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So to Speak podcast transcript: A history of (dis)information wars in the Soviet Union and beyond

A headshot of Cynthia Martin.

University of Maryland Associate Professor Cynthia L. Martin.

Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.

Nico Perrino: Professor Martin, thanks for coming on the show.

Cynthia L. Martin: Absolutely. Honored to be invited and thanks for having me.

Nico: It's a weird time to be having a conversation like this.

Cynthia: It is, it is.

Nico: But we'll do our best to do this over the phone.

Cynthia: Strange times we live in. Yes.

Nico: Yeah. I want to get started by kind of getting your background. You're on the Russian faculty at the University of Maryland. You've been there since 1990.

Cynthia: That's right.

Nico: We're going to be talking about authoritarian regimes today. What got you interested in authoritarian regimes?

Cynthia: Well, I guess I came to it as an undergrad interested in Russian history and so I actually wanted to take a history course my second year of college, I guess it was as an undergrad and it did not fit in my schedule. So, I looked at that book because it was all printed at that time of the course schedule was a big newspaper like thing. And I thought well what else is offered that has anything at all to do with Russia that I might be able to take?

And I took a Russian language class and that was the beginning of the sort of long-term romance with studying Russian and going back and forth to the old Soviet Union and living there for a while and going back and forth even today. So, it was really, it started through my interest in history, Russian history in particular led me to language and the rest is sort of the rest of my adult life has been somehow related to the study of that place.

Nico: So, 1990 in the history of Russia. I mean there are a lot of changes that are happening at that time. What was it like to start teaching at the University of Maryland joining the Russian faculty at that time?

Cynthia: Yeah, it was a very different context than we see today. Oddly enough, enrollments were much higher 30 years ago than they are now. I don't know whether nationally they were much higher. We experienced about an 80% drop over time into the mid-nineties as the place fell apart. Fewer and fewer students came to study Russian. And then,-

Nico: Could that have been because obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall around that time, could that have been the peak of student interest in studying Russian?

Cynthia: I think that's what it was. I think there was a peak. There was always this interest. I think the sort of exoticism of the Soviet system, the Soviet bloc, the cold war was ending obviously, but it was still that sort of that was kind of a peak. And then, the peaked one of that time back in the late fifties and early sixties when we were really just embarking on the space race and figuring out that we needed engineers and scientists that knew this language.

So, there was another broad peak. I have an article that'll be coming out at some point in an introductory article to a volume from Georgetown and it goes back and looks at the field precisely over this period from 85 to about 2015. So, it was a very different time. The place was falling apart. It was pre-internet when I started at the University of Maryland in 1990. We didn't get our email accounts until 1993 so that was certainly a different educational context and also a context in which you didn't get the instantaneous real-time access to what was happening on the ground, all over the world let alone all over the country.

Nico: What did the fall of the Soviet Union look like for the average citizen there?

Cynthia: For the average citizen there?

Nico: Yeah, I mean did you spend any time there prior to 1991 or a significant amount of time there?

Cynthia: Yes, my first trip there was in 1977 and then I spent five summers there in the 80s on different student programs as sort of an assistant to the program and all through graduate school. And then, I lived there during the Gorbachev, the beginning of the end. I was living there in the mid-eighties in the mid-1980s and then I was teaching at Maryland by the time that the place fell apart in December of 91.

But still the collapse was pretty much a total collapse. So, imagine going from one day you have this system that everybody thought was basically eternal. It wasn't going to go anywhere. It wasn't going to budge from their perspective. Like this was an unimaginable thing that you could sort of all of a sudden the Soviet Union would be no more and communism would be relegated to the dustbin of history, at least in Russia, not in a couple of other places.

And so everything changed everything almost overnight. So, just sort of in practical terms, people weren't getting paid. But think about things like history exams were basically just canceled for a few years because what are we going to test you on? Because you had to pass these history exams that had the history of the communist party and it had a very certain propagandized obviously version of history that students had to master in order to pass. So, what happens when all of a sudden we say, "Oops?" I guess not. They literally just didn't have history exams for a few years in the university. So, think about any sector of the system and think about one day there are rules. They may not be rules that you like but one day there actually is a system and there are rules and the next day there are none.

Nico: That's interesting you bring up because bringing up the idea of one thing, one day things are one way and the next day they're very different with the Coronavirus thing going on right now. I'm sure many people feel that way about their lives. But in thinking about free speech and in particular freedom of thought, you live under an authoritarian regime for so long and then all of a sudden that regime collapses and that regime had previously sought to control or propagandize its history the way of thinking.

And all of a sudden, and they often coursed it in certain ways, either through surveillance or Gulags and then the next day it's gone. What is the psyche of the average Russian? How did they adapt to that? It's a question I hadn't thought about before you actually presented the idea of taking a history exam about the history that previously there was one right answer for.

Cynthia: Right and now there's none.

Nico: And now there's none.

Cynthia: Right. So, it's hard to obviously categorize what the average person experienced.

Nico: Of course.

Cynthia: Remember that or let's think about this way. Attempts in totalitarian regimes to control speech really are attempts to control thought. Whether or not that's effective is another question, right? So, you have groups of dissidents who were resistors and they express their resistance, right? They're willing to take a risk and they express their resistance and they express their doubts. I mean that's the key concept here is that totalitarian regimes simply do not tolerate doubt and western liberal democracy with individual liberty posited at the core of our social and political organization really was quite new and is quite exceptional. In fact, we can talk about that. But at the core of that is that you have to allow for doubt because you assume this sort of individual liberty as the highest goal.

