This morning I had a bit of time before I read the news about the latest surreal turn in the Trump campaign. And in that bit of time, I had one of those moments when I was completely wrapped and thankful for the never-ending stream of insight, humor, tips and more we all get here from TPM Readers. Particularly it was this email from TPM Reader ME, a childhood immigrant from the USSR/Russia. ME much more artfully and ably discusses something I was trying to capture in my post yesterday on Russian defense doctrine and Fox News, specifically how in trying to duplicate or capture things we don’t really understand we can create caricature cartoon versions of them which bare a superficial similarity, capture the most visible elements but yet miss the real picture entirely. From ME …
Through the years I’ve written numerous e-mails to this address, most of them likely less insightful than I thought at the time. However as a Russian immigrant (I’m sure one of many who has written to you) I felt inspired to throw more on the pile.
I want to draw some parallels between the modern Russian propaganda that you liken to Fox News, and the Soviet propaganda of yesteryear.
It seems that there was a Soviet “documentary” series called “America of the 70s” whose purpose was obviously to convince Russians that they had it pretty good. One of the episodes, called “Boston Contrasts”, can be viewed here in its original Russian.
The text is by well-known Soviet propagandist Valentin Zorin. Since it’s about my hometown I felt compelled to translate it in its entirety, which I have attached below. An interesting note is that most of the Russian comments on YouTube express disdain over the kind of rubbish Soviet citizens were fed by videos like this.
The thing that made me think of sending this to you, however: the narrative created by the video is pretty run-of-the-mill Marxist class struggle, and it crudely jams all of the history into that framework. To be sure, the video makes many important points about racism and inequality that are only now rising to the surface of our national conversation, but in other ways misses the point completely. To what extent did Zorin really believe what he was saying? I’m not sure, but taken on its face, the narrative is less dishonest than naive.
He believes, or wants us to believe, that American democracy is nothing more than a thin veneer over what is at heart a Game-of-Thrones style battle of corrupt Bourgeois dynasties. In other words, he views US politics through the lens of someone accustomed to living under a corrupt dictatorship and all of the lack of trust that this entails.
The word I keep coming back to in my mind is “civic culture.” For whatever reason the US is blessed with a fundamental faith in our institutions that leads people to do the right thing not out of blind obedience or indoctrination but perhaps out of something akin to teamwork. To be sure, the Soviets attempted to instill a belief in public duty over there, but nothing like that ever actually took root. Everyone saw the system as corrupt, and in a peculiar way that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And because of this difference, it is difficult for the Russians to really understand the American way of looking at things.
This also brings to mind an interesting scene in The Americans Season 1 Episode 4 which reflects the same mentality (I get that the show is not totally historically accurate but I think it illustrates my point). After Reagan is shot, and Alexander Haig utters his line “I am in control here,” the Soviet spy characters assume that a coup d’etat is taking place and that Haig is in fact taking control of the US government. As Elizabeth insists that they must act, Philip counters, “All these years, walking these streets, living with these people, you really don’t understand this place. Haig could have ten nuclear footballs, this still wouldn’t be a coup.”
She replies, “You don’t think they’re all about they’re all about lies and conspiracy like everyone else? Why do you think that they’re so different, that they’re so pure?”
He says, “I don’t. But the last two times our leaders died, our government pretended they weren’t dead for weeks. Things are different here.”
I think once you read my translation, you will see that in some ways the Russian propaganda operations of today are similar to those of Soviet times. They are fundamentally taking the same perspective of unmasking America as the emperor who has no clothes, trying to depict our democracy as a sham, due in large part to an inability to conceive of it as anything more than that:
America of the 70s
Boston – it was not so long ago that in place of today’s Washington there rustled virgin forests, when proud and free Indians gathered in wigwams in whose stead today are the hulking New York and Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco. Here, on the Atlantic coast of America, already existed a settlement named by those who founded it, Boston.
Narrated by author Valentin Zorin
The oldest city of the United States, it has sprawled over many miles around the bay that is considered to be one of the most convenient. Although it has a population approaching one million, it falls behind the main American cities. Its significance as an industrial, political, cultural, and historical center puts it in a special and privileged position.
Bostonians are big patriots of their city. In their excellent co-citizens Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Longfellow, they take no less pride than Florentians do in Dante, in Harvard University just like Odessites in their Opera House, in the Boston Tea Party about which more later no less than the Parisians in the storming of the Bastille.
The port is one of the biggest in America, today just like two hundred years ago.
