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This is people under communism a series of documentaries interviews and talks based upon documented evidence and expert knowledge about the power and intentions of the Soviet Union. The series is presented transcribed by the National Association of educational broadcasters in consultation with scholars from the Russian Research Center Harvard University the Russian Institute Columbia University and the Hoover Institute and library. Stanford University. The program you're about to hear in people under communism is Letters to the editor soviet style. It's an analysis of Soviet critical letters why some Soviet citizens write them. Why the men in the Kremlin allow them to be written and where they draw the line on such criticism. You know this is by Dr Alex Inglis author of public opinion in Soviet Russia and lecturer in sociology at Harvard University. Dr
Inglis is also research director of the Harvard Project on the Soviet social system. Members of the project I've interviewed hundreds of former Soviet citizens who have escaped to the west about their experiences in the Soviet Union. Doctoring cholas. Here is a letter which appeared in the newspaper prompter. The organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on the 20th of November 1947 it reads in the city of Kharkov the bathers operate rarely and badly. All this results from the inability or unwillingness of the directors of the Harkov city council to arrange the normal operation of the bad as there are for instance days when heat and want are available. But there is no electricity and the bath is closed. There are other days when heat and electricity are available but the water is cut off and the bath is again
locked up. The baths in Harkov may be closed for any reason. The city council should concern itself more with the continuous supply to the bads of electricity water and heat. This letter was signed by six Soviet citizens. Here is another example of a letter which was published in the newspaper probably this one on the twenty seventh of August one thousand nine hundred seven. The man writes. Recently I acquired a bicycle manufactured in 1946 by the K bicycle factory. It is a fine good looking machine and one is immediately impressed by its beauty. What to ride on it is impossible. The spokes break as if they were thread. Of course it is easy to buy new spokes for a bicycle but spokes are nowhere to be had in my city. It may be that the management of the bicycle factory also admires the good looking machine manufactured by it but I am none the better for its good looks. These letters are
examples of a special institution in Soviet society called mass self-criticism. The idea of self-criticism has a long history in Soviet development. The term always its presence in the Bolshevik lexicon to the fact that Marx had stated that a distinctive feature of Communist regimes would be the fact that they would continuously criticize their own mistakes and weaknesses and do so publicly. Lenin treated this idea as a principle for the Communist Party and at the same time transformed it to suit the peculiar conditions and the operating ideology of Bolshevism. Since that time it has gone through a series of further elaborations and transformations. True self-criticism no longer exists in the Soviet Union and has long been forbidden. However because it serves the interests of the Communist Party leaders they still permit and indeed encourage a significant
amount of popular criticism of the defects in the functioning of Soviet institutions and personnel. We will see why the party permits such criticism and what are the limits set on it. The main channel provided for the expression of this criticism from below is in the critical letters to the editors of the Soviet press. A few examples of which we have just heard such critical letters reach the editors both from a network of nonprofessional part time volunteer correspondents and are supplemented by letters from the average Soviet citizen who wishes to register a complaint and express a grievance or opinion make a suggestion or ask a question. For example the leader of a young pioneer unit writes that he has been obliged to move his youth group to a new court his twice on orders of the local housing authority and he wishes to know whether such action is justified.
After all the efforts had been expended in setting up the old quarters a group of citizens in the city of Kharkov sent a joint letter complaining about the lighting available on their city streets and indicate that most of the time they are in dock but that during the daytime they may be seen to burn brightly or the editor of a local newspaper writes to Prada and asks its opinion in a controversy that added to has been having with the secretary of the local party organisation about what types of criticism it is proper for the editor to carry in his local newspaper. The majority of the letters involve such complaints and calls for action and they are concerned with a very wide range of problems chosen from every day local soviet life. One cannot of course find any letters printed which attacked the Soviet system. The policies of the Communist Party or any of its important leaders. Indeed the letters almost never deal with national
issues but rather concern themselves mostly with purely local matter is like the bad guys or the trolley system. Obviously no individual in the Soviet Union who had any grasp of the system under which he lives would write a letter or at least a signed letter in which he attacked the top leaders. Well the Soviet system. But if they are properly couched letters maybe written asking for clarification even of basic points of Marxist doctrine and individuals and organizations standing as high as they were a public ministry may be criticized in Aletta for failing to carry out a stablished policy. Such letters are to be sure less frequent and must be approached by the right his with much greater caution. There is some evidence to indicate furthermore that on matters of really major importance or in cases affecting important responsible officials the party organization on the corresponding level will request or designate some member to write the necessary critical letter which is then
made to appear as if it had come from an ordinary newspaper reader. Statistics are not available on the precise number of letters received by the newspapers of the Soviet Union although the party has indicated that even the smallest papers with a circulation of less than 1000 copies should receive such letters in the tens each day and that larger newspapers should receive them by the hundreds. Certainly actual performance does not always reach these levels. The most impressive record of course is achieved by the Central Newspapers which reach a national audience. For example in the first two months of 1939 letters arrived at the proverb the office at the rate of 22000 per month. Why do Soviet citizens bother to write such letters. It may be said that the nonprofessional correspondent makes a contribution to this flow of letters because that is part of his social role as an activist or Communist Party
