On December 25, 1991, twenty-five years ago today, the Soviet Union collapsed — four months after the collapse of a short-lived coup by the hardline communist “Gang of Eight,” and nearly 70 years after the Bolshevik Revolution. As a result of political purges, mass executions, and an intentional famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, millions of people perished as a consequence of Russia’s experiment with communism.
Looking back at the media’s track record on communism, one sees a press that was too willing to act as a mouthpiece for the world’s worst dictatorships, and too accepting of the perverse claim that communism meant safety and security for its people.
Perhaps the most amazing piece of pro-Soviet propaganda produced in the 1980s was Ted Turner’s seven-hour Portrait of the Soviet Union, shown in the United States on the CNN founder’s TBS Superstation. Even the New York Times, in a March 20, 1988 review, deemed it an embarrassment, saying that the three-part series “is possessed by the same spirit that once led George Bernard Shaw to throw his dinner out the window of a Soviet train — because food was redundant amid socialist milk and honey.”
Narrator Roy Scheider (Jaws, The French Connection) read a script that would make the editors at Pravda blush: “The Soviet Union, draped in history, born in a bloody revolution, bound together by a dream that is still being dreamt. The dream of a socialist nation marching toward the world’s first communist state....Once the Kremlin was the home of czars. Today, it belongs to the people....Atheist though the state may be, freedom to worship as you believe is enshrined in the Soviet Constitution....Modernization on a grand scale. A great success.”
When Turner’s Portrait made it to the U.S.S.R. later that spring, Financial Times Moscow correspondent Quentin Peel reported that Soviet television “introduced [it] with the apology that the film gave an excessively glamorous portrait of the country.” Somehow, Turner managed to create a piece of propaganda that even its communist subjects couldn’t swallow.
While the rest of the media elite would not go as far as the sycophantic Turner, some reporters did push an embarrassingly pro-communist spin that would soon be undermined by events:
“If suddenly a true, two-party or multi-party system were to be formed in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party would still win in a real free election. Except for certain small pockets of resistance to the Communist regime, the people have been truly converted in the last 68 years.”
— CNN Moscow bureau chief Stuart Loory in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Feb. 3, 1986.
“Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy.”
— Anchor Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, June 17, 1987.
“The reality is that even if the communist state were to protect individual rights aggressively, many of its people are not prepared to tolerate diversity.”
— Dan Rather on the May 27, 1988 CBS Evening News.
“Communism got to be a terrible word here in the United States, but our attitude toward it may have been unfair. Communism got in with a bad crowd when it was young and never had a fair chance....The Communist ideas of creating a society in which everyone does his best for the good of everyone is appealing and fundamentally a more uplifting idea than capitalism. Communism’s only real weakness seems to be that it doesn’t work.”
— 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney in the New York Times, June 26, 1989.
“Marx and Lenin are still revered heroes. Never mind that communism as they conceived it didn’t work. Most Soviets don’t want to dump it, just improve on it.”
— USA Today founder Al Neuharth, February 9, 1990 column.
Even before the official end, liberal reporters reacted to the sudden end of Soviet communism much as they had to the liberation of Eastern Europe, complaining of the “uncertainty” and “hardship” that the “painful shift” to capitalism and freedom would bring to the ex-Soviet states:
“Many Soviets viewing the current chaos and nationalist unrest under Gorbachev look back almost longingly to the era of brutal order under Stalin.”
— CBS’s Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, February 11, 1990.
“Soviet people have become accustomed to security if nothing else. Life isn’t good here, but people don’t go hungry, homeless; a job has always been guaranteed. Now all socialist bets are off. A market economy looms, and the social contract that has held Soviet society together for 72 years no longer applies. The people seem baffled, disappointed, let down. Many don’t like the prospect of their nation becoming just another capitalist machine.”
— CNN Moscow reporter Steve Hurst on PrimeNews, May 24, 1990.
“Lines might be long, freedoms might be few, but one thing the state guaranteed was security from the cradle to the grave....But with the novel forces of democratization, decentralization, and freer expression came the hard truths of poverty, dislocation, crime, ethnic hatred and the erosion of the state’s omnipotence. Beggars and cripples emerged from the shadows, the injured and humiliated took to venting their grievances in the streets, and ever-worsening shortages pushed masses over the threshold of poverty.”
— New York Times reporter Serge Schmemann on the Soviet Union, March 13, 1991.
“Inefficient as the old communist economy was, it did provide jobs of a sort for everybody and a steady, if meager, supply of basic goods at low, subsidized prices; Soviet citizens for more than 70 years were conditioned to expect that from their government. Says a Moscow worker: ‘We had everything during [Leonid] Brezhnev’s times. There was sausage in the stores. We could buy vodka. Things were normal.’”
— Time Associate Editor George J. Church, September 23, 1991.
“It’s short of soap, so there are lice in hospitals. It’s short of pantyhose, so women’s legs go bare. It’s short of snowsuits, so babies stay home in winter...The problem isn’t communism; nobody even talked about communism this week. The problem is shortages.”
— Commentator and ex-anchor John Chancellor on the August 21, 1991 NBC Nightly News.
“In the old Soviet Union, you never saw faces like these: the poor, the homeless, and the desperation of the Russian winter. Their numbers are growing. Tonight — is this what democracy does? A look at the Russia you haven’t seen before....The people of Russia are learning this winter that the price of freedom can be painfully high.”
— ABC’s Barbara Walters opening Nightline, January 14, 1992.
