The way that Russians remember JFK today can be largely traced back to Soviet propaganda efforts during the Cold War, which worked tirelessly to portray the young president as a progressive reformer.
Kennedy's positive image in the USSR was a result of Soviet propaganda. Photo: AP
On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963, the Soviet newspaper headlines were catchy as usual: “Uzbek cotton growers set new record,” “Prepare now for spring,” and a report on a visit by then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to Iran. The news of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy was placed in the lower part of the front page, barely discernible from other international events.
However, the priority of local news over international was the norm for Soviet newspapers, and no one raised an eyebrow. But the Soviet reader, savvy at interpreting the meaning of political events from circumstantial signs, such as the arrangement of leaders atop Lenin’s Mausoleum during the May Day and Revolution Day parades, understood with just a casual glance at the seemingly inconspicuous column inches that the news from the U.S. had alarmed the Soviet leadership to an extraordinary degree.
Published under a portrait of Kennedy were the texts of telegrams of condolence from all the top leaders of the country — even one from Nina Khrushcheva, the wife of the First Secretary of the Communist Party, addressed to Jacqueline Kennedy. A few days later, the Soviet Union dispatched Khrushchev confidant Anastas Mikoyan to the funeral ceremony in Washington — the only socialist country to send a representative. Stories on Kennedy’s life and personality, and analyses of the circumstances of his death, were published daily in the newspapers until the spring of the following year, sometimes taking up several double-spreads.
It should be said that even before the tragic events in Dallas, the image of John F. Kennedy in the Soviet press had acquired traits wholly uncharacteristic of any other White House leader during the Cold War period. Kennedy faced almost no criticism, and his policy initiatives often received cautious, but at the same time, obvious approval.
Two episodes in particular were cited by Soviet propagandists: Kennedy’s speech on June 10, 1963, in which he called for peaceful coexistence between socialist and capitalist countries, and his administration’s signing in August 1963 of a treaty to ban all nuclear tests except those conducted underground. The papers constantly highlighted Kennedy’s political standoff against right-wing forces, racists from the Southern states, and ardent anti-Communists, who, by the fall of 1963, were personified by future Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
The massive campaign in the Soviet press, replete with heartfelt sympathy toward the young, forward-looking president, cut down in his prime, had a surprisingly powerful effect, the traces of which can be found in modern Russia. Many of the older generation still single out Kennedy from other U.S. presidents, remember the most important events connected with his name, and are always ready to offer their version of the mystery of his assassination.
Why did this U.S. president, who in fact clashed with Moscow more than any other, suddenly became a near icon, the embodiment of all things good and progressive in the eyes of the Kremlin? Did a handful of initiatives in the last months of his life really and so radically change the assessment of his personality in the Soviet Union?
A more likely explanation is that Kennedy’s image was a product of Soviet propaganda and was the result of his help in resolving a key issue – for both the Soviet leadership and Khrushchev personally.
As revealed in his memoirs, Khrushchev to his dying day was anxious about the international community’s assessment of the Cuban missile crisis. The accusation of cowardice and shameful backpedaling under U.S. pressure could only be countered by proving that, in reality, Soviet policy had served to seriously reduce the threat of a U.S. attack on Cuba. Since this reduction was, in essence, only as good as Kennedy’s word, it became necessary to turn the conniving, unprincipled go-getter who appeared in the Soviet press in 1961 and 1962 into a progressive champion of peace and civil rights, and a trustworthy guy.
Kennedy’s assassination was a terrible blow to the designs of the Soviet leadership and it punched a hole through the carefully constructed drama of Soviet-U.S. relations. Less than a year later, Khrushchev was removed from all his posts and pensioned off. The Cuban gamble was one of the main, if unspoken, reasons.
But the propaganda machine had no reverse gear.
Perhaps nowhere else in the world were the events in Dallas interpreted so plainly and straightforwardly as in the Soviet Union. By Nov. 23, reporters from the scene had accused the “far right” of the act. It dovetailed nicely with what they had been writing for the past few months, and diverted attention from the dubious past of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald, who had lived for some time in the Soviet Union. This version soon became official. In a four-volume history of the United States published in Moscow in 1987, the authors of the relevant section were tight-lipped: “It was clear that Kennedy fell victim to hysteria and intolerance, implanted by right-wing circles.”
In the Soviet Union, as well as in the United States, the ruling elites tried to inculcate into the public consciousness the most convenient version of the assassination from a propagandist point of view. Both the conclusions of the Warren Commission on the “lone assassin,” and the Soviet concept of “right-wing conspiracy,” were designed to airbrush the other far less salubrious explanations – such as the rumors of C.I.A. or K.G.B. involvement.
Interestingly, the wider American public refused to accept the official point of view, while people in the Soviet Union, highly skeptical of much of what appeared in the Soviet newspapers, took their government’s version to heart. This is perhaps due to the prestige enjoyed by many of the international journalists who covered Dallas, who were a special, privileged caste among Soviet reporters. The over-hyped “right-wing conspiracy” has been passed down from generation to generation, so much so that Russians today are the least likely people of all to question who killed President Kennedy.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.