member in Soviet society. But for the ordinary citizen it does not seem to be very likely that he writes these letters because Stalin and the Central Committee of the Communist Party have invited the masses to participate fully in what they call the work of self-criticism and supervision of the bureaucracy. It is rather more likely that the best explanation of the flow of letters lies in the fact that the average citizen recognizes that these letters are his most direct channel of communication with the party leaders more than most other recourses available to the Soviet citizen. Such letters frequently get action for almost all Soviet newspapers regularly print at the bottom of their letter to the editor column. Brief items reporting the action taken on complaints which had been raised in previously published and frequently unpublished letters. And these reports mention the reprimanding the dismissal and at times the indictment of officials and others
whose activities were brought to public attention in critical letters to the editor. We may conclude therefore that the Soviet citizen continues to write letters to the press primarily because those letters provide him with one of the few opportunities to release his aggression against the frustrating in adequate seas of his civic institutions and at the same time and enable him to do so with some hope of securing ameliorative action. After a letter reaches the newspaper office the decision as to whether or not to print it rests of course with the editors. The editors However trained and selected by the Communist Party and they can therefore usually be counted on to select for publication only those letters whose effect will be the one that the party is interested in creating. At any particular time. There are apparently no fixed rules for the placement of these letters in the newspaper but some fairly standard practices exist. Letters of special interest and
importance may on occasion be placed on the front page. Usually however the letters appear on an inside page and are grouped in one of two columns on the such headings as letters to the editor. From our readers or signals the latter referring to warning signs about deficiencies in the operation of the government apparatus or other agencies. These columns generally appear in close proximity to critical articles written by the editors or by regular correspondents and two reviews of the local press and similar materials. Frequently letters are published along with a response from some official promising corrective action or with a note from the editors calling for such action. If there has been no response or satisfactory action taken after the publication of a letter on a given subject the editors will frequently run another letter on the subject and a stiff editorial note calling for satisfaction. In addition the press runs regular items which sum up the action obtained as a
result of the earlier printing of various letters. All of this activity is defined as being necessary to show the work is the power of the Bolshevik press in evaluating these practices of Soviet newspapers. One should not lose sight of the fact that the harsh realities of Soviet political life place important limitations on the effectiveness of this procedure long before letters ever reach the newspaper office. The most important limitation of course is that the citizen who writes a letter or automatically exposes himself to potential political scrutiny. In a society in which political misunderstanding can have serious personal consequences. In addition the exposure of officials or fellow workers through a letter to the press runs counter to many of the standards of in-group solidarity. Stalin has noted for example that a serious defect in the operation of self-criticism within the party lies in the fact
that some party officials hesitate to engage in criticism because they anticipate that this might make enemies or because they hope that someday when they make a similar error themselves the person whom they did not criticize at an early a time will return the compliment and letter of criticism also exposes the writer to retaliatory action especially in cases where he may be criticizing a superior or any person in a position to make his accuser uncomfortable. But even as an imperfectly operating system the Soviet pattern of handing letters to the newspaper remains an important example of the efforts made by the Communist Party to create an impression of mass participation in the work of social control albeit within the narrow limits set by the party itself. A grasp of this phenomenon is essential to an understanding of the operations of the Soviet social system and it is indispensable for an accurate assessment of
the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet regime. The major functions of self-criticism as they appear in the press are readily discernible in the first place. Self-criticism in the press is expected to serve as an instrument for controlling the activities of the middle and lower levels of the bureaucracy. It is assumed that this criticism will supplement and make more efficient the efforts at supervising this bureaucracy exerted by more formal instruments of control such as the party and government control commissions. In this sense press self criticism is regarded as being functional for the Soviet system as a whole since it presumably facilitates the society's efforts to achieve its stated goals. Well of course those goals are set not by the people by but by the Communist Party the party at least also looks upon this criticism as being good for the bureaucracy in that it is expected to enable the bureaucrats to fulfil
their responsibilities more effectively. Critical letters are then one of the many ways in which the party attempts to use various kinds of whips to keep the bureaucrats toeing the line which is drawn by the Communist Party. In the second place mass participation in self-criticism may be viewed as a substitute which the regime allows instead of true criticism and the right to change one's official's rights which are denied to the Soviet people. It should be noted that it one stage in the development of his thinking. Lenin issued the populist slogan that under socialism every housewife would help to run the government. Indeed in the early years of the regime this principle was given some true play in the extensive development of workers management in the factory and efforts at rotating workers between the work bench and the office desk. However even within Lennon's life time the Communist Party showed less and less
interest in and gave less and less emphasis to such forms of direct mass participation in the running of Soviet institutions. But even though direct mass participation in government and economic administration was not actually favored by the Communist Party it had to reckon with the expectations of many of its own members and the expectations of the citizenry at large that mass participation in government would be a standard feature of Soviet society to a degree there for the type of criticism permitted in letters to the editor may be seen as a substitute. However pale which the regime has offered in place of fulfilling the original expectation of the population that it would get true popular government. A third major function of press self criticism is to serve the Communist Party as a channel of communication between itself and the people. The Communist Party is not interested in public opinion in order to follow it.
