24 AUGUST 1985, Page 9


Vladimir V oinovich on the way Russians

learn to believe the opposite of what they are told

ABOUT 15 years ago, when my wife and I were driving back to Moscow from the Black Sea, it was somewhere around Armavir, I think, that we turned onto the broad and, by Soviet standards, fairly good main road that runs from Pyatigorsk to Rostov-on-Don. At the point where we Joined the road there were no signposts; we turned in the direction we thought was the right one and drove on, reckoning that we would soon reach a signboard and that if we were lucky we would keep straight on, and if not we would only need to turn round.

The road was completely deserted. On- coming cars were very few, and no one seemed to be going in our direction except us. However, we weren't worried; it was only a matter of driving on to the next Signboard. And soon, sure enough, there it was. . .

We noticed the big signboard from a distance. As we approached it, however, we saw it was a huge portrait of Lenin, a kindly-looking little old man with a modest red rosette in his lapel and another in his cap. His half-bent hand resting on the peak of his cap, Vladimir Ilyich's brows were knitted in an affectionate stare and he was expressing approval of the direction we had chosen, for the words YOU'RE ON THE RIGHT ROAD, COMRADE! were printed under the portrait in large letters.

If comrade Lenin did in fact ever speak these words, he probably had in mind the general idea of the people's road to com- munism, but when written on a roadside Signboard they acquired a more specific connotation. Unfortunately, in our situa- tion, this statement by the leader of the world's proletariat was not a great help; we would have liked some more detailed information. There was nothing for it, though, but to drive on. Again we sped along the deserted road, devoid of villages, filling stations or signposts; it even lacked the usual (and equally meaningless) ply- wood placards on which the local collective farms announced how much milk or how many eggs they planned to deliver to the state during the current five-year plan. Instead, nothing but the same portraits of Lenin, with the same smirk and the same words: YOU'RE ON THE RIGHT ROAD, COMRADE! appeared at the roadside with irritating regularity. After travelling several hundred kilometres we finally overtook a tractor, and discovered from its driver that we were indeed on the right road — only we were going in exactly the opposite direction. So we turned round and set off back again; once more, one after another the portraits of Lenin loomed up, flashed past and disappeared, all bearing the same legend:


Whenever I think about Soviet prop- aganda, I remember that road with its countless giant portraits above their meaningless words.

Comparing Soviet propaganda with the American sort or with Western propagan- da in general is difficult, perhaps even impossible, because Soviet propaganda is the basic product of the Soviet system — a product whose output significantly exceeds the combined total of goods produced by agriculture, light industry, heavy industry, and even the arms industry.

As we know, the production of prop- aganda is above all the concern of the Agitprop departments of the Communist Party, the Komsomol and the KGB. All Soviet newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, cinemas, theatres, wri- ters' unions, artists' unions, composers' unions and even the official Orthodox Church are also hard at it. The output of propaganda is equally a responsibility of all 'Still less do we want sexy male nurses.' factories, collective farms, hospitals, con- struction enterprises and the military. Ev- ery director, manager, departmental head, chairman or unit commander has to ensure that his particular bailiwick is kept supplied with the necessary quantity of portraits of Lenin and of the current members of the Politburo (of course, if one of the latter is sacked, then his portrait must disappear instantly and for ever); then there are the banners proclaiming such meaningless slo- gans as: THE DOCTRINES OF MARX ARE ALL-POWERFUL BECAUSE THEY ARE COR- RECT, THE VICTORY OF COMMUNISM IS INEVITABLE, PEOPLE AND PARTY ARE UN- ITED; there is the ubiquitous wall newspap- er, whose contents are unimportant (what matters is that there should be a wall newspaper); a 'Board of Honour' adorned with portraits of so-called Exemplary Workers (to be Exemplary you don't only have to work well, you must also be an active producer — or at least a big consum- er — of propaganda); finally there are the countless posters that shriek appeals, quotations, figures and percentages prom- ising the over-fulfilment of production plans. These figures, totally unconnected with reality, are found everywhere: I once saw a specific undertaking to use such-and- such a percentage of recycled materials hanging in a dentist's surgery.

