The Pleasures of Propaganda

Animated Soviet Propaganda, a recently released collection of cartoons the Russians commissioned to indoctrinate children with the presumed moral superiority of communism, reminds us how nice it is to have prejudices aroused and confirmed.

Journey into Russia

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 352
Formats: Paperback
Author: Laurens Van der Post
US publication date: 1967

Growing up in the '80s, I wasn't much of a cold warrior. I always thought it bizarre to consider the Soviets as enemies; it seemed like we should feel sorry for them since so much of our indoctrination involved demonstrating to us how good we had it in America, how much freedom we could take for granted. While we had all the blue jeans we wanted, Russians, we were told, would sacrifice a year's wages for a single pair. And their samizdat publications supposedly celebrated American youth culture and rock music; so fervent was their passion that they willingly risked imprisonment to listen to it. In all, to have to wonder, as Sting piously implored us, whether the Russians loved their children too seemed fairly ridiculous.

Even as Reagan began to escalate his Evil Empire rhetoric, action films were stocked with amoral Slavic villains (think "I must break you") and the nuclear apocalypse became a routine trope in music videos and very special television events, a countertrend in entertainment epitomized by the Chevy Chase film Spies Like Us suggested that the Cold War was less a tenuous balance of world power in the face of mutually assured destruction and more a sloppily constructed comedy. This sentiment likely explains the flippant skit about the KGB a friend and I wrote and performed to fulfill a project requirement for World Cultures class. We made KGB spies out to be not tools of state-sponsored terror. but bumbling Keystone cops with an Abbott and Costelloesque interrogation style.

By generally sympathizing with the hapless Russians, I thought I was shrewdly resisting cultural brainwashing, rising above political propaganda, proving myself as a nascent independent thinker. The heedless attitude I had then makes me especially susceptible to cold war nostalgia now: I'm always inclined to romanticize the straightforward simplicity of the old enemies, whose seemingly naïve belief in the utopian future promised by their species of Marxism, after all, was sort of like my own when I was young, when a system that alleviated the intense pressure to be ambitious seemed a welcome relief. So against my better judgment, I am still tempted to think only of kitsch sickles and hammers rather than, say, the gulag archipelago.

To correct my historical myopia, it helps to read a book such as of Journey Into Russia, by South African writer Laurens Van der Post, which I bought a while ago from a thrift store in Vancouver. (It's sad how vividly I remember the provenance of these things.)

An account of his tour of the Soviet Union in the early '60s that seems only mildly distorted by ideology, it's well worth the penny it's currently selling for on if only for the reminder it supplies of how strange and enormous an experiment the USSR conducted on its people. Dipping in randomly, you might come away with an account of a conversation at a provincial airport, a description of mosque minarets at Tashkent or train travel across Siberia, an expression of effusive admiration for the conservation-minded scientists at Lake Baikal or politesse upon drinking with Georgians in Tbilisi.

Not only is the book suffused with a sense of the Soviet regime's permanence, which now inspires awe at how quickly history overtakes us, but also with Van der Post's exhaustion in the face of the country's grim, featureless cityscapes. He devotes paragraphs to deploring the uniform unadorned shoddiness of Soviet architecture and urban planning and the ubiquitous images and statues of Lenin ("Nowhere was there evidence that Lenin significantly had stirred the emotions of either painters or sculptors, or that he had passed through any individual imagination or personal awareness to communicate the feeling of discovery that is the hallmark of the work of art"). But above all, he seems especially fatigued by the relentless propaganda. "Many Russians that I met loved to tell me how the absence of advertisements in their cities and landscapes and I had accepted it unthinkingly as true. But ... in Russia there is only one advertisement: the State."

Van der Post records many his encounters with ordinary Russians, trying to feel out how deeply state propaganda has sunk into their consciousness. Often you have the impression that the Soviet populace lived a continual critique of everyday life by necessity, a perpetual condition of private opposition and interior doubleness that forced them to develop multiple levels of ironic expression as well as a thorough understanding of a wide range of perverse incentives. (We bourgeois in America presumably confront less cognitive dissonance and are thus unburdened by critical consciousness.)

Thus, the socialist state seems to have actually made people's thinking more dialectical, though by a method no one preferred. But the one flaw Van der Post notes in the instinctual bullshit detector he ascribes to Russian citizens is in regard to their attitude toward America, which was entirely unbalanced: "They admired America more than any other country in the world and at the same time they envied, disliked and feared it."

Animated Soviet Propaganda helps shed some light on why this might have been. If these were characteristic of the propaganda dispersed throughout society, it's easy to see where Russians developed their disproportionate ideas of America. The four discs collect about six hours worth of cartoons spanning from the '20s to the Soviet Union's collapse and two hours of documentary with interviews with some of the animators and commentary from Russian film scholar Igor Kokarev.

