April 17, 2007

40 and Counting: Four Decades of Russian Life


40 and Counting: Four Decades of Russian Life

It began with a mini-thaw in US Soviet relations. And it has continued on for 40 years, enduring the cold war, the fall of communism, the rise of Russian democracy and capitalism and the collapse of the USSR.

It, of course, is this magazine, originally known as USSR (1956-1964), then Soviet Life (1965-1991), and now Russian Life (1993-present).

Where it all began

 

The inauguration of USSR in the fall of 1956 came as the result of a brief honeymoon in US-Soviet relations. These relations had become increasingly tense in the late 1940s and early 1950s after Stalin's post-WWII occupation of Eastern Europe, the 1948 Berlin Airlift, the Berlin uprising in 1953, the 1950-53 war in Korea, the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings in the US, the Western recognition of West German sovereignty in May 1955, and the formations of NATO and the Warsaw pact.

Nonetheless, a mini-thaw began in mid-may 1955, with the signing of the Austrian State Treaty, which ended the post-war occupation of that country. This, in turn, set the stage for a conciliatory summit in Geneva, in July 1956, between the leaders of the US, Russia, France and Britain.

It was in fact the positive "spirit of Geneva" which led to the signing of a series of cultural exchange agreements, one of which provided for publication and circulation of the magazine USSR in the US and Amerika in the Soviet Union. Appropriately, the cover of the first issue of USSR carried a photo of President Eisenhower and Premier Bulganin at the Geneva Summit.

Unfortunately, the thaw was to be very short-lived. Less than a month after the first issues of USSR and Amerika hit the newsstands, in October 1956, two serious international crises erupted. Almost simultaneously, Franco-British troops invaded Egypt to retake the Suez Canal and Soviet troops invaded Hungary to quash an anti-Soviet uprising.

The mini-thaw in the Cold War was over. Less than a year later, USSR would proudly display artist's renditions of the newly-launched Sputnik satellite.

Propaganda Tools

 

The magazine exchange had begun in an unusual window of diplomatic opportunity. And it continued for the next 36 years against the backdrop of the ever-changing climate of US-Soviet relations. The exchange, as Premier Bulganin noted in his message inaugurating USSR, was intended to "help the peoples of our two countries to acquire a more intimate knowledge of each other and will contribute to the development of mutual understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union."

USSR and Amerika were designed to sow trust amidst the rancor of international politics. Still, there was never any question that each magazine was intended as a 'soft' propaganda tool for the government issuing it. Thus, USSR (the name was changed to Soviet Life in 1956), whose editorial content was supplied by the State Press Agency Novosti, regularly ran glowing stories of communist achievement amidst stories of famous Russian sports stars and features on the 'fraternal republics' of the USSR.

Amerika's focus during the Cold War years was primarily cultural. But, as the last editor of the magazine (put out by the US Government's Information Agency-USIA), George Clack, would write in 1993, in that era the magazine also sought "to tell Soviet Citizens the good things about the United States - that is, to provide both facts and feel for American life that Russians would be unlikely to learn from their own media in that era." Later, after the political and economic reform began in the late 1980's, Amerika would become more prescriptive, offering, as declared in the official precepts for the magazine in 1993, "information…to aid in the translation to democratic, market-oriented societies."

In point of fact, the writers and editors of Soviet Life deserve considerable credit for offering American readers arguably some of the least propagandistic Soviet-produced information on their country at the time. Soviet Life was a government publication, and it did hew to the government line in politics, ideology and international affairs. But outside these spheres (i.e. on culture, science, daily life, geography, etc.) it offered an unequaled window on life in the biggest country on earth.

Still, Soviet Life did suffer at times from the excessive vanities of the Soviet elite. Of note in this regard was the 1976 issue of the magazine devoted entirely to the glorification of then leader Leonid Brezhnev, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. A similar vain glory led, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, to publication of long transcripts of leaders' speeches (from Chernenko to Andropov to Gorbachev) at Party Plenums.

The Readers

 

It was this political side of the magazine's publishing program that surely led to a pigeon-holing of its readership during the Cold War as 'fellow-travelers.' While the Russian government did have considerable success marketing the magazine to readers of left-wing political journals, in fact some of its largest reader segments came from persons interested in science, history and international affairs. A large number of high school and college libraries also subscribed.

Under the terms of the original inter-governmental agreement, the subscription levels of Amerika and Soviet Life were restricted for many years to around 30,000. In the late 1980s, with a loosening of censorship in the Soviet Union and a new warming in US-Soviet relations, this restriction was loosed and a surge of interest in an increasingly objective Soviet Life pushed readership to over 50,000.

 

Out with the Old…

 

When, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, so too did Soviet Life. Many efforts were made to revive the magazine, but the publishing hiatus dragged on for over a year until the spring of 1993, when, through an agreement between Novotsi and Rich Frontier Publishing, Soviet Life was reborn as Russian Life.

From the outset, the venture suffered from funding difficulties that led to a sporadic publishing timetable (seven issues were published in 1993-4, whereas Soviet Life had always been a monthly magazine). And, as partner Novosti (the government press agency) was responsible for editorial content and financial support, an 'official' tone still reflected on political and diplomatic issues.

In January of 1995, due to funding issues and disputes between the partners, publication of Russian Life was suspended (the partnership published its last issue in Fall 1994) and the search for a new publisher was begun. (Interestingly, Amerika magazine suspended publication at the same time, in September 1994, after cutbacks at USIA.)

Six months later, in June 1995, Russian Life was purchased by its current publisher, Russian Information Services (RIS). As a privately-owned publishing company, RIS made editorial independence and objectivity an absolute priority for Russian Life. RIS established an editorial team with no ties to any government organization, one with a mix of Russian and non-Russian writers and editors. Beginning in July of 1995, RIS re-established a monthly publishing schedule for the magazine for the first time since 1991.

Some of the magazine's recent changes and the current 40th anniversary celebration may seem a bit ironic, given the ideological origins of the magazine. Yet, this magazine's two-score history has been a telling barometer of life in Russia and the USSR: from the ideology-rife days of the early Cold War, to the droning political discourse of the 70s, to the optimistic 80s and the financially troubled 90s. But one thing seems to have remained fairly constant: the magazine's purpose.

"Even now," said Russian Life Publisher Paul Richardson, "445 issues after the magazine was founded, its mission is largely unchanged. We seek to tell the story of Russia to Americans like it is not being told anywhere else, to help Americans better understand life in the New Russia.

"And there are lots of stories to tell. This is the world's biggest country. It has over 1000 years of history (with endless "white spots"), a rich literary and artistic tradition, over 150 nationalities spread across 11 time zones and six million square miles. This is to say nothing of the remarkable political and economic changes underway…I would say we have our work cut out for us."

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