FOR about two years the Soviet propaganda apparatus has been conducting what it refers to as a "counter-offensive" against capitalist culture and ideology. Again and again the Communist Party has called upon the Soviet press, radio, literature and drama to rebuff attempts allegedly emanating from the capitalist west to poison the minds of the Soviet people and to shake their faith in their Socialist institutions. Soviet writers, such as Konstantin Simonov, have responded with works depicting the western -- particularly the American -- way of life as corrupt, venal and decadent. Scholars have reverted to their prewar criticisms of their American colleagues as lackeys of the bourgeoisie and exponents of "international reactionary ideology."

The attempt to deflate the prestige of western culture and civilization has been accompanied by a more somber propaganda line in which "American imperialism" has been substituted for German Fascism as the chief symbol of evil and danger. The Russian people are told in a hundred ways that they must regard America as a potential enemy, and that the American people are wage slaves of capitalists and dupes of a corrupt culture which by escapist films, jazz and pulp magazines poisons their minds and distracts their attention from the realities of the class struggle, i.e., from their own interest in precipitating a revolution. The recent reincarnation of the Comintern as the "Cominform" signalizes the intention of the Soviet leaders to wage this propaganda war without compunction.

The truthful information about America reaching the Soviet public today is a trickle compared to this roaring ocean of denunciation and vilification. A promising beginning of an effective information program coördinated with American foreign policy -- the "Voice of America" -- aroused keen and favorable interest among Russian listeners, but was curtailed by budget cuts in 1947. It may be said in general that the Soviet public has been conditioned to take radio programs which would seem heavy to many Americans; much of the criticism of the State Department broadcasts to Russia seems to have overlooked this fact. But the underlying objection to the program was, perhaps, the conviction that the United States Government simply should not be active in this field at all. A marked change of tone in the comments of Congressmen recently returned from Europe seems to indicate that this view has been modified under the pressure of events, and that the appropriation for such a program will be increased. This surely is to be desired, and it may be useful for an American lately returned from four years in the U.S.S.R. to try to suggest, a little more in detail, what the attitude of the Russian people toward America and Americans is, as a contribution to the problem of working out an expanded information program.

It is, I think, correct to say that a reservoir of good will and friendliness toward Americans exists in the minds and the hearts of the Russian people. American observers who have had experience in the Soviet Union agree almost without exception that Russians and Americans tend to like one another and to get on well together when conditions for friendly relationships are at all favorable. It is important that American public opinion realize the existence of this reserve of good will toward America among the Russian people, and that American policy do everything possible to maintain and increase it.

But how much of this attitude remains, after the campaign of suspicion and hate of the past two years? Though the question is a very relevant one, no assured answer can, of course, be given. Russia is vast, and even more than in other lands, the currents can run far below the surface. No observer sees more than signs, here and there. My own opinion is that more of it remains than might be supposed -- and more than the Soviet leaders like to admit. In the past, it has often seemed necessary for Soviet officials to warn the Soviet people against the seductive fascination of America. Thus, Stalin in his celebrated conversation with Emil Ludwig in 1931 took occasion to correct the impression that the Russian people had "special respect for everything American." The necessity seems to continue, as shown by an article in Izvestia for August 13, 1947. The article is a diatribe against foreigners, but no less against Russians who have an inferiority complex toward the west. It reveals that this feeling is widespread, and it is studded with such phrases as "Now there exist all the possibilities for the complete liquidation of a most harmful residue in the consciousness of certain citizens of the U.S.S.R. -- subservience to the west." The carefully controlled Soviet press often offers such hints that there is a gap between what the Russian people believe and what the Kremlin wants them to believe.

In travels to and from Vladivostok, the Ukraine and the Caucasus during 1946 and the first three months of 1947, I noticed no diminution of popular friendship and esteem for Americans. Even at the time of the Iranian crisis and Mr. Churchill's speech at Fulton, Missouri, I met with the customary cordiality and friendly curiosity from the rank and file of the Russians. There comes back to me, for example, the peculiarly delighted smile with which an Armenian truck driver announced that he had friends in America, and the fervent gratitude of a Georgian woman for the help of her American associates in repatriation work in Germany. A hundred similar instances could be cited. The words "America" and "American" seem to have a magical appeal for nine out of ten Russians.

