June 13, 2021

Vladimir Pozner: Soviet Soldier-Journalist



Vladimir Pozner: Soviet Soldier-Journalist
Vladimir Pozner as co-host, alongside Phil Donahue, of televised spacebridges in the 1980s. “File: Pozner and Donahue.jpg” (Фил Донахью и Владимир Познер) by Voice of America is in the public domain.
Vladimir Pozner | “File: Vladimir Pozner
by Augustas Didzgalvis.jpg”
by Augustas
Didžgalvis
[Creative Commons].

In February, Russian Life Editor Paul Richardson and I interviewed Vladimir Pozner, Jr., the Russian-American journalist and Russian television host who became famous in the United States for the 1980s television spacebridges that introduced Americans to the culture and politics of the Soviet Union.

Pozner, whose glint in the eye was not lost over Zoom, was as charming and warm as one would expect of a seasoned media personality. His verbose responses required little prompting.

In our conversation, Pozner recounted his early days working as a journalist in positions that would challenge his journalistic naïveté.

“It was the role of the journalist to explain and support the policies of the party. . . And if you believed in those ideas, and if you believed in those policies, you had no problem. There was nothing that you would be debating inside yourself.”

Pozner on Zoom
Vladimir Pozner during our Zoom interview.

A Soviet journalist might be a champion of Soviet ideology, a punisher of inept fat-cat bureaucrats, the satirist who shredded the reputation of selfish (anti-Communist) states and groups, or the mirror that represented Soviet power to itself. But openly questioning the system? Not so much.

“Basically everyone working,” Pozner said, “knew what the restrictions were.” Only a rookie journalist would be clueless about the need to self-censor.

In his early twenties, Vladimir Pozner received a call from a friend who had a line on a job with a new agency called Novosti, which was seeking people who knew foreign languages, including English. Pozner applied, interviewed, and was offered the position of Senior Editor.

At the time, Pozner embraced the ideals of socialism, which he had learned from his father. Vladimir Pozner, Sr., was a French writer, radical, and intellectual of Russian-Jewish descent whose family fled Russia early in the twentieth century. Pozner Senior worked internationally with family in tow, and Vladimir Pozner, Jr., grew up in Europe, Brooklyn, and Moscow.

America's Answer! | "Propaganda" by adactio is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The family left New York in 1948 for Soviet-occupied Berlin, when Pozner Senior was let go from Metro Goldwyn Meyer and blacklisted for his pro-Soviet beliefs. In a WWII message from Moscow decrypted by the National Security Agency’s Venona project, Pozner Senior was later proven to have gathered intelligence for the KGB while working in New York, though Pozner Junior denies his father ever told him of his espionage work.

The family moved to Moscow in 1952 shortly before the death of Stalin. At 19, Pozner began to cement a now profound belief in the Soviet system.

He had hoped that the change in Soviet leadership would finally realize the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution. This, along with his enduring faith in the Soviet system, allowed him to brush aside the “bad.” “The things I knew about, the things that I hoped would gradually be phased out,” he said, were pushed to the back of his mind and out of any magazine article.

"Neutron Bomb" | "US builds Neutron Bomb" by peretzp is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“There was a bit of schizophrenia involved, but in those days I was still a firm believer,” he said. In his first gig with the Department of Political Publications at Novosti, Pozner would sometimes edit Russian-language articles of a political nature addressed to audiences in foreign countries, such as Latin America or India, but he never knew where they were published. They would later be printed under the name of a local journalist. Pozner worked with the Department for about two years before discovering that he had been preparing disinformation.

“I had no idea that that kind of thing existed, not only in Russia, but all over the world. . . When I learned that after having worked there for two years, I said, ‘I want to get out of here.’ I talked to the Editor-in-Chief, who was a really nice man, and he said, ‘You have to get out by all means.’” Later, he would learn that the department at Novosti was run by the KGB.

Pozner recounted the discovery in a 1999 interview with PBS. “About three weeks after I'd left that place, I got a notice from the military recruitment center of the region where I lived – there's one in each part of Moscow. . .  so I went there to find out what that was about, and they were re-registering me. The lady who was there asked me if I'd worked for the KGB. I said, ‘Of course not.’ And she said, ‘What are you getting so flustered about?’ I said, ‘Well because why would you ask me that?’ She said, ‘Because your military dossier was sent to us by the KGB.’ It was only then that I realized that this department was actually a KGB department.”

"Strictly Guard State and Military
Secrets!" | "Soviet propaganda" by
Ninian Reid is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Just as Pozner’s early career was riddled with delayed revelation, the Soviet government could not hoodwink a people spread across so many republics without denying access to information. Censorship was as necessary as hard propaganda to convince one of the kindness of a Soviet system built atop terror and deception. Secrecy played a special role in the censorship process, which was overseen by Glavlit (the Soviet Central Directorate for Literary and Publishing Activity). Censorship directives from Glavlit and other bureaus filtered through the highest officials to the lowest of publishing staff, who were often not privy to what, exactly, was kept quiet.

