01:53 GMT27 January 2021
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    The western propaganda did not exactly lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was one of the reasons why demise of the old empire was relatively calm (a few bloody conflicts did emerge, some of them protracted, but that paled in comparison to the end of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the civil war that ensued).

    By the late 1980s the Soviet population had been so demoralized that an end of the old world seemed inevitable to many — a perception propaganda helped to consolidate.

    I was 10 when the USSR fell apart, and I remember pretty well the air of total surrender that emanated from my parents' generation in its final years. We had a lot of things to be proud of, but when decades of force-feeding with pride collided with the newly found glasnost, shame and disbelief began to reign.

    The western propaganda came in two forms. The first one was legal, like the Russian-language Amerika magazine distributed in the USSR since the mid-1950s. It provided a careful selection of texts and imagery telling the Soviet reader about life in the US — and that was powerful. The doctored reality of such publications contrasted sharply with the general drabness of Soviet life. It seems no one really wanted to know how the west worked — with those movies, that music, those cars, that fashion it couldn't be anything but a perfect place to live. Indeed, the artifacts of "their life" did much more to undermine the Soviet morale than any organized effort. The popular belief was that if something couldn't shoot, it was worse than its western equivalent. Never was the western way of life as admired in this country as in the last decades of the Soviet Union.

    To be sure, the Soviet Union responded in kind, distributing in the US the Soviet Life magazine whose portrayal of Soviet reality was as err… objective as that of American life by Amerika.

    The second form of propaganda was subtler. I'm referring to the radio broadcasts by BBC and Radio Liberty which the Soviet government tried to jam (only adding to their popularity). Their strongest point was sympathy with the Soviet people (no, more cunningly, with the peoples of the Soviet Union). Their line was usually like "Russians are great, your culture is magnificent, but you are ruled by a bunch of old morons guided by an outdated, dangerous ideology, who don't let the best of you thrive. Oh if only you could join the west — and let the enslaved peoples go (they'll be grateful to you!)".

    These broadcasts told the Soviet people about what the saw in their daily lives, but what the official media were not allowed to tell. Almost everyone felt something was wrong with the system, but the Russian-language western media addressed the causes of this wrongness. Essentially, the whole glasnost was about allowing to do the same within the Soviet Union, not from abroad.

    Those years were the golden age of America and the west in the Russian psyche. He who visited "the world of capitalism" — incessantly demonized by the state propaganda — was godlike. Even Anwar Sadat's Egypt would do, not to mention France, England or the United States. Only a few were deemed worthy of this privilege, but many more were allowed to see our "domesticated" west: the People's Republic of Bulgaria, the Polish People's Republic, or the (half-)Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Finally, if you had no chance of going abroad, there were the Baltics: the part of the Soviet Union that was the wealthiest, the best-fed, and using the Latin script to boot.


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