Afghanistan is a mountainous, landlocked country located between Iran, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Union. Its poor peasant population, overwhelmingly Muslim, consists of several unrelated tribes with different languages and customs, only loosely held together as a single nation. In 1978, a group of Marxist revolutionaries took power in a bloody coup, but found it difficult to hold on to it as they tried to implement radical social reform in what was essentially a feudal society. The Soviet Union intervened militarily in December 1979 to support the revolution. Although they came in with heavy armor and air power to the locals' single-shot carbines, the Soviets had an unexpectedly difficult time, hampered by the rugged terrain and the fierce determination of the "mujahideen" resistance fighters, who were being provided moral and material support by the United States (against its arch-enemy) and by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (against the godless Communists). As casualties mounted and support for the intervention waned at home, the Soviet Union decided to cut its losses, pulling out the last of its troops in February 1989 and leaving the country to settle its own destiny, which it still has not been able to accomplish even a decade later. The Afghan war left a huge scar on Soviet society, similar to the one left by Vietnam in the US, and helped to hasten the collapse of the USSR.
Bay of Pigs
In April 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the CIA organized an invasion of Cuba by 1500 Cuban exiles in order to topple Fidel Castro's Communist regime. The CIA assumed that this small group would immediately spark a general uprising by the entire Cuban population. The mission was a disaster, as President John Kennedy decided at the last moment not to provide the planned air support, and Castro's soldiers were easily able to neutralize the small force. The survivors were ransomed to the US in 1962 for $53 million in food and drugs.
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The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the UK's public radio and TV network, is one of the world's oldest and most distinguished broadcasting organizations. Its World Service short-wave broadcasts are well known throughout the world, as are its high-quality dramatic television mini-series, which are shown on local networks in many countries. During WWII, the short-wave service provided a vital lifeline between governments in exile and resistance fighters in the occupied countries, while during the Cold War, millions of people behind the Iron Curtain counted on the BBC to provide top-notch unbiased reporting (and Beatles music) as an alternative to the propaganda being broadcast on state-run media outlets.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis (known as the "Caribbean Crisis" in Russian) of October 1962 erupted after American U-2 flights over Cuba discovered that the USSR was constructing launch facilities for nuclear missiles to be aimed at the US on the island. Soviet rationale for this move was based on the credible threat of a US invasion of Cuba (the Bay of Pigs incident had occurred barely a year earlier) and on the fact that the US and its allies had numerous military bases within easy striking distance of the USSR in Turkey and Norway. John Kennedy's military advisors urged a full-scale attack on Cuba. Instead, Kennedy put a naval cordon around Cuba and issued an ultimatum to the USSR to remove the missiles. After two weeks of tension during which the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war, a face-saving formula was agreed upon, whereby the Soviets promised never to deploy missiles in Cuba and the Americans promised never to invade the island nation. Both countries hailed the incident as a great diplomatic victory for their side.
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Located several miles from Munich, this was one of the first Nazi concentration camps, established in 1933. It was used for political enemies of the regime such as Communists, and was never a "death factory" in the way that Auschwitz was, although it is estimated that 70,000 people did perish there from malnutrition, epidemics, etc.
Glavlit (the Russian acronym for the innocuously-named Main Administration for Literary and Publishing Affairs--later renamed more appropriately the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets in Print) was the Soviet Union's political censorship agency. Everything published in the country had to first be approved by Glavlit. In one of the rare instances of political higher-ups overturning a Glavlit decision, Nikita Khrushchev himself approved the publication of Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", about life in the Gulag camps, a subject that had always been strictly prohibited before.
