But the indirect “soft power” pitch of America is about a different time when citizens rarely met in person, let alone had direct access to their social media posts. Although the United States was only allowed to print 50,000 Russian copies per month for most of its run, the magazine helped shape Soviet views of the supposed nemesis in subtle but significant ways.
The first crack of the American government to America came in 1945, when the Cold War replaced World War II as the major international conflict. Averell Harriman, then ambassador to Moscow, asked permission to distribute an illustrated magazine on the United States, convinced that it was better to display the virtues of America than to attack the Soviet system.
The result, America, was inspired by LIFE magazine, the oversized, image-rich glossy paper that was a hit on American newsstands throughout the mid-20th century. often called Illustrated America for the American public, America was, Time magazine reported, “hot stuff. (Russians) loved his stunning images of Arizona deserts, TVA dams, white spiers of a Connecticut town, Radio City…” And Russian women, concocting their own clothes at home, copied the styles they saw in its pages. , according to former U.S. Foreign Service officer Yale Richmond, who outlines the origin story briefly in his 2010 book, “Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain.”
As you leaf through some of these first issues, you see the determination to present American capitalism as a real system that raises the standard of living of ordinary mortals. In bold large photographs are exhibited a supermarket’s cut-price premium, oil rig workers beaming as they take a lunch break, a modernist home showcasing accessible home styling, fireworks and a Ferris wheel for entertainment, and not just waves but amber oceans of grain. All this, plus some diagrams of how American football works.
A 1949 Time article as America prepared its first Czech-language edition claims—without attribution—that the 50,000 Russian-language copies of the propaganda periodical had a transmission rate that meant one million Soviets read each one.
Perhaps that figure itself is propaganda passed to a magazine reporter, but “the magazine’s success…was too much for the Soviet authorities”, Richmond wrote, and the Soviets kept sending back allegedly unsold copies. (which cost the prestige price of 10 rubles, or $1.23). ) at the United States Embassy. So in 1952, he says, the United States “reluctantly discontinued” the magazine. It happened even as the New York Times editorialized against the cessation because America gave Russians “an insight into American life and American goals in refutation of Soviet lies,” according to a 2010 American Diplomacy magazine article titled “The Full-Format American Dream: Amerika as a key tool of Cold War public diplomacy “.
America came back to life as part of a new US-Soviet cultural exchange agreement in 1956, and in this iteration it regained the power it once held and gained additional respect for the sophistication of its visual presentation. In the process, he became a touchstone for young American foreign service workers.
Today, “the tools are new. But the objective is not new because in Soviet times there was an attempt to raise awareness directly, from people to people,” explains Rose Gottemoeller, a former American diplomat working in the Soviet Union who became Deputy Secretary General of the NATO from 2016. to 2019. “Amerika magazine was born out of these efforts to speak directly to the Soviet people.”
Gottemoeller recalls that early in her career she visited libraries in Soviet satellite republics and saw copies of the magazine fraying from a significant readership – part of a considerable body of evidence disproving the official line of the USSR that Amerika was simply not popular.
At the time, the magazine’s publisher, the US Information Agency, also organized traveling exhibitions on life in America, which Gottemoeller helped produce, including organizing an exhibition on American photography in kyiv in 1976. Diplomats were taking the return, allegedly unsold. copies of America to give away at such shows. “They came out like hotcakes,” recalls Gottemoeller.
The look at a country people would probably never visit was a draw, sure, but the formatting itself helped make the case, she says.
“It was very high quality compared to the Soviet edition of the time. If you had Soviet magazines, they didn’t have pretty glossy color pictures. And they looked grainy and weren’t printed on high-quality paper,” says Gottemoeller. “So one of the reasons they were so popular is that they in a way embodied for a Soviet audience the glamor and wealth of the West.”
Those with more detached views came to similar conclusions.
“America was a minor expense, but a major success, in the Cold War of Ideas,” Richmond concluded in “Cultural Exchange and the Cold War.” He, too, noted the “dog-eared copies” Americans witnessed during their visits to Soviet homes—a phenomenon that led the USIA to use heavier stocks and thicker staples—and “the extreme measures taken by the Soviet authorities to limit its distribution”.
About these ‘extreme measures’: While researching his 2007 book ‘The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’, Rutgers historian David Foglesong found evidence in Soviet archives from the late 1900s. 1950s, the Nikita Khrushchev era, that the Soviet government was wary of the magazine’s potential impact in the hinterland, handing it over mainly to urban elites and Communist Party members.
“They specifically banned distribution in the Baltic states and other outlying regions of the Soviet Union… where people’s loyalty was already questionable,” Foglesong said.
Amerika was, in a sense, the good cop in American public diplomacy efforts. Direct criticism of the USSR came from some of the government broadcasts Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe broadcast through the Iron Curtain. But Amerika – with the exhibition program to which Gottemoeller refers – presented a relentlessly optimistic view of life in the United States.
The positive tone of the stories “was something the Soviet government and the Communist Party hated,” says Michael Hurley, who retired from the State Department in 2015 after 30 years, including three stints at the U.S. Embassy. United in Moscow. “The articles were, I like to say, light American propaganda.”
Bobby Fischer made a America cover in March 1972, months before he beat Boris Spassky to beat the Soviets at their game and become America’s first world chess champion. Other cultural coverage featured dancers, classical musicians and writers, proof that the United States was no land of rubies.
“It’s always been very important to me as a public affairs officer, to demonstrate to the Russians and the Soviets that we have a culture,” says Hurley, a culture that goes beyond “rock and roll, hamburgers and jeans”.
But for all the text in the articles — some written by freelancers, most translated and reprinted from American magazines — the vibrant photos, many of them shot by top photographers, were key to the business. The photo sets were a more compelling depiction of life in America than any written article could be.
“We had some of the best graphic designers and photo editors,” says Howard Cincotta, the magazine’s writer and editor from 1975 to 1980. Soviet readers “didn’t necessarily believe what we wrote in America, but the photographs were something else. They didn’t lie.
Elio Battaglia became the magazine’s photo editor in the late 1960s, and he says that although it was a politically motivated government publication, he found it to be a much more work environment. free as his previous job at National Geographic.
“It was a great magazine,” he says. “John Jacobs, who was the editor, just injected so much life into it. He gave us a free range of illustrations and allowed us to use full pages, just like Life magazine.