Bwog’s Sports Editor and amateur Russian Ross Chapman hit up Professor Thomas Kent’s lecture at the Harriman Institute’s 12th floor offices in the International Affairs Building yesterday morning to hear the reporter and Russian scholar present “Decoding the Soviet Press.” As it turns out, the newspapers and radio of the time were way more that “just propoaganda.”
While some people just stumbled into 1219 IAB for the six trays of free Indian food at lunchtime, the room was pretty packed regardless to listen to the usual round of Monday lectures. Tom Kent is an adjunct professor at the School of Journalism and holds a number of posts with the Associated Press. He showed up today to talk about his specialty in Soviet media, which he credits to his six years as an AP correspondent in Moscow. Professor Kent wanted to debunk the idea that the Soviet press was all propaganda. “Once you get past the turgid writing” of the official sources, he said, there’s a lot to be found that exposes day-to-day and political issues in the Soviet Union.
The structuring of the Soviet press varied as the leaders did. Lenin considered himself a journalist and saw no problem with being simultaneously in charge of the government and the media. He said that the Soviet press “is a collective organizer of the country,” as it all espoused certain thoughts and worked towards certain goals. Contrarily, he referred to western media as “the depot of ideas,” a useless warehouse where ideas were stashed without purpose. In this era, the press was, as Kent called it, “a guardian and cheerleader” for the ideals of the country. But once Stalin took over, everything became stricter. There was a mood of fear among editors, and one piece that could be construed as anti-Soviet could have untold consequences. This continued until Khrushchev took over and “the Thaw” began in 1956, but returned with Brezhnev in 1964. This was a “stolid, gray period” for the Soviet media, where it felt like everything was “just getting by.”
Now, the media largely served two purposes. It informed and propagandized the public while also serving as a means of intraparty communication. A popular means of propaganda was presenting failure as something good. Professor Kent used the example of “Fish Day,” a new once-a-week plan from leading Soviet doctors to feed everyone fish for medical benefits. Of course, the real reason was that the country was having well-documented meat shortages. The newspapers also pulled quotes from even the smallest tabloids in foreign countries to create whatever international appearance they wanted, such as unity in support of Brezhnev. Actual problems would be relegated to the back pages, but Kent didn’t think everything that deserves the front page in America would fit in the USSR. A plane crash, for instance, “in Soviet proportions,” is nothing compared to the still recent losses of war, and most people in the country didn’t always want to hear about crises. Of course we’ll see some media practice as confusing or wrong if we view it from 40 years and 5,000 miles away.