The Great Purges (known as the Repressions in Russian) describes the period at the height of Stalin's paranoia in the 1930s. At first, he accused almost everyone in the Communist Party's Central Committee, the most loyal of Party members, of outrageous ideological crimes such as being a Capitalist spy, and had them purged from the ranks (hence the name). Subsequently, they were put in the docket in ludicrously macabre show trials at which they "admitted" their "guilt", and were summarily shot as traitors. As of 1939, only 31 of 139 Central Committee members from 1934 remained alive. The repression then extended to anyone who had ever had any dealings with the accused, distant relatives, and sometimes even people who simply had the same last name. This reign of terror, carried out by the NKVD, kept spreading until it engulfed the entire country, especially persons in the intellectual professions. Millions were killed, and tens of millions summarily arrested and sent to labor camps for terms of up to 25 years. Any opposition that may have existed to Stalin's rule was thoroughly destroyed, and the entire population lived in fear of saying one wrong word. In addition to decimating the cream of Soviet society, the Purges left the country woefully unprepared for Hitler's attack in 1941, since most of the high-ranking army officers and finest engineers and scientists had also been eliminated.
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"Gulag" is the Russian acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, a vast system of penal institutions and labor camps with its own factories, construction companies, and even research laboratories that existed throughout most of the Soviet period. Originally intended to isolate politically unhealthy elements from society and perhaps to "re-educate" them, the system grew to amazing proportions in the 1930s, as Stalin's paranoia resulted in the Great Purges, when anybody could be labeled an "enemy of the people" and sentenced to 10 or more years of hard labor for the slightest slip of the tongue. Indeed, many of the 10 million or more people who went through the Gulag system were completely innocent--the state had simply determined that it was cheaper and more manageable to have them do their jobs as prisoners than as free persons; indeed, no free worker would have agreed to do some of the dangerous work that the prisoners were forced to do. A number of research labs were simply arrested wholesale and sucked into the Gulag. Millions of people perished from the harsh conditions in the camps, since the state was not concerned about work safety or nutrition--new people could always be arrested to replace those who had died on the job. The definitive study of the Soviet system of forced-labor camps remains Alexander Solzhenitsyn's three-volume "The Gulag Archipelago".
In the general "thaw" that took place in the Soviet Bloc after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Communist regime in Hungary began to liberalize. After a hardliner was put in charge of the country in 1955, however, he was met with opposition from a broad cross-section of society, including even Communist intellectuals. This erupted into a full-scale nationwide revolt after police fired on a peaceful demonstration in October 1956. Within days, the Hungarian Revolution had succeeded in taking control of the country and demanding the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. The West did not take advantage of the situation to offer its full support to the new government, and a regrouped Soviet force, supported by massive heavy armor, re-invaded the country, and several bloody weeks later had suppressed the revolution and installed a pliant puppet government, albeit one that went out of its way to keep the Hungarian people's living standards sufficiently high to ensure that they would not revolt again.
An inter-continental ballistic missile, or ICBM, is a large, land-based rocket that shoots a payload (generally a nuclear weapon) up to a sufficiently high altitude that its free-fall descent trajectory will take it towards a target on another continent, where it is timed to explode. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had enough ICBMs pointing at each other to destroy both countries many times over. Since the 1970s, there have been numerous talks and treaties (ABM, SALT, START) between the two nations aimed at reducing the threat posed by these weapons.
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On March 5, 1946, in describing the recent appearance of economic, social, and military barriers between Eastern and Western Europe, Winston Churchill said that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent." This vivid metaphor caught the public imagination, and phrases such as "behind the Iron Curtain" remained in widespread use right up until the collapse of Communism.
The All-Union Leninist Communist Union of Youth, or Komsomol for short, was founded in 1918 and forms the third tier in the Little Octoberists/Pioneers/Komsomol/Party hierarchy. An organization for "progressive Soviet youth aged 14 to 28", it was considered to be a proving ground for developing the leadership potential necessary to become a full Party member. Originally, the Komsomol was an elite group of young activists ready to go anywhere and do anything the Party required. Komsomol members enthusiastically participated in all of the great construction projects of the industrialization drive in the 1930s (often working alongside political prisoners and living in similarly primitive conditions). By the 1970s, however, its own youthful enthusiasm had died down and the Komsomol had become mostly just a necessary stepping stone to a career--almost everyone belonged to it, and anyone who didn't was viewed with suspicion. Making one's mark in a leadership position in the Komsomol was an excellent way to get noticed and advance one's future political or management career. In addition to providing free youthful labor, the Komsomol also served as an umbrella organization for various activities for young people, ranging from dances to debating clubs. The official newspaper of the Komsomol, "Komsomolskaya Pravda", actually managed to survive the breakup of the Soviet Union--it is perhaps even more respected as a periodical today than it was when the Komsomol still existed.
