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LectureHop: Decoding The Soviet Press

he stares into your soul

Professor Tom Kent

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.

Investigative journalism at the time was tame, even by Bwog’s standards. One headline might warn, “Teenage Girls Wearing Too Much Gold,” and ramble on about the dangers of jewelry. Kent specifically loved a cover story about a shoe repair stand using soles that would deteriorate in the rain, because there were so many better things to be writing about at the time. Other stories seem silly but were actually moderately important. “Soviet Union Manufacturing Own Chewing Gum” appears benign, but it did solve the embarrassing issue of children asking foreign tourists for gum. Very rarely, the media would talk about some real social issue, and all of the western reporters would jump on it and return it to their respective countries. When you’re surrounded by articles about jewelry and gum, you’ll take whatever you can get.

Perhaps most interesting was the discussion of specific language and jargon. If a story wanted to introduce a change in policy while acting like it wasn’t a big deal, it would always say, “as is known,” as though it were always a fact. Boring frontpage articles hiding a call to action for communist party members would start a paragraph with “However,” state their business, and then return to their previously dull report on the state of tall grass on the farms. These pieces of language and others were unified and identical between papers across the country. Either there was amazing communication infrastructure, or everything was planned well ahead of time and nationally distributed. The western media was always looking for cracks in the jargon, for evidence of how the leaders really talked and thought. But in studying how much the official speeches sounded like the newspapers, it occurred to Kent that the opposite was likely just as true. The newspapers sounded just as robotic as the bureaucrats because everyone at the top may have bought into the lies. There was a perfect circle of information, up and down the chain of command, being censored and cleaned up. The language of the Soviet media may very well have been the true code and language of the government itself.

Totally professional photography via journ.msu.ru

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