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Our Portrayal of the Soviet Union Dooms Ourselves

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 action.

— George Kennan.


Survey Report
De facto Censorship


Methodology 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 the photos used?



Survey Report

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, commentaries, 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 months, four could be considered friendly or favourable to the Soviet Union in any way.
  • 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, without comment.
  • 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 sorted into 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 subject 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 columns, editorials, cartoons and letters to the editor) by paper, here was the picture:
    • The Star treated 13 per cent of its 308 stories positively, two per cent negatively, 85 per cent neutrally.

    • The Globe treated 10 per cent of its 208 stories positively, two per cent negatively, 88 per cent neutrally.

    • The 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 these 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 congressmen," a three-column, two-line head on page H4 of the Sunday Star, March 27, based on a London Sunday Times story relying on unnamed sources in Washington.

  • 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 source."

    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 were unfavourable.

    • Eleven per cent of The Globe's 47 opinion items were favourable regarding anything to do with the Soviet Union. Thirty-six per cent were unfavourable.

    • Three per cent of The Sun's 110 opinion items were favourable regarding anything to do with the Soviet Union. Seventy-three per cent were unfavourable.

    Again, regarding the 65 per cent of the Star's, 53 per cent of the Globe's 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."

    • A Globe 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 clay."

  • Turning specifically to opinion columns:
    • Of Toronto Star columns one was classified positive, nine negative and 37 neutral.

    • Globe columns were classified two positive, four negative and 15 neutral.

    • Sun columns were judged one positive (mole), 58 negative and 20 neutral.

  • As far as editorials were concerned, there were zero 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 follows:
    • Star: one positive, 11 negative, five neutral or indeterminate.

    • Globe: three positive, nine negative, five neutral or indeterminate.

    • Sun: two positive, five negative and two neutral or indeterminate.


Number 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
Brezhnev, Andropov86
Soviet armaments57
Arts, culture, sports49
Soviet arms proposals47
Space program41
The "Soviet threat"36
Foreign policy33
Daily life29
USSR as a "repressive regime"22
Letters to the editor43




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 provided 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 uninformative, a 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 conventional 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 Citizen — a scoop otherwise unreported in the Toronto press — O'Donnell's story said the Soviet Union "blew the whistle on 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," O'Donnell wrote.)

All the other stories originated from government, statements by politicians, news services (the majority) or are of unclear origins.

(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 Scandinavian waters.)

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 light.

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, March 18).

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 been published. 

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 countries.

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 Geneva.

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. 22, 1982.

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 Globe 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. 10 Star 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 admirers (Star, Jan. 10.)

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, 1982 Globe 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, Dec. 12).

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 generalized conclusions.

This one story sheds a great deal of light — by contrast — on the journalism of the other 921 stories.

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 establishment."

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 line.

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 assemble.

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, including plumbing.

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 anything else.

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 repression within.

    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 background."

  • 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 question?

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 planet. 

To open your paper is to forget it.



De facto Censorship


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 this.
  • That there is no unemployment in the Soviet Union, the 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 care for everyone, the strengths and weaknesses of their system, and what light this may shed on the reassessment of medicare that is taking place in Canada.
  • 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 counterpart.
  • Why the Soviet Union is apparently unable to grow enough 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 area 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 texts 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.
  • Retirement policies and arrangements for the elderly, and what might be learned 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 or Japan.

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 journalism.

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 planet.

Published in Sources Summer 1983

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