The View from the Iron Curtain
May 13, 2007 2:41 AM   Subscribe

What was the attitude toward Americans and America in East Germany and the former USSR? What are some interesting propaganda campaigns, or stereotypes?

Okay, so I just saw "Goodbye Lenin!" and I want to know more about attitudes towards the USA. Links to articles or academic papers would be awesome-- really anything that provides commentary works. Thanks!
posted by jne1813 to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
In the summer of 1967, for a busload of high school kids and 2 high school teacher/advisors on a People to People tour, riding the auto corridor to Berlin (now part of the E30), the awareness of totalitarianism descended upon us slowly, kilometer by kilometer, as the distance between the guard towers behind the razor wire fences on either side of the corridor decreased from 1 tower per kilometer, to 1 tower every 500 meters, and as we could see the tower guards clearly armed with light and heavy machine guns, and watching us with enormous field glasses. At first, our teen aged bravado persisted, and we gave them group versions of the single digit salute, but their field glasses and machine guns wore on us. By the time we got to West Berlin, no one was laughing on our bus, and no one was making jokes.

That evening, and the following day, as we toured West Berlin, the piles of postwar rubble were still visible in many sections of the divided city. We ran into the Berlin Wall at the ends of streets that once didn't end where we had to stop. And on the other side, always, were eyes watching us, from buildings or watch points, often with cameras in obvious evidence.

On our second day in Berlin, we were scheduled for a cultural exchange meeting with a group of East German students in East Berlin. We were told exactly how much money to carry, to meet the minimum hard currency exchange mandate in place at that time, and we were urged to have on our person only that amount, basic ID, and passports. We crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. From the West, our bus was simply waived on East, but 100 meters or so, on the Eastern side, we were stopped for inspection and East German passport control. This consisted initially of us sitting on the bus, with the motor stopped, and no airconditioning, for about an hour, while the vehicle was inspected externally for contraband. Next, the driver was taken off the bus, and required to open the luggage bays, which were empty, and to open the motor compartment and service doors for examination. This took another 30 sweltering minutes. Next, an East German official in uniform came on board to collect our passports. He left with them, and 20 minutes later, we were taken off the bus, and walked through East German immigration. Our passports were compared to our faces, and we were photographed individually, and given a temporary visa, for which we had to pay some nominal amount, in Western (hard) currency, and were told to keep on our person, as long as we were on East German soil. Next, each of us exited to Currency Control, where we had to purchase something like 50 East German marks, and declare all Western currency in excess of that we exchanged. This involved a cursory pat down search for me, because of a handkerchief folded in my pocket, and a request to turn my pockets inside out, and turn over my wallet for examination. Once this was completed, as individuals, we were let through to a common waiting area, where slowly our group reassembled. Several of the girls in our group came through to the waiting area crying, having been relieved of small personal possessions like Western cosmetics, and being embarrassed by searches of their pocketbooks. Our advisors were clearly rattled and angered by this process, but there was nothing to be done, and after about another hour, we were all again collected, and walked out to re-board our tour bus. The East Germans retained our passports for the duration of our visit. Our group was introduced to our 2 "minders," being representatives from the East German Ministry of Culture, who would be with us for our visit in East Berlin.

Once on the bus, we went directly to a meeting hall on the east side of the city, where we disembarked and went in for our cultural exchange meeting. This consisted of a group of about 50 East Germans, most in their early 20's, who were introduced to us, and who proceeded in teams of 4 and 5 to give a group slide presentation about the remarkable accomplishments of the German Democratic Republic in the face of capitalist militarism and subversion. After the slide show, they served tea, and wanted to discuss Western imperialism as it was being currently demonstrated in Vietnam. We were pitied as capitalist pawns, and assured that even if we wanted to defect, at that very moment, that our individual requests could not be considered, as we had all been checked and found not to have familial connections to current citizens of the GDR.

All in all, it was one of the more trying and depressing afternoons of my life.

After our meeting, we were escorted out to our bus, with our minders, and driven back to Checkpoint Charlie, by way of a stop at an Intershop, which was kind of pointless, because few of us had any excess hard currency, any way. Once back at Checkpoint Charlie, we went back through Immigration Control in reverse, handing in our East German visas, and exiting out the Western end of the building complex, to our waiting tour bus. Our passports, finally, were delivered to our group leaders, en masse, by one of our minders, who left the bus wordlessly thereafter. I remember getting my blue passport back, and passing back into West Berlin, with a sense of palpable relief at having my freedom returned, in the token form of my small blue U.S. issued book, as clearly as if it were given back to me yesterday.
posted by paulsc at 3:51 AM on May 13, 2007 [43 favorites]

