The collapse of the Soviet Union was good news for almost everybody—Russia’s citizens, its captured “republics,” nations targeted by Soviet missiles, and neighboring states such as Finland, just to get the list rolling.
The only losers were fans of Soviet propaganda who found entertainment in the classic Soviet posters urging comrades to “Learn the great path of Lenin’s and Stalin’s Party!,” the glorious propaganda films denouncing the rotten bourgeois ideology of the warmongering capitalist jackals, and even the propaganda lite of Soviet Life magazine, which extolled the superiority of communism to American readers.
Soviet propaganda hit the skids during the Gorbachev era, and as the empire broke up, its propaganda essentially vanished. But the heavy-handed purveyors of party-line orthodoxy and nationalist cant have returned with the rise of President Vladimir Putin, and a demonstration of this lost art’s resurgence can be found in a 10-page advertising supplement to today’s (Aug. 30) Washington Post, titled “Russia: Beyond the Headlines.” (It can also be viewed on the newspaper’s Web site.)
Produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official Russian government newspaper, the section mimics the look and feel of a hometown paper, with news, an op-ed section, a sports feature (Maria Sharapova), two business pages, an entertainment page, and even a recipe for “Salad Oliver.” But beneath the shattered syntax of these laughable pieces beats the bloody red heart of the tone-deaf Soviet propagandist.
No, Papa Putin doesn’t appear in the supplement with two adoring Young Pioneers on his lap. The section never denounces the imperialist running dogs or praises the peace-loving workers of the world. Nor do the writers invoke Marxist-Leninist philosophy to break through the West’s shortsightedness in order to understand present-day objective conditions from a class perspective. There’s no need for such antiquated language when pieces like “The Opposition’s Disarray Is Lucky for Some” exist to carry the new Kremlin’s freight.
A USA Today-style infographic at the bottom of “Opposition’s Disarray” reports the results of a poll titled, “Have You Heard of the Other Russia Movement?” The results:
I haven’t heard of it: 61 percent
Not sure: 15 percent
It is a political opposition movement essential for the proper functioning of society: 13 percent
It is a collection of marginal figures who should be kept out of power: 11 percent.
Talk about loaded questions!
On the opinion page, we learn in “Dog-Walking—a Gateway to Wisdom” that Vladimir Putin likes Labradors and takes Connie, his Lab, with him to televised events. “Russia’s citizens like Putin, and that’s probably why there are a fair number of Labradors on my neighborhood streets,” the writer states. All glory to Labrador-loving Comrade Putin and his patriotic walking-dog, Connie!
Elsewhere on the page, the editors establish editorial guidelines as they solicit questions and views from American readers:
Anonymous letters, personal attacks, letters advocating extremism, letters to other people, mass mailings and commercial appeals are not published.
The new comrades want your phone number, too, but only for verification purposes. I’ll bet that’s what they told the parasite Sakharov.
As journalism—even state-sponsored journalism—”Russia: Behind the Headlines” presents more questions than it answers. A feature about Russian Railways notes that the president of the state-owned firm, Vladimir Yakunin, earned a degree as a mechanical engineer in 1972 before laboring at the USSR’s United Nations office between 1985 and 1991. Did the comrade’s work between 1972 and 1985 get tossed down the memory hole? Shouldn’t readers know—as a quick Web search reveals—that Yakunin may become president of Russia after Putin steps down? Earlier this year in a piece handicapping the potential successors, the International Herald Tribune called Yakunin a former KGB agent.
Back in the 1990s, Regardie’s magazine attempted to parody the foreign-nation advertising supplements that occasionally run in the Post,albeit to little success, because you can’t parody state propaganda. The only way to slog through the stilted, typo-marred copy of “Russia: Behind the Headlines” is to impose a Boris Badenov-style Russian accent on the stories and edit out the articles the and a as you read along. Sentences such as “Russia’s Central Bank has declared the necessity of a symbol for the ruble, one that would eventually be in league with the $ dollar and € euro signs on the world market” suddenly become bearable. Sentences such as “President Putin promised to create the National Russian Language Foundation, which would promote Russian language and culture all over the world” become delightful.
Who is this supplement for? Obviously, the section’s intended customers are American businessmen and Washington diplomats who may have gotten a chuckle or a groan out of it before feeding it into their recycling pile. As bad as Soviet propaganda was, it was always good enough that you could hum along to the strains of its martial music, but the amateurism of this supplement carries no tune. It’s a bad sign for the Putin regime if it thinks this expensive PR exercise will elicit anything but laughter from the West.
Speaking for propaganda lovers everywhere, I hope that once Putin sees “Russia: Behind the Headlines” as the abomination it is, he’ll reopen the gulag and send the supplement’s editors and writers into exile.
Is “Russia: Behind the Headlines” a sign of Putin’s fall? Can the Russian government really be that clueless about the English language? Send propaganda tips for the Russian government to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll forward them to the country’s maximum leader. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)