So, there were dissidents obviously and dissident writers and artists and thinkers, philosophers, even scientists like Andrei Sakharov, who became a kind of a dissident thinker, a figure, right? Who voice their opposition to the totalitarianism of the regime? And of course, different periods in the 20th century, they were treated differently, summarily executed, sent off to the camps, sometimes exiled to the west like Soviet east and west.

But it doesn't also mean that the average thinking person had their thoughts completely controlled. They may have learned not to express the doubts or the cynicism. So, by the time the place collapses, we could say, and I'm not going to try to make the case that I know why the Soviet system correct collapse and I can give you a 30-second answer to that, but a system can't survive when enough people stop believing in it.

Nico: This is the emperor has no clothes phenomenon.

Cynthia: Yes, right. You don't necessarily have to be expressing that lack of belief in the system to stop participating in a way that sustains the system. So, that was happening through the period of stagnation in the '70s through the Brezhnev years, right? That was happening, this period of stagnation where whether or not you wanted to believe in this sort of vision of a utopian future where everybody works on behalf of the collective and not on behalf of their own individual incentives.

If you wanted to have that kind of belief, you were still faced consistently, constantly, with a different reality. I'm not sure that everybody was buying into this sort of monolithic communist ideology by the time the place fell apart. I mean, you could make the case that a lack of commitment to that ideology certainly allowed for the place to fall apart, and the lack of willingness of the government at that point to course, right. At a certain point.

Nico: Yeah. I mean the average Russian lived under this sort of system for decades, come out of it in 1991. Some of the things that we're seeing today that kind of whipsaw between generations, especially the disinformation attempts that come out of Russia. I was struck by Peter Pomerantsev's book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, which is around ... yeah, which is about life in the modern Russia in which there's almost sort of a – it presents the situation in Russia as such in which the average citizen just almost expects there to be disinformation and not be told the truth.

As a result, it's just kind of agnostic or bored by the idea of truth. I wonder if that's the result of a legacy under a system where you're being told one thing about this utopia, but you were witnessing another thing and you've just, your whole life has been that, your whole parent's life, your whole grandparent's life has been that, so you might have ostensibly have a little bit more freedom today, but you're just jaded.

Cynthia: Cynical. Yeah, absolutely. I'd take it back even prior to the Soviet system. Right? Because prior to that, they had, czars, so they had a monarchy, which we could argue is also a worldview that is sort of totalitarian. We can talk about what makes a worldview totalitarian as opposed to what our Western liberal democracies are predicated upon and why freedom of speech is so fiercely defended in the Western liberal democracies and so threatening in any totalitarian system, whether it's sort of pre-modern and religious or theocratic today or 20th century secular systems, right?

They all have a lot of things in common. But I would say that educated Russians, meaning literate Russians who came through, even their education system in the Soviet system have a long history predating the Soviet system of learning to read between the lines, right?

They're writers, they're great writers. They're writers of the great classics of the 19th century. They were ... to be kind of worthy of being a great writer, you had to be in trouble with the authorities at some point, right? Even Pushkin, Alexander Pushkin was sort of exiled. Now, he was exiled to his family's estate but still, they got in trouble with the authorities. Why?

Because there was a sort of a totalitarian worldview and that sort of criticism of the truth or criticism of the authorities was potentially dangerous. So, you had to take those people and isolate them from being able to communicate with their readers, basically at that time. Pre-internet, obviously, pre-modern technology, pre-cell phones, pre-phones, right? So, this really predates this kind of looking at whatever is presented to you and thinking, "Huh, there must be something going on. There's a subtext here."

Reading between the lines, something that Americans don't do very well. I don't mean to denigrate our ability to read and think deeply, but we have those kinds of critical public debates about things out in the open, in our political writing. We didn't turn to our artists to find that, right? Where Russian history has turned to basically the arts, philosophy, and it became sort of a religion in the 20th century, but it was looking for another place to find the exploration of ideas that did not conform to the single idea that was being presented, right?

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: There's a long history of sort of looking at what the authorities are saying, no matter who they are, and having a kind of skepticism that oddly enough, we kind of definitely have in the air in Western liberal democracies, looking at authority and thinking, "Hmm, okay, but power needs to be checked for a lot of reasons." So, yeah, a lot of Soviets learn to play the game of keeping their mouth shut. It was about learning how to say the right things, but you could still think different things.

Nico: But they're not unique in having to do that though. I mean, before the Western liberal democracies were Western liberal democracies, they're often, lived under authoritarian regimes, whether you think of the fiefdoms or the theocracies. For we're tracking the timeline of the Russian experience over the past two centuries, we were looking at the authoritarianism under the czars where creative expression is often comes through unique and creative means, artistic means.

Then you have the more blunt trauma, blunt force censorship that you experience in the Soviet Union, and then you transition out of that into what you might expect to be a more Western liberal approach under Yeltsin in the '90s but it really just kind of morphed into this sort of jaded cynicism and disillusion with the truth. I don't know that you had that or maybe you did and I just am not a good enough historian of it in all of the Western societies as well, coming out of whether it's the theocracies in any given country or what have you.

Cynthia: Interesting. Well, I would say – first of all, it's a little hard for us in the West to look at Putin's Russia and imagine that it's anything but a turning back toward a kind of a Soviet totalitarian system.

Nico: Yeah, I'm sure I have a caricature, cartoonish view of Russia. I've never been there. I don't speak Russian.

Cynthia: Yeah, it's not entirely true, right? Putin's Russia is not Stalin's Russia. Right? Cato Institute has a panel discussion. There were a professor from, I think, Cortgen from Princeton. Anybody could take a look at it, you can find it pretty easily. Kind of says, you know, "Okay, let's look at this. Let's compare this and see. There really – Putin is not Stalin, right?" Today's Russia is dramatically different. It is not a communist centralized economy anymore, right?

