of the Soviet Union
By Barrie Zwicker
the view of the
Soviet Union that prevails today in large portions of our . . .
journalistic establishment (is) so extreme, so subjective, so far
removed from what any sober scrutiny of external reality would reveal,
that it is not only ineffective but dangerous as a guide to political
— George Kennan.
De facto Censorship
of the Survey
A six-month period was chosen to improve the chance of the survey
reflecting typical coverage. The death of Leonid Brezhnev and the
ascendancy of Yuri Andropov, which happened to occur in the period,
would bias press coverage of the Soviet Union toward a greater than
usual amount of relatively neutral coverage, in the author's opinion.
The three Toronto papers were chosen because of
ease of access and because of the relative spectrum of ideology and
approach represented in the three.
The papers were scanned, marked, and clipped by
four people working under identical instructions: to look for every
item, from front to back of every paper, that concerned the Soviet
Union in any significant way. A number of items were no doubt missed in
the course of clipping 418 newspapers over many weeks, but the vast
majority were clipped.
The categories emerged without much difficulty
from the nature of the clippings. No categories were pre-determined.
Categories survived based on the number of clippings found to fit (for
instance, "Soviet threat") or because of clarity (i.e., travel, even
though there was just one item which fitted the category).
In assessing whether the treatment of an
item was "negative," "positive" or "neutral," as opposed to the
subject matter, instructions were to
not classify any item as negative unless there was a clear bias. An
example would be the "week in review" news roundup item in the Star that carried
the unbylined lead: "Helsinki civil rights accord violations are
usually expected from the Soviet Union, but last week protests targeted
on the U.S."
In the same spirit, when there was any doubt,
items were classified as "neutral". Thus, a number of Lubor Zink
columns in the Sun
were classified as neutral.
In retrospect, it appeared that we went
considerably too far in establishing counter-bias, but the task of
re-classifying 922 items was too great to contemplate.
The scanning, marking and clipping were done
primarily by Tracy Blyth, Michael Connolly and Carolyn Sheppard. Most
of the classifying was done by Michael Connolly.
The survey analysis could be taken as preliminary.
For instance the clippings in the files holding editorials, cartoons,
opinion columns and letters to the editor perhaps should be
redistributed into the subject categories, although this would probably
not change the proportions greatly.
Further useful analysis could be undertaken based
on questions such as the following:
— Which statements about the
Soviet Union are treated as "givens?" (In the line "The Soviet
advantage in nuclear submarines is growing, according to . . .," for
instance, it is a given
that there is such an advantage; the story is
placing as tentative whether the accepted-as-fact "advantage" is growing.)
— What would a detailed
language analysis show?
— What would an analysis of
placement show? For instance, what impressions are given collectively
by front page stories about the Soviet Union?
— What would an analysis of
only the longer pieces show as to origins, subject matter, impressions
left, and so on?
— What imagery is conveyed by
SOVIET SPIES, real or imagined, were the subject of 126 stories in
three leading Canadian dailies over a recent six-month period
as many as dealt with Soviet art, artists, culture, sports, daily
living, foreign policy, media, science and travel combined.
The three papers are the Star, Sun and Globe and Mail of
Toronto. The period covered was Nov. 1, 1982 through March 31, 1983.
In that time a total of 922 stories, editorials,
cartoons, photographs and letters to the editor about the Soviet Union
appeared in the papers. All sections for all days were scanned and
clipped. Other findings of the survey:
- Of 147 opinion columns published over the six
could be considered friendly or favourable to the Soviet Union in any
- Of 43 editorials and cartoons in the same
period, 25 were
hostile or negative about the USSR and 18 were neutral. Not one Toronto
editorial board was able to find one positive thing to write about the
Soviet Union, its people or policies, in the half year.
- Three of the 922 items —or one-third
of one percent
— consisted of editorial words directly from a Soviet source,
- The number of items which consisted of a
complete unedited text or statement from a Soviet source was zero.
- As the clippings were gone through, they were
21 categories that suggested themselves. Three hundred and twenty-four,
or 35 per cent, fell into categories that could be considered negative
from a Soviet viewpoint, namely Afghanistan, Soviet arms, dissidents,
"repressive regime" stories, "Soviet threat" stories, and spying.
- Each story was assessed as to its treatment (i.e.,
headline, phraseology outside quotes, etc.) as opposed to the
matter. A conscious attempt was made
not to assign a story to the
"negative treatment" category unless it was clear-cut that it belonged
there. All doubtful cases were assigned to the "neutral" category. On
this basis the
number of items deemed to have been treated negatively was 139 or 15
per cent. The number deemed to have been treated positively was 67, or
seven per cent.