Once the center of textile and shoe industry, today’s Boston has requalified itself in accordance with the demands of the century. Electronics and instrument design, machine tools and large-capacity ships, that is what is produced today by the capable hands of Boston workers.
Talking about modern American cities, we have more than once pointed out the contrasts between wealth and poverty, whites and blacks, power and lack of rights. Boston is no exception. Right next to respectable blocks of offices and expensive stores, there are many kilometers of streets inhabited by the poor. Buildings built in the beginning of the last century once belonging to those with means have since dilapidated and have come into decrepitude. Facades preserving an image of respectability hide behind them destitution and squalor which reveal themselves to those who look within. The previous homeowners have moved to green suburbs. Today’s inhabitants must pay for lodgings lacking in basic conveniences sums amounting to a third or more of their monthly pay.
Boston at night looks its best. Movie theaters and hundreds of entertainment businesses whose services are available to those with the means to pay for expensive amusements.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra – a hall that sees the best musicians of the world.
But the inhabitants of these [?] city blocks of Boston have other worries. They don’t have time for entertainment. The joys of life are not their lot. However, Boston’s contrasts are not only in this. They are deeper, more complex, and have their roots in the history of the American government.
Harvard University is an object of particular pride for Bostonians. The oldest in the country, it was founded in 1636, becoming one of the first forges of American culture. Neighboring Harvard University is a town named Salem – that very Salem where homegrown inquisitors gave over to a disgraceful death the Salem witches. So were called several Salem residents. The obscurantists of the time, spiritual predecessors of today’s voices, accused these unfortunate women of heresy and witchcraft. At Harvard, they were studying Aristotle, the teachings of Copernicus on the motion of celestial bodies, and right next door, in Salem, a grim tribunal was investigating the proof of the close acquaintance of the accused with dark forces.
Both the creation of the first university in America and the hunt for witches were taking place at the same time, in the middle of the 17th century, in one place, Boston and its surroundings. And this too, is among Boston’s contrasts: obscurantism and progress, light and darkness, good and evil here [?].
Bostonians take pride in the fact that in their city lived and created the first classic of American literature, Henry Longfellow. And again a contrast: in a city whose founders mercilessly exiled and exterminated the Indian tribes who lived here from time immemorial, the great humanist wrote his famous Song of Hiawatha, celebrating the brotherhood of people of all skin colors, calling for peace on Earth.
“Bathe now in the stream before you, Wash the war-paint from your faces, Wash the blood-stains from your fingers, Bury your war-clubs and your weapons, Break the red stone from this quarry, Mould and make it into Peace-Pipes, Take the reeds that grow beside you, Deck them with your brightest feathers, Smoke the calumet together, And as brothers live henceforward!”
The exile of Indians is not only a betrayal of a deep past. It’s also the present day. The organizers of the Wounded Knee massacre probably read the Song of Hiawatha in school. That doesn’t make things any easier for Hiawatha’s progeny.
Longfellow’s life is closely linked to Harvard University where he was professor for many years. The university was and remains to this day one of the biggest academic and scientific centers of the United States. In its lecture halls, in its laboratories there are more Nobel laureates than in all other American universities and institutes put together.
The present day, with its worries and conflicts, contradictions and battles, inevitably bursts through the walls of this temple of science. Its students have in recent years more than once left their lectures to take part in protests and demonstrations. The warm winds of international detente pass through here as well. Scientific relationships are growing, interest in the achievements of Soviet science and of Soviet scientists is growing.
It is thus all the more notable that Harvard is not only the oldest, but the most privileged academic institution in America, a sort of sanctuary where the ruling elites are raised. Don’t be deceived by these jeans and blouses – it’s not so simple for the children of workers to come here. The tuition at Harvard is the highest in the country and exceeds five thousand dollars per year. Among Harvard’s graduates are Franklin, Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, and many others to whom the American bourgeoisie entrusts the management of their affairs.
It’s here that John Kennedy and his brothers Robert and Edward sought the [?] of political wisdom. Of the Kennedy clan, whose political citadel Boston has been for several decades, it is worth making special note. One of Boston’s tourist attractions is this mansion, belonging to Joseph Kennedy, where the successful entrepreneur raised his children. In these walls were spent the childhood years of people who would later have to play a significant role and whom would befall an unusual fate. In this fate of the children of the Boston multimillionaire were woven in a tight knot the problems caused by the confrontation and enmity of the great forces having a major influence on the political life of today’s America. Confrontation whose tragic result became these graves at the Arlington cemetery of the American capital. Enmity that cost the lives of the president John Kennedy and his brother Senator Robert Kennedy. But that would happen later.
