761.00/1–2450: Airgram

The Ambassador in the Soviet Union (Kirk) to the Secretary of State


A–88. Embassy’s A–6, Jan. 4. The optimism of recent Soviet pronouncements raises the question: how are the people themselves feeling about life and about the regime? First-hand evidence is scarcer than ever, but a few tentative inferences may be drawn from the general state of things as observed from the Embassy.

The life of the majority continues to be a hard one by Western standards, but it has seldom been much easier, materially speaking. It is impossible to say whether many feel disgruntled by the contrast between daily reality and the boasts of Soviet propagandists or by the slowness of improvement since the war compared to what they may have dreamed. Perhaps they are only resigned and apathetic. In any case the average citizen is probably too absorbed in getting the bare necessities of life to be greatly moved either by Soviet triumphs, domestic or foreign, or by the threat of war which is still dinned in his ears. The standard of living seems to have improved in some respects for city dwellers; there is a greater amount and variety of consumer’s goods, and this probably has some psychological effect even though price reductions may have been mostly offset by various [Page 1085] devices for reducing purchasing power. Some Embassy servants have remarked that times are getting better, and it is a fact that people in the streets are visibly better dressed than a year ago. The Embassy has less opportunity to observe the countryside, but is inclined to believe that the standard of living has merely held its own there. How far the campaign to bridge the gap between city and country, by such things as spreading electricity and radio facilities in the country, has had practical results is not known.

On the other hand, there is some reason for inferring rather marked improvement in the morale of the privileged classes, whose incomes permit them to take proportionately greater advantage of the consumer’s goods which are increasingly available, and whose position doubtless gives them a greater feeling of identification with the accomplishments of Party or State. For them the claim of Pravda’s New Year editorial (echoing Stalin in 1936) that “life has got better, life has got gayer” may have been not very far from the truth.

As memories of foreign lands fade (in the case of people who got abroad in the war) and communication with the outside world is reduced nearer and nearer to zero (e.g. by jamming VOA), a Soviet citizen has less basis for comparing his own lot with that of others, except what he is told by Soviet media. However much he may discount the latter—and it is far from certain that he usually does discount it when it refers to conditions abroad—the fact remains that he has very little in his present experience to make him envious of life elsewhere, and therefore critical of his own. On the contrary, the hypnotic flood of propaganda depicting the superiority of the Soviet system and the misery and degradation of “capitalism” must produce a cumulative impression on all but the strongest and most antagonistic minds. One point that is constantly repeated is that the Soviet economy has mastered the secret of steady progress, uninterrupted by crisis. Thus those elements of the population who are aware of any improvement in their lot probably expect continued improvement in the future, unless war comes (see below).

The extent to which the idealistic components of Bolshevik propaganda—the approach to full communism in the USSR, the ultimate triumph of “peace” and socialism throughout the world—appeal to the people remains problematic, but they doubtless have at least some effect on many, and a considerable effect on the young.

Probably much stronger and more general is the appeal to national pride made by the substantial signs of success in Soviet domestic and foreign affairs. Just as many Russian émigrés were visibly elated by Russian prowess in the last war, so a Soviet engineer or executive who perhaps pays only lip service to communist ideals will nevertheless probably derive considerable satisfaction from the general prestige and power of his country, especially as reflected in the flattering [Page 1086] mirror of the Soviet press. The most urgent postwar industrial reconstruction has apparently been accomplished; the five-year plan will probably be fulfilled ahead of time; great strides are allegedly being made in many fields, including atomic energy; the USSR is, on any account, one of the two “super-powers” of the present world, and the acts or statements of its leaders produce echoes around the world which are sedulously amplified in Pravda.

Such appeals to national pride probably are all the more potent because Russian patriotism, an unusually strong sentiment, has been crossed for centuries by a prevalent conviction of Russian backwardness and inferiority as compared with the West. The new sense of world leadership is therefore probably enhanced by its novelty. It was illustrated by two Soviet engineers recently encountered by travelling diplomats: they spoke of the vast size and resources of the USSR and said that it was going to replace the US as the world’s greatest power, just as the US had replaced Britain.

This brings up the question of war. Despite the strident crescendo of the “peace” drive in the press, the Embassy has the impression, gained chiefly from trips, American correspondents, and the general “feel” of Moscow, that people are less worried about the actual imminence of war than they were a year ago. Perhaps this is because war has so far failed to come, or because they feel the power of the USSR has grown to such an extent that it is less likely to be challenged.

Another factor in morale is the pressures exerted on the individual by various State and Party agencies. While the press echoes recurrent drives for more productive effort, better discipline, sharper self-criticism, it is difficult to gage the resulting psychological stresses, if any, or the extent to which ideal or other satisfactions may compensate for them. With regard to the harsher forms of pressure, though the foreign press uses the term “purge” at the slightest excuse, the signs of anything really deserving the name have at least not been evident locally, in the form either of numerous disappearances or of general nervousness manfested by the public. Prominent persons who have been scolded for this or that and dismissed from their jobs often turn up later in some apparently respectable capacity. Perhaps the recent restoration of the death penalty presages a change in this regard, but for the time being the country has the air of having settled down under controls which were thoroughly tightened after the war ended.

On the whole, therefore, it seems likely that the Soviet people—the privileged groups especially, the workers less, the peasants least if at all—reflect in varying degree the optimism of their rulers, and that morale is better now than at any time since the last war began.

This general conclusion can only be superficial, however, because it leaves untouched what may be going on invisibly in the depths of this [Page 1087] great people, unknown alike to their rulers and to foreign observers. It offers little basis for predicting what different groups would do in the event of some particular kind of war, or which way they would turn, short of war, if they had any alternative. Statements of Soviet defectors, which come to the Embassy’s attention from time to time, often contain estimates of popular disaffection which are startling in their magnitude, but which the Embassy is in no position to verify. It can only say that, since its own observations are restricted to the surface of Soviet life, what is inferred from that surface can be quite at variance with what really lies beneath.