- Looking at treatment of news (excluding
editorials, cartoons and letters to the editor) by paper, here was the
Star treated 13 per cent of its 308 stories positively,
two per cent negatively, 85 per cent neutrally.
Globe treated 10 per cent of its 208 stories positively,
two per cent negatively, 88 per cent neutrally.
Sun treated six per cent of its 173 stories positively,
four per cent negatively, 90 per cent neutrally.
It must be kept in mind here — although
it is discussed more
fully elsewhere — that "neutral" coverage in the context of
survey findings in no way translates into "fair" or "balanced" or "even
handed" toward the Soviet Union, much as one would wish this would be
true of any subject dealt with by our press.
For instance, because of a conscious leaning over
backwards to give the
benefit of the doubt to the papers, the following would be typical of
stories in the "neutral" category:
A story at the top of page A10 of the Star on Dec. 28,
1982 with a
two-column, three-line head reading: "Soviet inmates used in pipeline,
dissident says." The Chicago
Tribune story out of Washington is based
on unnamed U.S. State Department sources.
"Soviets training Irish terrorists, witnesses tell
three-column, two-line head on page H4 of the Sunday Star, March
based on a London Sunday
relying on unnamed sources in
A story by staff writer Steve Payne in the Sunday Sun Feb. 13. The headline is "Yikes! Is it a Soviet plot?" and the flashline is "Haze Linked to Big Melt." The lead paragraph reads: "Another ice age? Forget it, start worrying about a melting age."
The second paragraph begins "Canadian scientists
think a mysterious
arctic haze may be a pollution threat . . ." The scientists are
paraphrased later in the story to the effect that they are "anxious to
know" whether the haze is a threat and that they hope to "pin down the
The link with the Soviet union comes from an
unnamed "recent report
released by the U.S. office of naval research" which "pointed a finger
at the USSR."
Looking at opinions expressed in the columns,
editorials, cartoons and letters to the editor:
Three per cent of The Star's 76
opinion items were favourable
regarding anything to do with the Soviet Union. Thirty-two per cent
Eleven per cent of The Globe's 47
opinion items were favourable
regarding anything to do with the Soviet Union. Thirty-six per cent
- Three per cent of The Sun's 110
opinion items were favourable
regarding anything to do
Soviet Union. Seventy-three per cent were
Again, regarding the 65 per cent of the Star's, 53 per cent
and 24 per cent of the Sun's opinion items classified as
"neutral," the approach of bending over backwards to be fair to the
papers placed as typical "neutral or indeterminate" the following items:
A column in the Jan. 31 Sun by William
Stevenson in New York headed
"Was the West betrayed?" It was about a deceased Canadian spymaster,
Charles Ellis, who Stevenson wrote was "in the thick of pre-World War
II Soviet and Nazi conspiracies, working for our side." The column
concludes: "Col. Ellis has never been given a public clearance. He can
thus be used to explain the betrayal of trans-Atlantic intelligence
secrets to the Russians."
editorial headed simply "Leonid Brezhnev" (Nov. 12, 1982)
which began: "The cult of personality which surrounded former Soviet
President Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was not only the creation of the
Soviet propaganda apparatus. . ."and concluded: "TheRussia Brezhnev
left at his death this week could be a colossus of brass on a pedestal of
- Turning specifically to opinion columns:
Star columns one was classified positive, nine negative
and 37 neutral.
columns were classified two positive, four negative and 15 neutral.
columns were judged one positive (mole), 58 negative and 20 neutral.
- As far as editorials were concerned, there were
editorials positive about anything to do with the Soviet Union in any
of the papers for the six-month period, as noted. The Star was judged
to have published four negative and eight neutral editorials, the Globe
four and five and the Sun 17 and five.
- Published letters to the editor, according to
opinions expressed regarding anything Soviet, classified themselves as
one positive, 11 negative, five neutral or indeterminate.
three positive, nine negative, five neutral or indeterminate.
two positive, five negative and two neutral or
of stories, photos, editorials, cartoons, opinion columns and letters
to the editor about the Soviet Union in the Star, Globe and Mail and Sun
of Toronto, Nov. 1, 1982 through March 31, 1983|
|Arts, culture, sports||49|
|Soviet arms proposals||47|
|The "Soviet threat"||36|
|USSR as a "repressive regime"||22|
|Letters to the editor||43|
IMPLACABLE OPPONENTS of the Soviet Union and warm admirers of the USSR
alike should equally be demanding better press coverage of that country.