In fact, high-ranking staff members were often ignorant of the most classified censorship instructions, designated as “secret” or “strictly secret.” Censorship duties were divided across many bureaus, as censorship organs multiplied throughout the Soviet period. However, censorship was acknowledged tacitly in editorial meetings when journalists would get directives from editors.

The system needed its foot soldiers, Pozner explained.

“If you're a soldier, you get orders and you follow them. And if you follow the order, well, you get some kind of compensation and you may go up in the ranks and you become an officer. One day you may become a general, but you're still a soldier.”

By the time he was the Senior Editor working in the culture department of the Soviet foreign propaganda magazine Soviet Life (predecessor to Russian Life), Pozner understood that there was something funny going on with Soviet journalism, but he had not yet pushed aside the veil of Soviet ideology.

Pozner was responsible for putting Soviet Life together. “I understood it was propaganda in a sense, of course it showed the best sides of the Soviet Union and certainly didn't bring up any of the problems.” He would also learn to self-censor.

Three issues of Soviet Life from 1966, 1968, and 1982 | Photograph by Haley Bader

In January 1966, Pozner wrote a piece called "Siberia: The New Frontier." For his travels, he had been given a car and a driver, who had taken a job moving prisoners between camps, “and it was pretty gruesome, believe me,” he said.

He took the piece to the Editor-in-Chief, who told Pozner it would need to be vetted by “someone upstairs” before it could be published. He soon heard from a certain Mr. Pischick, who felt that there were aspects of the piece that “needed too much explanation” and therefore should be taken out.

According to Pozner, Pishchick said, "But I'm not going to do it. I want you to do it, so your style is preserved." And, Pozner added, "he made an interesting comment – ‘What I don't want you to do is to take a tree and turn it into a telephone pole. I want all the branches to be there and the leaves to be on the branches. So, when you cut, I want you to understand that I don't want you to just shave the whole thing off. I want the essence of your piece to be preserved.' And that was a very, if you will, intelligent and delicate way of saying to me, ‘There are certain things that you cannot write.’”

The center spread in the August 1966 issue of Soviet Life | Photograph by Haley Bader

Pozner continued working as a propagandist throughout the ‘60s, moving from Soviet Life to Sputnik magazine in 1967, but his belief in the Soviet system would not last much longer.

“The first blow, if you will," he said, "to my ideological structure or to my ideological power or whatever you want to call it happened in 1968, with Prague, with the squashing, if you will, of the attempt to create socialism with a human face. It was really a crack in my structure, and it was a crack I tried to avoid. I tried not to think about it and tried to reason with myself.”

"USSR" / "El Lissitzky Basic Calculus CCCP
Soviet USSR"
by russian_constructivism is
licensed under CC BY 2.0

Beliefs upended, Pozner faced what the entire population would eventually grapple with three decades later when Gorbachev approved the policy of glasnost ("openness"). The policy heralded a new, more open, and consultative government structure, along with a freer dissemination of information.

“That was the beginning of a very difficult period in my life," Pozner said, "when I tried to ignore what was going on inside me, and because I was losing my belief, I think there's nothing more painful really. . .

“It's almost like if someone profoundly believes in God and then one day something happens to challenge that belief. It is very, very tough to say, 'okay, I was wrong.'”

It is difficult to imagine the distress, self-reflection, and psychological upheaval people like Pozner experienced as they matured in the Soviet media system, even if the realization was gradual. The journalist would face a choice: take a mortal risk to separate from the system or carry on.

“You could either say to yourself, well, excuse my French, 'screw that, I'm going to keep on doing it because I enjoy the life I have,' or you would have to say to yourself, 'I can't do this anymore.' But if you were going to do that, you were going to lose your job. . . If you had a wife, or if she had a husband and she was doing that job, and you had children and you had to support them somehow, it wasn't that easy to say the hell with this.”

Soviet citizens near a propaganda poster / "Gateliv i Sovjetunionen - Salgsbod? (1935)"
by Trondheim byarkiv is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Pozner would eventually come to believe that what he had done – his work as a propagandist – was immoral: since propaganda ignores ethical questions to justify an end, it can only be described as “evil.”

In recounting his struggles with that evil, Pozner cited an episode from 1953, when he was still a budding Soviet ideologue. A man named Joseph Gordon, a friend of his father and also a Soviet émigré who had been sentenced to the Gulag during the Stalinist period, gave Pozner valuable advice:

“I wish that you never get up one morning and go to the bathroom to brush your teeth, and that when you look into the mirror and you see your face, you'll want to spit at it.”

 

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