September 01, 2006

Our First Half Century

Dear Comrades,” the letter began. It was a dead giveaway. The 1965 missive was yet another laudatory letter to the editors of USSR, heralding the magazine’s contributions to “producing peace and understanding in our troubled world,” remarking on USSR’s position “as a counterbalance to the anti-Soviet distortions presented by the mass media.”

Across the hundreds of old back issues of USSR and Soviet Life, the pattern is amazingly predictable. Letters to the editor march down an inside column of a forward page, echoing well-worn tunes: about the magazine’s “objectivity,” about how it is “fascinating” and “colorful” and provides that important “counterbalance” to prevailing media coverage.

The cynical 21st century editor cannot help wondering if some or all of the letters were put-up jobs, written by the magazine’s Washington editors according to a standard formula laid down by Moscow, with names and addresses laughingly plucked from phone books and atlases. There is, after all, an eerie similarity to the complimentary phrases from issue to issue, a stilted style that pervades the letters, suggesting a non-native hand (“add my encomiums”; “I would like to make known to you”; “all the copies I put my eyes on,” etc.). But perhaps the cynical editor has simply forgotten that there was a time – not so long ago – when people did write letters. And perhaps most were complimentary, in substandard English, and filled with encomiums.

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