Whether your motive is to know your enemy better,
or to build bridges
of friendship — or anything between — the coverage
by the press in Canada falls ludicrously short of serving you. This
conclusion is based on a six-month survey of three Toronto dailies.
Instead of anything approaching an informative,
rounded, realistic picture of a country the papers themselves
repeatedly claim is so important, the
public is being mistreated to a hodge podge of distorting trivia,
boring stereotypes and transparent bias parading as news.
Unnamed sources abound. Clichés from "Soviet
threat" and "free world"
on down, are standard. There are gaps large enough to drive the Soviet
economy through (there were four stories on the Soviet economy in the
three papers in six months). There is virtually no human face, but a
dehumanized ideological abstraction.
The assembled 922 clippings are profoundly
journalistic yawn that is helping us sleepwalk toward the biggest
slumber of all time: nuclear war.
As noted elsewhere, the 126 stories about Soviet
spies, real or
imagined, exactly equalled the number of stories about Soviet sports,
art, culture and daily life, the Soviet economy, foreign policy, media,
science and travel in the USSR, combined. This fact is illuminating
beyond the numbers involved.
Spy stories by definition are seldom a result of
journalistic digging. Your average assignment editor doesn't instruct
your average reporter on your average day to "drop down to Mountie
headquarters and ask some questions about spying." Precisely one of the
126 stories, one by Joe O'Donnell of the Star's Ottawa
bureau, was the
apparent result of assigned digging. (Based on a scoop by the Ottawa
— a scoop otherwise unreported in the Toronto press
— O'Donnell's story said the Soviet Union "blew the whistle
the RCMP in 1978 for a series of illegal or improper activities . . ."
including the forging of the solicitor-general's signature. A former
senior RCMP Officer said the allegations were "bang on," the story
said. "The allegations were published in a Moscow newspaper and the
embassy in Ottawa released a translation of the story here. But
Canadian media dismissed the report as propaganda and ignored it,"
All the other stories originated from government,
statements by politicians, news services (the majority) or are of
(For instance, on Nov. 3, 1982, the Star suddenly
published an article, occupying almost two-thirds of a page, by Nowlan
Ulsch, a "Boston-based writer who teaches at the Boston University
School of Public Communication." Ulsch had interviewed one Ladislav
Bittman, "formerly a high-ranking officer in Czech intelligence," who
defected to the U.S. embassy in Berlin on Sept. 3, 1965. The "timely"
peg some Star
editor dragged out to justify running this piece was "the wake of the
defection to Britain last month of Vladimir Kuzichkin, Soviet diplomat
and possible KGB spy.")
Statements that should draw laughter are printed
in seriousness in spy stories. "The United States is asleep to the
growing infiltration of the U.S. by KGB agents and other Soviet
operatives," Bittman is quoted as saying. (In The CIA and the Cult of
Intelligence, by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks,
published in 1974 after being censored by the CIA at the demand of the
U.S. government, the authors state (page 80) that at that time
official, known, U.S. Government-sponsored and approved spying cost at
least $6,228,000,000 and employed at least 150,000 people.)
These spy stories are, collectively, a moulded
product. The timing of the stories alone merits a separate analysis.
(As this is written, U.S. vice president Bush is in Scandinavia and
"unidentified submarines" have simultaneously been reported in
The number and nature of spy stories is also
essentially controlled by the spy agencies through leaks and through
personal contacts they trust to get these stories across in the media.
A basic criticism of the overkill in the number of
"Russian spy" stories might be on the basis of balance. It is commonly
agreed that both "sides" in the Cold War spy extensively. Khrushchev
once suggested to a U.S. President that the two countries should pool
the information from their spies.
Yet it is primarily examples (of whatever
validity) of Soviet spying that are publicized. And, indeed, the
particular examples that the sources of the information wish
publicized. These same sources hush up or downplay examples of
"Western" spying that may through unmanageable circumstances come to
Only four of the 126 clippings about spying
involved Western spying on the USSR. One was the O'Donnell story. The
other three concerned Richard Osborn, described as "a U.S. diplomat" in
all three stories (Star,
March 10; Globe,
March 11 and, finally, Sun,
The three headlines were, respectively, "U.S.
diplomat caught spying red-handed: Tass," "Moscow expels U.S.