They moved to a free market and one could argue that with moving to free market enterprise and that free market enterprise is almost inseparable from a kind of a democratic political system because it allows for individuals to act in individual interest, which very often then is in the interest of the neighbor and et cetera. Today's Russia is far away from what it was 30 years ago. Think about the period of time to sort of effect that transformation. 30 years is nothing. It's a little blip in human history. People came out of ... literally, right? One day you are in this system and you don't have access to the kind of freedom of access to information right?

You didn't have, well, there was the internet, like I said. The internet was not in everybody's pocket when the place fell apart. So, things start exploding all at once, right? Access to information all around the world because you've got the internet, right? Access to your own history that had been repressed and suppressed from dissonant writers to artists, to thinkers, et cetera.

And there's no system. We have to create a constitution. We have to decide how we're going to live together, right? This is literally create a system out of whole cloth, but not doing it, let's say how we did it with the, what was the population and the colony, how many people were trying to do this? Right? So, it's kind of total chaos. So, you can understand how people during the immediate post-Soviet period were literally trying to figure out how to survive.

Right? How do you survive? You're not really thinking about political ideology. You're not really thinking about okay, let me think about what kind of constitution I'll go vote for. You weren't even thinking about voting. You were thinking, I'm not getting a paycheck for six weeks, eight weeks, 10 weeks, and 12 weeks. What am I supposed to do? I had worked in a publishing house there for some of the years that I live there.

So, every enterprise that was state-owned in the Soviet system and Communism, Socialism, they never claimed to have reached Communism. That was the dream. We were headed there, right? That was the idea. But every system, there was no private ownership of any of that. The system collapses. Everything now gets to be privatized.

Nico: And how do you decide? It's like who makes the Q-tips? Who made the mouse pads?

Cynthia: Exactly. So, the reinvention of an economy at the same time as you're reinventing a political system, obviously they're interconnected, right? But people were literally trying to figure out how to get from one day to the next, right? Who's in charge? Who's paying bills? How do I get my salary? How do I get food? What's the supply chain like? Right? Kind of some of the things we're thinking about today, maybe.

I don't know, but they weren't really thinking as much about, oh, we're free from this Communist – We're coming out from this Communist winter, and we're now going to be western liberal democratic society. I think that that was a little bit of an unrealistic expectation, America's enthusiasm that, oh, we won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. They're going to be just like us, right, in no time at all was a little bit of a mistake on our part, perhaps to think that that is possible in a very short period of time.

Nico: When you frame it like that, it just seems astounding that they've gotten as far as I have in 30 years. I mean, the idea that you can build a society essentially from scratch, because as you put it, and I'm not a historian of this by any means, as you put it, it's almost like no one had forewarning. One day things were one way, the next, they were not there.

Cynthia: This isn't a slowly sort of disintegrating, right? People were not motivated. The economy was definitely in trouble. Right? Which was part of the... then you lack the belief. I mean, in the mid-1980s, the lead-up to this, things like sugar and meat were still rationed in certain parts of that country. So, of course, people who even were maybe ideologically committed in some way, still looked at it and said, "Wait a minute. I can't get basic goods. What do you mean we're marching towards some sort of utopia?" So, it was not doing – It's not as though there was no warning, but I don't think that the masses thought the place – Literally the system is going to collapse.

Gorbachev, remember, came in and he was a reformer. He wasn't a, "Let's crash and burn the system." He wasn't a revolutionary that was saying, "This Communist experiment of ours is over. We need to abandon it. We need to put it in the past, write about it in the history books. We need to abandon it. We need to transition to a free market economy, liberalization of our democratic process, free and open elections."

He wasn't saying any of that. He was saying the system isn't working. There are serious problems. So, perestroika was actually the restructuring, right? We've got that word in the English language now from that. We need to restructure. We need to rebuild. We need to figure out how to redo the things that aren't working right.

And in order to do that, we need glasnost, which means openness. And it doesn't mean, "Let's open the borders." It means openness. It's related to the Old Russian root for "voice," which is interesting. In other words, we have to talk about the problems if we're going to fix the problems. And in a way, his reforms started with this idea that, "You've got to tell me what these problems are. We've got to talk about what the problems are or we're not going to be able to fix them."

Nico: Were they actually able to do that?

Cynthia: That's what he started. That, that was sort of what a Gorbachev launched, right? And so, he would go around to collective forums and he would talk to people and you would see things on TV in those early days, in the '80s, mid to late '80s during the Gorbachev era, and then into the '90s. You saw a lot of expose-type things on the television that were just unheard of prior to that.

Nico: So, people were being honest when they were being asked?

Cynthia: Yeah, people were being honest, right.

Nico: Oh, wow.

Cynthia: And they were able to express their disillusionment. So, that was sort of happening, but still the collapse of the whole system, right? So, everything that had been nationalized in the early part of the 20th century was now going to be privatized. That's how you get your oligarchs. That's how you get your billionaires. That's how you get your trillionaires. That's how you get your gazillionaires. Basically, how do you get them? Because they were in the right place at the right time under the old system to then be at the top of the food chain when things start to get privatized.

Nico: Yeah. And how does that even happen? Do you bring in the world leaders to help? I mean, I don't know the history.

Cynthia: Very, very chaotically. So, perhaps, you take an enterprise, like the publishing house I worked in and now it's going to have to be privatized and so you say, okay, all these employees are going to be able to get a stake in it. Like a stock almost, right? We're all going to own it now.

Nico: It sounds like a weird form of collectivism as well.

