The Russians Don't Hear

Many Americans have wondered by what mechanics of censorship the Soviet government has maintained its ironclad control over ideas and information within its own borders. ALEX INKELES, Lecturer and Research Associate at the Russian Research Center at Harvard, reveals a system of mass communications in which every loud-speaker, theater, newspaper, bulletin board, and advertisement is joined in an unceasing propaganda onslaught on the individual Russian. Dr. Inkeles is the author of the book Public Opinion in Soviet Russia published last summer by the Harvard University Press.



THE belief that there is a fundamental gulf between the Soviet people and the Communist Party and government of the U.S.S.R. has become a standard assumption of American foreign policy. This assumption has led us to intensify our efforts to reach the Soviet people directly with American views about the Communist system and with basic news about political, social, and economic life in the United States and the countries outside the Soviet orbit. The Soviet attempt to jam the broadcasts of the “Voice of America" — our chief instrument for penetrating the iron curtain — has dramatically called attention to the obstacles which face our effort.

Less dramatic but equally frustrating are the limitations inherent in the very structure of the Soviet system of mass communication. For example, radio is much less extensively developed as a means of mass communication in the Soviet Union than it is in the United States. There are fewer than 75 receivers per thousand of population in the U.S.S.R., as against a rate of up to 200 in many European countries and 425 in the United States. But much more fundamental is the problem posed by the unique structure of the radio receiving network. About 80 per cent of the equipment capable of receiving radio programs in the Soviet Union does not consist of radio sets at all. Rather it is made up of wired speakers. Each speaker is connected with a central exchange — of which there are more than 10,000 — much in the manner of a telephone system. The owner of a wired speaker has a switch to turn his speaker on and off, and a volume control. But he cannot freely tune in on the air waves to select his programs. He can hear only those programs carried or “piped" over the wires of his exchange, and these exchanges, needless to say, do not carry the programs of the “Voice of America.”Thus the system of wired speakers gives the regime a remarkable instrument for controlling what the Soviet radio audience may hear.

These facts are not presented to indicate that the VOA broadcasts are a waste of time and money. On the contrary, we know that there are several million sets in the U.S.S.R. capable of hearing our broadcasts. These sets, furthermore, are largely in the hands of the most important segments of the Soviet population — Party members, intellectuals, leading workers, who are responsible for mobilizing public opinion among the rank and file. Increased expenditures for more stations and for technical innovations to circumvent jamming can easily be justified on the basis of the crucial nature of this admittedly small potential audience. But these facts about the nature of the radio network do highlight the need for an accurate picture of the Soviet approach to the mobilization of public opinion.

It is widely and mistakenly assumed in the West that Soviet leaders are unconcerned with public opinion. Actually, Leninist theory and Soviet practice reveal a most intense interest in popular thinking. But the Soviet leaders are not interested in public opinion in order to follow its demands. Indeed, Stalin has declared that a party which “limits its activities to a mere registration of the sufferings and thoughts of the proletarian masses” is not fit to take over the functions, of leadership. Soviet theory defines the Communist Party as the “teacher, guide, and leader" of the popular masses. As such, its interest lies in molding public opinion, in conducting propaganda and agitation to bring the masses to the required state of support for — or, as Lenin phrased it, benevolent neutrality towards — the policies of the Party and the government.

In the U.S.S.R. the films, the radio, and the press are not a channel for investment, nor are they regarded as a potential source of amusement or recreation for the population. The media are spoken of as tools, instruments, weapons, and “driving belts” by which the Party advances its goals. This fundamental orientation of Communist leaders towards public opinion has completely shaped the Soviet conception of the functions of the media of mass communication. Lenin, for example, defined the newspaper as a collective propagandist, agitator, and organizer. The radio is regarded as a channel for public education, a means for the “Communist upbringing of the masses.” And the Minister of Cinematography has defined the task of the Soviet film industry in the post-war period as that of producing films which rally the Soviet audience for greater sacrifices “in the struggle for transforming the country into the most powerful and advanced in the world.”