Diplomat" and "Ousted U.S. envoy leaves USSR." The three stories were
four, five and 10 paragraphs respectively. Nothing further has ever
Osborn had on his person a portable transmitter
tuned to send signals directly to the U.S. Marisat communications
satellites, as well as water-soluble paper, according to UPI and Reuter. The Sun's story
suggested the expulsion, first such in four years, was simply
retaliation for a series of expulsions of Soviets from Western
The news media portray, collectively, not the
reality of spying, but the reality the "intelligence community" of "our
side" wishes portrayed.
Another common flaw in coverage of the Soviet
Union is hard to understand, in light of most journalists' real concern
about being duped by "news management" techniques, especially news
management by government.
A story that apparently breezed through all the
filters of skepticism to land on page A14 of the Star on Feb. 15 was
headed "Destroy all chemical arms, U.S. urges." It was a Reuter story out of
The lead was: "The United States has proposed the
destruction of all chemical weapons over a 10-year period." The story
continued in this vein, as if this paper proposal — of which
nothing has been heard since — had to capture the lead of the
story, was the news. Within the context thus established was
information that "the Western superpower challenged the Soviet Union to
allow inspections on demand . . ." But the second last paragraph disclosed a fact of
considerably more concreteness relating to chemical weapons, namely
that President Ronald Reagan had just asked Congress for $158-million
to build nerve gas shells to update chemical weapons stocks.
While the media consistently fail, apparently, to
see through such transparent and standard diversionary tactics to
cynically mislead public attention, they consistently, on their own,
downplay Soviet paper proposals — and even more concrete
Soviet actions — on the arms control front.
These seldom make the front of the paper or
include much detail. A statement by a leading Soviet policy-maker
Georgi Korniyenko that the Soviet Union would consider a 25 per cent
reduction in its strategic arsenal rated three column inches on page
A10 of the Star Nov.
Yuri Andropov's major disarmament offer of Dec.
21, made in a key Kremlin address marking the 60th anniversary of the
Soviet Union, and his first major foreign policy address since his
succeeding Leonid Brezhnev, was carried on page 34 of the Dec. 22 Sun under the
barely intelligible headline "MX hints of war." The Globe ran the story
the same day on page 12 under the two-column head "Soviets offer to cut
missiles in Europe."
(In the speech, the Soviet leader offered to slash
Soviet medium-range missiles in Europe, renounce first use of
conventional as well as nuclear forces and confirmed the offer, first
hinted by Korniyenko, to cut Moscow's strategic long range missiles by
25 per cent. The Sun and
stories did not even mention strategic long range missiles.)
Andropov's offer did manage to get onto the Star's front page
Dec. 21, or at least 4-1/2 column inches of it did, with a two-column
head. But the whole story was just 12 column inches. More typical was
the 16-column inch story under a banner headline on page A3 of the Jan.
reading "U.S., allies see nothing new in East's peace proposal."
In this all-important arena, our press is
basically content to practice at best a biased version of "he said -
she said" journalism rather than examine the proposals and responses in
detail. The European press does far more of this examination, one of
the key reasons the European public is so much better informed about
nuclear arms issues — and is so much more concerned
— than is the North American public.
The best coverage, in terms of factuality, colour
and permitting a glimpse of Soviets as human beings, is in the sports
pages. "Montreal love-in ends Soviet players' tour," read the four
column head over a story and under a photo of goalie Vladislav Tretiak
receiving a fervent embrace from one female fan among a throng of
The writing was not pro-Soviet but neither did it
contain the innuendoes and disclaimers that seem obligatory in so much
coverage of its people. (In the Star of Dec. 20, 1982, for instance,
under the heading "What Soviet Union thinks of the MX proposals" there
appeared the only significant
example in the three Toronto papers in six months of words of a Soviet
official being passed along to readers relatively unedited. It was an
edited transcript of an interview by TASS with Soviet
Defence Minister Dmitry Ustinov. The Star felt compelled
to state, bizarrely: "The views expressed do not necessarily correspond
with those of The Star.")
Of course, it's hard to impute the sinister when
reporting how 15,0000 fans turned out to attend a 90-minute practice by
the visiting Soviet Union National Hockey team, or even in the fact
that 500 of the fans broke past police and stormed onto the ice for
autographs. So the phrase "love-in" was not ill-chosen journalistically.
Analysis of the language of many of the sports
stories turns up a number of military analogies. "Soviets add hitting
game to hockey arsenal," was a headline in the Jan. 2 Star and "NHL
merely laughs as Soviets fire salvo" was one in the Dec. 17 Star.
Militarized language is not peculiar to stories
about Soviet sports people, of course. "Loan rate ignites car wars,"
was the headline in the business section of the Jan. 1 Star, for instance.