Perhaps to escape the accusations of trading in Soviet kitsch and profiting at the expense of Russian misery, Films by Jove, the set's distributor, includes essays by Kokarev, on how the films played into the Soviet oppression. Kokarev likens Soviet society to a religious cult (as does Van der Post on a few occasions) and enumerates how the people were kept down: "We were kept apart"; "We were forced to conform"; "We were ruled by fear"; "We were hemmed in by secrecy and censorship".

He also describes the Soviet aversion to fashion and decoration:

Personal modesty was a prized virtue in Soviet society as was a lack of pretentiousness in one's home and a certain disdain for comfort and fanciness. The natural human desire for better conditions, more consumer goods, and a higher standard of living was delayed, put off until the future. Monotonous gray clothing ... was the normal conditions of life for everyone. Young people who tried to dress stylishly were derisively nicknamed "stilyagi" and were publicly insulted in the street.

Of course, a world without fashion seems like a kind of paradise to me. But my suspicion of fashion would have no meaning in a Soviet-style culture; here in the States I can construe it into a political position -- one that requires nothing more from me but to dress badly. Maybe I need to adopt the attitude of Gavin McInnes, editor of Vice magazine: "I hate looking at metrosexuals wearing flip-flops with a suit but I usually get over it when they walk out of view. It's only annoying for a very short time. The truth is fashion is boring and only stupid people genuinely care about it." By this criteria, then, my preoccupation with criticizing "style" consumerism probably makes me into one of those stupid people.

The animation styles and running times of the Animated Soviet Propaganda cartoons vary -- some owe much to Mayakovsky, others to Disney -- but aside from a disc dealing with World War II (sample title: "Fascist Boots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland"), the themes are fairly consistent: Americans are intolerant racists schooled by capitalism to find greed irresistible, but their perfidy cannot stop worldwide communist revolution. "Mister Twister", ased on a children's poem, tells of a fat-cat American businessman who refuses to stay in a hotel that also lodges blacks, and "The Shareholder" recounts the sad story of average American worker, ichael Chase, whose ownership of one share in his company doesn't protect him from being exploited and discarded when the corporation no longer needed him. Having financed his life with credit, he ends up destitute and desperate, abandoned by everyone.

The near-psychedelic "Shooting Range", adapted from a play, uses the metaphor of people working as live targets in a carnival attraction (a la Coney Island's actual "Shoot the Freak" concession) to suggest that capitalism puts everything in its sights, gunning for the dignity of work and family and one's ability to raise children. What's strikingly palpable in this and other shorts is the revulsion at a multifarious culture; that different people could experience the shared reality of social experience in different ways comes across as selfish and immoral, egregious. Shared culture means shared deprivation.

Kokarev describes how "language was stilted" in the Soviet Union, perverted and depleted by monolithic Leninist ideological discourse. Propaganda, we are invited to conclude, impoverished the culture, while state strictures channeled the nation's creative impulses into stunted channels. But Americans are no less immune to stilted language; it just typically takes the form of marketing rhetoric and trendy neologisms, clichéd expressions and catchphrases. This is the sort of prefab language that the journal n+1 complained in an editorial was taking over public discourse by way of the blogosphere.

"People might have used their blog to post the best they could think and say. They could have posted 5,000-word critiques of their favorite books and records. Some polymath might even have shown, on-line, how an acute and well-stocked sensibility responds to the streaming world in real time. But those things didn’t happen, at least not often enough. In practice, blogs reveal how much we are unwitting stenographers of hip talk and marketing speak, and how secondhand and often ugly our unconscious impulses still are. The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested."

The preferred spontaneity of blogging reveals that our spontaneous thoughts are often not windows into our soul but regurgitations of convenient prefab word chunks available in Western culture: hype, slogans and brand posturing -- language generated by the commercial pressures of the market, which yields a ceaseless variety of goods that nevertheless seem to be sold in the same few ways. We are inundated with this language, which co-opts every available set of signifiers culture makes available and makes them convey first and foremost the same capitalist imperatives: self-discovery through shopping, creativity through novelty, personhood through consumption rather than production. But we don't resist or resent these messages necessarily; rather they confirm what we already seem to know and make comprehensible our everyday experience, as Soviet government propaganda was meant to, if we accept Van der Post's reaction to it.

When the market so dominates the public sphere -- splintering it into so many demographics and yielding the variety the Soviets seemed to find so bewildering -- it assimilates all language and makes it all espouse the essentials of exchange. As the editors of n+1 imply, we can garner attention by adopting this language rather than necessarily having smart and interesting things to share. This has an incantatory effect, making ad gibberish seem even more powerful and oppressive and making intellectual conversation seem even more beside the point. What’s left, then? Baudrillard's "fatal strategy" of silence as the only hope of resistance?

"Shooting Range", which is set in a New York City derived not from experience but from the US' own Cold War propaganda magazine, America, emphasizes the chaos of commercial society by flashing ads across every possible space, with generic slogans that actually do a fairly good job of summing up American public discourse: "Get Rich" and "Miss America". Isn't that what all the rhetoric in ads ultimately amounts to?

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