Soviet Subversion: How Soviet People Got the Right to Be Shocked

PHOTO by Wikicommons
In the Soviet Union, there was only one youth magazine that wrote about life abroad

In the Soviet Union, there was only one youth magazine that wrote about life abroad. In the early nineties, several more west-oriented magazines appeared, but the most popular was still Rovesnik Magazine: the publication that survived Perestroika, the nineties, the financial crises of 1998 and 2008 and only closed in 2014. Natalia Rudnitskaya, editor at Rovesnik Magazine from 1974 to 2002, told Gazeta.Ru about life during Perestroika and the feeling of change.

Gazeta.Ru: Why was Rovesnik Magazine the only Soviet publication that wrote about life abroad?

Natalia Rudnitskaya: Because that was its very purpose at its foundation. The story goes like this: in 1957, during the World Festival of Youth and Students, they launched something like a world youth newsletter that survived until 1959, when it basically withered and died. In 1962, they came up with the idea to found a magazine that was supposed to inform young Soviet people of the unbearably difficult lives young people led in the capitalist countries and the wonderful lives of the youth in socialist countries. I was told that it took them a long time to come up with the title for the section on the socialist world.

At the time, it was a popular cliché that capitalism was a world where everything could be bought and everything could be sold. So, someone suggested a title for the section on life under socialism: A World Where Nothing Can Be Sold and Nothing Can Be Bought.

The magazine became wildly popular right away, didn’t it?

NR: Of course, it did. It was like a window on the rest of the world. It was a small window, all right, and there was a whole set of filters. However, those who wanted information could get it. Although it was the so called counterpropaganda: we were responding to the libel from Western media, in the Soviet times, there was this concept of information disguised as criticism. So, that was exactly what we were doing: we disguised information as criticism. Another thing we were supposed to do was then called ‘Marxist translation’.

It meant that if a character in a book laid a hand on a girl’s knee, the translator wrote that he put his hand on her shoulder.

So, Marxist translation was pretty much what we were doing. However, we managed to communicate information, anyway. There were very few other sources. There was the weekly newspaper publishing selected translations from foreign press and a monthly literary journal devoted to foreign literature. But it was serious literature. And the supposedly not-so-serious publication was Rovesnik Magazine. Except for western radio broadcasts, there were no other sources of information from abroad.

Rovesnik journal russia ussr 1

The magazine used the Western press as its sources, didn’t it? In the 1990s, it was GQ, Esquire, FHM, Arena, The Times, The Rolling Stone. And what did you use in the Soviet Union?

NR: The same. We had a closed subscription. We subscribed to the leading foreign publications, which were sent by courier from the Main Directorate for Literary and Publishing Affairs, in a sealed bag. The magazines were all stamped: our censorship officers first went through every magazine and stamped them with a hexagonal seal. On the cover, the censor wrote by hand which pages had been ripped out. Generally, they were the pages with mentions of the Soviet Union. It was hilarious.

We were even subscribed to The Atlantic, which the censors could have ripped every page out of.

We received the bags with foreign press once a week. They were kept in a restricted area and we could check them out, as if it were a library. Every single day we would go through them and make notes on something we found interesting. This information was used to shape our own ideas of everything and then to write about what we had read.

Were magazines your only source of information?

NR: Of course not. We got our information wherever we could. When someone went abroad on a business trip – mostly to the countries where nothing could be sold and nothing could be bought– we asked them to bring back magazines. We were also granted access to the restricted sections of the Lenin State Library and the Library for Foreign Literature. It was quite a story, too. Every year, we had to write a letter to the Library for Foreign Literature, to the restricted section. And to get Playboy, for example, (and it used to be a brilliant literary magazine) you had to list the topics you wanted to research.

So, writing for Rovesnik Magazine was a very prestigious job, wasn’t it? Did access to foreign literature mean that you were permitted to get close to anything which was forbidden?

NR: There really was no permit as such. I don’t remember ever signing anything on paper. But we all know that a good writer is what makes your life safe, because you have print space filled. If you have good writers, no one cares where they came from. What’s important is that they do what you need them to do. So, a good writer was like a sacred cow: you could not touch them. And if somebody complained about them, you kept publishing them under a pseudonym. Writing for Rovesnik Magazine was simple: you just had to bring a good piece to the table. That was it. And those who brought good articles and worked long and hard ended up going on the payroll.

What was the best time for the magazine?

NR: Late 1980s, of course. That was when we did our best work. But, really, we published great stuff in the 1970s, too. I now look at those old issues and some of my victories seem extremely funny. But writing a piece on The Doors in 1975, now that was a real victory.

How did you manage to get it published?

NR: Well, it was good. It was a brilliant article. It was one of the few pieces I am still proud of. I don’t remember where I found it. I was fascinated by the text itself, by the flesh of it. I started translating it, just for myself. I left the desk and my translation was still in the typewriter. A colleague came into our office for a smoke; he sat at my desk and saw the paper in the typewriter. And he said, “Where is she? She should keep doing that.” So, I finished the text. We gave it to Alexey Nodia, editor-in-chief. And he said, “But, of course”. If the piece was good, you could publish it. The censorship guys divided humanity into friends and enemies of the Soviet Union.

And The Beatles, for instance… Who could know which they were? They were simple working boys from Liverpool.

