Sunday, September 1, 2019

My Log 755 September 1 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 190; The danger of believing stereotypes; memories of how the Soviet Union and its diplomats were perceived post-war, how wrong those stereotypes were, and how damaging they have turned out to be

I have been thinking about stereotypes imposed on us by the mass media. I remember when the representatives of the Soviet Union first appeared in the Western world after the war. They arrived in San Francisco in April of 1945 to take part in the founding conference of the proposed United Nations organization. The impression delivered to us by the media was of these chunky,  ugly guys wearing hopelessly old-fashioned woollen suits, now and then accompanied by a chunky, ugly woman diplomat, wearing poorly cut skirts and jackets, an impression that was more or less confirmed by photographs.
These outlanders were never greeted, so far as I can remember, as the representatives of the nation whose stubborn resistance to, and then their utter defeat of the Nazis war machine, virtually won the war, but were instead pilloried for their lack of communication, their inability, apart from a few interpreters,  to speak English or any other language than their own, their solitary refusal to join their Western counterparts, and their frank appearance of being boorish louts. I am not saying this is how they really were, just that this is the impression that I, as a 17-year-old high schoolboy, picked up by reading the news accounts of the time. We would perhaps not have been so quick to negative judgment if we had read Vasily Grossman’s magnificent epic novel, Life and Fate, built around the heroic battle of Stalingrad (although admittedly it hadn’t been written yet. But I suppose it should be put into this balance sheet about  characteristics of the nation that, although Grossman was always a loyal Soviet citizen, his great novel was never published in the Soviet Union itself.)
Since I was, anyway,  beginning to pick up the impression that not everything one read in the newspapers was true, this stereotyping of the Soviet Union and its diplomats had rather a different impact on my  young mind from what  might have been expected. I immediately was suspicious of the unanimity of this propagandistic impression, and began to buy the readily available propaganda chapbooks published on diverse subjects by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of the Soviet Union. I mopped them up, one after the other,  and adopted much of their reasoning as my own. I was not well schooled in the history of Soviet-Western relations, but their presentation of their case, so much at odds with what we were being told to believe by our masters, injected into my thinking a good deal of sympathy for their point of view.
I was becoming, gradually, a member of the democratic socialist  global brotherhood, if I may call it that. It was a drift quite easily achieved in New Zealand, where we had had a leftish Labour Party government since 1938 that had been responsible for riding herd over the economic recovery brought on by the war, mixed with a vigorous programme of humanitarian programmes designed to ensure that everyone in the country had an equal opportunity to make the best he or she could of the talents granted them.  The weapons of the cold war were stoked by Winston Churchill, a lifelong opponent of Communism or any other form of socialism, who in the following year pronounced for an American audience that  an Iron Curtain had descended across Europe. This was a green light for the American wealth-owners, who promptly set about creating the industrial-military complex that has made the United States the most powerful nation, if not the wisest, in the world.
In the next ten years the overall narrative about the Soviet Union did not much change. My belief in the standard Soviet narrative was certainly shaken by the events of the Berlin airlift, but paradoxically it became more difficult to sustain the more intimate aspects of the narrative that were being sold to us.  For example, although we were mostly still shown, as typical of Soviet life, pictures of chunky, ugly old women sweeping the streets with hand-made brooms, I remember the shocked pleasure with which I discovered the gorgeously slim and athletic  Soviet ballet dancers, who, according to all reports, had transfixed audiences in the major western capitals in admiration. Where the hell could  such glamorous  and talented women come from in that dull, repressed country, suffering under the yoke of their pitiless maniac dictators?
 I recall interviewing in Montreal a newly arrived Soviet ambassador, a man of, I seem to remember, either Georgian or Armenian origin who, in addition to the smooth delivery of the diplomat, was personally svelte and engaging to an astonishing degree. Trying to make up my mind what I thought about the Soviet Union was a constant irritant in my life.  Like most convinced leftists in the Western world, I wanted to believe in the success of the worker’s state, and there were, no doubt, many things to admire.  I sometimes felt irritated by the revelations constantly being publicised about Soviet corruption and ruthless authoritarianism, more often than not  by right-wing academics who hated the very existence of a state that flouted its opposition to the capitalist world with its admittedly productive economy.
Since I would never have believed anything they told me about our own politics, I found it difficult to believe that everything they said about the Soviet Union was true. But all that changed in 1956, when Khrushchev made his speech denouncing the appalling crimes of Stalin: now we had to accept that just about everything bad they had told us about the Russian empire was true. I remember interviewing the head of Canada’s Communist party (or Labour Progressive Party, as it was re-named) who had just returned in 1956 from his annual visit to the worker’s paradise, and asking him if at last he could find something about the Soviet Union to criticize. He thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, I don’t think they should have allowed Khushchev’s speech to be released first through the New York Times.” Mind-blowing in its sheer resistance to the facts….
The acceptance by the Soviet apparatus of the reality of Stalin’s crimes did act as a release button in their relations with the West to a certain extent. Later in the 1950s we were inundated with visits by artists designed to showcase Soviet culture. I remember interviewing Igor Moiseyev, the creator of the famous dance troupe, as he arrived in Montreal by train. He took his dancers to almost every Western country, received every possible honour granted by the Soviet Union and  13 other nations, dealt with the Western press and our foolish questions with sparkling humour, as if to the manner born, and in general introduced us to a dazzlingly effective, sexy side of Soviet life that had hitherto been buried by our mountains of propaganda.
I made the acquaintance of a young Soviet journalist during that visit, who was employed as an interpreter. He revisited Montreal some time later as interpreter for the famous violinist Leonid Kogan,  who also travelled the world as part of what I suppose one might call the Soviet cultural offensive. This young man returned once more, interpreter to an aged actor, one of the ornaments of the Soviet stage, at a time when I was elsewhere on some assignment. I regretted very much missing his visit,  but they certainly charmed my wife who said she had seldom met more memorable and interesting people, so full of life.
The Soviet dictatorship remained clamped on the country so firmly, and fell into the hands of such unimaginative leaders as to squeeze the life out of their system, until the elevation in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev to power. The son of a poor peasant family, become an experienced official, he quickly realized the Soviet economy was grinding to a halt, and set about to limit, and presumably eventually to end, the dictatorship.
Here once again we run into the negative result of propaganda masquerading as information.  The Russians, raised on their own form of propaganda, pushed out Gorbachev because they feared he was going to destroy the Soviet state. Then the Western experts, who believed our form of propaganda, arrived to take over as advisers on the Soviet economy, and their advice, delivered from the depths of their ignorance, worked like a dream and brought Russia to its knees.
One thing we did not easily foresee when our conservative-minded experts rejoiced in the United States becoming the only remaining superpower, was that the traditionally countervailing existence of the Soviet Union had operated as a moderating force on what has turned out to be the severe limitations of U.S. attitudes towards the outside world. Everyone must be like them, they seem to have decided. And those who want to pursue another path must needs be crushed, by force of arms first of all and thereafter by the sheer power of cultural, economic, social and political imperialism, of a new kind.
We do seem to be poised at a vital stage in this journey into the future. All I can say is I hope it works out.

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