To consider this is to begin to appreciate how
militarized our public language is, a holdover from centuries in which
war was largely accepted and in many quarters glorified. Most
journalists now accept that to remove racist and sexist phrases from
common usage is a step forward. Removing militarist phrases is only
beginning to be seen as another important step forward.
Many subtle analogies are available to replace
military ones. "Soviet elite dumps classless Nordiques" in the Dec. 31,
and had a nice twist. And "Soviet machine rolls on," in the Jan. 5 Globe did the job.
Consider just one other of the 18 subject areas of
coverage: the life of ordinary Soviet people.
In an effort to be more than fair, any item that
could faintly qualify was included. The "ordinary life in USSR" file
includes, therefore, stories headed: "New year brings sterner laws for
criminals in Soviet Union" (Globe,
Jan. 1), "Dozens killed at Moscow stadium" (Sun, Oct. 24) and
"The Soviet birthrate timebomb" (Star,
In all, in six months in the three Toronto
dailies, there were 21 stories that could be construed as being about
the life of Soviet people as such. (A more even-handed selection
process would probably give a total of 11.)
Fourteen of the 21 — apart from the
degree of their validity, which will be examined in a moment
— could be construed as anti-Soviet. That is, they were
stories on subjects
that would be chosen for publication by a person who wished to make the
Soviet Union look bad, or to engender fear or dislike of the Soviet
Union. Such a motive — need it be said? — would be
incompatible with journalistic principles of "balance" and "fairness."
These 14 carried headlines such as "Sober up!
Andropov warns Soviets" (Star,
Jan. 23), "Spread VD and face jail, Soviets told," (Star, Jan. 1),
"Russkies learn con game" (Sun,
Oct. 8) and "Soviet women 'drudges' " (Star, March 12).
Six could be construed — although
placement in any of these categories should be the subject of
interesting debate — as neutral. The six are ''Singles clubs
start up in Soviet Union" (Star,
Nov. 5), "60 years of union hasn't produced a
workers' paradise" (Globe,
Nov. 17), "Make that Rubikov's Cube . . . " (Sun, Dec. 9),
"Rubik's Cube mania hits Moscow" (Star,
Dec. 9), "Soviet public flocking to see American movies" (Star, Feb. 1) and
"In Yakutsk, -30 Celsius is called a heatwave" (Globe, March 21).
(This last story, by Reuter correspondent
Mark Wood, focusses on the weather, permafrost, vicious mosquitoes and
other non-political facts of Siberia. To counteract any subversive
notions the article might engender in Globe readers — for instance that Soviets and Canadians share a
common interest in coping with permafrost and developing Arctic
agriculture — Wood's article was surrounded by three articles
with the headlines "Afghan refugees recount tales of Soviet attacks,"
"Official fired for corruption" (datelined Moscow) and "Engineer saw
forced pipeline labor.")
How many of the 21 stories could be construed as
"positive" in the sense of (a) not focussing on a difficulty or
shortcoming of Soviet life (b) not using language to reinforce negative
stereotypes or to introduce innuendos and (c) not inserting
"Western"-perspective explanations for facts included in the story? In
other words, how many stories about the Soviet people as such in three
Toronto dailies in six months were not anti-Soviet?
The answer is: one. It is the story (Star, Nov. 27) of
Rosita Suaraz, one of 3,000 Spanish children evacuated to the Soviet
Union from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. It is so unusual that we
republish it. It is significant that this was also the only story in
these papers during this period to deal with one ordinary individual
human being. Three leading papers in a society that prizes
"individualism" so much managed in half a crucial year only one story
about the Soviet Union that was not couched in abstractions or
This one story sheds a great deal of light
— by contrast — on the journalism of the other 921
It can fairly be said as a blanket statement that
coverage of the Soviet Union is anti-Soviet. Such coverage must be
described as unbalanced, distorted, unfair. The charge, made by Soviets
from time to time, that the Western press "prints only anti-Soviet lies
and slanders" is true.
If it were true of Japan or Switzerland or Sweden,
it would be bad enough. But this is about a country that is inevitably
significant to Canada and the future of us all. The journalistic failure is beyond reckoning.
Articles that attempt to deal in an overall way
with life in a country are perhaps more important, and therefore more
deserving of analysis, than the hodge podge of "news" stories. Only two
such attempts were published in the papers in this period.
