The Soviet States of America

“The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.” — Vladimir Lenin

“The press is our chief ideological weapon.” — Nikita Krushchev

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” — Benjamin Franklin

“If you think there is freedom of the press in the United States, I tell you there is no freedom of the press … They come out with the cheap shot. The press should be ashamed of itself. They should come to both sides of the issue and hear both sides and let the American people make up their minds” — Bill Moyers

In December of 1976, I visited Moscow. The Soviet regime was in full control. The city sidewalks were a silent procession of people, eyes downward, trudging  through slushy brown snow. Soldiers with rifles, military vehicles and enormous propaganda posters painted on building walls were what any pedestrian would see if he happened to look up. Though closely monitored by our official tour guides, we occasionally found ways to talk to the locals. If they weren’t looking down they seemed to be looking over their shoulders for a KGB agent or an informant.

One day we struck up a conversation with a young man while wandering around GUM, the State Department Store. The place was immense, dreary, compartmentalized and impersonal — much like the interior of a Borg ship. He offered to show my friend and me around Moscow, and we talked for several hours. The man turned out to be a genuine dissident, whose goal was to find a way to escape to the West.

I don’t remember his name. He had a family and was a bit older than we were, perhaps in his late twenties.

He talked about the difficulty of getting accurate information about global events; the cynicism, escapism and alcoholism among the people; the sinister invasiveness of the KGB; and other depressing features of Soviet living. He also pointed out a few positives, such as that people were not starving to death as they were decades earlier, the high quality of education, and the fact everyone had a roof over their head. But all he wanted was freedom — freedom to speak and act as he chose.

He had plenty of questions for us. He wanted to know all about what day to day life was like in America. He seemed to be comparing our answers to what he’d been told, and things clearly were not matching up.

At the end of our time together, we wanted to give him a pair of blue jeans and a couple packs of Marlboro cigarettes, which I was carrying in my backpack. These items were rare and highly prized commodities. When I started to pull them out of the backpack on a street corner, an expression of fear came over our new friend’s face. I will never forget that look. He motioned for me to stop. He walked us into an alley, looked around to make sure nobody was watching, and quickly stuffed the jeans and cigarettes under his coat. It felt like we were selling him a kilo of heroin. Possessing merchandise from the West, such as jeans or cigarettes, was not politically correct.

We left him there in the alley and walked back to our hotel as darkness fell over the city.

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.” — Edward R. Murrow

“Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media.” — Noam Chomsky

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