Perhaps this appeal of things American should be likened to the attraction which the "Soviet myth" exercises over American "fellow travellers;" but the fellow travellers are, of course, intellectuals -- and the interesting comparison is that it is precisely among the intellectuals in the U.S.S.R. that one is least likely to find warmth of feeling for the United States. Since Russian intellectuals are apt to be Party members or officials -- or, at any rate, men and women who are aware that they are living under the close scrutiny of Party members or officials -- this is scarcely surprising. Even so, there are exceptions to the generalization, as will be suggested below. But here I speak only of the "average" men and women of the U.S.S.R., and of the evidence of their compatability with the Americans with whom they come in contact.

II

What, more particularly, do they like about Americans? First of all, they like American personal traits and attitudes. Again and again Americans in the U.S.S.R. are told that "You are like us" or "Americans are simple people." The latter is high praise from a Russian. The word "simple" (prostoi) means in Russian "unaffected," "sincere." Russians like American informality and directness. Often ordinary Soviet folk will favorably compare Americans stationed in Moscow with Soviet officials in respect to these qualities. A young American diplomat made a hit with some of the Embassy's Soviet employees by occasionally taking the wheel of one of the Embassy's trucks. The Soviet employees pointed out that no Soviet official would do such a thing, since manual and intellectual labor were separated by a wide gap in the U.S.S.R. American liveliness and gaiety and the American fondness for "kidding" also strike a responsive chord. While traveling on the Trans-Siberian railway, I was told by a Soviet woman that the Russians, too, are at heart a gay people, but that the hardships of life have made them more somber than Americans. In all of this there is a sense of genuine democracy. Russians often inquire regarding one's occupation, and occasionally regarding one's social status. But they tend to judge foreigners much more by their attitudes, abilities and personality than by class or rank.

It might appear from some of the above observations that only the lighter side of the American character appeals to Russians. While it is true that the relatively carefree Americans probably had a tonic effect on the Russians they encountered during the terrible wartime years, it is also true that the Russians not only enjoy but also respect Americans. Perhaps the most obvious source of this respect is the Americans' reputation as hard, efficient workers. Official Soviet propaganda for years held up this aspect of American character as a model for Soviet emulation. The businesslike quality (delovitost) of Americans has often been praised by Soviet leaders, including Stalin. Associated with this quality in the Russian mind are "American punctuality" and "American precision."

Russians also seem to be favorably impressed by the fairness and open-mindedness of many Americans. Probably Americans with whom Soviet people have come in contact have been on the whole more indulgent than Europeans about the rougher aspects of everyday life in the U.S.S.R. This may seem paradoxical, since the American scale of living is luxurious by comparison with that of any other nation. Yet Americans perhaps are somewhat less afflicted with the narrow class outlook which has colored the reactions of so many Europeans to the Soviet scene. Unfortunately, there were also a few Americans in the U.S.S.R. during the war who did not conceal their irritation because they could not readily obtain accustomed material comforts. As all over the world, these Americans made a bad impression.

One characteristic which, fortunately, is displayed by most Americans in Russia and which elicits a favorable response is "politeness." This may seem a trivial matter, and the writer confesses he was often puzzled that Soviet people should stress it. Nevertheless, Soviet women in particular so often express appreciation of the politeness of foreigners, especially Americans, that it is obvious that they consider it important. I believe that what Russians mean by American "politeness" is in part, at least, simply respect for human beings as individuals. This is more important to most Russians than refinement of manners, although if the latter represents real courtesy, it makes a deep impression.

American culture and civilization are esteemed by most groups in the population. The word "culture" is used in the U.S.S.R. in a peculiar sense. Its meaning covers education, good manners, savoir faire and poise. Thus, a person is "cultured" if he does not push or shout in a crowded subway train or theater entrance. In this sense, Russians have a high opinion of American "culture." Respect for personal property is also included in this conception of culture.

But they also value other elements of American civilization, both good and bad. There is a demand for American plays, films and music. American jazz, American literature, science, technology and even to a certain extent American scholarship came to be more highly regarded during the war than ever before. Musicians asked Embassy members to get them scores of American music. Officials of the Writers Union clamored for more up-to-date American novels. I even arranged a profitable exchange of American detective stories for Soviet war posters. The film "It Happened One Night" was made into a highly successful play. The movie actress Deanna Durbin became very popular among Soviet young people. (I was asked by a young Georgian girl on a suburban train near Tbilisi whether Deanna had died, as a widespread rumor had it.) In 1946, however, the showing and playing of "bourgeois" productions was denounced as a sinister plot, and none is now permitted.