Seventeen years before the gunshot in Dallas, Kennedy was starting his journey in politics as senator from Boston’s 11th district. And that was when the first salvos sounded of a political war lasting for decades. If the Kennedy brothers belong to those circles of the American bourgeoisie who began at last to take heed of the necessity of political reevaluation both within the country and beyond its borders, then they are opposed by the hardheaded agents resembling the French Bourbons who haven’t understood and haven’t learned a thing.
In Boston, such a political opponent of John Kennedy became Henry Cabot Lodge, a hard-core reactionary, one of the fathers of the cold war. The Cabots and Lodges are two of the richest families of the powerful Boston financiers. “The Lodges speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots only to God,” they would say in Boston in the past century. A dynastic marriage united the two families and hence their offspring are named Cabot Lodge. But times were changing. In the fight for power, John Kennedy came out on top. Cabot Lodge was not helped by his name, money, or his fanatical support for Eisenhower himself.
It wasn’t just the personal competition and competitive fight of powerful banks that stood behind this skirmish. Political interests collided, on one hand more unbridled groups, on the other those who tended to look more soberly on the realities of today’s world. This fight continues in subsequent years. Boston remains one of its arenas.
When John Kennedy, having moved to the White House, freed the Senate seat, it was laid claim to by the son of Henry Cabot Lodge, George, and the younger of the Kennedy brothers Edward. And again victory was Kennedy’s.
Not far from Boston is the estate of the Kennedy clan, Hyannisport. The multimillionaire father of the brothers, Joseph Kennedy, and their mother Rose Kennedy, for many years took part in the activities of their sons. And to this day in Hyannisport matters of the Kennedy family are worked out.
On September 8, 1975, American newspapers announced: in Boston an attack has occurred on the house where President Kennedy was born. The attackers were trying to set fire to the building, but were repulsed by the arriving police. The attacks were carried out by participants of racist demonstrations. Even timid steps in the direction of sanity provoke fits of unbridled fury from American reactionaries.
Talking to Bostonians, it becomes apparent that they are much more proud of the city’s past than its present.
The old city hall – visitors are always shown this small red brick building with depictions of the English lion and unicorn. It was here that the freedom-loving Americans made the declaration to the English king, refusing to pay the duties illegally introduced by the English. One of the first events with which began the American revolution.
In the late fall of 1773, the indignant citizens seized an English ship that had arrived at the port. They threw overboard all of its cargo – many tens of crates of tea unjustly levied with English duties. In American history this episode is called the Boston Tea Party. The English responded with a punitive expedition meeting with armed rebels. The war for independence, referred to by Lenin as “one of the few genuinely liberating, genuinely revolutionary wars in the history of humanity,” ended English colonial rule.
This simple amusement offered to tourists is perhaps supposed to remind them of the Boston Tea Party. And this teapot with many buckets of capacity raised by a clever restaurateur above the entrance to his establishment in the center of the city also apparently hints at the ancient Tea Party.
Tourists view with reverence the deck of the historic ship moored today in Boston Harbor. They listen to the tales of those heroic days that have forever written the name of the city into the annals of the American government.
Two hundred years ago from the balcony of city hall sounded the words of the Declaration of Independence affirming to every person the inalienable rights, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To every person.
And this is happening in Boston 200 years later: racist youths are trying to prevent by force black-skinned kids from attending a school attended by whites. The streets of Boston are stained with blood. The city schools for many months resembled castles under siege.
The young citizens of Boston learn more than their times tables and rules of spelling here. They don’t just learn American history from textbooks. Racism and fascism are inseparable concepts. As written here by the scallywags who for many months have turned Boston into an arena of bloody battles and pogroms.
Boston racists gathered for a protest strain their throats in a city park. They are unhappy about the call to freedom and equality proclaimed in this city two centuries ago. They only recognize the right to life for themselves. Seated in limousines, the smug bourgeois perpetrated the protest against offering basic rights to their black-skinned fellow citizens.
Old Boston is restless. A complex and contradictory city. A city where began the American people’s war for freedom from national and colonial oppression. And becoming two hundred years later an arena for rabid racism. A city living by the labor of the working class creating with its hands its fame and wealth, and the bourgeois who bow down to the dollar and the fist. Searching in its past, and looking to tomorrow. Boston – successful and trembling in the vice of poverty. A typical American city of the middle of the 70s.