"Kulak", a Russian word meaning "fist", refers to relatively prosperous peasants. Despite their rhetoric about being an alliance of workers and peasants, the Bolsheviks were essentially an urban phenomenon, and there was always a great deal of distrust between them and the Russian peasantry. In 1929, as part of his drive to collectivize agriculture, Stalin essentially "created" class conflict in the countryside by declaring that the kulaks were the rural equivalent of urban factory owners and therefore the class enemy of poor peasants who must be "liquidated as a class". In the "dekulakization" drive that followed, anyone who opposed the Communists or collectivization was branded as a kulak and ruthlessly dealt with, effectively decimating the Russian countryside of its best and most motivated farmers. By some estimates, over 5 million farmsteads were destroyed, while millions of people were either killed, left homeless, or sent into exile in Siberia. The end result was a collectivized, compliant peasantry and the worst man-made famine in history.
The "Little Octoberists" ("Oktyabryata" in Russian), a rather harmless organization for all 7-9 year olds (1st through 3d graders in the Soviet educational system), were the first rung in the Soviet social system that led through the Pioneers to the Komsomol, and ultimately Party membership. Little Octoberists were organized into cells of 5, under the tutelage of a responsible Pioneer, and sang and played games while learning such traits as neatness, obeying one's elders, studying hard, and otherwise preparing to become good Pioneers in their own time. They wore lapel pins in the form of a red star with a portrait of a pudgy-faced young Lenin in the middle. The organization's name derived from the fact that when it was formed in 1923-1924, its first members were exactly the same age as the 1917 October Revolution.
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Pavlik Morozov (1918-1932)
Pioneer martyr. According to the legend that every Soviet child was taught, Pavlik was a good Communist boy, a Pioneer, who always did what the Party told. When his father, a "kulak" peasant, did not want to join a collective farm, Pavlik patriotically denounced him to the Cheka, who promptly arrested and shot him. Other kulaks later killed Pavlik in revenge. This story taught Soviet children that it was their patriotic duty to squeal on their parents to the secret police. Recent evidence has cast doubt on the several aspects of the Pavlik Morozov legend.
The Pioneers, an organization for 9-15 year olds, was the second rung in the Little Octoberists/Pioneers/Komsomol/Party hierarchy of socio-political organizations in the Soviet Union. Founded in 1922, the Pioneers were somewhat similar to the Scouts in the West, featuring summer camps, hiking, singalongs, and crafts clubs--along with a bit of political indoctrination. All Soviet children joined the Pioneers at school. Pioneer members got to wear a bright red scarf over their school uniform. Teenagers who had been exemplary Pioneers would be nominated for membership in the Komsomol. There were approximately 30 million members of the Pioneers at the time of the breakup of the USSR.
"Pravda" (The Truth), first published in 1912, was the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At first, it was a means for spreading revolutionary sentiment among the working class; Lenin was a frequent contributor. Subsequently, it became the de facto voice of the USSR, with a daily circulation of 11 million, publishing all important speeches, decrees, and policy statements. By this time, many in Russia and abroad felt that its name had become something of a misnomer. After the disbanding of the Communist Party and collapse of the USSR, the paper lost its funding and primary reason for existence, and, unable to adapt to market conditions, closed down in 1996.
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Radio Free Europe
Radio Free Europe, founded in 1950, was a CIA-funded station broadcasting from Munich, Germany to the countries behind the Iron Curtain in their native languages. The state controlled media in these countries only presented its own version of world events; RFE provided an important alternative source of information with its news, commentary, music, and religious programs.