One, by American Marc Greenfield, occupied most of
a page in the Sunday
Star of Nov. 28. A banner photo at the top showed Soviet
soldiers with guns at the ready. Next came the large banner head "How
sharp are Soviet bear's claws?" followed by the deck "Huge military
machine camouflages shoddy existence of a tired people."
This is all rather odd because the article never mentions soldiers and does
not deal with the Soviet military. Apart from the phrase
"advanced space and military programs" in one sentence, the only
mention of arms in the 52 column inches of copy is the following:
"Intensely patriotic, they are proud of the country's bigness, enjoy
being America's rival and compete with us in the only fields they can
— world influence and the arms race. On the other hand,
anybody who has seen the disorganization that characterizes the Soviet
civilian economy can't but wonder about the state of their military
The other picture on the page carries a cutline
which begins: "Lining-up for food." But the picture shows a Soviet
street scene in which people obviously are walking, not standing in
It is an incredibly incompetent and misleading
treatment of the piece, but who is going to write a letter to the
editor? Who's going to go out of his or her way to defend the Soviet
Union and its people from journalistic incompetence and worse? The
Soviet embassy could occupy itself with doing nothing but write letters
all day every day, but who's going to believe a letter from the Soviet
embassy when everybody in the media already "knows" that anything any
Russian says is a lie?
Speaking of lies, this brings us back to the piece
itself. In three trips to the Soviet Union — in 1964, 1974 and this year — I have yet to
meet a single Soviet who "enjoyed" "competing" in the arms race. My
Russian language professor at the University of Toronto School of
Continuing Education came close to the truth. Of Polish descent, he
harbors a dislike for the Soviet Union, but studied there for three
months. "They're scared shitless of nuclear war," he said.
Greenfield's piece is an ingenious mixture of
truths, half-truths, lies and omissions. There are enough snippets of
usually-neglected information in it to give him — if they
were quoted out of context — some credence with people who
want to be fair to the Soviet Union. (Greenfield apparently has
cultivated contacts in the peace movement. Before I left on my recent
trip to the USSR I was told by an activist in the peace movement in
Montreal that Marc Greenfield "knows a great deal about the Soviet
Union" and that I should call him. He had provided his number and
encouraged such contacts. I was told he likes to talk to people
travelling to the Soviet Union. I didn't get around to calling him).
Greenfield mentions the "crash program to relieve
the country's desperate housing shortage" that was undertaken "in the
decade after Stalin's death." This is the most curious imaginable way
of describing a housing shortage that was due to the ravages of the
Second World War, which left many of the USSR's cities in rubble. His
failure to mention this is such an astounding omission that the mind
seeks vainly for a parallel to illuminate it. Perhaps "in the decade
after Hirohito's fall from grace, the Japanese government undertook a
crash program to relieve the desperate housing shortage in Hiroshima
and Nagsaki" would qualify.
The second example of an attempt at an overall
look at the Soviet Union was by Orland French, the Globe's Queen's
Park columnist, in that paper's Nov. 17 issue.
The obligatory putdown tone was set in the
headline: "60 years of union hasn't produced a workers' paradise." The
piece itself was certainly an attempt to be fair but it suffered
several defects, defects which paradoxically are the very features that
enable some pieces about the Soviet Union to be published at all.
There are omissions which are hard to understand.
For instance, French mentions that Soviet jet aircraft are much noiser
than North American jets (which may or may not be true) "yet ground
crews don't wear protective ear coverings" (which may or may not be
true). It would seem the perfect opportunity to mention — something I have yet to see in the Western press
— that aircraft of any kind are not allowed to fly over
Soviet cities. This is one of the things that makes Soviet cities
relatively quiet — a most enjoyable aspect once you think
about it. (Many visitors to the Soviet Union don't notice this even
while in the cities. I've observed that visitors to the Soviet Union
seem relatively unaware of the extent to which what they notice and
don't notice is a function of their preconceptions.)
French wrote that "no matter how well appointed
the hotel room, there was inevitably something wrong with the bathroom
plumbing." To point to deficiencies in Soviet plumbing is certainly
valid, but at least two points — neither included in his
piece — need to be made.
First is that there has been improvement. On my
1964 standard tourist trip we stayed at larger hotels like the National
in Moscow and found sink stoppers missing, for instance. My 1974 trip
was part of a college educational program and we were put up in student
hostels or small hotels. Typically the toilet paper was in short supply
and in one memorable instance, a large tile fell off the wall of the
shower with a clatter while I was in it. This year I found the plumbing
in the new Hotel Pribaltiskaya in Leningrad to be ultra modern and
perfectly functioning, in line with all the furnishings and decor of my
typical room. It is a new hotel, built by a Swedish firm under
contract. The plumbing in the pleasant old Dnipro Hotel in Kiev worked
just fine. At the new Cosmos Hotel in Moscow, you'd be lucky to get
warm water for a shower even at 7:30 in the morning and the sink
stopper wouldn't stop properly. But at no hotel in 1983 did I need to
use any of the emergency roll of toilet paper I'd taken with me.
