Though it gets harder to remember with every passing day, one of the long-established premises of the recently ended Cold War was the notion that both the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. were engaged in an ideological battle for the minds and souls of the world’s population. In line with this the West used powerful transmitters to beam Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty past the Iron Curtain while the Soviets spent millions trying to jam the broadcasts. For its part, the U.S.S.R. established numerous international front organizations and publications to parrot the Soviet line.
For decades this East-West psychological warfare was relatively upfront. Their side touted Marxism-Leninism, denounced American imperialism, and encouraged Third World “liberation struggles.” Meanwhile, our side touted the free market and democracy, denounced Soviet imperialism, and encouraged Third World development. However, after five years of glasnost and perestroika and the much heralded end of the Cold War, we have come to a puzzling juncture where the psy-war hasn’t exactly ended but seems to have imploded—at least at the Soviet end. Soviet propaganda is still being produced, but the logic behind it has gotten a little . . . twisted.
To see this more clearly, consider for a moment a typical pre-glasnost analysis of Soviet “active measures,” i.e., propaganda and disinformation aimed at the West. In Dezinformatsia: The Strategy of Soviet Disinformation (1986), two Sovietologists identified Soviet propaganda themes and noted their reproduction by front organizations and other secondary sources. The authors analyzed two prime sources: the weekly “International Review” column in Pravda and New Times, the “Soviet Weekly of World Affairs,” which is published by the International Information Department of the Central Committee in ten different language editions and shipped all over the world.
Stanislav Levchenko, a former KGB officer who had worked undercover as a New Times journalist, described the supposed targets of New Times propaganda this way:
New Times propaganda in large part is directed against foreign elites. In Western Europe, this includes academics, journalists, political leaders, and so on. These are the kinds of individuals, the Soviets know, who read the magazine and are influenced by it. Additionally, New Times sets the lines on various issues for foreign Communist parties. . . . New Times also is used for internal propaganda directed at the population of the Soviet Union. New Times, in other words, is directed against both foreign and domestic audiences.
According to this pre-glasnost model, New Times ought to be a revealing source of Soviet propaganda and intentions. Moreover, with so much riding on it—the influencing of foreign elites, no less—it would stand to reason that the Soviets would be bending over backwards to get it to their target audience. Or so I assumed until I set out in search of contemporary Soviet agitprop.
The first thing that an American discovers in his quest to be propagandized is that the odds against success are overwhelming. This is not due to our government’s effort to keep propaganda out of the country. Quite the contrary. The last time I checked, our customs and postal agencies were not confiscating shipments of revolutionary literature from abroad. During the 1970’s the Chinese shipped crateloads of little red books that domestic Maoists eagerly snapped up without anyone in Washington batting an eyelash.
Rather, the problem seems to lie with the Soviets themselves. Just as they have trouble harvesting their own grain, the Soviets appear to have serious difficulty with getting their propaganda anywhere near that target audience of academies, journalists, and political leaders—or near anyone for that matter. Take New Times, for example.
New Times publishes, from time to time, an impressive list of outlets around the world where the curious can pick up a copy or enter a subscription. In San Francisco, New Times lists The Book Center (a modest little leftist bookstore in the Mission District that doubles as the office of the California branch of the CPUSA) and Zhanie Books (a primarily Russian-language bookstore). However, as I discovered on a recent visit, The Book Center hadn’t received a new copy of New Times in several months. Why? An apologetic clerk explained that since their subscription of ten copies of the English-language edition had expired, the Soviets had been a bit slow in putting things back in order. There was a stack of fresh New Times in Spanish on the racks, proving that the Soviets hadn’t lost interest in publishing per se, but precious months of potentially fruitful propagandizing were slipping down the drain, never to return.
The situation at Zhanie was hardly better. An initial phone call inquiring about New Times produced the glum news that “No, we don’t have any New Times. They sell out within a day or two of when we get them in.” Short of haunting the bookstore on a daily basis, it sounded like one had to have an inside line in order to lay hands on the periodical. Perhaps all of Zhanie’s copies were being snapped up by local Russian emigres nostalgic for the old sod. That left very few for foreign elites hoping to chow down on some genuine propaganda.
A visit to Zhanie a week or two later was even more discouraging. No New Times were in sight, only three-month-old copies of Krokodil and a few newspapers, all in Russian. Two elderly Russian women were indifferently in charge, lending the place an uncannily authentic Moscow air. Seized with a sudden terror that I might be forced to queue up for six hours only to be told that bread was unavailable, I tried to catch the eye of one of the women in order to make a quick inquiry about New Times. I should have known better. After ten minutes of waiting near the cash register, I was told that they were, of course, out of New Times.
The situation seemed more than a little absurd. Here I was in San Francisco, one of the most left-leaning cities on the continent, and I was totally unable to lay hands on a magazine that the Soviets were presumably eager to have me read. The local Communist Party couldn’t be sure that their copies were going to arrive at all, while Zhanie apparently consistently sells out of them without bothering to increase their order. Was this any way to run a propaganda war? What was going on?
