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Survival: Something a former Soviet propagandist can believe in

The state television center looms like a Soviet phantom from the winter mists of Moscow, a drab, massive relic that nobody has bothered to renovate.

The facade is faded, but the corridors inside hum with young careerists making bright, government-sanctioned television for broadcast to all 11 Russian time zones. Vladimir Pozner, remodeled Soviet relic in his own right, strides the shining hallways, a television superstar with sharp-cut clothes, gleaming head and quick, fox-like darts of the eye.

Russia’s answer to Larry King, Pozner is a recovered propagandist who for years broadcast apologies, justifications and moral equivalencies to the West in the flat-toned English of his New York boyhood.

“I was very ideologically committed, and I believed in it for a very long time,” he says now. “That’s why I was such a good propagandist.”

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His eyes snap and sparkle. He is remembering the craft of masquerading the truth, and enjoying the memory.

Now Pozner is a part of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and you don’t know what to make of him, whether to think that he is in fact still a propagandist, that the devil has changed but the deal lives on, or whether he has just gone mainstream, getting on TV to question Russian celebrities, jetting off to Paris and New York, drinking beer at midday in the brasserie he named after his mother.

He has outlived Soviet bureaucracy and his own private corruption to become a study in being neither here nor there, in the disorientation of living and breathing a fervent ideology only to lose it. And because his maturation has consisted of the slow stripping away of belief in communism, his story is quintessentially Russian.

“Once your belief system is destroyed, it’s almost impossible to pick up another one,” he says. “How do you react, how do you live after that? Most people just go to pieces. They say, ‘Well, in that case, I don’t give a damn about anything.’ ”

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He ended up in Moscow because he was the child of exiles, raised on nostalgia for a Russia he’d never seen. He was born in France and reared in New York, where he was a paperboy and his father earned enough at MGM for a sprawling apartment in a polished corner of Manhattan. The family left America when his father, who Pozner believes worked as a Russian spy, flouted his boss’ demand to relinquish his Soviet citizenship and consequently lost his job.

Never mind that Pozner’s family arrived in the twilight of Stalin’s Terror, that his father couldn’t find work. The biggest snowflakes he’d ever seen spun in the windows of the Metropol Hotel. He was on the edge of Red Square. He was 18, and he was home.

“He educated me politically that the Soviet Union was the only just society, and he remained a true Red patriot until his last day,” Pozner, 74, says of his father. “He never, ever told me about working for the KGB, and he never, ever complained or hinted at having made a mistake by coming back.”

Pozner went to a college meant for Russian officers who’d missed out on education because of the war, and he fell in love. He married a Russian woman and got a job as a propagandist.

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He’s sorry now, and says so often. His lowest point, he says, was making excuses for the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the slightest prompting, he launches into a description of regret.

“It lies on my conscience,” he says, “and I’ll never be able to overcome it.”

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These days, when Pozner is known for his weekly current affairs talk show on Russia’s First Channel, nobody really remembers his old job. For one thing, his voice was sent overseas on broadcast waves; he was never meant for domestic consumption and had no local audience. If people think of Pozner as a propagandist, they see him as a figure whose purpose is purely contemporary and domestic.

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In the shadowy and mutually suspicious realm of today’s Russia, Pozner draws criticism from both extremes of the political spectrum. Hard-liners look askance at his liberal leanings and foreign upbringing; opposition figures scoff that he’s the journalistic equivalent of political parties set up by the Kremlin to create the appearance of robust opposition.

“For [the government] he plays this role: ‘Look, we have this person and he’s a liberal and you can see him on our TV,’ ” said Sergei Muratov, a television critic and journalism professor at Moscow State University. “I don’t think they’re particularly happy having him on the First Channel, but he’s a very famous journalist and they don’t want to lose him.”

There is always that whisper, trailing public figures who worked for the Soviet state and split their time between Russia and the West, of intelligence entanglement. Crisply and absolutely, Pozner denies any intelligence ties. He was banned from travel overseas for 30 years, he says, as punishment for resisting the advances of the KGB.

After the Berlin Wall fell, Pozner finally returned to the United States. He lived back in New York for years, co-hosting a syndicated talk show with Phil Donahue. But in 1997 he returned to Moscow, saying the show’s management was demanding censorship.

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There was plenty of work for Pozner in Moscow, but he didn’t escape monitors. He came back just in time for the rise of Putin, who exerted state control over the TV networks, bringing an era of carefully calibrated messages and de facto blacklists. Pozner acknowledges the pressures. True, he says, he can’t invite just anybody onto his show. Then he starts to make excuses.

“I know, if I want to have this person on, I have to tell my editor in chief,” he says. “Say, for instance, I want to have [opposition figure Garry] Kasparov on. He’ll tell me no. So what do I do? Do I then have nobody on?”

And: “I may make a mistake, say things that aren’t right. But to say there’s no public discourse in Russia, it’s wrong. It’s there. It’s much more limited than it is in other countries, but it’s there.”

Today his guest is the new U.S. ambassador, John Beyrle. Pozner’s polished shoes slap the floor as he hurries down the hall to greet the diplomat, copies of Frank Rich’s “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” and Vanity Fair under his arm.

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The two men shake hands and laugh, words quick with the adrenaline of the show they’re about to put on. Talk spins quickly around Barack Obama’s inauguration, Chief Justice John Roberts’ flubbed lines, Leonard Bernstein. They look like two prosperous Americans trading educated small talk in an airline lounge.

But when the music comes up and Pozner takes his place under the hot lights, he is nothing but Russian. He says “your country” when he means the U.S. There is no hint that he has just come back from visiting his friends and family in New York, or that he himself carries a U.S. passport and voted for Obama.

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Beyrle alights repeatedly on the theme of a new administration, a new chance for better ties between the two countries. But over his head, Pozner’s producers project a massive picture of the ambassador standing alongside former President Bush.

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Pozner pushes Beyrle on the war in Iraq, the misdeeds of the Bush administration and U.S. support for Georgia, Russia’s neighboring enemy. “This notion that we will make these countries quarrel and will quietly carry on with our business, is this the ideology you’re going to carry out?” he asks.

Pozner doesn’t believe in inviting people on and then haranguing them. Many of the toughest questions come from ordinary people videotaped on the streets of Moscow ahead of the show. The Russian people want to know, this approach hints; Pozner is simply a medium.

“Mr. Pozner, America will always protect its friends,” the ambassador says, pressed about the war in Georgia.

“Even when they’re wrong?” Pozner zings back.

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Later on Pozner will brag, casually, that he thinks the ambassador was upset, was struggling to control his emotions. But in the studio Beyrle appears game, if a little bemused. He speaks Russian so fluently that many Russians ask, suspiciously, how he came by his language skills. He spent time here during the Cold War, although he says anti-American attitudes have, ironically, grown more entrenched since then.

As for Pozner, he’s not sure Russia has changed all that much.

“This is still a Soviet country,” he says. “The people who run the country grew up and went to school in the Soviet system. They cannot chop off their tails. There won’t be the kind of change the West is unjustly expecting until there’s a generational change.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com


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