These conceptions have had a profound impact on the content of Soviet mass communication. Even for those not familiar with the Soviet cinema it will be no great surprise that the film comedy has been the least developed and the least successful of all types of Soviet motion pictures. In the case of the radio the Party has given a very heavy emphasis to cultural materials, particularly to serious music. Indeed, the concentration on such broadcasts is probably far greater than it would be if the Russian radio audience were free to determine for itself the selection of its radio fare.

The impact of the basic Communist orientation towards mass communication is most apparent, however, in the Soviet press. Bolshevik theory rejects the idea of freedom of the press as it is understood in the West, and similarly rejects objectivity as a goal of journalistic effort. The main ingredients of Soviet news are those events which characterize the effort of the Communist Party to cement its control of Soviet society and to press the rapid industrialization of the country. Thus the Soviet newspaper is constantly full of reports on such matters as the progress of the sowing or harvesting campaigns, or the “difficulties” experienced in building new industrial plants. If a lathe operator in some obscure plant in the Urals succeeds in increasing his production by 40 per cent, the Soviet newspapers everywhere will take up the story in an effort to get other lathe operators to adopt the new methods.

The media of mass communication have been adapted to the Party’s purposes in their physical structure no less than in their content. For in so far as the Party seeks to mobilize behind its programs the minds and wills of the people, it must adjust its appeals to the various audiences and to the particular functions which diverse groups play in Soviet society. This principle is well illustrated in the structure of the Soviet radio network. The director of each radio exchange knows the precise social composition of the audience which subscribes to his exchange. And usually these audiences are highly homogeneous, being made up predominantly of the peasants of a particular area or the workers of a given factory or industrial district. As a result, the director of the exchange is able to select carefully the programs carried over his exchange’s wires to suit them to the audience and to the tasks set for it by the Party and government.

The same principle is also very much in evidence in the organization of the press. The 7000 Soviet daily and other newspapers include not only general newspapers serving particular regions, which is the familiar pattern in the United States, but also separate newspaper chains appealing to different segments of the population according to nationality, occupation, age, sex, and so on. Each of these chains includes a paper of national scope which sets the pattern for other papers in the chain serving more restricted local audiences. Thus Trud (Labor), the national organ of the trade-unions, serves as a model for the local newspapers put out by the trade-union councils of republics and regions as well as for the papers of particular industries and large factories. The daily youth paper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is itself patterned after the national organ of the Communist Party, serves in turn as a model for the 150 other newspapers for the youth published throughout the country. There are similar chains of newspapers for the peasant population, the soldiers, sailors, and so on. In addition, more than 2000 of the total number of newspapers are issued in the languages of the various nationality groups which compose the Soviet population. Thus the Party has adapted the physical structure of the press, as it has the other media, to ensure that its message will be carried to the various segments of the Soviet population in the manner most calculated to effect their mobilization behind the tasks set for them by the regime.


ONE of the most outstanding characteristics of the Soviet approach to mass persuasion lies in the readiness to utilize unusual means of communication as a supplement to the standard media. The Party thus provides itself with the ability to use more effectively its scarce communications resources to reach the 200 million of the Soviet population scattered over some 8.5 million square miles of territory and speaking almost; 200 different languages and dialects. At the same time, the utilization of unusual approaches gives the Party’s efforts at mass communication a degree of flexibility and adaptability to local conditions, and a quality of directness and intimacy of approach, which are ordinarily lacking in the standard media like the press and radio.