The most solid impression that one derives from residence in Moscow is that Soviet people are convinced of American prosperity. (Incidentally, many Russian families, especially among Jewish people, have relatives who have prospered in the United States. Personal relationships and family contacts play a considerable part in the formation of Russian opinion about this country.) Those whose thinking is closest to the Party line admit that America is rich, but are confident that in another 15 or 20 years the U.S.S.R. will catch up. A lawyer on a Moscow-Kiev train in 1946 told me that Russia would attain the American standard of living after the completion of the present series of Five-Year Plans and that peoples such as the Kirghiz and Tad-jiks will share in this standard; he emphasized the belief that in America the Negroes are excluded from the good things of life.

Many Soviet people, however, appear to despair of their country ever attaining a comfortable and prosperous economy. One asks a Soviet person, "When will you have Communism?" and the reply is, "In a thousand years." One old man quoted the saying, "While the grass is growing, the horse will die." The wife of an Army officer of Georgian nationality told me while I was traveling in the Caucasus in February 1947, that seeing American films was to her both a pleasant and a painful experience: after seeing them, she said, she felt depressed by the contrast between American and Soviet life. It is a frequent experience in the parks of Moscow for an American to be surrounded by eager, curious little tots asking, "It's better in America, isn't it?" The writer was even asked this question by a minor police official who was inspecting his documents in Mtskheta, Georgia. This experience is so often repeated that one cannot help concluding that America represents to the Soviet masses the symbol of a promised life which they themselves will never enjoy. It is extremely significant that the Soviet press has lately conceded the prosperity of the United States, and counters with a charge that Americans have material values and no culture.

Wartime psychology, of course, heightened the feeling of mutual friendship between the Russian and American peoples. During the war, Americans were regarded by the Russians not only as "sympathetic" people but as friends in need, and powerful and generous allies. There were signs that the Soviet authorities were worried by the popularity of Americans and America. The Soviet press and radio and the far-flung network of Party agitators played down America's rôle on the fighting fronts and also our achievements in supplying war materials and foodstuffs. The effort to belittle American aid to the U.S.S.R. was, however, faced with omnipresent evidence of American aid in the form of tanks, planes, hundreds of locomotives on the Trans-Siberian and other railways, powdered eggs, flour, sugar, the tasty Tushonka (a pork product manufactured to Soviet specifications), American leather coats, even the cloth in many a soldier's uniform, and so on and so on. The evidence did not disappear with the end of the war. For example, 59 of the 60 trucks which participated in the May Day parade at Vladivostok in 1946 were American.

The Party takes the line that Russia bore the main burden of the war and paid for victory in blood while America was enriching herself. This unfair but shrewd propaganda appeals to Russian pride and to the people's consciousness of terrible losses. But despite Soviet propaganda designed to minimize the American rôle in the war, it made a great impression. Again and again the writer was told by Russian people that without American aid the Soviet Union would have lost the war. Even military personnel, perhaps the most intensively indoctrinated large group of the population, often expressed appreciation of American help in terms far more generous than those of the press. I recall, for example, a 23-year-old aviator colonel and hero of the Soviet Union who told the pilot of our Moscow-Baku plane in 1944 how the appearance of American tanks and planes at Stalingrad had helped mightily to stiffen morale.

Russian expressions of appreciation of American and British partnership in the war reached a new height after the Normandy invasion. It was a moving experience to be in Moscow in those days. Many of us were congratulated even by strangers on the streets or in parks, or by clerks in bookshops. In some cases, Russian acquaintances wept from emotion. The climax of good feeling came on V-E day, celebrated in the U.S.S.R. not on May 8 but on May 9, when there occurred probably the first genuine popular demonstration in Moscow since that of the Trotskyites on the Red Square in 1927. Thousands of people shouted themselves hoarse in front of the American and British Embassies, tossed Americans and Britons in boisterous good fellowship and in general demonstrated their joy with typically Russian abandon. In retrospect this outburst of affection for foreigners is full of tragedy as well as joy, for it symbolized for the Russian people the deepest meaning of the wartime partnership -- the hope that at last isolation and fear and suspicion were ended and that they could henceforth live in comradeship with the other peoples of the world. V-E day marked the apogee of a tide which was soon to ebb, leaving the Russian people once again cut off from even the communion with the outside world which had seemed to be developing during the war. Not long after, Krokodil, the Soviet humorous magazine, published a satirical sketch about a young Russian who, disguised as an American, listened for a whole evening to rapturous praise of such manifestations of Americanism as the Lindy Hop and gangsters. At the climax he revealed that he was, after all, a Russian, and that though on May 9 he had tossed an American and embraced an Englishman, he was proud to be a member of a nation to which other lands were grateful not for cigarettes but for liberating whole peoples. It was a significant straw in the wind.