Cynthia: Exactly. But then you have people desperate for that money. So, you have people who have a little bit more resources or who are at the top of the system and control of certain amount of sort of wealth and resources saying, "Okay, well here you go, I'll buy you out there. Here you go. I'll buy your portion," right? And then, you have this sort of amassing of great wealth in the hands of the people who were able to figure out how to do that. Great Ponzi schemes.

Nico: Excuse my ignorance, but under the Soviet Union, would some people make more than others?

Cynthia: No. Pretty much no. Pretty much no.

Nico: Was that supposed to be the idea initially?

Cynthia: Right. That was the idea initially. So, you could be a doctor or a taxi cab driver and you were going to make about the same. So, I think one of the major flaws is underestimated, I guess, or under-analyzed, is perhaps... This is going to sound a little bit – Let's see. How do I put this? Do we think there's something to this idea of human nature, or is that a concept that is socially constructed? Because human nature, the way free market enterprise sees it, we might not want to call it human nature anymore. It's not a term that's very popular. But it presumes. Let's just say we presume that humans will act in their own self-interest, which then often means as I'm acting in my self-interest, I'm also going to do something for the market that is going to make your life easier.

Nico: Yeah. It's not through the benevolence of the butcher and the baker that dinner gets on your table, yeah.

Cynthia: Exactly. So, that's an incentive, right? The Communist system, the kind of theory, the idea was that humans aren't born with a human nature. Now we can get very sort of theological here and philosophical here, but that idea, the western idea of humans acting in their own self-interest very much comes from a Judeo-Christian vision of who we are as human beings on the planet. We can talk about that.

But the Communist system, the Marxist system, right, says religion is the opiate of the masses. Humans are born blank slates. They're not born good and bad. They're not born bifurcated. They're not born to act in their own self- interest against the self-interest of the collective. They only do bad things because they're in bad circumstances. So, if we just put them in the right circumstances, they –

– Will be moral beings, they will act on behalf of the collective. And so the 20th century Soviet system basically didn't sort of admit systematically that human beings will very much act in their own self-interest, if you give them something to be motivated for. And if they can actually see the results of their actions leading to something that would serve their interests.

So, when everybody's getting paid the same amount and everybody's working at the same capacity, why am I going to – Let's see, everybody has a weekly norm. When I worked in a publishing house, you have a weekly norm. You have to do so many pages a week of the translation, the editing or whatever. I literally could accomplish it in a day. But what was the incentive for anybody inside of that system? Now I was kind of an observer to the system as I was even working in it. But what's the incentive for anybody to say, well, I'm going to do five times the weekly norm because I can do five times a weekly norm. But I get the same salary as everybody else.

And then, not only that, but then you get collective peer pressure that says, "Oh no, don't do that. Because then you're going to show that the weekly norm is really ridiculously low and then they're going to expect all of us to be able to produce the way you produce. And we don't want that to happen."

Nico: Yeah, I was going to ask, part of the reason that I do my job is not necessarily just because of the salary, but rather because it gives me sort of purpose and meaning.

Cynthia: Exactly.

Nico: But it sounds like, I mean, presumably the Russians aren't void of that character trait as well, but it sounds like there's social pressures there.

Cynthia: Right. Well, so now you see that unleashed. So, when you said earlier, how did they get so far, so fast, right after the collapse to be back sort of as a superpower, that's one of the reasons, right? It unleashed this. Now it's kind of... We're treading into interesting territory here, but humans are humans, right? You have to decide certain basic things that you believe about, about humanity and about humans when you said about creating a political system.

Cynthia: That's one of the beliefs in Western highly industrialized, very successful economies is that humans are motivated by a certain amount of self-interest. That interest doesn't have to be just monetary and it's not, the self-interest is not the same as selfish. And giving you a sense of satisfaction can also be a self-interest, right?

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: So, that was sort of unleashed. That's one answer to the question is sort of, well, they put them in a different kind of a context where you now had to figure out how to make your way very frightening because now you're responsible in a way that you weren't responsible when you had cradle to grave, minimal kind of subsistence existence for everybody. Now it really is a kind of individual responsibility to get out there and give the marketplace something that the marketplace that somebody else in the marketplace wants and there's willing to pay you for. And so it's very different kind of thing. But then when you look at just how far they've come, you think... In the West, very often you read about Putin here as sort of, well, how come you're so popular? They can't believe you're so popular. And –

Nico: And he's going to be president until he dies.

Cynthia: Right, and he must not really be popular. And Russians really must secretly still want to just break free of this Putin authoritarian regime. As I try to get my students to do, let's try and look at it from within that system as opposed to from our perspective, right? Look at where they were. They were essentially humiliated and in a state of total collapse in chaos just about 30 years ago. Now they're back on the world scene as a major player and they are proud of their country again.

They look at Putin and they say, "Yeah, he's acting in Russia's interest and he's making us great again. Why would we not like this?" The system is more stable than it was before. There is what you would consider to be a growing middle class, which is clearly one of the things that helps to keep a systems stable is you have people who are invested in the continuity of the system. So, when you have the very, very poor and the very, very rich and no middle-class, you don't have a big class of people invested in the stability of the system.

The rich can take care of themselves no matter what, and the poor are ready to go to the barricades. So, there's this growing group of Russians that are saying, "Yeah, life is at least stable. Nobody is pulling it out from under us again. Just leave us alone and let us have a decent standard of living for a while." Now, of course, that's not all over the country. A lot of what I'm talking about is really the big cities, in Moscow, and St Petersburg, but it's a remarkable comeback from total chaos.

Nico: Speaking of the total chaos, you hear the story about, I believe it's Gorbachev visiting the grocery store here in the United States. Is that apocryphal or did that actually happen, and was he actually astounded by it?

