‘Hello, Comrades’ : Rand Group Uses Satellites to Get Nightly News--Soviet Style
It was about 4:30 p.m., and Clayton Griffin was fiddling with the television set, tuning in the nightly news.
“Good evening,” said the serious anchorwoman. “Hello, comrades,” said the solemn anchorman. And with a lengthy, self-congratulatory item about increased coal production, the official Soviet nightly newscast, Vremya, was on the air--in Santa Monica.
In a small, stuffy office at the Rand Corp., to the whir of a made-to-order computerized satellite tracker, Sovietologists like Griffin, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate, are getting their MTV--Moscow television, a six-hour daily dose of the “blue screen " as Muscovites call it, just as cozily as if they were sitting in a living room in Vladivostok.
From an occasional flashy aerobics class with slim women in leg-warmers, to a rare and telling commercial--like one for a laundry soap, showing a cartooned woman scrubbing clothes on a washboard--the lowly tube is giving Soviet language and policy experts a daily insight they could not otherwise get, short of checking into a room at Moscow’s Rossiya Hotel.
Compared to the slick techno-gloss of American television, Soviet TV is barely lumbering into the Bronze Age, with its nonexistent special effects and crude on-camera techniques, from clumsy cardboard graphics to a nervous coal mine director awkwardly holding his own enormous microphone during an interview.
But it is the way that the Soviet Union is cautiously entering the TV age, and how it chooses to orchestrate one of the most pervasive propaganda tools of all that intrigues Rand’s experts, who have been snaring the TV signal for more than a month now, peeking over the electronic fence to watch how a fellow superpower portrays itself on 80 million TV sets that reach 90% of its citizens.
“I think the television has given us a new and important dimension, and it makes a difference,” said Arnold L. Horelick, director of the Rand/UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior. “You can learn a lot from television that you can’t from other sources at our disposal.”
The television center, where a handful of Rand staffers and students gather every afternoon to watch the news--named Vremya, which means “time"--is the latest adjunct to the joint study center, whose board of overseers includes the likes of Henry Kissinger and Armand Hammer.
With a $150,000 three-year grant from the Weingart Foundation, the TV center offers glimpses of Soviet behavior unavailable on paper--from the nuances of official rhetoric down to minutiae such as Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s birthmark. It is discreetly erased from Soviet still photos, but the birthmark vividly shows up on his forehead, like a map of North Vietnam, in his TV appearances.
Griffin has also noted that, in a nation officially trying to homogenize its language groups into monolithic Russian, Gorbachev speaks Russian with a strong Ukrainian accent--and like a Southern politician on the campaign hustings in the United States, Gorbachev’s accent grows perceptibly stronger on his home turf.
Use Four Satellites
Even in the stilted footage of Politburo members gathering for an airport send-off--farewells shown down to the last goodby wave--experts can chart where Soviet power lies by observing the Kremlin pecking order to see “who defers to whom, who stops talking while someone else is talking,” Horelick said. “I’m convinced this is a dimension we haven’t been able to get to” until now.
On a given day, the Soviet broadcast begins at 6 a.m. on Program Two, the one that Rand is able to receive, which broadcasts from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The center pulls in the satellite signal from four Molniya (lightning) satellites, switching from one to the next as the Soviets change over. The Soviet handoffs between satellites are not always smooth. During the gaps, a card flashes onto the screen: “Comrades, a 10-minute technical break.”
There are four Soviet channels, all broadcast from Moscow and all carrying the same basic programs. “It’s like having a company like CBS in charge of broadcasting for the whole country, period,” said Griffin, who lived several months in the Soviet Union while pursuing his work in Slavic linguistics.
Don’t look for the sitcoms or late-night talk shows that fill American broadcast hours. Without competition, there is none of the commercial one-upmanship that makes for innovation, good or bad. There are a couple of quiz shows--one called “What? Where? When?"--whose rewards are intellectual satisfaction, not a host of fabulous prizes with lanky blondes draped over them.
During a standard broadcast week, Griffin said, there are films--dubbed “the million-ruble movie” by Columbia University students, where the same satellite setup exists, as it does at Stanford University as well.
And there are cinema products from Cuba, Eastern Europe or China, and at least once, it is said, a Beatles movie, shown on Easter Eve--the most sacred day of the Russian Orthodox year--ostensibly to keep young people at home, and out of the churches, experts believe.
In one sample week in October, there was the “pretty avant- garde” aerobics class, Griffin said, a variety show or two, Armenian cartoons for youngsters, the premiere of a program about an Estonian sculptor, and a show titillatingly entitled “Eyes of Enchantment,” which turned out to be about the flora and fauna of Central Asia.
