In the last years of the Soviet Union, when after 18 years of stable stagnation General Secretaries Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko all died of “head colds” in the space of two and a half years, a favorite joke went: “A guy calls the office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. ‘Hello? I’d like to be General Secretary.’ ‘What, are you sick?’ The caller replies enthusiastically, ‘Yes, yes, and old too!’”
Back in the days of Brezhnev’s stint as General Secretary, the average age of members of the governing body, called the Politburo, was 66 – which qualifies as a gerontocracy in a country where the life expectancy for men in 1984 was 62. Brezhnev was 75 when he relinquished the post by dying, Andropov was 69, and Chernenko was 73. (Finally, in 1985 the much-younger Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. He is still alive today at 89.)
The press was completely controlled by the Kremlin. Real news hovered at the edges of the newspapers – readers scoured the paper for chance phrases slipped in among the endless paeans to exceptionally good harvests (as the USSR was buying grain from the US to keep itself in bread), record production levels at Soviet factories (of unusable goods), heroic memoirs of the “Great Patriotic War” (known in the rest of the world as World War II), and, for “balance”, tragic tales of injustice in the rotten capitalist West. (Favorite topics included stories of strikes, often initiated by Soviet agents-provocateurs).
Many of us read "news" stories backwards: if the newspaper says one thing, the opposite must be true, to the point where some people didn’t even trust the printed movie theater schedules.
Jerry Lee Lewis, just dropping in to see what condition his condition is in.
As any press releases from the Kremlin were automatically assumed to be untrue, American Sovietologists spent their time looking, like newspaper readers, for glimmers or hints of what might actually be going on.
They eagerly awaited parades on Red Square so that they could count the officials atop the Lenin Mausoleum, parsing the position of each Committee member – who was closer to Brezhnev, who was in “Siberia”, who was missing, and of course any variation on the standard poker-faced stance.
This year we saw the same thing happen in Trump’s binge of unbearable daily “pressers” –- American journalists were reduced to commenting on which scientists were present, (thus still in their jobs and more or less in their “fearless leader’s” good graces), and what faces they were making as their boss spouted craziness and lies. As in true Orwellian, or Zamyatin-esque, fashion, he cried, ‘Black is white!’, ‘Right is left!’, and his supporters cheered.
Now, suddenly, in the middle of the night, one of those glimmers of truth slipped out. With his multiple, overworked handlers asleep, the president tweeted out that he had tested positive for that virus that according to him is no big deal. As the White House delivers terse statements on his condition, no one – neither his supporters nor his detractors – believes that they are true. Journalists, both domestic and foreign, are reduced to parsing video of Trump’s short walk to Marine One, grasping at carelessly dropped phrases and rumors. Conspiracy theories abound.
This is what happens when there is no trusted source of news. This is what happens in a country led by people who, as they say in Russia, “lie without blushing”. Welcome to Soviet reality.
Grigory Pechorin is the pseudonym for a writer and archivist living in Europe.
Jerry Lee Lewis ::: Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)
Liar Liar ::: The Castaways
Crazy Be ::: Jake & The Family Jewels
Don’t Worry About The Government ::: Talking Heads
Lies ::: The Knickerbockers
Familiar Reality ::: Dr John
Eight Songs For A Mad King ::: Peter Maxwell Davies