In the days when the Cold War was in full swing, Kremlin propagandists would listen stonily to the litany of accusations from Americans about Soviet repression and counter with one of two standard questions: “And what about your Negroes?” or “What about your Indians?”
The level of Soviet-American dialogue has vastly improved in the glasnost era, but the new generation of mediagenic Soviet propagandists are still prone to the same instincts as their wooden predecessors. Exhibit A is Vladimir Pozner, who clearly relishes his American image, which he describes as “Mr. Smooth ‘n’ Cool of ‘Nightline’ fame.”
But Pozner aspires to be much more than just a slick spokesman. “ ‘Parting With Illusions,’ ” he solemnly informs us, “concerns one human being’s search for truth, one person’s preoccupation with the global human condition.” His method of illustrating those themes is, to put it mildly, somewhat problematic, and his main effort has less to do with the human condition than with unabashed self-promotion.
Born in Paris in 1934 of a French mother, Pozner spent his boyhood years in New York, where his Russian emigre father earned a lavish salary working for MGM. He portrays himself as growing up enamored of America, baseball and black music, but identifying himself as French; he could hardly qualify as Russian since he did not even speak the language. Baptized a Catholic, he discovered that anti-Semites brand him as Jewish because of his father’s side of the family; eventually he espouses atheism.
Infected by his father’s enthusiasm for Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pozner finds that his American odyssey is turning sour along with U.S.-Soviet relations in the aftermath of World War II. At Stuyvesant High School, he is beaten up for his pro-Soviet stance.
His father loses his job because he refuses to abandon his Soviet citizenship, and the family moves to the Soviet sector of occupied Germany. After four years in Berlin, they reach Moscow, where they have to learn to adjust to the real rather than their imagined Soviet Union.
All of this should have been grist for an intriguing book, but “Parting With Illusions” is nothing of the sort. The reason is that it offers precious little in the way of introspection or honest accounting of motives. Everything becomes a vehicle for self-justification, with even the occasional mea culpas sounding more like disingenuous rationalizations for a career based on opportunities rather than principle.
Unlike earlier Soviet spokesmen, Pozner explicitly admits to some of the egregious injustices of the Soviet system. But like them, he is armed at every turn with facile analogies designed to promote the doctrine of moral equivalence. “The KGB has perpetrated crimes against the Soviet people,” he writes. “The CIA is guilty of crimes against other people--such as the Chileans, to name just one example.”
Soviet writers have been persecuted, he continues, but so have American writers during the McCarthy era. Stalin’s millions of victims may have been ignored by the majority of the population, but the majority of Americans have ignored the millions of victims of Reaganomics.
Pozner quickly discovered that such specious reasoning puts many Americans on the defensive and scores points on programs like “Donahue,” but it also serves a more vital function. As a Soviet “journalist"--he bristles at the propagandist label--he is determined to prove that he is performing the same role as an American journalist. Moral equivalency, again. American journalists, he claims, have largely “toed the government line in foreign policy,” and American correspondents in Moscow pursued only negative stories about the Soviet Union.
Working for Soviet publications aimed at foreigners or later as a commentator for Radio Moscow’s English-language service, Pozner now admits that he routinely censored himself, avoiding anything that might get him into trouble. But in the next breath, he argues that such unbalanced reporting was justified, since it helped offset the anti-Soviet reporting of the American media.
In the great journalistic balance sheet in the sky, he has not peddled lies, only righted other wrongs. If under glasnost he feels freer to make less nakedly partisan presentations, this demonstrates that his heart was in the right place all along.
It is not just Pozner’s logic that is deeply flawed but his basic assumptions. One is that Western press coverage of the Soviet Union has been unduly harsh. If anything, the revelations in the current Soviet press about the wholesale abuses of the Brezhnev era, which was the period when Pozner built his career, indicate that American reporting erred on the side of caution rather than exaggeration.
Pozner also assumes that all American reporting about Soviet repression is motivated by propaganda instincts; it never occurs to him that correspondents could be genuinely horrified by the spectacle of dissidents being dispatched to the gulag or psychiatric hospitals.
Pozner clings to those myths as his lifeline. If he admitted they were false, he could not rationalize his behavior. He admits that he was wrong to defend the Soviet government’s decision to exile Andrei Sakharov to Gorky, but that alleged confession is again couched in analogies to repression in the United States. And he leaves little doubt that he still resents Sakharov for daring to appeal to the West. With less hallowed figures, he gives full vent to his contempt for those who emigrated and then contributed to “anti-Soviet” reporting for Western stations like Radio Liberty.
For Pozner, the issue is not whether reporting is honest but which side it serves. He is still intent on settling scores from the days when he felt he was punished in America for his pro-Soviet views, and he lapses into conspiracy theories of the pre- glasnost era.
The dark forces of capitalism, we learn, deliberately provoked the Soviet Union to invade Czechoslovakia in 1968 to prevent a humane brand of socialism from succeeding. And who were the victims? “What a dark, desperate, dismal day for people like myself, people who believed in an ideal,” he writes. Some of us mistakenly thought the victims were in Czechoslovakia.
But the most distasteful feature of this apologia is the effort, protestations of personal failings notwithstanding, to paint himself as a crusader for a better world--who paid the price for his efforts. Thus, Pozner claims he was not allowed to travel abroad until 1978 because he resisted a recruitment effort by the KGB.
When he concedes in an interview with People magazine that the invasion of Afghanistan may have cost the Soviet Union some international support, he is reprimanded; soon, he is casually referring to the fact that he had dared “to question the wisdom” of Moscow’s decision, which is hardly the case. His “spacebridge” television link-ups with the United States are portrayed as risky--and heroic--experiments.
All the time, he is continuing to purvey half-truths. Portraying himself as the champion of black and other oppressed Americans (“I loved these people,” he says when describing a visit he made as a boy to his maid’s family in Harlem), he now adds the homeless to his litany. It is done in the what-about-your-blacks spirit, implying that this is a uniquely American phenomenon that offsets Soviet failings. He never admits what even the Soviet press has now reported--that homelessness is a widespread problem in the Soviet Union as well.
In his stirring inaugural address, Czechoslovakia’s dissident playwright-turned-President Vaclav Havel declared that no one in his country can claim to be free of guilt, since everyone made compromises that helped totalitarianism survive.
But Pozner, who swells with pride in recounting his rise to senior apologist for the model of the system Havel was condemning, demonstrates that some are more guilty than others.