The Iranians and North Koreans are playing with missiles, Hugo Chavez thinks he’s Simon Bolivar, terrorists attack the Sri Lankan cricket team, and a supposedly moderate Muslim beheads his wife in a television studio. Lots going on in today’s world, but who should make the front page of the Los Angeles Times? Why it’s Vladimir Pozner, the “Soviet journalist” who talked like an American and even co-hosted a television show with Phil Donohue. The Times piece is helpfully revealing, but first some history.
I first saw Vladimir Pozner, live, at the University of California at San Diego, around 1988, where in his usual style he defended the Soviet Union in general and the invasion of Afghanistan in particular. It was a tough task even for a glib Soviet propagandist with an American accent better than that of Georgi Arbatov, another Soviet propagandist, and good enough for prime time. Vladimir showcased his best chops, but it did not go well.
He said something to the effect that the Afghans had invited the Soviets in, and hadn’t the United States invaded some places, and so on. All entirely predictable, fully understandable, but utterly without significance. As it happened, some of UCSD’s Afghan students showed up with a different point of view. No, they said, nobody had invited the Soviets, who were killing lots of their countrymen. Vladimir Pozner didn’t like the interruption and neither did the hosts.
That night the Afghans found some unlikely allies in Jewish students who showed up to protest Soviet treatment of Jewish dissidents. They were not about to let a Soviet propaganda mouthpiece emerge unscathed and really let him have it. Pozner didn’t like this either, though he actually knows something about the subject.
“There were no dissidents.” he wrote in his 1990 Parting with Illusions. “They were shot before they ever came close to dissenting.”
He is talking about the Soviet Union during the Stalin Era, a subject he avoided on American television. He knew full well what had happened, but defended the regime anyway. It ran in the family. He believes his father was a Soviet spy, which surely means he was. Pozner, now 74, denies his own intelligence ties, which surely means he has them. He told Megan Stack of the Times that he was banned from travel for 30 years for resisting the advances of the KGB.
He also told Stack that “I was very ideologically committed, and I believed in it for a very long time. That's why I was such a good propagandist.” His low point, he explained, was defending the Soviet invasion of Czechslovakia in 1968, though anybody who saw him on American television knows he took the low road every time he opened his mouth. Such lamentations, and his book Parting With Illusions, proved no object to a career in the new Russia.
Pozner has a weekly talk show on Russia’s First Channel. The purpose of this show is evidently to give the impression that political opposition exists in Russia. As for public discourse, Pozner says it’s there but “much more limited than it is in other countries.” The piece does not mention journalist and government critic Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in 2006.
Pozner was born in New York and travels on a U.S. passport, but according to Stack, he is as hard line defending the Russian government as he was the Soviet government. On the show she witnessed, Pozner gave U.S. ambassador John Beyrle a hard time over Georgia. He was also rather candid with Stack on the question of how much things have changed.
“This is still a Soviet country,” he told her. "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."
The “tails” image is interesting, and note the “unjustly expecting” charge. But if anybody should know Russia is still a Soviet country, it’s the famous Soviet journalist himself.