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China, USSR, Poland

From the Shelf

By Antrew T. Weil

When there was much agitation for more cultural exchanges between East and West several years ago, the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to exchange illustrated monthly magazines describing life in the two countries. The Russian language Amerika has been distributed in the Soviet Union, and the English language USSR has been circulated here. A number of other magazines from Communist nations are now available in the United States, all designed like USSR to give Americans some notion of what things are really like in these mysterious lands.

Two notable examples are Poland and China, which define the limits of the continuum from excellence to garbage along which USSR shuttles from issue to issue. Each of the three periodicals has the problem of presenting propoganda to an essentially hostile audience without repelling its readers, and each has found a different solution. China, by far the least ingenious, tries to bury its bitter pills in a sugary mass of art reproductions, smiling faces, and photographs of tractors, hoping that the unwary victim will swallow the whole glop at once. But, alas, the medicine is not very well concealed, and it is hard to imagine anyone falling for such a crude trick.

USSR, much more clever, attempts to sweeten the pill itself, by avoiding inflammatory statements and using a very soft-sell of the myriad delights in the Workers' Paradise. Unfortunately, subtlety is not the Russians' forte. USSR at its best is an informative, mildly interesting pictorial magazine; at its worst it is almost a self-parody of Communist propaganda. Finally, Poland, a truly fine publication, has merely set about producing a good magazine, in the hope that sympathy for Poland will develop among its readers as a matter of course.

China generally has on the cover some doll-like beauty who has undergone the same sort of hideous chromatic transformation that one associates with Soviet color films or color television. This moldy bit of cheese-cake is undoubtedly intended to take the edge off the glaring headline of the lead article: "New and Old Colonialists, Get Out Of The Congo, Get Out Of Africa!" Next comes more confection-- some perfectly innocent feature such as "Green Tea" or "Tree Peonies." Then there are various pictorial articles, reproduced art of old China, sketches of revolutionary heroes, analyses of current events, and everywhere faces of smiling Chinese. So much do these people smile that one wonders if it is not symptomatic of some neurological disorder, for in the past twelve issues of China there are actually no more than four persons without beaming grins of ecstasy. Those four, incidentally, are professing solidarity with representatives of other countries, circumstances too solemn presumably for those lovely smiles.

Were China at all interesting, one might dismiss the violent anti-Western outbursts as annoyances, but China is so woefully dull that the most absorbing articles in it are those on green tea and tree peonies. The photo features, for example, contain such interesting items as: "After five revolutions the transport service in the Fuhsen mining area has shown marked improvement. Here we see the loading of coal in the Haichu open-cut mine." Another caption: "The nationally renowned 'Flying-Pigeon' Bicycle." And again: "Chiang Yen-shin, who has been promoted from a foundry worker to an engineer, has fulfilled his production target for 69 months running while ensuring excellent quality." (Old Chiang is really smiling.) Finally, what can surpass in interest value the feature article, "The Secret of the Degeneration of Potatoes?"

USSR wisely avoids open attacks on the West, but it is often no less blatant in its efforts to convince than China (which recently ran a picture of several smiling Tibetan women filling the water jugs of two Chinese soldiers over the title: "The Tibetan people love the Liberation Army.") Thus, in a USSR article on Soviet legislative method, one reads, "In the Soviet Union, where every citizen is a statesman and a legislator and participates in administering the government, it is the people who write the laws," which sounds as false as the line from China. And while there is not half as much trash in USSR, there is often an all-pervading stupidity that makes the magazine seem appropriate only for American children.

The February issue, for instance, has a long article on Nikolai Mamai, Hero of Socialist Labor, who boosted coal production by inspiring his fellow miners to compete for record outputs. The excerpt below is typical:

Every evening the miners grouped around the board where the day's output was tacked up to check performance.

"Who's ahead today? Mamai?"

"No, Sidorov. He's certainly pushing ahead."

"Who's going to be the winner?"

Mamai, asked the question would probably have answered, "The country is going to be the winner." His idea was caught up by the thousands of miners in the Donbas and elsewhere. By the end of that year the Donbas had produced its first million tons of coal above plan. The idea spread to other areas of industry, to construction and transport. Everyone wanted to contribute his small brick to the edifice of communism now being built.

All of which sounds as if it is right out of a Little Golden Book.

In appearance, USSR far surpasses China. It is glossy and slick, well laid out, and written in a style approximating that of the National Geographic. Photography (including color) is infinitely better than in China. Still, USSR is hardly the sort of magazine most people would want to receive every month. As with Pravda: you've read one, you've read 'em all.

Poland is quite another story, for it is arty, cosmopolitan, and thoroughly sophisticated. Its covers are not the green-tinged maidens of China or the hydro-electric plants of USSR, but attractive paintings reminiscent sometimes of the New Yorker, other times of Realities. Best of all, there are no overt attempts at pushing a bill of goods. What propaganda Poland contains is simply the uniformly excellent quality of its contents. As the editor writes in his preface to one issue:

"Ours is a country that wants to give more and more of itself to the contemporary world: It wants to create, produce and take part in all just and good things. That is why we turn to all our friends, old as well as new readers, with a great request, with one constant appeal: Don't only read our magazine but please write to us, asking for specific information, for advice and knowledge about Poland. After all, it is for you that we exist and work."

In this spirit, Poland offers good fiction, interesting articles, beautiful art reproductions (very frequently in the modern styles which have been attacked in Russia as opposed to the essence of Socialist Realism), a letters-to-the-editor column, film reviews, and fine features on aspects of Polish life. It is the kind of magazine one can easily leave around to impress visitors, and if it were not called "Poland," it would probably be taken for an expensive Western European monthly. Consequently, Poland is the only one of the three magazines that does not alienate its audience sooner (China) or later (USSR), and also the only one that has any success in accomplishing its aims.

Whether or not the various approaches these magazines have taken reflect the national psychology of the three nations is hard to say. If they do, Poland certainly appears the most Western (if not Madison Avenue) oriented; USSR shows that the Russians still love to distort and are no more delicate about it than they usually are; and China--ah, well, they're still inscrutable.

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