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Soviet Anti-Americanism

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Rósa Magnúsdóttir is an Associate Professor of History at Aarhus University in Denmark specializing in propaganda and US-Russian relations during the Cold War. She’s the author of Enemy Number One: The United States of America in Soviet Ideology and Propaganda, 1945-1959 published by Oxford University Press.


Consolidated, “Friendly Fascism,” Friendly Fa$cism, 1991.

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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity.

Your book, Enemy Number One: The United States of America and Soviet Ideology and Propaganda 1945-1959, explores the Soviet view of America during the early years of the Cold War. To start, what was the Soviet view of the United States before 1945?

That’s actually quite important because the view of the United States in the postwar Soviet Union relied to a great extent on earlier images of the United States. In the book, I review the images that we see from the late 19th century, starting with some of the literary accounts like from Vladimir Korolenko, and of course the big ones like from Maxim Gorky and Aleksandr Block. Many of them visited the United States, saw it, wrote travel logs that became classics in the Soviet Union. A lot of the later images relied to a great extent on these early literary accounts. Then, of course, we have political accounts. The Bolsheviks also looked to the United States as a positive model in terms of technological advancement and even prosperity. It’s quite well known they had a very positive view of Fordism or Taylorism. So, it was not all negative like it was in the postwar period.

There was, of course, also a negative image—social and racial. The United States were criticized quite openly. But their overwhelming view for almost about 50 years, up until the Second World War, was that the United States was a technological model for the Soviet Union. The Second World War and the wartime alliance also had a great impact on the Soviet perception of the United States. The influence of Lend Lease, tanks, jeeps, trucks, guns, foods—a lot of people talked about Spam or American products that entered the Soviet Union during the Second World War. And popular culture was obviously very famous. This particular image, the war-time alliance, when the United States and the Soviet Union were co-operating for the greater good, ends up playing a big role in the later images of the United States. That’s one of the points that I make in the book: the importance of the war-time alliance and what role that plays in later views of the American enemy.

The image of America in the Soviet Union turns more hostile after 1945. What was some of the elements of anti-Americanism in the final Stalin years?

In the first chapter of the book, I go over the anti-American campaign. We all know about the anti-western and the anti-cosmopolitan campaign but there was also a very clear top down anti-American campaign from the top layers of the Soviet bureaucracy. And it emphasized how anti-Americanism should be present in all layers of society. We know the most about the media, so in the book I highlighted anti-Americanism in theater, films and literature. There we see some of the old classics being reused because they fit perfectly with the style and the anti-American Cold War agenda. New works were also designed to suit those purposes in the late Stalin era. It was really interesting to me how detailed the instructions were and also the extent of the paranoia. This was obviously a totalitarian society. In the late 1940’s under high Stalinism, we have works that had been considered perfectly good anti-American Soviet works from the 1920s and 1930s that are all of a sudden not anti-American enough. It was really interesting to me how authors had thought they were catering to the needs of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy, were suddenly defending their choices and trying to explain in reality how anti-American they were.

What were some of the negative qualities about the United States that they emphasized or exaggerated?

The anti-American campaign strongly focused on social and racial issues in the United states. Evil capitalists, obviously, and the war mongers of American culture. One of the interesting things, is that, in stark opposition to what, I think, how most Americans perceived of the Soviet Union as the evil Russians during the cold war, the Soviet image of the United states was more nuanced. It had these evil Americans, which were the capitalists and the warmongers, but then it had the good Americans. The Soviets promoted this image of the “dual America” and made ordinary Americans into victims of these evil Americans. So, still very anti-American but it was nuanced, where there were the progressive Americans, the good Americans.

American racism and violence against African Americans had a really important place in Soviet views of America. How did Soviet attention to black Americans figure into their anti-American propaganda?

It was really clear that works written by American authors that were critical of the way African Americans were treated in the United States was a favored genre in the pre-war period and in the Cold War. It didn’t have to be literary works. Any kind of social science related research that showed the sufferings of African Americans was used. They really relied on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was available in a large print runs and in the libraries all over. It became the standard reference point for educating the Soviet people about the situation of African Americans in the United States.

When Stalin dies and Soviet-American cultural relations are revived in the mid-1950s, then the Soviets are actually scolded for relying too much on outdated views of the history. The situation of African Americans had changed quite radically in the mid-1950s from how it was presented in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention from before the Second World War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one example of how these early images are repeated, sometimes for decades and not updated, to the point where the knowledge is completely outdated and useless. It was actually Paul Robeson, a very famous African American activist and friend of the Soviet Union, that took them aside and told them they needed to stop doing this and that it was embarrassing.

United States tried to counter a lot of the Soviet internal propaganda with the publication of a Russian-language magazine called Amerika. There was also Voice of America radio, which tried to counter the negative picture of the United States and the American system to Soviet people. How did the Soviet government respond to these counter-propaganda efforts by the United States?

Almost everyone knows about these efforts by the United States government, the publication of Amerika and, later, the broadcasts of the Voice of America. I tried to find out how they were received in the Soviet Union. And Amerika is interesting because it was a legal publication that resulted from a bilateral agreement.

