


Although the single room he had on the edge of Moscow was so stuffed with books and papers that there was no space for him and he slept curled up in the kitchenette, he went on acquiring more. He used to visit the makulatura, or waste paper recycling station, where most Russians were glad to trade in their old newspapers for a few rubles.


The Sovietland magazines turned up at the makulatura during the Gorbachev era. The man in charge was all for shredding them. But Stas, a fervent anti-Communist, resisted putting the writings of his ideological opponents down the memory hole.


"Without history, there is no future," he said and gave the makulatura man a crate of vodka to save the magazines. When he died of cirrhosis of the liver, he left them to me in his will.


Stas is in my thoughts as I mark the anniversary of the October Revolution, chuckling over more gems from the 1930s. There is an article about Alexei Stakhanov, the Donbass coal miner who was said to have hewn a superhuman amount of coal, a standard to which poor workers were held forever afterward. And a report of the 1938 show trial against "Bukharin, Krestinsky, Yagoda and other ferocious enemies of the Soviet people."


But best of all, I love the Ukrainian rug weavers, "reflecting the pulsating of the collective farm and the stormy development of industry" in their carpets.


What zeal! What heroism! What vision!