Cynthia: Yeah, astounded by it. Absolutely. It's pretty astounding. Imagine mid-80s, Gorbachev comes on the scene in 1985 or so and there's still ration coupons for things like sugar and meat in certain parts of the country, like even in their industrial Urals where the military industrial complex is basically housed. And you still have shortages of food, food shortages or hard to get items that are everyday kinds of items.

Nico: Like toilet paper today.

Cynthia: Like toilet paper. Exactly. Standing in line for toilet paper, which was, it sounds almost comical at this point, but it was absolutely true. And then, you come to a Western supermarket, and just let me give you a little bit of a perspective here, where you have an entire row devoted to basically dogs and cats and birds too. Just imagine the contrast, right? Imagine the contrast, right? You go into a grocery store that first of all is enormous and then you have not just not empty shelves, you have shelves that are sort of overflowing and more to get from in the back of the store. And then, you have an entire row devoted to our furry little friends. How can you not be astounded?

Cynthia: So, yeah, he was quite astounded and that was always one of the things that people coming from that period of stagnation in the '70s and the '80s that would come to the West and just the abundance, the sheer abundance of the availability of goods and services was actually mind blowing.

Nico: So, when you were working at this book publisher, I didn't know you had done that, so it leads to certain questions like what sort of books did you publish? Were those books reviewed by a sensor?

Cynthia: Yeah, absolutely. I worked in a publishing house because I wanted to stay in Russia. I had gone for a year during graduate school to go to Institute for Language and Literature Teachers, and it was part of my graduate program when I was at Penn. I took this year to go there and it was during my PhD program and I wanted to stay after that. There was another American working there, very few of us working in that kind of capacity at the time. She was leaving this job at the publishing house, and so they were looking for another English language editor and translator to take her place. So, we kind of switched places.

She went back, I took a leave of absence from Penn. I said, "I'll be back, don't worry, but I'm going to stay for a year." And then, it turned into another year. And it was actually a publishing house, a scientific publishing house. So, we did things like everything from popular science like beekeeping and how the universe was born and things like that, and medical textbooks that would be exported to India and different places. I worked there for a couple of years and it definitely –

Everything went through the sensors, it took forever to get anything published.

Nico: Would they actually read the whole book?

Cynthia: Yeah, but whenever there was a holiday – So, this leads us to control over information, maybe back a little bit to the idea of access to information and free speech. When there's a holiday, a three day holiday, let's say, all of the typewriters from our department would all be put into a single room and that room would then be sealed. And they would solder a seal and a wire across the door so that you knew when everybody came back from holiday that nobody had gotten in and used the typewriters.

Nico: So, what, they didn't want people to have writing implements?

Cynthia: They didn't want them to have typewriters because you could replicate dissident materials. So, all typewriters were registered, all their keystrokes were registered so if they did have to track down who was typing what. In 1985, let's say, there was no place in the city of Moscow where you could get a Xerox copy made, except in the Lenin library, which was the largest library in the world at the time.

And here's how that went, if you wanted to get a copy of something ... this is how dramatically things have changed, right? If you wanted to get a copy of something, first of all, you had to have access by having a library pass into that library. And I had one as a foreign researcher, whatever, and mine clearly said that I was there and my specialization was literature and language. And so twice a week they had a thousand page limit, 20 pages per person, for the entire city, the entire library.

And so, you could go, with whatever it was that you wanted to make a copy of, to a little window that opened those two days a week at, let's say, 10:00 a.m. But people lined up as soon as the library opened at let's say, eight. And you'd wait in line and hand in what you wanted, and you could have a maximum of 20 pages. And you'd come back a few days later to see whether or not your request was approved, and you would get your 20 pages if they had approved it, they would tell you when you could get your 20 pages. Literally, I could copy, by hand, 20 pages faster than it would take me.

Nico: Yeah, you might get a cramp, but less nerve wracking.

Cynthia: Right. So, that was the control over access to information, to knowledge.

Nico: Holy cow, I didn't know that. Wow.

Cynthia: Yeah, so that all just sort of imploded as well, when the system imploded. And then, on the heels of that implosion we get this sort of invention, not the invention of the internet, the internet was invented long before that, it was used for military purposes long before that. But this sort of explosion of access to this thing called the World Wide Web. And how do you control that access now?

So, even in a totalitarian regime like Russia, I hesitate to call it a totalitarian regime. It's not Iran, it's not North Korea, and it’s not China, right? It is a very different place than those places. And yes, it's still a danger to be a journalist and be muckraking against the wrong kind of people. But there's so much more access to multiple views, multiple sources of information, than there was even 20 years ago. So, the internet is an interesting question, China's trying to walk that fine line of controlling what people can do. You have to have access to the internet to participate in the modern world, but it's also a very dangerous thing because at the push of a button somebody can now disseminate something that the powers that be don't want other people to see.

Nico: Well, that creates problems too. We're hearing reports now about how China censored early reports about the COVID-19 virus and perhaps, had they been less censorious, those reports would have gotten out earlier, the response could have been quicker and it might have been an epidemic, but not the pandemic that it ended up turning into. We hear that story about, I forget the doctor's name, who blew the whistle early and was admonished by police and later died of the virus.

Cynthia: Right, absolutely. So, access to information is both crucial in the modern world, and it is something that threatens totalitarian regimes because it threatens the notion that there is a selected group of humans that have greater access to the truth and the way things ought to be. They are special humans in a religious sense, we would think of them as being divine if it were a monarchy. In a secular totalitarian regime, they're not divine by virtue of a certain bloodline or access to the divine, but they are special in that they have been enlightened enough, they have access to the truth. And threatening that picture of infallibility threatens the whole system.