For example, in 1939 the Soviet Union boasted only 3000 film theaters as against almost 20,000 for the railed States, But by placing projectors in clubs, schools, libraries, and other public places, and by using almost 15,000 portable projectors to show films in the villages, the number of installations was brought up to a total of over 30,000. Similarly, the printed newspapers of the Soviet Union are supplemented by hundreds of thousands of “wall newspapers" put out in a single handwritten or typed copy on the bulletin boards of factories, farms, and housing developments. They report on the production activities of their plant or farm, give suggestions for the improvement of particular work processes, criticize those workers or shops which are lagging behind and praise those whose work is outstanding, and carry local notices of various kinds. It is characteristic of Soviet policy that these “wall newspapers" are not haphazard or uncontrolled phenomena, but are considered as integral parts of the total press apparatus, with regular part-time editors and “correspondents,”all closely supervised by the local Party organizations.

The most striking example of the Party’s utilization of unusual instruments of mass communication, however, is to be found in its reliance on the unique person of the Bolshevik agitator. The Party maintains a huge corps of Bolshevik agitators who regularly number 2 million, but whose ranks swell to more than 3 million at the time of special campaigns. The agitators are the part-time, unpaid, “volunteer" voice of the regime in the ranks of the masses of the population. Selected primarily from among Party members, it is their task to bring the message of the Party to the people through direct face-to-face contact. Before or after the change of shift, or during the rest period in the plants and on the farms, and even in the workers’ dormitories or at their apartments, the agitator is expected to gather together small groups of his fellow workers or residents to conduct his agitation. Whether he reads aloud some article from the daily press, describes some important recent decision of the Party or government, criticizes the work performance of his group, or exhorts them to greater effort, he speaks in each case as the voice of the Party.

Group agitation is an unusual means of mass communication, the significance of which should be better understood in the West. Like all agitation and propaganda, that of the Communist Party is designed to affect attitudes, and through attitudes to affect action. Contemporary American research indicates that a group setting and, particularly, group discussion are generally more effective instruments for changing attitudes than are the radio and the newspaper. To a large extent the work of the Bolshevik agitator, since it includes regular contact in a group setting and provides an opportunity for group discussion, however limited, creates a situation which should be conducive to effective formation of an attitude. Through its utilization of the Bolshevik agitator the Communist Party has capitalized on one of the most effective of all instruments of mass communication.

In addition to serving as the voice of the Party among the rank and file of the population, the agitator serves another function which many assume has no place at all in the Soviet scheme — namely, communication from the people up to the rulers of the nation. Yet it is one of the major functions of the agitator to serve its a source of information on the attitudes and state of mind of the population. He is expected to keep a careful account of the questions asked during his agitation sessions and to report these to the local Party officials. They in turn are expected to summarize the reports of the individual agitators and to pass the results on up the ranks of the Party hierarchy. In this way the corps of agitators servos the Party as a kind of substitute for a system of open public opinion testing, which is of course impossible under Soviet conditions.

The agitator also serves as a convenient target toward whom his audience may, in limited degree, direct hostility and express discontent. His service in this respect is supplemented by Soviet newspapers through their letters-to-the-editor columns, which constitute a major part of the Soviet institution of samo-kritika or self-criticism. In these letters Soviet citizens are provided a kind of open season on bureaucrats. So long as they are careful not to aim too high, and avoid any appearance of criticizing the regime or basic Party policy, Soviet citizens may through these letters vent rather strongly worded complaints against the work of the government bureaucracy in such matters as supplying consumers’ goods and repairing and maintaining housing and public facilities. In this way the Party leaders utilize the media of mass communication as a carefully controlled means whereby the population may drain off some of the aggression generated by the frustrations of Soviet life. This aggression is apparently purposely diverted towards the minor figures in the system, particularly the petty bureaucrats, in an effort to deflect it from the Communist Party leaders and the regime itself.


DESPITE these limited channels for the expression of popular sentiment, however, the foremost feature of the Soviet system of mass communication is the thoroughness and absoluteness of its control. To effect this control, the Party has established a special Department of Propaganda and Agitation. Within the framework of the policy decisions set down by the Politburo, the Department unifies and gives central direction to the multiform activities designed to influence public opinion carried on by the Party, the government, and agencies like the trade-unions. To fulfill its responsibilities it is divided into a series of sectors, each with a distinct sphere of operations — “cultural enlightenment,” the press and publishing, radio, films, art, science, education, and so on. There is no realm of intellectual endeavor, no organized form of activity which might conceivably influence public opinion, which the Party exempts from this control.

