A review of Notes from the Rotten West, Reports from the Backward East: Soviet and American Foreign Correspondents in the Cold War, 1945–1985, by Dina Fainberg.
Over the past two decades there has been a “cultural turn” in the study of the Cold War, with historians shifting their focus from high politics to the conflict’s impact on consumption, the arts, and the mass media. Dina Fainberg’s compelling and highly original dissertation on Cold War journalism provides an important contribution to this literature, while also broadening our understanding of postwar Soviet and American history. Her study is methodologically ambitious, following Soviet and American correspondents’ coverage of the United States and the U.S.S.R. from the end of World War II to the eve of perestroika in the mid-1980s. She argues that these foreign correspondents’ accounts of life behind enemy lines (so to speak) were instrumental in shaping ordinary Soviets’ and Americans’ views not only of each other, but also of themselves. In addition, she counters the prevailing Western narrative that dismisses Soviet journalists’ accounts as pure propaganda while holding up American journalists as objective truth-tellers. Instead, Fainberg details how American journalists’ portrayals of the Soviet Union were influenced both by U.S. government interests and popular anti-communism.
The dissertation consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a brief conclusion. The first two chapters examine Soviet foreign correspondents’ coverage of the United States, while the second two focus on American correspondents’ reporting on the Soviet Union. Fainberg draws from an impressive range of sources, including the Russian state and former Communist Party archives, the foreign correspondents’ newspaper articles and monographs as well as some of their personal papers, the archives of the New York Times, and oral history interviews with surviving correspondents.
Chapter 1, “Trumpets of the Party,” elucidates the structure of Soviet foreign reporting and how this structure changed over time. Fainberg’s main argument is that the conventions of Soviet journalism and foreign correspondents’ coverage of the United States changed significantly from the Stalinist to the post-Stalinist period. Under Stalinism, the number of Soviet foreign correspondents was quite limited: Pravda, for instance, did not send a foreign correspondent to the U.S. until 1949, and Izvestiia not until 1956. Most Soviet coverage of the United States was produced by TASS, the Soviet Union’s Telegraph Agency. Those Soviet foreign correspondents and other writers who were sent to report on life in the United States faced a variety of obstacles. All Soviet foreign news coverage was closely directed by the Ministry for International Affairs of the Soviet Union, and was expected to function as a mouthpiece for the views of the Soviet government. Above all, this coverage was supposed to unmask the alleged war-mongering aims of the U.S. government and to expose the plight of workers under capitalism. Meanwhile, the anti-communist fervor in the United States during the McCarthy era meant that Soviet journalists there were met with distrust. Fainberg details an important shift in Soviet coverage of the United States during the mid-1950s owing to the end of both Stalinism and McCarthyism. First, Soviet newspapers dramatically increased their coverage of foreign affairs. Furthermore, direct state control of this coverage decreased, allowing for greater prominence of individual journalists’ voices and interests. In tandem with the Thaw’s new focus on the individual, Soviet foreign correspondents began to write more stories focusing on ordinary American citizens rather than the overviews of the “masses” that they had produced under Stalinism. Finally, while their coverage continued to emphasize Soviet superiority, this was done more subtly. Stories that focused on the high cost of American medical care or on American racism, for instance, were implicitly supposed to remind the Soviet reader of the benefits of living in an egalitarian welfare state. Fainberg concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of the challenges that Soviet journalists encountered after Brezhnev came to power in 1964. The journalists once again faced greater state intrusion into their work, although not to the same degree as under Stalinism. At the same time, they also had to compete with alternative sources of information – such as foreign broadcasting – that were becoming available to the Soviet public.
In Chapter 2, “Notes from the Rotten East,” Fainberg turns her attention to the newspaper articles and books that Soviet journalists wrote about life in the United States. In particular, she examines the correspondents’ subjectivity, asking why conventional Western accounts presume that Soviet correspondents’ negative articles about the United States masked their secret rapture with the country. Instead, she argues that there was little discrepancy between the journalists’ private and public views of the United States. Soviet correspondents were, she claims, products of their environment: having grown up in the Soviet system and benefited from it, they had assimilated socialist ideals. Fainberg also notes that Soviet journalists’ accounts of life in the United States were more nuanced than is commonly assumed. They did not shy away from describing American material abundance, for instance, but they did so through a socialist lens, by pointing out inequities in American society or by emphasizing the social atomization that went hand-in-hand with this affluence. Fainberg includes an interesting discussion of Soviet journalists’ responses to the civil rights and anti-war movements in the U.S. in the 1960s. She notes that Soviet journalists actually held up protesting American youth as a positive example of socially committed citizens at a time when many commentators in the Soviet Union were concerned about the alleged apathy of Soviet youth. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how Soviet readers assimilated the correspondents’ reports about the United States. Understanding popular reception in a country like the Soviet Union is notoriously difficult; in Fainberg’s case she lacked concrete data on what Soviet citizens thought about the correspondents’ reports. Instead, drawing heavily on the work of the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, she suggests several ways in which Soviet citizens may have responded to the portrayal of America in newspapers and books. For instance, she theorizes that some people may have ignored the articles’ ideological slant and instead have read them simply as travelogues. For Soviet non-conformists, reports on the hippies and counterculture may have been inspirational. Ultimately, she concludes that while Soviet coverage of the U.S. was supposed to be cautionary, bringing Soviet citizens to feel greater loyalty to their own system by way of contrast, it in fact merely stimulated great curiosity about the U.S.S.R.’s ideological other.