Nico: The Chernobyl disaster, I watched the HBO miniseries, that's about the extent of my knowledge of it, frightening too. But even in that disaster, at least from the miniseries perspective, there were efforts to clamp down on what actually happened on the ground there. And my instincts, or the suggestion from the show was if had been an open society in the first place, you could have gotten international help in containing it and addressing it.

Cynthia: Absolutely. So, there was an initial effort to not discuss, not to even publicize the fact that it happened, not to have it in the press. And it was when, I believe it was in Scandinavia, some of their nuclear monitors picked up some of the fallout and it became impossible to hide at that point. And so for a lot of reasons, one reason is you have to get the lay of the land, what's really happening. And you saw in that miniseries, and I think it was probably pretty true to form in that system, where you had political considerations pushing back on the engineers and the scientists.

When the engineers and the scientists were saying X, you would have political considerations that were sort of trumping those scientific assessments, which happens in those totalitarian regimes, again, because the system itself is predicated upon that inner circle of the politicos who are the leaders who know best. There's not that diffusion of responsibility and power that you have in a system that may be is messy as ours, but we certainly do have a diffusion of power in the United States.

Nico: The leaders in the late Soviet Union, were they true believers in the Communist cause or were they play acting essentially in order to?

Cynthia: That's a really good question, I'm not sure. I'm not sure that we can answer that –

Nico: Because Lenin and Stalin, they were true believers, at least as Andrew Roberts, who I recently –

Cynthia: Certainly, Lennon was a true believer, Stalin was a true believer to a degree. Then you wonder, by the end, it was all about power, et cetera. But you wonder today, but the same is sort of true of a lot of these totalitarian regimes. You wonder is a leader of North Korea really a true believer in the... the leaders of fundamentalism that we would call, perhaps, ISIS. Are the ones at the top true believers or do they also use the belief in that promise of a promised land? Do they use that to manipulate those below them for whatever reason, so it's really hard to say what it means to be a true believer?

Nico: Yeah, you need to search into someone's heart almost, and you can't do that.

Cynthia: Yeah. Yeah, it's pretty hard to do.

Nico: When you were at the book publishing house as a westerner, were you surveilled, do you think? Do you have any experience with that?

Cynthia: Absolutely. No, we know, we actually know that that was the case. I also was there at a time when US-Russian relations were not very good. We've been here before, we've been at low points in our relationship over time. So, I had a contract that was for a year, but my visa was renewed every month and that was one way of saying, "Behave yourself, behave yourself, behave yourself, because we can yank your visa anytime."


Nico: Yeah, that can be stressful. You would never feel like you're in a stable situation.

Cynthia: Right, right, a little stressful. There was definitely surveillance outside of our apartment building. I lived with a woman from Iraq. She was in the Arabic department and I was in the English department, and they put us together in an apartment. So, we know that there were, every once in a while we'd see these black government-type official cars outside of our apartment building, which was not a foreigners' neighborhood at all. So, it was very easy to spot. We know that the phone was tapped and that kind of thing. The way that system or the way a system predicated upon surveillance or fear – Look, no police state can surveil 100% of the people 100% of the time. Although we're starting to wonder about that now in the age of big tech –

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: Right? Is our new fear not going to be Big Brother in the form of an all-pervasive and intrusive government? Is our new fear going to be the potential to surveil and control via big tech, basically? But back to the pre-internet age and the pre-big-tech age, no system could surveil everybody all the time. So, the idea is, is today the day, right? Is this the time that you're going to transgress and they're going to catch you? You can predicate that system on a sense of insecurity about Big Brother watching, since you know the Big Brothers can't be watching all the time.

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: But what if? What if it's today? So, you walk straight because what if today's the day you don't want to get caught going a little to the left, a little to the right? So, if you have something to lose, right? That's the other thing, is that a totalitarian system works well when the people it is controlling still have something to lose.

Nico: I sometimes wonder why these totalitarian systems didn't just kill off their dissidents. Of course, some of them were, but –

Cynthia: They did for a long time.

Nico: – You had Solzhenitsyn, who they just shipped off.

Cynthia: Right. Earlier, there were earlier days where they did just kill them off, right? The effort was just to simply eliminate them. You send them off to the camps. Most of them didn't survive when they were sent off to the camps. Or they were summarily executed in the places, the prisons where they were taken off. By the time you get to 1974 or something, which is when Solzhenitsyn is then exiled to the West, basically put on a plane, arrested in the night – Now, he had already served time in prison and had already become kind of an established dissident, but he was arrested in the middle of the night and put on a plane and given a couple of marks because they were sending him to Germany, basically.

Nico: Why would they do that? It just seems like he'd be more dangerous abroad.

Cynthia: He writes about not knowing whether he was going back to the camps or going to the West, by waiting to see where the sun was in the sky, in the direction that he was flying. Why would we do that? Again, think about controlling access to ideas that are dangerous to the regime. So, in the early days, destroying the carriers of those ideas was the preferred way of protecting that, the regime from the potential infection, right? There was a liberalization period called the Thaw where Khrushchev entered in, a secret speech in 1956 post-Stalin, the secret speech before the Communist Party Congress where Khrushchev basically says, "We kind of were excessive in this, in the abuses of Stalinism, and Stalin's tight grip on the country." There was a thaw, there was a period of a thaw.

It was a very interesting continuation into the early 90s and into the breakup of the Soviet Union, if you'd just bear with me for a minute. There was this interesting thaw where they said, "Okay, we really were excessive and we need to liberalize a little bit." This was in '60, '61. Solzhenitsyn's first work gets published in ... not his first work, but he published in that time period, by a very brave editor of the literary journal called New World. Publishes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was just this little diary of one day in the life of one of these prisoners in one of the camps. This was just jaw-dropping, right? That this was published. This was a liberalization, they called it the Thaw.