The second point has to do with fairness,
history, context, some relevant facts which require little digging to
When the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis on
June 22, 1941, the country's plumbing was not close to North American
standards. The USSR, in the early years of its struggle for existence,
had many higher priorities. During the Second World War the country
lost 20-million dead (about the total population of Canada at that
time). Most of these were able bodied young men of all trades,
Rebuilding electric power plants, factories,
bridges, schools, hospital and so on was the focus of postwar
reconstruction — that and, as Greenfield wrote, a "crash
program" to provide housing for the homeless. The Soviet Union, during
this period, received no help from the outside, even from the richest
of its wartime allies, the United States, not in regard to plumbing or
Plumbing, among others, became a trade largely for
women. But there were few skilled plumbers left to teach the trade.
One could go on. The point is that there are very
significant and interesting background factors to something as
seemingly simple as a leaking sink in the USSR. For pampered North
Americans— I'm not referring to French personally here, but
the collective North American complainers about Soviet plumbing,
including myself — not only to go on about it, but to fail to look
beneath it, is as interesting as the plumbing problem.
There are even more layers of self-analysis
required by French's typical follow-up paragraph to his report on
plumbing. When Nikolai, one of the guides, was asked "when the Great
Lenin was going to train plumbers, Nikolai went stone faced. I
explained abou the bathrooms. He said simply 'I am not familiar with
that question.' "
That this was not pursued by French in his article
is typical of even the best of newspaper articles we see about the
Soviet Union — and French's is one of the best.
Soviets do often clam up or provide transparently
unacceptable explanations or evasions for some difficult and some
seemingly simple questions. But rather than trotting out those
exchanges as the ultimate reality (and one which re-inforces a
pre-existing stereotype) it is far more interesting and fruitful to
take the next logical journalistic step: digging further. I do not
pretend to have accurate insights in this area, but let me share some
observations that may apply to the stonewalling of Nikolai and the many
replays of it that the visitors to the Soviet Union will encounter:
Author and journalist Jill Tweedie is a former
Moscow correspondent for, and regular columnist with, the Manchester Guardian.
Jonathan Steele is another former Guardian
Moscow correspondent and currently the paper's chief foreign
correspondent. Malcolm Muggeridge was the Guardian's Moscow
correspondent during the 1930's. The three were interviewed for an hour
by CBCs "Morningside" host Peter Gzowski on May 11. The three agreed
on the contradictions and deep fears about foreigners embedded in the
Russian character by the history of invasions from outside and
Tweedie recalled a story in which she and Steele
spent a long time talking about war and its effects with ordinary
Soviets they approached uninvited in a park. "Do you remember," she
said, "the way they talked about it? I thought it was very moving. When
you first asked the question, Jonathan, a young girl said 'It's too
sad to talk about.' It would be very hard to find a girl of around 20
here saying the war is too sad to talk about."
Steele recalled: "Virtually everybody we spoke to
had somebody — either a grandfather or a father or a brother
— lost in the war so it is different than going to people in
the streets of London or Washington. You haven't got the same
Soviet tour guides are not inexperienced in
discussions with Westerners. On any given day between April and
September there are one million visitors in the USSR. The guides know
and face every day massive prejudgments, stereotyping, suspicion and
antagonistic mindsets in Westerners. I personally think they can and
should explain the background of their plumbing problems, but who am I
to blame them if they feel overwhelmed by the thought of the arguments
involved and the bad vibes from all the arguments? (Of course, if you
don't think of the guides as being fully human, this is less likely to
occur to you as an explanation).
- Soviets know what even such well-informed
people as Western journalists don't know: that they are viciously
misrepresented in the West. They are very self-critical internally, but
all the good it does them in the West is that the Western press picks
up every published scandal, every crackdown on corruption, all news of
shortages, and plays each big, while simultaneously downplaying or,
usually, ignoring achievements or advances except those, real or
imagined, in weaponry. Why should a tour guide knowing this share his
family problems, as it were, with every Westerner at the drop of a
It is possible to imagine coverage of the Soviet
Union which is only as flawed as the coverage of, say, Britain.
