Thursday, November 12, 2009


Russian Research

The Soviet Union invented a new language that Orwell might have called New Speak. Soviet political leaders spoke to one another using Marxist phraseology, and spoke to the Russian public in a glowing torrent of propaganda. Eventually, the emptiness of Russia’s official discourse collapsed on itself. Everyone knew that the Pravda, the Moscow newspaper named for the Russian word for “truth” meant just the opposite. People preferred to seek out literature smuggled in from the West, printed illegally at home, or gleaned from jammed foreign radio signals.

At some point, the discrepancy between Russian reality and Russian words became unsustainable. Soviet propaganda was also directed outward, to its allies as well as its enemies. A USSR New York exhibition pamphlet, printed in 1959, illustrates the eerie quality of the Soviet effort to convince Americans that the Soviet Union was outperforming the American one and would soon surpass it. While admitting that Russia had not yet built a Communist society—which would presumably make any comparison with flawed capitalist states absurd—the pamphlet reminds readers that the country was the first socialist state in the world, and had overcome a long legacy of economic and cultural backwardness to become the world’s second largest industrial power.

Moreover, Russia had used socialist planning principles to increase gross industrial output by “36 times since 1913.” Its scientists had engineers had already made important contributions to diverse fields, including agriculture, optical instrumentation, engineering industries, nuclear medicine, the biological sciences, and machinery. The pamphlet also emphasized Soviet successes in the production of iron, steel, chemicals, and various forms of energy. And, if one cared to listen to friendly Russian exhibition staff members, they would tell Americans about Soviet advances in electronics, semi-conductors, radio and television applications, and infrared instruments.

Best of all, the pamphlet graciously reminded Americans that the Soviet Union, and not the United States, had launch the first “artificial satellite” into space, Sputnik, a milestone in the long history of human accomplishment.

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