That gets clamped down on, it only lasts a few years. It gets clamped down on by the end of the 60s certainly. But there is this period in the early 60s where there is this thaw, and there is more access to the West during this thaw period, right? We have Western reporters, more of them. Of course, there were some there during the War. There were some there in the 30s even, in the 20s. John Reed was there during the Russian Revolution, the only American buried in the Kremlin wall. He died there covering the Revolution. You had this opening up in that period, in the 60s, right? So, it was not as easy at that point then to simply have somebody like Solzhenitsyn disappear, because it would have been found out by the West. Right?

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: But still, he's more dangerous inside the country infecting his compatriots than he is if you can isolate him outside of the borders, because there was no internet, again. Right? So, this idea of controlling your physical borders was another – You control the means of production, of producing texts and mimeographs and xerox machines. All of those things, typewriters, all of those things that predate the internet were very tightly controlled.

Then also controlling actually the physical access to the country. So, somebody is more dangerous inside the country at a certain point, than if you kick them out. That's why somebody like Solzhenitsyn would be kicked out. Going back to this Thaw period, what's really interesting is, think about the age of young people coming to social and political consciousness in that period of the Thaw, in the 60s right? By the time you get to Gorbachev coming, he's in his 50s in the mid-1980s, he's precisely that generation.

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: The people that are then able to take charge of this collapse of the old system and a re-imagining of a new system are precisely in that age range that had experienced this liberalization during the Thaw. They were in their 20s and 30s at that point. Now they're in their 40s and 50s by the mid-80s, and that means that they are in positions where they have enough, I guess, status and power to effect change, but they're not in their 70s and 80s, right. They're not on the way out of those positions.

Nico: So, much of what you're saying is making me think of so many different things, including the question, how aware would someone in their 20s or 30s during the 60s, during the Thaw in the Soviet Union, been aware of what was happening outside of the country? For example –

Nico: Are they aware of the Woodstock and the free love and, you know-

Cynthia: Sure, sure. I mean –

Nico: – And was that influencing them?

Cynthia: – Yeah, rock and roll was considered to be a decadent Western influence. But nonetheless, they were also growing their own rockers at the same time. Because of that, because of the influence, there was definitely more and more interaction like that. And so the intellectual elite and the educated elite would have had much more access to information. You did have a very robust Voice of America; very robust sort of BBC transmissions into the country, etcetera. So, people who spoke English, people who spoke foreign languages, people who could act could get access. Absolutely.

And there were educational exchanges starting up at that point. Many more tourists coming into the country along with tourists coming into the country you had things like old DVDs – not DVDs, VCR tapes, old tapes, VCR tapes. And so there's always been this kind of underlying, half-joking idea that the VCR and the bootleg tapes from the West really caused the collapse because it showed people that the West wasn't this big evil place. That they could actually see, not just hear about the ideology of the capitalist of the evil capitalist West, they could actually see in movies and you could see grocery stores and movies and you could see cities in the Western movies and all of a sudden you would start thinking, wow, it doesn't look like such an awful place after all. Now obviously movies are movies, not all documentaries, but still, there was a lot more of that kind of access. Much different than it would be today with the internet.

Nico: By way of closing, let's talk about today. How should we think about Russia today? It's regime when it comes to free speech, free inquiry. And do you think you've done a pretty good job of convincing me that things are much, much, much better than they were a few decades ago? At least with regard to the liberalization of Russia, is it moving in a more liberal direction? And what do we make of the disinformation campaign? What are they trying to accomplish? And it's a compound question, which is never good to ask, but I want to just get your general take on-

Cynthia: Right, well let me start with the disinformation campaign. So, we're rivals still in some ways. It's not the old Cold War. It's not a democracy fighting communism because like it or not, Russians really do vote now and people here don't, they want to think that all of the elections might be rigged, but they actually have some interesting things happen when they allow people to go out and vote. And people are becoming more socially conscious-

Nico: Didn't something happen in Moscow? Like the mirror Moscow or something wasn't the –

Cynthia: Yes, right, and they had some of these restrictions that kept people off the ballot. And young people protested, they were out in the streets. They were protesting these local elections. Now that's kind of unheard of in the past that people even participated like that in a kind of a social movement that said, wait a minute, we don't like what are our political leaders are doing? So, that gives me some optimism that things are going in the right direction. Young people are more socially conscious and more politically active and conscious than ever before, so that's kind of a good thing. But we're kind of still rivals US and Russia. So, there's a disinformation campaign, I'm not sure whether we maybe – Oh, let me see how should I start with this? We have meddled in each other's internal affairs for at least the last century and a half, let's put it that way. Right?

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: We have wanted to meddle in each other's affairs since then. Through things like propaganda and voice of America or whatever you want to –

Nico: $180,000 in Facebook ads.

Cynthia: Exactly. Exactly right. So, on the one hand, we want to, we want to look at the other that we're sort of competing with, and we want to be able to poke them every once in a while and say, things aren't so great. You're not so great, we're better than you. And, let's see if we can cause a little bit of mischief here. I also think, if you think about from a Russian perspective, okay, let's imagine again, a Russian perspective saying, "Look at those silly Americans who think silly Americans, naive Americans or really ignorant Americans who think that Russia is so powerful that we, through a disinformation campaign can actually affect the way millions of Americans think. We really are very powerful, aren't we?"