Every Soviet boss, big or small, knows that if a serious check is ever made on his activities he may be forgiven for non- fulfilment of production quotas, for drunk- enness, theft, absenteeism and corruption on the part of his subordinates or himself, but that for any hiccups in the flow of all those portraits, posters, slogans, quota- tions and figures he will not be forgiven.

The consumer of propaganda is every Soviet citizen, starting from kindergarten or school age, when he or she first becomes a member of a collective (those slogans, posters, portraits and wall newspapers are even to be found hanging in nursery schools). Depending on his or her age, social position, Party membership and educational level, everyone is fed with propaganda in the form that is, in the authorities' opinion, accessible to his or her intellect. Students, regardless of their future profession, study Marxism- Leninism and the history of the CPSU — a history that changes from time to time in line with the changing demands of prop- aganda. Workers, collective farmers and soldiers have to attend political lectures or study groups, where in the past they studied the biography of comrade Stalin, later the literary masterpieces of comrade Brezhnev; now, no doubt, comrade Gor- bachev is busy turning out something worthy of study. Formally, these lectures are voluntary and free of charge, but all Soviet citizens know that attendance at them or avoidance of them will be reflected in most direct and immediate fashion in their standard of living; their attendance record will be taken into account when they are due for promotion at work and when production premiums, new flats, free tickets to holiday resorts or imported chickens are being handed out.

For Soviet propagandists, those happy days are long past when the masses re- sponded cheerfully to contradictory appeals by the Party; when they enthusias- tically built factories in Siberia or 'fought for Freedom' in Spain; when they excitedly waved flags or pictures of the leaders at 'spontaneous' demonstrations or went in- sane with happiness if they chanced to catch a distant glimpse of Lenin, Trotsky or Stalin; when they pinned red rosettes to their lapels and gave their children such revolutionary names as Vladlen (Vladimir Lenin), Melor (Marx, Engels, Lenin, October Revolution), Kim (Kommunist International [Youth] Movement), even Tractoria or Industria. Nowadays people still go on demonstrations and wave flags and slogans, but only in exchange for an extra day off, a half-holiday or a bonus.

Today's fashions and enthusiasms are quite different. Soviet young people and Soviet not-so-young people are no longer excited and inspired by revolutionary slo- gans, but by the names of various Western firms and products. Words like 'Chester- field', 'Panasonic' or 'Aston Martin' touch the heart of homo sovieticus much more powerfully than, for instance, 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity'. Foreign clothes are preferred, but not just for their genuine qualities: the price of a pair of jeans will increase sharply if the back pocket displays a 'Lee' or 'Mustang' label, and drops equally sharply if there is no such label. There is a great vogue for tee-shirts in- scribed 'Coca-Cola' or 'I Love New York'. Rumour has it that Moscow has even seen some tee-shirts proclaiming 'I'm Voting for Reagan'. If you can't afford or can't find a real foreign tee-shirt, you can buy a fake (the same words printed on a Soviet-made shirt). But just try selling a tee-shirt, even of the very highest quality, that says: 'I Love Moscow' or 'Lenin!' or, shall we say, 'I'm Voting for Gorbachev', not only will you get no thanks from the authorities — you will very probably be sent for psychiat- ric examination, because slogans of that sort will be seen as vicious mockery. Soviet people are drawn to everything Western. Whisky and Coca-Cola are much more desirable than vodka and kvas. It's a sheer impossibility to get a ticket to a concert given by some tenth-rate American pop singer or to a worthy but boring American exhibition. Naturally all this worries Soviet propagandists, yet try as they may, their efforts only ever produce exactly the opposite reaction. By now, Soviet propaganda has totally exhausted its credibility among its consumers. By its relentless mendacity and unscrupulous- ness, it has achieved the most staggering effect: Soviet people react with profound interest to everything that official prop- aganda abhors, and with equally profound aversion to everything that it praises. This applies to all areas of social and cultural life: if, for instance, the Soviet press praises this or that writer, his works will of course be published — but unread. In their day, the popularity of Zoshchenko, Akhmatova, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn greatly increased after Soviet critics had firecely attacked them, whereas Vassily Grossman, who thoroughly deserved to be among that company, remained virtually unknown because he was suppressed quiet- ly and without any beating of propaganda drums.