III

The complex question of the Russian attitude to the question of freedom is so frequently discussed that the writer will attempt no analysis of it here. It must not be supposed that the friendliness of ordinary Russians necessarily implies sympathy with American institutions. In so far as apathy and preoccupation with pressing everyday needs have not sapped his ideological zeal, the average Soviet citizen accepts a set of ideas which by implication is condemnatory of the American way of life. Only one of the hundreds of Soviet citizens with whom I talked -- a bumptious young Party worker -- ever attempted to "sell" me on the Soviet system. But fairly often Russians refer to the impossibility for them of living under a different system -- one in which, for example, there could be private ownership of railways. They do not understand the American two-party political system, or American electoral procedure. The writer recalls how some Russians were alarmed by the fact that a Presidential election was held during the war; they feared the mere scheduling of an election indicated that America was preparing to change its policy toward Russia. One Red Army colonel asked the writer after the elections if Mr. Roosevelt had not been made President for life. Accustomed for centuries to a régime of paternalism and tutelage, Russians can scarcely be expected to understand American political democracy. An indication of this was furnished by a conversation with a high official of a Soviet publication agency who told me that we Americans must "eliminate" people like Herbert Hoover before democracy could be safe in the world.

Yet it seems to me that many Russians do have at least some appreciation of the value of American personal liberty and personal security under the law. Americans are often told that they are lucky to live in a country in which one can, as one Soviet citizen put it, "breathe." Russians also often express envy of Americans for their privilege of changing their jobs easily, or of traveling to foreign countries. There cannot but be a connection in Russian minds between the evident happiness and wellbeing of Americans, and the political and economic institutions under which Americans live. The Russian people are told by the official propaganda, of course, that high standards of living are withheld from great numbers of Americans and that even the exploiting "capitalists" are soon to suffer a sad fate. I venture to guess that this labored official distinction between American exploiters and exploited does not register too profoundly on the mind of the average Russian (save so far as it relates to Negroes) and that the general conclusion of Russian people is that Americans by and large are rather nice people, a little too rich, clever with machines -- and lucky to have a large measure of a somewhat indefinable but precious good called "freedom." And many of those who look upon American life merely as deplorably rich and easy display a poorly concealed fascination with this sinful America. It is no accident that Mr. Vishinsky explained to a foreign diplomat that the Soviet Government objected to its citizens marrying foreigners because they thus escape their share of the hardships incident to building a new society.

IV

I should emphasize once more that the attitudes noted above are those of the man in the street, not those of the Soviet ruling circles. The small fraction of the population who share with top Party circles in the privileges of power also share their ideological zeal. True, even among the higher bureaucracy there are doubts and occasional defections. Marshal Zhukov's eclipse is rumored to have resulted from his friendliness to America.

The few civilian officials of other government departments seem to fall into two main categories in their attitude toward America. Those who are primarily experts, particularly in such fields as medicine and education, are friendly and eager to share their knowledge. Thus, a high official of the R.S.F.R. Education Ministry told me (this was in 1944) that Russia had a "special bond" with America, and that a wide exchange of educational literature between the two countries was desirable. But those who are primarily Party officials of learned or scientific bodies are, with few exceptions, aloof, usually coldly correct, sometimes hostile. Contacts with the upper echelons of Soviet society are difficult to make; the system of barriers must be experienced to be believed. So far as the upper reaches of the Soviet hierarchy go, a foreign diplomat may be said to enjoy the status of a privileged pariah.