But it is a principle of Bolshevik tactics that the party must be careful not to run too far ahead of mass thinking or to lead too far behind. Yet the Soviet Union has not developed any system for public opinion polling such as those elaborated in the United States. And there would be severe obstacles to establishing such a system in the USSR through the medium of critical letters to the press however the party is able to obtain a rough even though not accurate picture of the state of popular thinking at the same time. The people are provided a channel of direct contact with the party for registering complaints which might otherwise be screened out or oppressed. If they had to pass through the bureaucracy against which those complaints are primarily directed a fourth function of criticism in the Soviet press one perhaps not intended by the regime but nevertheless of great importance is its action as a
device for releasing tension and channeling aggression in Soviet society. For the institution of self criticism provides a channel for the expression of popular feelings that is not only relatively harmless to the existing social system but is actually designed and operated to support that system. The aggressive tendencies produced by the frustrations of daily life in the Soviet Union especially those resulting from the gap between expectation and reality in the consumption of goods and the provision of comforts are considerable. The natural target for the hostility that is generated would be the regime and the party leadership by placing the symbol of the bureaucrat as a screen between itself and the masses however the party is able to deflect much of this aggression against an object other than itself. And it is able to do so without the necessity of undertaking to suppress or
discourage all popular criticism for it is well-known that open criticism of the leaders of the Soviet regime is most harshly treated. On the contrary by encouraging the limited self criticism of the kind contained in letters to the editor the party seeks to place itself in the role of the champion of popular criticism as the group that encourages it and holds the objects of criticism accountable for their deeds. In other words the party tries to put itself on the side of the angels in this matter. At the same time populist self criticism is contained in the letters serves more than simply this negative function of harmlessly draining off hostile energies which might otherwise be directed against the party leadership. It serves a positive function as well in that it contributes to controlling the bureaucracy and helps the party in keeping that bureaucracy on the line dictated by the Polit Bureau and the Communist Party as a whole but Communist Party leadership also tries
to use the institution of self-criticism in the press as a substitute in exchange for the system of free elections which it has denied the population. This criticism of costs and therefore this substitute for free elections applies naturally only to the bureaucracy the party members and the party leadership are completely exempt from any consideration on this score. I have so far concentrated on the ways in which press self criticism may be viewed as functional in the framework of the Soviet social system. That is I have looked on it to the extent that is a source of strength for the communist regime. But there are also several aspects of the operation of press self-criticism that must be seen as dysfunctional for the Soviet system. That is they are a source of weakness as far as the power of the leadership is concerned. In the first place the institution of self-criticism has great potentialities for getting out of hand. And this must be regarded as particularly
threatening by the leaders of a society such as the Soviet Union where so much emphasis is placed on careful control from above of every aspect of the nation's activities. When self criticism is encouraged there is always the possibility that it may be turned against the regime that it may become what the leadership regards as destructive rather than what they regard as construct of. It was among other things such manifestations that Stalin had in mind when he spoke against what he called the vulgar as ation of self-criticism and stressed that the party did not want any kind of self-criticism but only that kind would strengthen the party's rule. This is the only kind he said that is acceptable. He cautioned that it was necessary to distinguish between harmful self criticism and what he termed true Bolshevik self-criticism by which he meant that variety which did not destroy faith in the party but rather that
kind which was by and large designed to ensure and support the position of the party. For example Stalin noted that self criticism by the masses on the subject of labor discipline was acceptable only if it strengthened labor discipline supported the factory manager and increased his authority. It was not permissible he said for such criticism to be undertaken in any way that could be conceived as being directed against party policy. Rather he said it should be directed only against those individuals whom the party defined as enemies or as legitimate targets for attack such as certain bureaucrats certain individuals labeled wreckers and certain rich peasants. These restrictions which Stalin placed on self criticism clearly indicate the potentialities of this institution for operating in a manner that would make it at least as far as the Communist Party leadership is concerned. A source of weakness rather than a source of strength. A second
respect in which self criticism appears to be a source of weakness to the leadership has to do with its potentialities for having a boomerang effect on Soviet public opinion for it would appear likely that in so far as the Soviet citizenry is encouraged to criticize its public officials and administrators that citizenry also develops certain expectations about the results to be obtained from this criticism. Frequently however the deficiencies of which the Soviet citizen may complain are not the fault of any administrative you but are imposed by the Soviet system itself and in the last analysis by the very policy of the Communist Party leadership. For example a worker may write to the newspaper and ask why more and better quality shoes are not available and the letter writer may go so far as to say that he has seen a communist party or government decision calling for the production of a certain quantity of shoes of a given quality. The
