On any Wednesday night, there’s plenty to do in San Diego, or “America’s Finest City,” as it is billed. But tonight the locals pack the University of California lecture hall to hear Vladimir Posner, the Soviet Union’s most famous journalist. (Since it has often been pointed out that “Soviet journalist” is oxymoronic, we won’t get into that here, except to say that “television journalist” is probably an oxymoron, too. As far as I know, Posner is not a “Soviet writer.”) Posner is a big draw at the campus where Herbert Marcuse once held forth on repressive tolerance. In fact, so many show up that the overflow is stuffed into an adjacent hall where they will have to watch on closed circuit television.
It’s a mixed group: students, curious baby boomers, and plenty of older folks. Pamphleteers from the John Birch Society and the Union of Jewish Students work the crowd. Their wares litter the floor. There is much pushing and shoving.
“What’s the fuss?” someone says. “He’s just some Bolshevik in a suit.” A younger man laughs, but one elderly lady looks offended. “I think he’s cute,” answers a tangly blonde straight out of a Sprite commercial, evidently there to look, not listen.
The star himself is over in a corner, chatting up some television people. At first glance he looks a bit like a car salesman, definitely smaller than life. But once on the podium he takes on a professional bearing. I half expect him to remove his glasses and say something like: “Nine out of ten doctors . . . “
After a long, thunderous ovation, Posner says he is “overwhelmed” that so many have showed up. (At this, many in the crowd look proud of themselves just for being there.) He adds that he is not an official Soviet government spokesman, though if someone should want to know the official line, he will of course give it.
What he is here to do is to correct certain “myths” about the USSR held by Americans. These myths are not accidental, he adds, but deliberately cultivated. He refers to some 1920 New York Times cartoons showing short, fat Bolsheviks with bushy eyebrows and knives held in their teeth. “Do I look like a Russian?” he says, in his perfect English (Posner was raised in Brooklyn). The crowd loves it.
He scores more laughs at Joe Biden’s expense by stating that he will be careful to fully attribute all quotes. One is a piece of anti-Soviet hysteria from the Congressional Record in the early 1920’s, complete with a phony line from Lenin about “taking over” the United States. Now, Posner could have supplied a genuine quip from Lenin such as, “the scientific definition of a dictatorship is a power that is not limited by any laws, not bound by any rules, and based directly on force,” but he didn’t. He could have pointed out, as Intourist guides do, that the Soviet star represents the five continents, but, after all, he is here to calm us.
He cites a Gallup poll purportedly showing that most Americans are unaware that the Soviets and Americans fought on the same side in World War II. What terrible ignorance; he’s right. But as I listen, I wonder how many of these people have ever heard of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact that carved up Poland. And how many remember that, until 1941, Stalin and Hitler were allies, and that Stalin cheered Hitler’s attacks on England and the West? Or that during that time, the Soviets handed over thousands of German-Jewish communists to the Gestapo? Vladimir skirts this inconvenient business. “We were allies,” he says, as though he himself had been there quaffing vodka and swapping war stories with Patton on VE day.
Next he explains how Khrushchev’s “We will bury you!” was a mistranslation. All Nikita really meant, he says, was that the inevitable progress of history would leave capitalism behind. It was all a misunderstanding.
Americans and Russians apparently have some similarities. “You had your wild West, we had our wild East.” This gets some laughs. But there are also differences, Vladimir says, and there is no use pretending these do not exist.
For example, those differing Western and Eastern views of freedom and human rights. You know, those Western bourgeois trifles like elections, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, as opposed to a guaranteed job, government housing, and free education and medical care in the East. We could argue about these all night, he says, but one must understand and respect the other view.
One must also understand that Russia had no democratic tradition, he continues. They had a czar. He does not mention that the Bolsheviks were counterrevolutionaries who overthrew not the czar but the provisional government of Kerensky, the closest thing to a democracy ever to exist in Russia. Vladimir isn’t one to quibble over details.
In solidarity with the psalmist, Posner concedes that “our own transgressions” are partly to blame for tensions. Then, with a voice like that of a doctor describing a cancer, he speaks of “the Stalin period” with its “mass purges” in which “20 million people were sent to labor camps,” where “many died and many were executed.” But such things are all in the past; in the USSR it’s a bright new day.
Here rolls the long commercial for glasnost, which is “nothing short of a revolution.” Why, under glasnost the Soviets are “going to the source.” Glasnost will make the USSR “more socialist, not less.” Posner has heard a nasty rumor that glasnost is “just window dressing for the West,” but that is just another example of pernicious Western mythmaking.
Now comes the carrot and the stick. Both sides “owe it to themselves” to understand each other; that’s the carrot. And “if we don’t communicate, we’re dead”; that’s the stick. His choice of words causes a slight stir. Fortunately, as is clear from the bumper stickers on their Volvos, these San Diegans know full well that you can’t hug a child with nuclear arms.
Like all telly men, Vladimir knows the limits of the human attention span and doesn’t carry on too long. The only disturbance comes with the questions. Some young Afghans begin shouting something about the Soviets invading their country and killing their people. The crowd doesn’t like this interruption from these crude complainers and yells at them to “go home,” at which point the police helpfully remove the local mujahideen, much to the approval of the speaker and the rest of the audience. When Posner takes his bow, the applause is deafening. They love him in San Diego. (They gave him the key to the city.)
On the way back to the car I recall that when George Orwell was writing Animal Farm, his friend Malcolm Muggeridge suggested that at the point where the pigs had learned to walk like humans he should introduce a host of fellow travelers going about on all fours. It is depressing that when Soviet pitchmen have perfected their act, so many trendy Californians are on their hands and knees, lapping it up and loving it.