An Italian-made program, “Opera Among Architectural Monuments,” featured a pudgy tenor in bell-bottoms, belting out songs as he strolled on granite balconies. And there was another of the endless shows on the heroic World War II defense of the Motherland, reinforcing a persistent political theme in Soviet life: centuries-old suspicion that they must be on the alert because everyone is against them.
More enticing were a French-made series on the 18th-Century philosopher Voltaire, who carried on a lively and profitable correspondence with the Empress Catherine the Great; and classical music concerts, a recent one showed a Soviet piano duet--on an American-made Steinway.
Besides the interminable speeches of the Supreme Soviet, there are televised lessons in geometry, grammar and computers, and a weekly chess show (“horrendous,” Griffin said--"instant narcolepsy”) that holds out the lure of a mail-to-you diploma to viewers who complete their 10-week TV course.
Televised youth classes called “Public Conduct” are not about sex and dating, but about one’s role in society and one’s obligations--and it is in shows such as that that the Soviet attitude toward television is most clearly revealed.
“The point is didactic,” Griffin said. “Soviet television is not designed to entertain anyone. It’s designed to inform and educate; this is what you need to know and this is how you need to live your life.”
Said Horelick: “You’re bombarded by propaganda in the country, and it’s no surprise you’re bombarded by it on TV, so in that respect it’s not an inaccurate reflection of the environment.”
At Rand, the big draw is Vremya, 35 minutes of what news the Soviet Union chooses to present.
Vremya’s format is unvarying, and Rand viewers exchanged sage nods as they hear: “Once again we have exceeded the plan,” production quotas of some commodity or another, coal this time.
Then the debut of a new device--a drilling machine in Sverdlovsk; some agricultural notes, with footage of new-furrowed fields, and a warning that cotton growers “still owe an enormous debt to the textile industry.”
After footage of a Canadian peace demonstration, a gray- haired man in a sincere Dan Rather sweater vest delivered an editorial against Reagan’s “Star Wars” proposal, concluding sententiously that “we have to wait and see which forces prevail in the U.S.--the forces who favor the arms race, or the forces of reason.”
The Rand viewers perked up at videotape of Soviet troops leaving Afghanistan (troops who reportedly already had been replaced). Along dusty mountain roads, peasants stood one-deep waving flags. “I’ll bet they wish they were throwing grenades,” Griffin murmured.
A piece about Israeli troops supposedly firing on Palestinian demonstrators preceded film of a $46-million Miami cocaine bust, another tsk-tsking item about American crime and drugs. It seems to take a scientific breakthrough, or a poignant animal story such as Humphrey the whale being lost in the Sacramento River, to vary the anti-U.S. policy tone of news items, observers said.
After cultural notes--Polish folk dancers, a New Delhi crafts exhibit--a jauntily dressed sportscaster opened with a vicious ice-hockey match between the Czechs and the Soviets. Had the titanic Karpov-Kasparov chess match still been going on, it would have been the top of the sports news, Griffin said. Some expatriates watching the show recently grumbled, “Only in Russia would they begin sports news with chess.”
But Horelick believes that what the Rand viewers had just seen represents a real change in the Soviet Union, changes that would seem glacially minor in the United States but which are significant there. Soviet leaders, with their “innate conservatism,” are wary of television, as powerful a propagandizing force as it is.
But now the West is slowly forcing Moscow’s hand, Horelick said, and “things are changing.” Internal matters are one thing--Soviet citizens know the daily life they live--but television sets in Leningrad can pick up Finnish signals. East Germany, anxious to lure workers to jobs in Dresden, had to put up apartment-building TV antennas that will pull in West German programs.
“Instant communication in the West has made it difficult to ignore,” Horelick said. “It’s to their disadvantage to let important news be broken through the West (like the recent sinking of a Soviet passenger ship, a rare announcement of a domestic disaster). The more intelligent strategy is to seize the bull by the horns and put their own spin on it. I don’t want to exaggerate--we’re beginning to see it; in the larger scheme that’s only a small impression.”
‘First Articulate Leader’
Gorbachev is “the first articulate leader of the TV age,” he said, and has been helpful to Soviet image-making in the same way Reagan has. “They’ve had a hard contest with an (American) Administration that’s been masterful at PR, and they’re very frustrated at being beaten at the game so often,” Horelick said. By putting Gorbachev before Western cameras to answer questions about the Reykjavik mini-summit, “my feeling is that the Soviet people are glad to have someone stand up there and represent them.”