Nico: Yeah, not a regional power


Cynthia: Right. This is heady if you're really thinking about it. So, instead of they just kind of, ha, ha, ha. Because it does make us look gullible and not very well-informed if some crazy things that come out on Facebook helped me to decide how to participate in my own democratic process. It kind of gives them, I think a little bit too much power. And I think that that narrative has been used a little bit too much here to explain outcomes that people were unhappy with. To blame it all on the Russians.

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: I would suggest that in earlier days Russians would get away with it, and we wouldn't know that it was the Russians. So, disinformation, I think we've played a disinformation game on both sides for a very long time. They're probably playing at it now harder than we are playing at it inside of Russia. We exercised a very significant campaign in the Ukraine to try to keep the Ukraine from going to... back into the sphere of influence of Russia. And Russia would have seen that very much so, not as a disinformation campaign, but as a real interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine. Right. By spending $3 billion, $4 billion in the state department to try to make sure that Ukraine ended up in NATO.

So, we're still sort of meddling in each other's, not just in Facebook ads, but in very significant and substantial ways in each other's affairs, so that's problematic to a degree. But it's also something we've been doing for 150 years. And it's not just with Russia, we do it all around the world. You know, we back certain candidates in certain countries for a variety of reasons because we think that they'll be more positive to Americans' interest, and we support them in certain ways with money and with democracy, democratic institutions, organizations, volunteerism –

Nico: Yeah, Venezuela, case in point.

Cynthia: Yeah. Yeah. Israel. We do it, we do it, and so that's one thing. I think it's not that the sky is falling, that this is something new. Big powers are looking to sustain their power and to act in their own best interest. So, I think, so there's that. There is a lot of independent journalism happening in Russia. It's not nearly what you would see in the West. But again, think about that entire enterprise of quote-unquote "journalism" going from being completely state-run to being essentially privatized.

So, now you still have the major state, sort of state-run channels on TV, and on the radio, etcetera. And everybody knows that these are the ones that pretty much they're supportive of the regime, they're supportive of Putin, they're pretty much the standard-bearers for sustaining things... power the way it is. But then you have blogs and independent journalism and access to writings that are outside of the country as well. So, there's, I think, a degree of liberalization of the press that is also –

Unprecedented, and again it's only been 30 years, so they're figuring this out, right? So, I think that's positive. That's pretty positive. When I look at the big picture of U.S.-Russia relations as well, and again I'm not a political scientist, that was my undergraduate degree, but I'm not a political scientist. But at this point, right, when you look at the sort of the world, the context of our place and Russia's place in the world, we have a lot of common interests strategically to be partners. And I think that that's been a missed opportunity in our efforts to blame Russia for lots of things that are happening internally in the United States. We've missed the opportunity to partner in a way against, let's say, fundamentalist terrorist organizations, or destabilization in the Middle East, or just speaking of today, the coronavirus, right?

Nico: Yeah or the pushing oil prices down.

Cynthia: Or the oil prices, right. Not pushing Russia in towards China instead of toward partnering more with us. So, I think there's been some really missed opportunities. I'm not a Putin apologist, I don't mean to come off like a Putin apologist of course, but when you just think of, you know take Putin out, take Trump out, just think of Us-Russian interests in the world, it would be kind of nice if these two superpowers with a lot of power and a lot of resources could figure out how to have a better relationship, and freedom and access to each other's information and knowledge is one of the things that's really key to that.

Nico: Yeah crucial.

Cynthia: Yeah definitely.

Nico: Well, I think we will leave it there. I mean I could go on for another hour talking about this stuff.

Cynthia: Yeah, a lot to talk about.

Nico: Yeah. But that just means we'll have to have you back on the show sometime soon.

Cynthia: Absolutely.

Nico: All right.

Cynthia: Let me know. I'd be happy to. We'll do it again.

Nico: Yeah. Thanks again for coming on.

Cynthia: Absolutely. It was a pleasure, and thank you, and have a great weekend.

Nico: All right, that was Professor Cynthia Martin. This podcast is hosted, produced and recorded by me, Nico Perrino and edited by Aaron Reese. To learn more about So to Speak. You can follow us on Twitter at or like us on Facebook at Excuse me,

You can also email us or calling a question for a future show at 215-315-0100. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or Google Play. They do help us attract new listeners to the show and until next time, thanks again for listening. All right, before I hang up here, can I get 10 seconds of room tone on all the recording devices?

Nico: All right, wonderful. Clap so we can sync them up on our end. That was great. Thanks for taking the time.

Cynthia: Okay, you're welcome. I hope that was what you were looking for. Like you said, there's an awful lot to talk about, but I can put this in a Dropbox for you if you want, this recording that I have.

Nico: Yeah.

Cynthia: Just so that you would have it.

Nico: Yeah, whatever's easiest for you. I've got a recording on my end. I've got a recording of both of us.

Cynthia: Okay then.

Nico: But yours probably will come out better.

Cynthia: I can just hang onto it too if you want, or would you like it?

Nico: No, I'd like to hear it.

Cynthia: Okay.

Nico: Because it's probably a better quality than the interface that I'm using?

Cynthia: Oh, I don't know about that. You sound crystal clear to me, so I don't know.

Nico: You never know what I'll end up pulling, what it'll sound like when I end up pulling it down.

Cynthia: What is sounds like? Yeah.

Nico: From the adapter in our crappy computer.

Cynthia: Oh, okay. All right. We'll see.

Nico: All right, well stay in touch. I'm glad we got to do it. I would have loved to come to the studio, meet you in person, but you know.

Cynthia: Another time.

Nico: Another time. Virus-free time.

Cynthia: Yeah of course.

Nico: All right, take care.

Cynthia: All right, have a great weekend.

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