Dean Reed is a pretty fascinating cross-cultural figure in this context.
posted by Abiezer at 4:54 AM on May 13, 2007

I have a book from that time that addresses these issues. It's called "The Three Faces of Russia". When I get home next week, I will scan it and put it online and you can post it on MetaFilter if you think it's any good.
posted by fake at 5:06 AM on May 13, 2007

That's an amazing story, paulsc - thanks.
posted by mdonley at 5:26 AM on May 13, 2007

In the fall of 1979, I wound up spending 7 weeks in Moscow, working an international trade fair, for production machinery, organized in cooperation with the U.S. State Department. Basically, our Boston based company was "recruited" by our State Department to participate in this, because our equipment was clearly not capable of dual use, and being largely mechanical, contained no high technology control systems which would have been problematic under export licensing restrictions. The machinery we were to exhibit was intended for the shoe and apparel manufacturing industries, and consisted of various machines and tooling for sequential processes invented by our company in the production of these goods.

We shipped 50 crates of machinery and demonstration materials via ocean freight 2 months in advance of the show, and we got the final peices of the shipment in the second week of the show. We flew to Moscow via Zurich, and were admitted on exhibition commercial visas. There were some interesting restrictions on our movements and actions, under those visas. First, we were required to stay in a particular Intertourist hotel to which we had been assigned, and which kept our passports for the duration of our visit. This hotel was on the eastern edge of Moscow, and necessitated us making a 45 minute bus ride every morning and evening to the exhibition hall, on a group bus provided by Intertourist. Once at the exhibition hall, we were not permitted to leave the premises, until our bus to return to the hotel was available. We worked 6 days per week, and on the seventh, usually Mondays, we were sometimes offered Intertourist conducted sightseeing trips, or cultural visits. Other than those outings, we were expected to be at either the exhibition hall, or the hotel, for the entire duration of our visit.

The hotel itself, was like other Intertourist facilities. Kind of depressingly drab, with small, cheaply furnished rooms, and restaurant facilities that were, by any business travel standards, awful. The menus were generally limited, if not by design, than by the seeming availability of ingredients. Potato dishes and black, coarse Russian breads were always available, as was vodka. But breakfast eggs were a hit or miss proposition, and beef steak was a dream. Cabbage and pork were a 3 night a week dinner. If I never eat borscht again, I'll have eaten too much in this lifetime. If it weren't for the ready availability of vodka, I think we would have all gone nuts. There are reasons why alcoholism is rampant to this day in Russia, and we came to understand many of them in those weeks.

The way of working, for those who have worked international trade shows, was not so different than any such show, in terms of demonstrations, except that our product literature was only available in limited Russian translation, and our visitors were not generally allowed to inquire as to price. For the most part, they came in groups, "delegations" from places like Industrial Footwear Collective #17 of Kiev and The People's Institute for Outerwear Technical Studies of Belarus. They depended for understanding on extensive, step by step demonstration, and they asked innumerable questions, and touched everything possible to touch, and carried off every material sample that wasn't nailed down. And there were always more visitors than there were of us. Because of the multitude of languages spoken in the former Soviet Union, we were largely dependent on our Intertourist translators, who were generally young university graduates, without technical knowledge of our products, translating as best they could from English or German into whatever target languages could be found to be held in common with the visitor delegations. But frequently, there was no way to tell what the visitors truly understood, and by the end of another 10 hour day on your feet, you typically didn't much care.

Except for an evening at the Moscow ballet, and one cultural outing to Red Square and other tourist destinations, the time passed in a slow grind of grey sameness, as the fall days shortened into early winter. Dealing with Russians for day to day needs like faxes and telexes, and phone circuits was numbing. There was always a kind of passive resistance that seemed to me to be a deep part of the Russian character, as if unless you showed that there was no possible way your requests weren't entirely reasonable, and proven so by daily precedent, that you were a stupid Westerner, who simply didn't know enough to understand Soviet organization and systems for operation. If your machines weren't getting enough compressed air, it was your responsibility to demonstrate that your air filters were clean, and your flexible hoses impervious to leakage, before anyone could possibly be dispatched to see what was wrong with the hall air compressors. Same for power, water, lights, and every other amenity above the bare concrete floor and natural gravity. A good example of this occurred after the exhibition closed.

Normally, for trade exhibitions in the West, commercial entities temporarily import demonstration products and materials under what are called carnets. The paperwork for carnets is usually fairly voluminous, including exact descriptions of all contents covered by the carnet, down to serial numbers and identifying marks. But the Russians we dealt with took their version of carnets to new heights of bureaucratic excess. 50 crates we imported, with such and such description, and such and such contents, and 50 crates, those exact same crates, we would export, or not get our passports back, nor permission to leave.