The American’s are publishing this journal, Amerika, in the Soviet Union, and the Soviets are publishing a similar journal, The USSR, in the United states. They start publishing in 1945 and the Soviets are open to it. This is before the anti-American campaign had really started in 1947. They allow Amerika to increase its print run. It 1946 that they increased the run up to 50,000 copies. But then very soon after, the Soviets start to limit access to this legal publication. They wanted to limit subscriptions to patriotic workers of the Party and Soviet organizations. It ended up becoming very privileged reading, for the most loyal, Soviet cultural and political bureaucrats.

Some copies of Amerika were distributed by subscription and others were supposed to be on sale in kiosks. Тhe Soviet government made it very difficult for people to access these copies that were supposed to be on sale. I think that they had kiosks in only three cities in all of the Soviet Union. American embassy workers actually went around in Moscow and tried to find the journal on sale, and they weren’t able to find it.

There were interesting internal discussions in the Soviet cultural bureaucracy because they became frustrated that the journal wasn’t selling. And they claimed that no American organization would be satisfied with the sales of the magazine. But at the same time, they are making it very difficult for people to actually buy the journal. And they ended up canceling the publication in 1952 and then later restarted publication in 1956. It was really the anti-American campaign that ruined the possibility for Amerika to be published there.

The Voice of America is a bit different because it’s, of course, illegal, and not something that is agreed upon between the two countries. The Soviet approach toward the Voice of America radio broadcast is to jam it. All of this is just so telling of how concerned Soviet authorities were. First, they do everything in their power to limit the distribution of the legal journal, Amerika, and then just a year after Voice of America started broadcasting, they start to jam it. They are really trying to control the availability of information about the United States in the Soviet Union.

Do you have any sense of the public reception of Amerika and Voice of America?

I was really interested in trying to get at this. I read a bunch of files from the Procuracy about people who had been convicted for anti-Soviet crimes, under Article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code. I was able to find people who had allegedly read the journal or listened to the Voice of America broadcasts. These files can be difficult to use, but in any case, just the fact that these actions, reading or listening, were noted as crimes in these files, that somebody saw them to be a necessary reason to put somebody in prison is just very telling of the fears of the Soviet state. What’s recorded in these files are people claiming to have read something in Amerika or listen to a program and doubting the truth about the United States, that they were hearing in the Soviet media because they had this alternative view from these mediums.

So, the comments noted in these files do reveal what the Soviet fear was then. If these utterances were correct then their fears were justified, because people were taking information from these mediums to heart and starting to doubt their own realities and comparing their reality to what they were hearing in these broadcasts.

Stalin dies in 1953 and Khrushchev denounces him in 1956 in his famous speech at a 20th Party Congress. How did the image of America change after Stalin’s death?

It softens quite considerably. The biggest change in Soviet-American cultural relations is actually in 1955, before the secret speech. And that is the year when Soviet cultural officials write reports where they celebrate that they finally now are able to have a dialogue. Before then, the reports from the Soviet embassy in Washington had also been, to the effect, that they were not able to do anything, or reach out or have any kind of contacts in the late Stalin period. I think that like with so many other things in Soviet society, the effects of Stalin’s death are also quite immediate in the cultural bureaucracy. So, 1955 is the year when we have delegations, high-profile delegations going back and forth between the countries. There’s an agricultural delegation, there’s a journalism delegation. There are artists pouring into the Soviet Union in numbers that had been unimaginable just two years earlier. Porgy and Bess comes on tour in 1955, and that’s a interesting episode obviously with the racial aspects of the musical and of the history there.

Finally, America has served as both an object of fascination and enmity in Russia over the 20th century. In many respects, this continues today. What are some of the legacies of the Soviet image of the United States from the cold war period? Do you see elements of it in Russian anti-Americanism after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

When I was writing the book, I was following Russian-American relations, and was fascinated when, not in terms of anti-Americanism, during the second “Thaw” which was labeled a “Reset” in the Obama administration. We have exactly the same narrative that Khrushchev used. This is obviously after a rather cold period in Russian-American relations, and we have Obama and Medvedev attempting to smooth things over. When Obama and Hilary Clinton advocate for the reset of Russian-American relations, they use exactly the same rhetoric. They even go as far as celebrating the “spirit of Elbe,” going back to the Second World War. It became obvious to me that the “Meeting on the Elbe” is still a moment that leaders will refer to in speeches when they want to make great claims about potential for cooperation and peaceful coexistence. And then at the same time, there was even a film that was about the meeting on the Elbe just a couple of years ago. And that was criticized for being too positive in its illustrations of the relationship.

So, we see repeated themes. The Americans are the bad guys or that it cannot go too far. Any kind of fascination with America should stay within certain limits, for sure. That is also something you see in contemporary Russian anti-Americanism. Even during the Stalin era, anti-Americanism is only one part of the story, like in contemporary Russia, there was also an obvious fascination with the United states.