From the earliest days of the Soviet state, V. I. Lenin recognized the power of radio as a mass propaganda tool and enthusiastically supported the development of broadcasting in Russia. Radio Moscow began operations in 1922. With the development of short-wave and the intensification of the ideological battle between East and West, Radio Moscow engaged in a worldwide battle of words with the likes of VOA, RFE/RL, and the BBC throughout the Cold War, its powerful transmitters and broadcasts in dozens of languages reaching every corner of the globe to tell the Soviet side of every story and gain new followers.
The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were bilateral US-Soviet negotiations of 1969-1972 were aimed at reducing each country's nuclear arsenals and resulted in a number of major treaties. The SALT-II negotiations of 1972-1979 also led to a number of agreements, but the main SALT-II Treaty was never ratified by the US Senate due to the sudden deterioration in US-Soviet relations at that time because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, although both sides adhered to its provisions in good faith for many years despite this setback. The spirit of the SALT process continued in the 1980s with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START).
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopedya), is the Britannica of the USSR. Its first edition, in 65 volumes, took over two decades to complete (1926-1947), work having been interrupted by WWII. The second edition (1973-1983), in 31 volumes, has been translated into English. The Encyclopedia is a first-class reference work of enormous scope and depth, although it does get quite heavy-handed in its ideology (example: "Socialism--A social formation that appears following the collapse of capitalism as a result of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is based on social ownership of the means of production. Social ownership indicates the absence of antagonistic relations and exploiting classes. It eliminates inequality between nationalities and discrepancies between the city and the village and between mental and physical labor. In a Socialist society, there are two friendly classes: workers and peasants. The relationship between the classes is characterized by mental and spiritual unity, friendship and cooperation. On the basis of social ownership, the development of national economy becomes planned, which is absolutely impossible under capitalism. Material wealth is shared according to socialist principles.").
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union, was the name of the successor of tsarist Russia under Communist rule, a country that occupied fully one-sixth of the earth's land surface. Tsarist Russia was a vast, multi-ethnic empire, in which ethnic Russians were but one nationality (albeit the largest one). When the Bolsheviks took power during the 1917 October Revolution, and named their new state the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, V. I. Lenin realized that he would not be able to hold the empire together by force, and developed the concept that individual nationalities should have the right to voluntarily stay or leave. Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, and several others immediately took up his offer and declared their independence. In order to avoid even further disintegration, he came up with the model of a voluntary union of nominally sovereign republics (something like the United States, only with different nationalities in each republic)--and the USSR was born in 1922. There was no mention of any nationality in its name, because it was genuinely believed that eventually the whole world would belong to this union. However, the USSR remained the only Communist country in the world until after World War II. As such, it saw itself as the standard-bearer of the world Communist movement, and the ideological arch-enemy of the Capitalist superpower, the USA. The Soviet Union began to fall apart in the late 1980s, with the appearance of independence movements in the various republics. Lithuania unilaterally declared independence in early 1990, the Communist Party was declared illegal in the autumn of 1991 after a failed coup by hard-liners, and the USSR quietly ceased to exist at the end of that year, to be replaced by 15 new independent countries.
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"Star Wars" was the popular nickname given to the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, a system envisioned by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 that would use a space-based system of lasers to track and destroy any incoming nuclear missiles from the moment of launch should the US ever come under attack. It violated the spirit of the 1972 ABM treaty with the Soviet Union, in which both sides agreed not to deploy defense systems against nuclear attack on the premise that "mutual assured destruction", or MAD, would serve to deter either side from attacking the other. Approximately $30 billion was spent on SDI research, with little result, before President Bill Clinton cancelled the program in 1993. There are those who believe, however, that SDI did have one far-reaching effect--that fear of the potential space shield forced the Soviet Union to invest scarce resources into a re-escalation of the arms race which it could ill afford, thereby hastening its own ultimate demise.
The Voice of America (VOA) was established in 1942 as part of the Office of War Information. Since 1953, it is the official international radio network of the US Information Agency. VOA's wide range of programming, which is intended to foster a positive view of the US, is broadcast throughout the world on short-wave in dozens of languages. During the Cold War, the bulk of its broadcasting was to the Communist countries, which expended great efforts to jam the transmissions. The tradition continues today with VOA's "Radio Marti" Cuban service.