Chapter 3, “Watchdogs of the Public,” shifts to the American journalists who covered the Soviet Union. Here, Fainberg argues that these correspondents—far from being objective—saw the Soviet Union through an anti-communist lens just as their Soviet counterparts understood the United States through the prism of anti-capitalism. This anti-communism was strongest during the late 1940s and early 1950s, due to late Stalinism and McCarthyism. In some senses, American correspondents in the Soviet Union were forced to fight a two-front battle: against Soviet censorship and press restrictions on the one hand, and against American prejudice and hysteria over communism on the other. In the Soviet Union, American correspondents worked under incredibly oppressive conditions: they were not allowed to travel around the country or to attend press conferences, they were not allowed to talk to the officials who censored their articles, and they were forbidden to include any analysis of Soviet politics, foreign policy, or the economy in their reporting. Furthermore, many faced dangers on a personal level, including accusations of spying and deportation. Correspondents with Soviet wives were held in a hostage-type situation, as their wives were not allowed to leave the country. Meanwhile, back in the United States, these correspondents were often accused of being communist sympathizers. These accusations were partly the result of Soviet censorship, which prevented the correspondents from doing much more than publishing the official Soviet version of events. Harrison Salisbury, the New York Times’ correspondent in the Soviet Union, pleaded with the paper to print notes accompanying his articles, explaining the Soviet censorship regime, but the paper refused. As with her analysis of Soviet journalism, Fainberg sees an important shift that occurred in American foreign correspondents’ coverage of the U.S.S.R. in the mid-1950s. This change resulted in part from a relaxation of Soviet conditions following Stalin’s death. Many of the restrictions against foreign correspondents were lifted, censorship became less strict, and as a result, the number of foreign correspondents in the U.S.S.R. dramatically increased. At the same time, Fainberg shows that there were important changes in how people in the United States viewed the U.S.S.R. After Stalin’s death, Americans’ fears of imminent war with the Soviet Union decreased; as a result, they became more interested in learning about daily life in the U.S.S.R. As foreign correspondents were now allowed to travel more freely around the country and to talk to more “ordinary” Soviet citizens, they were able to produce more of these accounts.
The fourth and final chapter, “Notes from the Backwards East,” analyzes American correspondents’ writings about the Soviet Union during the 1960s through mid-1980s, a period encompassing détente. Fainberg shows that this political reconciliation was not accompanied by the development of a parallel mutual understanding between the Soviet and American people. When American journalists asked such questions as, “‘Can we be friends with the Russians? Can the Russians become more like us?’” (p.185) the answer they came to was usually “no!” Fainberg shows that American journalists projected their own values onto life in the U.S.S.R. and found it wanting. They argued not only that the Soviet people should live under a liberal democracy like that of the United States, but also that they should enjoy the benefits of a free market economy. During this period, American correspondents devoted considerable coverage to the nascent dissident movement in the Soviet Union. They saw the dissidents as the one group in Soviet society that seemed to embody American political ideals. In regards to the rest of Soviet society, American journalists were perplexed as to how Soviet citizens managed to remain seemingly content despite the absence of consumer goods in the country. The explanation they developed derived from Western stereotypes about Russian backwardness and inherent otherness. In a particularly interesting section, Fainberg shows how several American journalists referred to the account by the Marquis de Custine of his travels in Russia in the early nineteenth century as a kind of guidebook for understanding the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. American journalists, in other words, saw Russia as a timeless country, out of place in the contemporary world. Toward the end of the chapter, Fainberg discusses American readers’ reception of the correspondents’ reports and books about the U.S.S.R. She draws from a number of interesting sources, including book reviews and letters written to American correspondents that she found in their personal archives. These letters reveal that the majority of readers supported the journalists’ negative portrayals of the Soviet Union. Some had traveled to the U.S.S.R. as tourists and felt the journalists’ accounts perfectly captured their own negative experiences. Soviet émigrés in the United States were also unsurprisingly supportive of these negative portrayals. In short, what Fainberg shows in this and in the previous chapter on American correspondents is that the U.S. media and the American public shaped and supported each other’s portrayals of the U.S.S.R. as an alienating, eternally foreign country.
Fainberg’s dissertation is laudable for several reasons. First, by analyzing the experiences and writings of Cold War journalists on both sides of the conflict, she is able to show surprising similarities between the way the mass media operated in a communist single-party state and in a liberal democracy. Second, while there is currently a burgeoning subfield in Soviet historiography on contacts with people, products and ideas of the West, there has been little work done on how ordinary Soviet citizens got their daily information about life in the U.S.S.R.’s main postwar rival country. Finally, Fainberg shows how the narratives that Soviet journalists crafted about life in the United States and that American journalists produced about life in the U.S.S.R. continue to influence how Russians and Americans view each other today and to shape the misunderstandings that still arise. Fainberg’s work will be valuable to a wide range of scholars, including those interested in postwar Soviet and American history, the Cold War and media studies, and, when published, will also be a useful resource for instructors teaching classes on these subjects.
Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow
European University Institute
Stanislav Kondrashov Papers (Private Archive). Pakhra. Russia.
Harrison Salisbury Papers. Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Columbia University.
Hedrick Smith Papers. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress. Washington, DC.
Russian State Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI)
The State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF)
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. 2012. 246 pp. Primary Advisors: Jochen Hellbeck and David Fogelsong.
Image: Russian typewriter.