A Disappearing Enemy: The Image of the United States in Soviet Political Cartoons

By Becker, Jonathan A. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

A Disappearing Enemy: The Image of the United States in Soviet Political Cartoons


Becker, Jonathan A., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This article examines changes in the depiction of the United States in Soviet political cartoons from April 1985 through August 1990. It seeks to demonstrate that both qualitative and quantitative changes in the image of the United States were integrally related to changes in LI.S./ Soviet relations. Changes in the Soviet press were more a product of policy choices of the party and government than of press freedom associated with the policy of glasnost.

This article examines changes in the portrayal of the United States in Soviet political cartoons from April 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party, through August 1990, when a new press law was introduced in the former Soviet Union. The article seeks both to analyze the implications of Gorbachev's policy of glasnost on press freedom and to offer an account of the transformation of a traditionally powerful form of communication.

The Soviet press, guided by such principles as partinost' (party mindedness) and ideinost' (ideological correctness),1 was dogmatic and didactic, uninteresting and frequently untruthful. It inflated achievements while ignoring manifest deficiencies. Nowhere was it more dogmatic than in its coverage of the West, particularly the United States. Press content of the United States was governed by one overriding criterion: it had to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet socialism to American capitalism.

Mikhail Gorbachev appeared to challenge the traditional precepts guiding the Soviet press. Recognizing that a sterile, cliche-ridden press not only failed to mobilize society, but left it disinterested and alienated, he introduced the policy of glasnost as a component of his general reform program of restructuring or perestroika.

However, there was always uncertainty as to the real meaning of Gorbachev's version of glasnost. Although during the Gorbachev period the term glasnost was regularly translated in the West as "openness," and was thus associated with press freedom, a more literal translation is "voice-ness" (from the Russian word goloc, or voice), or publicity.2 The relationship between the policy of glasnost and freedom of expression was further clouded by Gorbachev himself, who tended to use the term differently in front of different audiences. In justifying glasnost to policymakers, he claimed that "extensive, timely and candid information indicates trust in people and respect for their intelligence, feelings and ability to comprehend events on their own. "3 In front of journalists, he spoke of glasnost without limits, but at the same time asserted that the press was an "instrument of restructuring" and that the work of the press was "not separate from the work of the party. "4

Political Cartoons and Gorbachev

Political cartoons, particularly of the United States, form an especially difficult test for the policy of glasnost. Political cartoons played a prominent role in communicating communist ideas since the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolshaya Sovetskaya Entsiklopediya describes them as a "sharp weapon of political agitation" which was "one of the most important forms of sociopolitical satire."5

This visual weapon was wielded particularly fiercely when aimed at foreign adversaries. As the Entsiklopediya states, Soviet caricatures were designed to promote the "struggle for peace, democracy and socialism, mercilessly exposing imperialist warmongers and their collaborators."6 This frequently translated into attacks on the capitalist world and its leading military and economic power, the United States of America. Indeed, after studying the cartoons appearing in Pravda and Izvestiya from 1947 to 1964, one observer concluded, "The apparent objective of cartoons was to implant, repeat and reinforce a negative image of the West in the minds of readers."7

The Gorbachev era witnessed profound and fundamental changes in the role of international political cartoons in the Soviet press. …

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