I next tried to track down a New Times while I was in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is, after all, the second-largest city in the country, and second only to New York in cultural influence. The back pages of the current incarnation of the old Daily Worker, the People’s Daily World, showed a promising looking ad for the Progressive Bookshop on South St. Andrews Place. I checked the hours—the ad said the store was open from one to five in the afternoon, Tuesday through Friday—and set off across town. South St. Andrews Place turned out to be a dilapidated residential street in Koreatown, a neighborhood now primarily occupied by recent Korean immigrants. The Progressive Bookshop was a dusty old two-story house with a large front porch and a locked and bolted front door. A peeling sign on the front of the building identified it as the Hungarian-American Cultural Association. A small notice indicated the bookstore was on the second floor, in a converted bedroom no doubt, but none of the occupants—Hungarian-American or otherwise—were anywhere to be found. My propaganda pilgrimage was a bust.
Were any copies of New Times to be had on the West Coast at all? If so, where? How about the progressive groves of academia? I was finally able to locate New Times at the U.C. Berkeley library, where they have apparently had a running subscription since sometime in the 1930’s. Once there I hunkered down with a selection of copies, both old and new, and pondered the current state of the psy-war.
Yes, indeed, as the authors of Dezinformatsia had contended, the issues of New Times until well into the Gorbachev era did read like classic Communist propaganda. America was an imperialist warmonger, SDI was threatening world peace, cruise missiles should not be installed in Europe, socialist comrades from around the world were underscoring their solidarity with each other, the CIA was up to its dirty tricks—in short, the old New Times read like a slightly cruder version of the Nation minus the Edward Sorel cartoons.
And then in 1988 a confounding transformation took place. Criticism of America faded out, while soul-searching self-criticism about the failure of socialism in the Eastern Bloc monopolized the pages. Wistful articles about the virtues of the free market crept in along with zingy personality pieces on such famous Westerners as Janet Jackson and U.K. press baron Robert Maxwell.
What in the devil were the Soviets up to? This stuff only made sense as propaganda if the intended themes were talking up capitalism and casting the Soviet Union as a backwater has-been. The only overt suasion I could identify was a tendency to rattle on about “Our Common European Home,” in an obvious Soviet effort to court favor with Western Europe.
To be honest, I was rather charmed by New Times‘ modesty, and this caused me to wonder if the Soviets weren’t pioneering a new brand of psy-war. Obviously Germany’s and Japan’s economic resurrection in the wake of losing World War II was an inspiring model for winning by losing. If the Soviets declared the Cold War over and themselves the losers, perhaps they could prod us into rebuilding their decimated infrastructure, too.
This theory also accounted for the difficulty of finding New Times. The local communist faithful were hardly going to knock themselves out to peddle material that undercut their own longtime devotion to Marxism-Leninism. The same issue of People’s Daily World that provided the address of the sickly Los Angeles clubhouse contained an alternately pitiful and hilarious piece by Michael Parenti bemoaning “the anti-Marxist Soviets.” Parenti whines that ” ‘Reform-minded’ Soviet intellectuals heap praise on those most critical of Soviet society and disdain the ‘soft-minded’ ones who might be more restrained in their observations. They even gently criticize hard-liners like [Robert] Conquest for not being ferocious enough.” Parenti sadly observes, “The more retrograde and anti-communist the view, the more ‘reactionary chic’ it is and the more appeal it seems to have.”
Is this, then, the death of Soviet propaganda, or is it a leap to a new level of sophisticated manipulation? After all, cautious observers like Edward Jay Epstein have noted a number of earlier Soviet turns to the West, such as the “New Economic Policy” of the 1920’s, which were abruptly reversed by dictatorial fiat. And even as I write, Gorbachev keeps consolidating power in the name of democratizing and decentralizing control. Then again, perhaps we are truly in a new era when studies such as Dezinformatsia no longer apply. In either case, if New Times is still intended as propaganda to influence foreign elites—even if the line being peddled is one of lulling us into complacency and self-congratulation—why is New Times nearly impossible to obtain? Conversely, if New Times is no longer propaganda, why is it still being published? With a budget of at least two hundred million dollars a year. New Times must be justifying its existence to some Soviet bean-counter amidst paper shortages and an economic tailspin.
In an effort to keep a finger on the faltering Soviet pulse, I subscribed to New Times last fall. As 1990 came to a close and the Soviet hard-liners clamped down on the Baltic republics, New Times continued to be amazingly self-critical of Soviet antidemocratic actions. And then, at the turn of the New Year, New Times ceased to show up in the mail altogether. After four or five weeks of missing issues had passed I called Imported Publications in Chicago, one of New Times‘ primary U.S. subscription agencies, and inquired about the vanished magazine. They claimed that a dispute over payment had arisen between Aeroflot (which flies Soviet periodicals to America in bulk) and the Soviets’ periodical distribution agency that handles all magazines for exportation. As of last March, New Times was still missing in action.
Common sense suggests that internal ideological struggles in the Soviet Union have no doubt had more to do with New Times‘ disappearance than payment disputes between one Soviet agency and another. Then again, I suppose it is possible that perestroika got as far as introducing cost accounting to Aeroflot’s managers, who decided that they had given a free ride to bulk propaganda shipments for long enough. Perhaps this will be the ultimate fruit of perestroika: in the future all propaganda will have to pay its own way.