Every day Soviet newspapers, radio and television curse the USA, using colours blacker than black to describe American unemployment, racial discrimination, in- flation and pauperisation. But thanks to that very propaganda, countless Soviet citizens assume that America has no se- rious problems; they imagine that in the USA money grows on trees, that you don't have to work and can spend your life gambling in casinos and driving around in Cadillacs. This is why some émigrés, when they come face to face with the real and not their imaginary America, are disillusioned with the West — and blame Soviet prop- aganda for misinforming them! It's like the classic Russian joke: one passenger in a train asks another where he's going. 'I'm going to Kiev,' comes the reply. 'Why are you lying to me?' says his companion indignantly. 'You tell me you're going to Kiev so that I'll think you're going to Zhitomir, but all the time you're really going to Kiev!'

Having lost its bearings, Soviet com- munist propaganda is gradually becoming indistinguishable from anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda.

For instance, anti-Soviet propaganda claims that since its foundation the Soviet state has been entirely ruled by criminals. Soviet propaganda makes almost the iden- tical claim: dozens of leading Soviet politi- cians, from Trotsky to IChrushchev, have been declared — and are regarded as such to this day — enemies of the people, agents of imperialism and foreign spies, at the very least 'anti-Party schismatics' (Molotov and Kaganovich) or, in Khrushchev's case, `voluntarists'. Both anti-Soviet and Soviet propaganda insist that there is no such thing as 'social- ism with a human face' and never can be.

All the forecasts made by Western futur- ologists about the possible evolution of the Soviet system are treated by the Soviet propaganda machine with extreme hostil- ity, on the grounds that no such evolution is taking place (the system is already perfect) and never will take place. Yet this assertion is both irrational — because evolution, in one form or another, is an objective process that is happening all the time — and anti-communist, because how else is communism ultimately to be achieved if not by evolution? Even greater Soviet hostility is reserved for any attempts by Western communists to rescue the 'scientific' nature of Marxism from total collapse. The Soviet press will viciously attack anyone who tries to do any such thing: witness their scathing remarks about the late Enrico Berlinguer. Any Soviet citizen who tried to circulate copies of Berlinguer's speeches was punished as severely as if he had been distributing copies of The Gulag Archipelago. But Berlinguer was small fry; believe it or not, circulating certain articles by Marx, Engels and Lenin can lead to equally unpleasant consequences — to say nothing of the fate that awaits anyone who tries distributing copies of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' made at the 1956 Party Congress of the CPSU, in which he denounced Stalin and all his works. But here is an even more instructive example: in 1981, in Saratov Province, two workers were arrested for distributing. . . no, not anti-communist leaflets, not anti-Soviet forgeries con- cocted by the CIA, but the grandiose magnificently worded Programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was still officially in force and which promised the early realisation of 'full com- munism'. . . .

A vicious circle.

So what advice can one give to the hapless ideologues and artisans of Soviet propaganda to help them break out of this vicious circle? In view of the unusual, though for a social psychologist technically fascinating effect of 'reverse influence' on the masses, that is so far the only real, stable achievement of Soviet propaganda, I would advise them to start by altering their slogans on these lines:



and most importantly: YOU'RE ON THE WRONG ROAD, COM- RADES!

Translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny. This translation 1985 by M. V. Glenny.

Vladimir Voinovich is the author of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Pri- vate Ivan Chonkin.