It is even possible to imagine coverage that is
more balanced, informative and comprehensive, coverage which is the
result of planning by some intelligent and concerned editors.
What is barely imaginable — about as
imaginable as, say, the day when disarmament actually begins in earnest
— is coverage of the Soviet Union that would include
in-depth, sensitive interviews with Mischa and Katryna in their kitchen
and on the job, coverage that would explore, with all the colour we
normally reserve for a Tory leadership convention, the rich
complexities of Soviet history and life . . . coverage, Saints preserve
us, that might even make us shed a tear for what Russians have
suffered, share in their joys, make us feel a little friendliness
toward them, even to consider them neighbours on a small
To open your paper is to forget it.
WHAT'S LEFT OUT of our press coverage of the Soviet Union is probably
more important than what's published. The most spectacular single
omission in the six month period surveyed in three Toronto dailies was
possibly any ungrudging straightforward portrayal of what's good in
Soviet society, or in any aspect of Soviet society (with the sole
exception of hockey) or with any region or city in the Soviet Union,
even in the travel pages.
Other significant omissions:
- How the Soviet school system helps
students achieve so well academically, and what we could learn from
- That there is no unemployment in the Soviet
whys, the good and the bad of it, and what we might learn that might
apply to our own unemployment problem.
- How the Soviet medical system provides free
everyone, the strengths and weaknesses of their system, and what light
this may shed on the reassessment of medicare that is taking place in
- How even one ordinary Soviet citizen lives.
What kind of
apartment he or she lives in, where he or she works and relaxes. What
his or her hopes and plans and fears are, what his or her recollections
and reflections are. A comparison of this person with a Canadian
- Why the Soviet Union is apparently unable to
food to feed its people and hence buys hundreds of millions of dollars'
worth of grain from Canada. What the impact would be on the living
standard of Canadians if the Soviets managed to improve their
agricultural sector. Isn't there some curiosity about this?
- What the country with the second-largest land
in the world (Canada) might learn from the transportation system of the
country with the largest land area (the Soviet Union). How is the USSR
able to provide such cheap transportation to its own citizens? And/or
why does it do so?
- How the Soviet government works on the local
and regional level.
- Uncensored texts or substantial portions of
from the Soviet press or Soviet leaders on matters
of extreme significance
or that especially impinge on Canada.
- The life of children in the USSR. Theories and
practice of upbringing and child development, the place of daycare
centres, and other matters that would be of interest to Canadian
families with small children.
and arrangements for the elderly, and what might be
from this for policy makers and citizens in Canada's aging society.
- The policies and practices regarding the Soviet
Union's some 100 language and ethnic minorities. In Canada, where two
cultures seem to provide quite a challenge, perhaps something could be
learned from the Soviet Union's experience.
It might be said our press does not publish these
sorts of articles
about Great Britain or Japan or any country for that matter. This would
probably not be true. And certainly a good deal of such coverage is
carried about the United States, even though Canadians already know a
great deal about that country.
But if it were true that our press does not print
such material about,
say, Great Britain or France or Japan, it's also true that we're not in
any danger of being blown to bits in a war with Great Britain or France
Our journalism doesn't have to view the Soviet
Union through the prism
of the Cold War as an implacable enemy. In fact, our journalism should
try to break the prism of the Cold War. Cold War journalism is bad
Even if we insist on the model of competition
rather than co-operation,
between nation states, why is ours a journalism that seems afraid of
looking closely at their society?
If our ideas are better than theirs, why does our
press never allow for the expression of their ideas directly to us?
If their people are alright, and only their
leaders monsters, why does our press not introduce us to their people?
Looking at the performance of our press in
portraying the country in the world that we above all others
need to be properly informed about, we see almost total journalistic
failure. This indicates either a need to return to our professed
principles, or for a new vision.
One vision might be that of American diplomat
George Kennan, as quoted by Canadian novelist Hugh MacLennan:
Let us remember that the great moral issues on
which civilization is
going to stand or fall cut across military and ideological borders,
classes and regimes, across in fact the makeup of the human individual
himself. No other people as a whole is entirely our enemy, no people at
all, not even ourselves, is entirely our friend.
And it might finally be said that, whatever else
is the case, we need
much more "social and personal" journalism. The present diet of
statements by politicians, statements by generals and statements by
economists, interspersed with news of wars, accidents, natural
disasters, film stars and local happenings is repetitious, unexciting
and, above all, uninformative about the great issues of our time, which
are whether we're going to live, and if so, how we're going to live
together, on this
Published in Sources Summer 1983
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