PRINT September 1987


Comrades in People.

IS THIS A TRICK or what? Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost clouds our minds, confounds our ideas of Otherness, and obscures our sense of who they, and hence we, are.

For the streamlined Manichaean logic of Reaganism demands that the United States always have an Enemy. It’s like a negative form of serial monogamy: at any given moment we’re media-mobilized against the Sandinistas or the Ayatollah or (in a pinch) Japan, each Daily Hate segueing smoothly into the next, however contradictory. Thus last year’s bombing of Tripoli was immediately succeeded by hostility toward those “Euro-wimps.”

But as Reaganism also always makes clear, above and behind the maya of these villains is that Foe of Foes against which we define ourselves. In 1983, the Soviet Union was officially designated the “Evil Empire” (in a revival of the mood of thirty years ago), resurrecting the cold war scenario that the only good Russian is a dead Russian . . . or else a defector, and either way, Main Street is his goal. Even before the mostelaborate invasion fantasy appeared–the infamous Amerika, a 141/2-hour miniseries on the Soviet occupation of Nebraska–the Russians, who, under Gorbachev, were frantically developing an indigenous form of government by public relations, launched an image offensive of their own.

How to respond? The special 6 April 1987 issue of People magazine, “People . . . Goes to Russia,” is one sort of evasion. As TV brings an unending procession of personalities into our homes, People exists to return the favor and escort us through theirs. This is our glasnost.

People . . . Goes to Russia” would seem the opposite of Amerika, but they are ac- tually versions of the same thing–an attempt to convert Them into Us, or at least to blur the boundaries in a deliriously prosaic version of the Russian-American alternate universe mapped by Nabokov’s Ada.

As partially written by the grandniece of John Reed, who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World (1919) and so, indirectly, the movie Reds, People’s special issue opens with a profile of an American World War II vet who plans to build his suburban ranch house in Irkutsk, and ends with aportrait of Moscow’s “Calvin Klein.” We also learn that the Soviets have their own versions of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and punk rock, that Russian artists are no less cliquish than ours and their most popular balladeer “sounds just like Joan Baez,” that a distinguished artist is illustrating Winnie-the-Pooh, that a coal miner reads Faulkner and an author of espionage fiction models himself on Hemingway, that Siberian fur-hunters are employed by Neiman-Marcus, that Reeboks and Phil Donahue are not unknown, and (most gratifying of all) that the Russians, at least those with access to VCRs, love Rambo (plus Star Wars, Starman, and Jesus Christ Superstar).

But if Rambo’s heroism is supposed to translate into Russian, Soviet heroism is harder for People to grasp. People’s most dogged Others, those most difficult to Americanize, are “Siberia’s New Women” profiled in “On the Move,” or the female Party apparatchik described in “To the Top.” For Hollywood the most sympathetic Communist has traditionally been a woman. On the eve of World War II, Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka established the model for the heroines of Comrade X, Jet Pilot, The Iron Petticoat, and Silk Stockings—a pretty but humorless fanatic designed to be thawed out by romantic love and (heh, heh) consumer goods. In the context of People, the magazine’s unrehabilitated Ninotchkas seem social misfits, their refusal to recognize Donahue mocked by full-page color ads for perfume and creme rinse, Florida orange juice and Florida vacations, diet Jell-O and frozen french fries. Meanwhile, in a “testament to the undying Soviet fascination with anything Western,” People discovers “a can of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup, carefully cleaned and preserved,” sitting on a shelf in unofficial-rock-star Boris Grebenschikov’s communal apartment.

Thanks to People, the glasnost circuit is complete. Russian communism is reduced to the ghost of a ghost. As in the films of Steven Spielberg, the Other is domesticated–nothing here to disrupt our values or challenge our self-regard. On the contrary. Far from Darth Vaders, the Soviets come off as reassuringly imperfect copies of ourselves. They’re People like Us. Let Ninotchka press her nose against our picture window. It’s “by looking into the mirror of the Soviet Union,” says People, that “we Americans can see ourselves–and our strengths–more clearly.” No discord there–even less to worry about here.

J. Hoberman writes on film for the Village Voice. He contributes regularly to Artforum.