Problem was, 6 of those crates had contained exhibition materials, which had been carried off, peice by peice, by thousands of Russians, Chechen, Belorussians, Georgians, and all the peoples who visited our stand. We never intended to bring those materials back, and the empty crates that had carried and stored those materials had long been carried away, themselves, by who knows who, looking for good quality plywood and lumber. We had 44 crates back from hall storage when all was said and done, and no chance to explain much. We talked to our contacts at State, who told us other exhibitors were having similar problems. We talked to our customs brokers, who were sympathetic. We missed our flights, and we overstayed our hotel slots. We inquired about importing other crates, which we could then export. We argued with the Intertourist people who were translating and handling our visa paperwork. In the end, we paid an Italian company that had been exhibiting in the next hall a huge amount of money for 6 of their empty crates, which we relabeled as ours, and presented to a Russian official of the hall, as ours. Italians, apparently, lived then in a different regulatory situation in the Soviet Union, or at least they didn't seem to think they'd have the troubles we were experiencing, if they came up short on crates.

The Russian official inspected them, found some rubles which had mysteriously been left in one of them, and declared the crates ours, without mention of the rubles, which, of course, we also didn't mention. 6 days after we were supposed to get out, we finally did.

And yet there were things about the experience that remain with me, powerfully to this day. The long line of people in Red Square, waiting hours for a chance to file by the waxy Lenin, in his glassed tomb, and genuine tears on the Slavic faces of old women coming out of there. The improbably Disney-like appearance of the Kremlin, just as I'd seen it in books, but more amazing in its reality, seen myself. The squeaky, clunky shoes of men. The drab overcoats of most women. The gorgeous, and sometimes spectacular fur hats. The unselfconcious use of the word "Comrade." The stoicism of people used to standing in line, for everything, everywhere.

I was interested to go, and glad to come out of the Soviet Union, but I've no wish to return to the Russia that has survived it. My uncle, on the other hand, a professor of political science who first went in 1994, was quite taken by the country, and has returned several times, making a study of the language. He's welcome to his opinion, but for my part, life is short, and I'm more interested in places where borscht is not a menu item.
posted by paulsc at 6:03 AM on May 13, 2007 [35 favorites]

You can probably still see The Lives of Others in a theater near you. I saw it with a friend who lived in East Germany after the wall fell and she found it pretty authentic-feeling. It may not speak to the attitude toward Americans, but there is extensive discussion of the spectrum of attitudes on the 'West' in general.
posted by conch soup at 8:02 AM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, a second on The Lives of Others. Such a terrific movie - both as a taut thriller and as eye-opening recent history. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it.
posted by poxuppit at 8:29 AM on May 13, 2007

Soviet propaganda about the USA dwelt on the following aspects of American society:

1. Rampant crime, especially gun crime, and ... *
2. ... widespread drug abuse
3. Exploitation of workers by plutocrats (natch)
4. Corruption of the "ruling class" - which means politicians and business leaders; democracy is presented as rule by the rich
5. Racism and inequality
6. Philistinism and a decadent culture uninterested in art and beauty
7. Social unrest and rioting
8. Foreign aggression.

* There's a famous poster from 1949 called "The American Lifestyle", by Mikhail Cheremnykh, which looks a lot like example 5 and lists American crime statistics, butI couldn't find it online.
posted by WPW at 8:56 AM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anti-americanism was official policy in the GDR, and much of the propaganda against the imperialistic west focused on the bombing of Dresden.

And then there are the German Indians...
posted by kolophon at 9:07 AM on May 13, 2007

What WPW wrote about Soviet propaganda can be applied to east germany too. I think there was a television program with a US-correspondent who reported about the evils of a capitalist society.

(And I too can only recommend The Lives Of Others.)
posted by kolophon at 9:12 AM on May 13, 2007

I was only in Russia for a short time but I know what paulsc is talking about when he talks about "passive resistance."

The greatest contrast, for me, was the difference in traveling in Russia and traveling in China. I personally think that Russia is still much more "Communist" -- particularly in the further branches of Siberia -- than China is. In China, pretty much all you have to do is look humble and be willing to pay foreigner prices. In Russia, you are met with perplexed looks even when trying to do something so basic as getting a ticket somewhere.

I think one of the reasons Asia is doing fairly well economically is because Asians, for whatever reasons, are brilliant when it comes to money. I suspect it's from the many centuries of mercantilism along the Silk Road. In any case, if you want to solve a problem, and you have cash, you do not have to wait long in China for your problem to be solved. In Russia, this was not my experience.