The next thing that came into play was the quality of the piece. So, printing Paul McCartney’s name was no victory in itself: it was only a victory if you published a good piece.

The Beatles

Were the readers in the 1970s different from the ones that came after the Perestroika?

NR: What changed was the names they wanted to see in print. In the seventies, they wanted Ritchie Blackmore. In the eighties, they wanted Modern Talking. There was no other change and there never will be. There is an old truth: a smart reader does not write to the editor. Readers write to tell about their needs. They mainly wrote to ask to write about this or that. Or to say that the writer was an idiot. There were some people who tried to think: they needed a place to be heard. About half of the letters we received were from the latter and 80% of them were raving mad. However, 20% were people who had something to say. They mostly wrote about music, even though it wasn't a music magazine. But they asked about music because people who read Rovesnik Magazine liked contemporary music – rock, mostly. Again, I only know this from the letters that we received – and they were like pressing the Like button. I still maintain that a smart person wouldn’t write to the editor or press the Like button. I am sorry.

Who did readers ask about in the 1990s?

NR: Depeche Mode. Bruce Lee, too: somebody wrote, “Please write about Bruesly.” Ozzy Osbourne. Bon Jovi, I think. Michael Jackson, of course. And there was The Gentle May, a Russian band. We had a staffer who was responsible for registering readers’ requests. She got confused about request cards, all of those Gentle Mays and Michael Jacksons. She ended up making a card for “the Gentle Michael.”

Did you log every request from a reader?

NR: Every letter. And we were supposed to write replies to every single letter. They traced the cards.

You could write basically anythning in an article and keep your job. However, if you were rude to a reader or failed to write a timely reply, you were sacked. We had annual checkups for our responses to the letters. A guy from the Young Communist Central Committee came and checked. We could leave letters from mentally ill people unanswered. Once, we got a letter from a cat. He wrote about his flatmates who had allegedly killed Che Guevara and Chapayev. The letter was on a huge piece of drawing paper and it was folded many times. The drawing of the cat was in the centre and the letter was arranged around it.

Michael Jackson in Moscow, 1993

How was the Rovesnik Magazine of the eighties different from that of the nineties? Did the coup d’état attempt have an impact on its contents?

NR: No, I don’t think so. We never wrote about current events. What happened in August 1991 was of personal concern to all of us. Although the things we were writing about… They were a form of response to the needs of the country’s citizens.

Still, I remember that the magazine began publishing pictures and articles that would never have been published in the Soviet times. There was an article on McDonald’s, a picture of a girl and a boy kissing on the cover… Some things did change, didn’t they?

NR: Why, of course, at some point things lightened up. It happened when Perestroika began, in 1987 or 1988. We began publishing things that could not have been published in 1982 or 1983. There’s a simple indicator: the number of subscribers reached two and a half million. It was when we began publishing Teenage Survival Guide by Dee Snider in 1988. The magazine did not go through a drastic change in 1991. The change began gradually, well before that.

How did you realise that the magazine was changing?

NR: Well, we began printing pieces that we would never have dared to print before. We made those decisions ourselves.

And before that?

NR: We had always made those decisions ourselves. However, there were hints from above. Alexey Nodia checked some of the articles himself. Some he took to the local party committee and some he took to the central one. And then their grip became weaker.

How did you notice that?

NR: I just felt it. At some point, it became clear that we could do what we were doing in a much more interesting, lively and sincere way. There were still limits; there was still a structure. But at some point the structure turned its look away. It acquired other problems.

In the sixties, they said, Soviet people got the right to be sad. In the late eighties, Soviet people got the right to be shocked.

You didn't have to pretend that Soviet people were too proud anymore; it turned out that we could find some things shocking. And that there was something we could learn. Nobody told us, “Now you can do that”. It was just obvious. And since we were all well-prepared for that moment after all those years of reading Western literature, we soon realised that we really could. So, here you are, guys, have a read! It was no crime. But a KGB guy came to see me at the time and tried to enlist me. It was in late eighties, right before 1991.

Rock concert near the Red Square in Moscow, 1992

Really? But the wind of change was already blowing strong!

NR: Yes, it must have been their last attempt. Also, I think I was one of the last on their list, alphabetically. The funniest thing was that the guy didn’t really seem to hope for any positive outcome. It was more of a check-in. Absolutely pointless. Anyway, there was a moment when I was really frightened. I had just figured out what he wanted. He wanted me to share information on underground rock concerts. And I honestly said that I never went there, “I used to, but then I got bored. So, I don’t go anymore.” And then he said, “But, of course, you have no one to leave Anna with.” (Anna is Natalia's daughter- Gazeta.Ru) And then I realised that he knew every single thing about me.

And that if he said something like that again, I would tell him even the things I did not know. At that moment, I understood what animal fear was.

He probably saw that I was scared to death. And he just wrapped up the conversation. He said, “Just don’t tell anyone that we talked”. I lost my patience and replied, “But how can I do that? We have been talking behind closed doors for two hours; people have been knocking; everybody knows that I am at work and that I am talking to someone behind closed doors. What do I say?” And he said, “Tell them that somebody came from the KGB and you talked about Irina Kulikova”. And that was the second time when I almost lost it: they knew everything about me. Fortunately, there was no follow-up. The times had changed.

Author: Anna Lozinskaya