On less exalted levels, Soviet intellectuals are in process of changing their minds about America. It must not be forgotten that, long before the Soviet régime, democratic and intellectual elements in Russia had admired many aspects of American life, particularly those connected with pioneering. Even Lenin made a favorable comparison between the American and "Prussian" types of capitalism, though in his "State and Revolution" he expressed the opinion that the American state had become a police machine which must be destroyed by a Socialist revolution. Until the recent anti-American campaign, Soviet doctrine has pointed out that America, though capitalist and "imperialist," was at least free from remnants of "feudalism," and had even, as Stalin said in his speech of November 6, 1942, "elementary" democratic freedoms. Though Soviet intellectuals are sometimes repelled by American informality and irreverence, and prefer the British for that reason, there was considerable evidence in the honeymoon period of the coalition of much desire among Soviet intellectuals for closer Soviet-American cultural relations. I recall, for example, a professor of history who told me in 1944 that all groups of the population from the simplest workers and peasant to the intellectuals wished to know more about the Anglo-Saxon countries. He said that the Russian public could not learn enough about these countries from its press. He was optimistic about future cultural and political relations, expressing the opinion that the Chinese wall which had sealed Russia off from the world was crumbling. This attitude was widespread. My experience with a casual acquaintance on the Trans-Siberian, the young wife of a naval officer, who had been a teacher before her marriage, was typical. Upon learning I was an American, she burst into excited praise of the United States as "the center of civilization in the world." Respect for American technology has been particularly strong among Soviet intellectuals, as is, of course, so well known as scarcely to need mention. Ilf and Petrov's "One Story America," for example, though a caricature of American life and society, presents America as a technological wonderland. Our super-highways, gas stations and skyscrapers are objects of vast delight and envy. Now Soviet intellectuals, joining perforce in the current anti-western campaign, must not only convince the Russian masses that they do not want any of these things after all; they must also convince themselves that they do not admire American machinery or technological skill. No doubt they will succeed, for the penalty of not doing so is dire; but the road of Soviet professional men and intellectuals is in truth a rough one.

V

What conclusions may be ventured as to the specific problem of keying an American information service to the pitch most likely to appeal to the Russian people? By far the most important medium available for communication with them is radio, and the writer pretends to no special competence in this highly expert field. In general, however, I think it may be said that our premise should be that there still exists a reservoir of friendliness and even admiration for Americans in Russia. Though we would delude ourselves if we supposed that the Russian people are in spiritual opposition to their government, we may proceed on the assumption that popular thinking there is not wholly a reflection of official propaganda. For the United States to echo the Soviet tone and engage in a propaganda war, full of vilification and abuse of Soviet institutions, would weaken our case rather than strengthen it.

The basic theme of our program, in short, should be the true live-and-let-live attitude of Americans. The program should be truthful, objective, and -- for all that it can be full of good humor and high spirits -- "serious." Points at issue between the two governments should not be ignored, but we should assume that we are speaking to people who will be pleased if those controversies are amicably settled. In this connection I recall a conversation with a Soviet army major on the Kiev-Kharkhov train in December 1946. The major was aware that differences of policy and opinion existed between the two countries, but he was confident, he said, that they would be overcome, quoting with approval Ambassador Smith's statement, which he had read in the State Department magazine Amerika, that the two countries must arm themselves with patience.

An effort on our part to establish the superiority of our political and economic institutions by argument is as likely to seem bumptious to the Russian people as the corresponding Soviet effort to belittle our institutions seems to us. I do not worry in the least about the present Soviet propaganda line that seeks to disparage American culture and to prove that our material well-being is a sad defect of our national life. Obviously, it is a confession of weakness on the part of the Soviet régime. The Russian people who, though they live behind the iron curtain (and precisely because they are subject to this censorship) are adept at reading between the lines, will interpret it as such. Moreover, if they can be reached with evidence of American well-being and good humor, more than a few of them will draw their own conclusions as to the validity of the picture of the rapacious America, hungry for foreign conquests, that the official Soviet propaganda is now drawing.

Media other than radio should also be used so far as possible. Certainly the Russian-language magazine Amerika is immensely popular with those Russians who have access to it. The exchange of publications and students would be useful in promoting understanding between the two peoples, but unfortunately the Soviet Government is not now willing to coöperate in student exchanges. One step that we might take is the assignment of competent American scholars, writers or artists for short periods of service in the Moscow Embassy. Such persons could do much for the prestige of American culture among the Soviet intelligentsia, although it is necessary to point out that they would work under extremely difficult conditions.

It would be unrealistic to believe that the propaganda campaign against the United States will not make headway among a hungry, harassed people, with the normal human desire to find a scapegoat for troubles and with perhaps more than their share of suspiciousness. But the difficulty of the task of arousing aversion to things American is evidenced by the very magnitude of the Soviet efforts devoted to it. The writer hazards the opinion that America symbolizes so many of the aspirations of the Soviet Russian people that it will be impossible to make them hate us if our message to the world continues to be the "pursuit of happiness" for all peoples.

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  • FREDERICK C. BARGHOORN, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Yale University; Assistant in the Division of Eastern European Affairs, Department of State, 1941-42; Press Attaché at the American Embassy, Moscow, 1942-47
  • More By Frederick C. Barghoorn