The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

IN THE SOVIET UNION, THE MYTH IS THE MESSAGE SEPTEMBER 1985

This snapshot is important for two reasons: It reveals Gorbachev's ambiva-
lence regarding how to discuss and carry out his reforms, and it provides a
glimpse of the relationship between the Soviet people and their leaders--a
relationship governed according to a complex pattern comprised of euphe-
mism, myth, metaphor, and subtext.

Casual observers of events in the Soviet Union often accuse Communist party authorities of cynicism and even downright deception when they insist on disseminating official myths, such as those lauding "socialist democracy" or "the leading role of the working class." In support of their accusations, the observers argue that these myths are totally absurd and are therefore completely ignored by the Soviet people. Although the first part of this argument is correct--the myths are absurd--the second part of the argument is deeply flawed. In fact, the Soviet people listen quite carefully to the myths propagated by the leadership, because the myths carry a message that goes far beyond the words themselves.

When party dignitaries parrot whichever official myths happen to be in fashion, they are telling the masses (and the world at large) that the leadership has no intention of disturbing the economic and political status quo. By contrast, when the same official myths disappear from speeches and newspaper articles, their absence signals the leadership's intent to introduce some new economic or political innovation.

Yuri Andropov's popularity during his short tenure as party secretary stemmed primarily from that fact that, in his first speeches as party leader, he presented himself as an enemy of the mythology cherished by Brezhnev-- a mythology in which the Soviet economy was always prosperous, and the Soviet people always morally superior.

Mikhail Gorbachev presented himself in a similar light. He appeared to be intelligent and honest, and more interested in dealing with the Soviet reality than in repeating an empty mythology. In April, just one month after coming to power, Gorbachev spoke of "losses" stemming from the government's "inability to speak honestly with the people." In addition, he lamented that "it sometimes happens (a Soviet euphemism for an everyday event) that an individual is told one thing, but in life sees another."

____________________
This article originally appeared as "Careful Soviet Readers Know--The Myth Is the Message" in The Toronto Sunday Star on December 8, 1985.

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