The pervasiveness of the control mechanism may be illustrated by considering the position of the average editor of the main newspaper in a regional center of the Soviet Union. The editor is of necessity a member of the Party, trained in Party schools for propagandists and journalists. His appointment comes directly from the Central Committee of the Party, perhaps on the recommendation of the regional Tarty organization. He must run his newspaper in a manner determined by the regional Party organization, and in accordance with the directives of the central press sector of the Department of Tropaganda and Agitation. In addition, his paper is carefully checked by the government censorship agency to ensure that it does not reveal state secrets. Finally, the editor’s work is regularly reviewed and criticized by some central newspaper like Pravda. Yet the regional editor is controller as well as controlled, for as the editor of a regional newspaper it is his task to supervise the work of the editors of the district, local, and wall newspapers issued in his region. The ramifications of the system of control are manifested at all levels of the Soviet newspaper world. And the situation in radio work, in the film industry, and elsewhere is much the same.

It is true, of course, that there are serious defects in the Soviet propaganda armor. The agitators, for example, are caught between the direct pressures and hostilities of the population and the constant pressure of the Party demanding that they exhort and goad on the tired population to still greater efforts and sacrifice. As a result thousands each year abandon their work as agitators. Editors must constantly be reprimanded for ideological “deviations" in their newspapers, films cannot be shown, books must be withdrawn. And the regime is in many respects a prisoner of its own system. For in so far as the Soviet leaders wish to judge the state of popular thinking, they must rely on the reports of the agitators and the newspaper editors, the very same men who are locally responsible for the state of public opinion. Often for these men to report the facts is to expose themselves to criticism, removal, or worse forms of reprimand for falling down on the job. The result is that they frequently withhold the truth, or present false, glowing pictures of their success. It is really doubtful that the men in the Kremlin have an accurate picture of the state of mind of the Soviet public.

Despite such difficulties and shortcomings, however, there remains the hard and unpleasant fact of the regime’s absolute monopoly of mass communication, and its consequent ability to control what the Soviet citizen sees of and hears about events in the outside world.

What then are our chances of counteracting the regime’s monopoly of communications within the Soviet Union?

To find the answer, one must look not so much to American counterpropaganda as to factors internal to the Soviet system. The contradiction between the promises of Soviet propaganda and the realities of Soviet life is the greatest weakness in the regime’s effort to secure the allegiance and support of its population. The Party’s message is simple enough in its essentials: work harder, trust the Party, hate the defined enemies of the regime within and without, and believe in the future. But one must ask how long the population can be expected to continue exchanging today’s sacrifices for tomorrow’s promises. How can the media of communication convince the people of the all-pervasive solicitude of the government for their welfare, in the face of the persistent shortages of consumers’goods, food, and housing? How teach the population to despise the “false freedom” of the slaves of bourgeois countries, when the ride of the secret police makes the mockery of Soviet freedom everywhere evident to the Soviet citizen?

The presence in Western Europe of several hundred thousand individuals who chose the overwhelming hardships and uncertainties of life as displaced persons rather than return to the Soviet Union hardly lends support to any claim of omnipotence for Soviet propaganda and agitation. ‘The amazing repetitiveness of Soviet mass communication strongly suggests that the leaders have little faith in the extent to which the people have adopted the maxims put to them, or how far they can be expected, on the basis of their own experience, to continue believing in them without constant reiteration. After more than thirty years of Soviet rule the Party finds that it still cannot relax its extraordinary control over mass communication — indeed, it must periodically increase the intensity of those controls. So long as the contradiction between promise and performance remains, the repetitiveness and the control will continue. But so long as they persist, the tendency towards disillusion, disbelief, and avoidance of the official channels of mass communication will also persist and perhaps increase.