The two most recent entries in the New York Times’ shameful Red Century series, seemingly dedicated to whitewashing the Soviet era on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, praise Soviet children book propaganda (while mocking U.S tomes) and hailing the participatory journalism of American Communist writer John Reed.
A Friday posting, “Baba Yaga on the Ganges,” by Palash Krishna Mehrotra relayed the joys of international Soviet propaganda aimed at children in India. The author writes from his hometown, reminiscing on how happy the Soviet books made him:
Two cultural events made Allahabad come alive -- the release of a new Bollywood movie, and the arrival of a Soviet Book Exhibition.
It was the age of benign propaganda and the Soviets were winning. Though India was proclaimed to be non-aligned throughout the Cold War, it leaned heavily toward the Soviet Union. India followed the socialist economic model and the Soviets invested significantly in India -- from defense to infrastructure.
The Soviets we loved. When printing technology in India was restricted to black and white, Russia bamboozled us with colorful comics and magazines. Russian ballets and circuses performed in Indian cities and were broadcast frequently on Indian state television.
Similar U.S. tomes, presumably more truthful and perhaps less exciting as a result, were denigrated:
The comparatively meek American cultural effort was largely restricted to sending complimentary copies of Span magazine to university professors. My father, a poet who taught English literature at Allahabad University, received a copy of Span. It had pictures of cheeseburgers studded with sesame seeds and of geometry-box corn fields.
A typical issue would have Ronald Reagan on the cover, a short story by John Gardner, photographs by Ansel Adams, a debate on America’s nuclear strategy, and a long piece on America’s search for natural gas.
Russian children’s literature is believed to have blurred the lines between propaganda and art, perhaps like no other children’s literature. I don’t remember any disreputable titles that glorified electrification and agriculture. ....
I had begun to read The Hardy Boys series, Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton by the time the Soviet books arrived. Even as a kid, one could make out that the American and English books were written to a formula....
The Russians came to India and distributed their stories virtually for free. If this was propaganda, no one has bad memories of imbibing it.
Monday’s entry, Jack Shenker’s “The Journalist and the Revolution” celebrated Russian Revolution chronicler and American Communist John Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World (1919). Reed was hailed in the Hollywood movie Reds and the only American buried on the grounds of the Kremlin (and showed his racist attitude toward blacks with casual slurs in his letters to his wife).
But Shenker couldn’t find a harsh word for either the gullible Communist Reed or the spiral of mass murder into which Soviet Communism would soon descend. First, a long self-serving setup involving his own time on the ground during Egyptian revolt in 2011, with a shout-out to a left-wing historian:
The historian Howard Zinn once noted that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train,” and no train moves faster or tilts more fiercely than a nation consumed by popular rebellion. Exactly where and how reporters should plant their feet at such a moment is a question that must be asked anew by each correspondent, in every corner of the world, uprising after uprising. Many of us who have been forced to grapple with it -- as I was that afternoon -- have arrived at different answers. All of them are messy. And for the past century all of them, consciously or not, have been shaped to some degree by the work of John Reed, the legendary chronicler of Russia’s October Revolution in 1917.
....Reed’s book, “Ten Days That Shook the World,” explores the Communist insurgency not as a scientist might analyze slides through a microscope but rather as a lived experience, with all of a real life’s hopes and fears.
Shenker agreed with Reed that to cover a revolution, one had to be part of it:
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Reed’s belief that personal passion and political engagement on the part of a reporter are not antithetical to meaningful revolutionary journalism but rather lie at the very core of it was not the only feature of his work that resonated with me as I attempted to chart a very different national transformation -- more than 2,000 miles away and more than nine decades later....
The worst Shenker found to say of the Russian Revolution were that the meetings were too long. He emphasized the overthrow of bourgeoisie by violent means, and left the tragic and murderous consequences of the next 70 years on the cutting-room floor:
Rereading “Ten Days That Shook the World” today, it is not the near-verbatim accounts of interminable, overlapping Soviet committee meetings that stand out, nor the alphabet soup of long-forgotten organizational acronyms that requires a 10-page glossary....Rather it is the description of a well-to-do young woman’s hysterics after she is addressed as “comrade” by a streetcar conductor. It is the scene where an old workman pilots an auto-truck back toward the capital after the revolution is victorious, sweeping his arm across the urban haze: “ ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!’ ”...
Shenker doesn’t think much of those sage voices that opposed the great revolution:
....He probes the language of elites as they scrabble to keep up with events: One tycoon tells him that revolution is a sickness and that intervention is necessary to prevent it, just as “one would intervene to cure a sick child” -- a foreshadowing of the infantilizing rhetoric adopted by successive Egyptian leaders....
The writer finally, belatedly, confessed that the record of the Russian Revolution wasn’t entirely sweetness and light, but insisted the hagiographic treatment of the Communist takeover was still worthy journalism:
....Of course, the full history of Russia’s revolution contains great shafts of darkness as well as light....“Ten Days That Shook the World” lives on, not because Reed got everything right (he didn’t) or because the revolution he covered was an uncomplicated success story (it was anything but), but because he understood the real force of revolutionary journalism: its potential to rouse all who engage with it -- not least the reporters themselves.