“But for the simple folk of Uzbekistan, people like Kurban Manizayov, these are mind-wrenching times. Their simple wants were nicely cared for by the communists. But now they’ve been thrust into the hurly-burly world of market capitalism, and nobody even bothered to ask if it was all right.”
— CNN Moscow reporter Steve Hurst, August 31, 1992 World News.
“Many here long for the days of Brezhnev. At least then, they say, they had their dignity.”
— CBS reporter Tom Fenton, September 24, 1993 Evening News.
“For more than 70 years, Russia dreamed the Soviet dream: the dream of a classless society, the dream of a workers’ paradise. The classless state is now a state with a growing population of haves and an exploding population of have-nots. For many, the workers’ paradise has become a homeless hell.”
— ABC’s Morton Dean, January 14, 1994 Good Morning America.
In her 2003 book Useful Idiots, conservative writer Mona Charen described the communist state as a “comprehensive tyranny,” adding:
The Soviet Union was not so much a state as a vast criminal conspiracy. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Bukovsky, Natan Sharansky, and others are the great chroniclers of the grotesque inhumanity of the Gulag and Communist rule....[The record shows] mass murders, deportations, political persecutions, abuse of psychiatry, and other depredations committed by the Communists.
In spite of communism’s appalling human rights record, journalists perversely suggested that the repressive totalitarian system was somehow superior — better for women’s “rights,” for example, or better than the “conservative” Catholic Church.
“Yes, somehow, Soviet citizens are freer these days — freer to kill one another, freer to hate Jews....Doing away with totalitarianism and adding a dash of democracy seems an unlikely cure for all that ails the Soviet system.”
— Co-host Harry Smith on CBS This Morning, February 9, 1990.
“There is a danger that the forces of democracy, as they are called, will now go too far. There is a spirit of revenge in the air [after the failed Soviet coup].”
— Former New York Times reporter Hedrick Smith, August 26, 1991 Good Morning America.
“The economic and political turmoil that has swept the former Communist East Bloc has hit women the hardest. There’s been a strong backlash against the idea of women’s equality....Under the Communists, women in the workplace were glorified. And if they needed time off to give birth and raise families, they got it at full pay.”
— ABC reporter Jerry King, April 6, 1992 World News Tonight.
Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reporters marked the anniversary by focusing on how much worse life had become for those freed from communism. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour actually scolded Mikhail Gorbechev in a November 8, 1999 interview. “Ten years later, many are saying the unbridled capitalism that followed communism has unleashed misery on citizens who had all their social needs taken care of, especially in the former Soviet Union,” Amanpour asserted.
She lectured Gorbachev: “Mr. President, you are regarded by many people in this world as a hero for causing the end of tyranny and the collapse of communism. But you are also criticized heavily by those who say you opened a Pandora’s Box. And they say, ‘Look at the strife now, look at the economic chaos, look at the Mafia structure, look at the corruption.’ They say that you opened and started a plan that you did not know how to finish.”
The next night on ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor Peter Jennings struck the same note: “It is probably hard for most Americans to imagine anyone feeling nostalgic about living behind the Wall. It may also be hard to imagine that anyone in the Western part of Germany would miss the Wall either. But miss it, some people do.”
Five years later, Moscow was one of the stops for NBC’s Matt Lauer during his annual “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” Today show feature. Lauer suggested that, for many Russians, the decades spent under communism were the good old days: “We’re gonna be talking about the New Russia, how a few people are doing very well and the fear that others are being left very far behind,” he teased on the February 12, 2004 morning news program. He later declared: “Russia’s rush to capitalism left the vast majority scrambling to survive. For many, life is worse than it was in Soviet times.”
In the October 12, 2009, Newsweek wondered: “Was Russia Better Off Red?” The magazine answered its own question with a full-page graphic showing that Russia today has fewer hospitals and movie theaters, but more crime and divorce. “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has seen an increase in oligarchs and Louis Vuitton outlets. But by many other measures, Russians are worse off.”
When the Soviet Union existed, the embarrassing puff pieces sat alongside reports of military crackdowns, belligerent speeches from the Kremlin wall, and occasional reports on dissidents and other abuses. But with the Soviet Union gone, the gauzy nostalgia took on an increasing share of what the media continued to say about communism.
The pop culture also contributed to the softening of communism’s image. As the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby noted in a 2006 column, “The glamorization of communism is widespread. On West 4th Street in Manhattan, the popular KGB Bar is known for its literary readings and Soviet propaganda posters. In Los Angeles, the La La Ling boutique sells baby clothing emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro’s notorious henchman. At the House of Mao, a popular eatery in Singapore, waiters in Chinese army uniforms serve Long March Chicken, and a giant picture of Mao Zedong dominates one wall.”
Many reporters seem disturbingly sympathetic to the idea that state control is preferable to a free economy. In the mid-1990s, researchers Stanley Rothman and Amy Black surveyed journalists and found strong support for government intervention, including making sure that everyone has a job and working to “reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor.” Writing in the Spring 2001 issue of Public Interest, Rothman and Black concluded: “Despite the discrediting of centrally planned economies produced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes, attitudes about government control of the economy have not changed much since the 1980s.”
The too-fond reminiscences of Soviet communism are at odds with the realities of history. As an economic model, communism was an utter failure. Over the decades the two existed side by side, citizens in the capitalist world enjoyed increasing standards of living, technological innovation, and growing wealth, while the communist world stagnated or worse. But as a political system, totalitarian communism was a true horror, with casualties numbering in the tens of millions. There is nothing in the true record of communism that merits romantic reflection.