Also, China has a much, much, better variety of food. But that goes without saying.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:22 AM on May 13, 2007

I spent, in total, a year or two in the Soviet Union in the late 80s. I found that the individual attitude to me was overwhelmingly of curiosity, about life in the West. There was not so much anti-Western propaganda at that late stage, but I suspect that in the USSR there was always a big gulf between the official antagonism and the thoughts of ordinary individuals. The bureaucracy on the other hand was and probably still is a nightmare. I got to know very well a guy whose job was liaison with foreign visitors for the organisation that invited me. Basically he had to report on my doings to the KGB on a regular basis, while managing my requirements. In actuality, he was interested in foreign travel (one of the perks of the job), dollars (to get unavailable goods), drinking Guinness in London pubs (on his occasional visits) and, above all, conversation that was free from the distortions of ideology. His take on the whole scene, cynical perhaps, was this: everyone in the Soviet Union knew that people in the West lived much better and that the Soviet system was a pile of crap; but they were pleased by the thought that, pile of crap or not, they could blast the West to kingdom come if they chose to. A similar attitude seems to re-emerging today. Re: propaganda campaigns: WPW has a useful list; you may also find some of this reading useful.
posted by londongeezer at 9:37 AM on May 13, 2007

I have a small collection of GDR, Polish, and USSR posters from the late 1970s through the 1980s, designed there and printed in western Europe for distribution at peace rallies, CND, strikes, etc, by various communist party activists. The anti-American imagery is striking, mainly centering around hypodermic syringes full of V2-style nuclear weapons being injected into healthy Euro bodies, yankee doodle dandy colours and costumes juxtaposed with skulls and megadeath imagery, and starving African children behind barbed wire apparently being erected by US soldiers (using various silkscreen effects). Also lots of top hat/fat cat cartoonish images.
posted by meehawl at 11:46 AM on May 13, 2007

I have a friend that grew up in West Germany and went over to the DDR as part of a school trip. Before they went, they were given a booklet describing the cultural and political differences between the 2 Germanys. I don't remember the exact title but it is quite an interesting read and if you know someone who went over as a West German school student, they may still have their copy, as it was pretty standard issue reading.
posted by chillmost at 11:51 AM on May 13, 2007

There are reasons why alcoholism is rampant to this day in Russia, and we came to understand many of them in those weeks.

are you suggesting that alcoholism is rampant because communism made vodka cheaper than eggs? I'm pretty sure alcoholism is an older tradition than that in the culture. Might have something to do with the long cold nights and the dark troubled souls of the Russian, etc... could be worth reading some Tolstoy before you attribute it all to economics.
posted by mdn at 12:20 PM on May 13, 2007

I have relatives who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. sometime in the mid 1980s. They reported that there was tons of anti-U.S. propaganda and that they were so accustomed to disbelieving all Soviet propaganda that they thought the U.S. was going to be totally awesome. They were very surprised when they showed up and realized that there was some truth to the talk about homelessness and racial inequality.

I have no idea whether that's typical, though.
posted by craichead at 2:21 PM on May 13, 2007

I have always suspected that the oeuvre of Robert Bly has been very important to paulsc.
posted by jayder at 2:42 PM on May 13, 2007

mdn: I think you missed his point. I gathered he was suggesting vodka was so popular due to the bleakness of the average russian's existence of the time.
posted by Ynoxas at 3:51 PM on May 13, 2007

I was in Russia in 1971 and found that people were curious and friendly to me and the other Americans on the tour, while deploring American foreign policy. (I was also told by one friendly fellow that the differences between Americans and Russians were insignificant... so we should get together and fight the Yellow Peril from the East. It was a weird moment.)

Interesting as paulsc's memories are, I'm not sure in what way they answer the question.
posted by languagehat at 5:45 PM on May 14, 2007

Well, I'm late to the party (since I saw this via MetaTalk), but I was reminded of what may have possibly been a FPP at one point: Animated Soviet Propaganda. There's quite a long sample there in Flash that has amazing examples of anti-American and anti-capitalist Soviet animated propaganda. It's beautiful animation, some of it apparently extraordinarily famous to those growing up in the Soviet Union.
posted by smallerdemon at 8:14 AM on May 15, 2007

ynoxas - sorry 'bout going off topic there, but, yeah, my point was, I don't think it was the bleakness of communism that drove russians to vodka. Soviet culture is partially due to the specific results of governmental policies, and partially due to history, environment, heritage, genetics, and all the other factors which affect cultures. I just think sometimes anti-communists are too quick to blame all problems of the time on economics, when things tend to be more complicated.
posted by mdn at 9:41 AM on May 15, 2007

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