newspaper may follow up this letter with a criticism of the local directors of shell production and distribution and call them responsible for bureaucratic tendencies and for failure to meet the party's demands. But however efficient the local shoe industry officials might be they would be helpless or very nearly so in their ability to affect the basic supply of shoes for the insufficient number of shoes and their low quality. In the Soviet Union are essentially the end product of a long chain of events going back to questions of the availability of leather adequate factory facilities and other production equipment. As well as to the supply of skilled labor of vailable and similar phenomena. These matters are in turn settled at the higher levels of national planning over which the local officials have no control. In the last analysis the worker probably does not get his shoes no matter how many
critical letters he may write for for him to get those shoes would require a decision on the part of the central leaders of the Communist Party to develop more of Soviet production to consumers goods and less to produces all machine goods industries. It may be assume therefore that this consistent fair you are to get results in such matters would tend to undermine the faith of the common people in the effectiveness of public criticism in the press. Thus as an additional frustration it might add to the alienation of the citizen from the Soviet regime. In this way self criticism may boomerang producing just the opposite effect on public opinion from that intended by the Communist Party leadership. One additional aspect of the institution of self-criticism that deserves mention here is it's an adequacy as a means of testing public opinion. This is not strictly speaking an element of weakness but it is certainly a serious limitation. The most obvious difficulty presented by the use of letters as an
index of public thought and sentiment is the problem of sampling. Not everyone writes letters whereas some people write a great many and there is a strong possibility that the element of selective A-T in the letter writers may give a consistent bias in the picture of public opinion thus obtained to some extent. This may be compensated for by the activities of the nonprofessional network of active correspondents who are selected both because they are opinion leaders and because it is assumed that they are sensitive reporters of public opinion. But here again the Soviet system has important internal limitations as party members and local opinion leaders. These nonprofessional volunteer correspondents may seek to give the best possible interpretation of the state of public opinion in their own district. Since that reflects most favorably on their own activities as party members and opinion leaders. Similarly newspapers may seek to soft pedal certain critical items
since the newspaper also has a major responsibility for the state of public opinion in the area it serves too much criticism of certain types makes the editors appear in an undesirable light because it makes them look like men who are unable effectively to mold and control public opinion among their newspaper readers. It may well be in fact that what the high up party authorities have labeled negligence in the handling of letters by newspaper offices was actually a conscious or unconscious effort on the part of the newspaper editors to suppress and to keep from the view of the top party leaders critical materials that might be interpreted as demonstrating the inadequacy of the newspaper's efforts to shape public opinion. And as a result the institution of self-criticism in the press designed by the party to clear the channels of communication from bottom to top may actually greatly contribute to clogging those very channels. Thus in many ways the men in the
Kremlin become the prisoners of their very own system being told only what their subordinates know. Those leaders want to be told. Letters to the editor Soviet style and analysis by Dr Alex Sink lists research director of the Harvard Project on the Soviet social system and author of public opinion in Soviet Russia. Drink Let's talk was another transcribed program in the series. People under communism. The series as a whole was prepared in consultation with scholars from the Russian Institute of Columbia University Hoover Institute and library at Stanford University and the Russian Research Center Harvard University. Your program producer Ralph telling me this is Parker Wheatley. These programs are prepared and distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters and are made possible under a grant
People under communism
Letters to the editor, Soviet style
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National Association of Educational Broadcasters
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program presents a talk by Professor Alex Inkeles of Harvard University: "Letters to the Editor: Soviet Style".
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A series of documentaries, interviews and talks based upon documented evidence and expert knowledge about the power and intentions of the Soviet Union.
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Politics and Government
Censorship--Soviet Union--History--20th century.
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Advisor: Hoover Institute and Library on War, Revolution, and Peace
Advisor: Columbia University. Russian Institute
Advisor: Harvard University. Russian Research Center
Funder: Fund for Adult Education (U.S.)
Host: Wheatley, Parker, 1906-1999
Producer: Tangley, Ralph
Producing Organization: National Association of Educational Broadcasters
Speaker: Inkeles, Alex, 1920-
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 52-38-13 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:33
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Chicago: “People under communism; Letters to the editor, Soviet style,” 1953-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 13, 2022,
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APA: People under communism; Letters to the editor, Soviet style. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from