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Survival: Something a former Soviet propagandist can believe in

Vladimir Pozner, who is quick to apologize for the ideology he sought to spread to the West, knows a thing or two about makeovers. He outlived the Soviet bureaucracy to become a talk show superstar.

March 05, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — The state television center looms like a Soviet phantom from the winter mists of Moscow, a drab, massive relic that nobody has bothered to renovate.

The facade is faded, but the corridors inside hum with young careerists making bright, government-sanctioned television for broadcast to all 11 Russian time zones. Vladimir Pozner, remodeled Soviet relic in his own right, strides the shining hallways, a television superstar with sharp-cut clothes, gleaming head and quick, fox-like darts of the eye.

Russia's answer to Larry King, Pozner is a recovered propagandist who for years broadcast apologies, justifications and moral equivalencies to the West in the flat-toned English of his New York boyhood.

"I was very ideologically committed, and I believed in it for a very long time," he says now. "That's why I was such a good propagandist."

His eyes snap and sparkle. He is remembering the craft of masquerading the truth, and enjoying the memory.

Now Pozner is a part of Vladimir Putin's Russia and you don't know what to make of him, whether to think that he is in fact still a propagandist, that the devil has changed but the deal lives on, or whether he has just gone mainstream, getting on TV to question Russian celebrities, jetting off to Paris and New York, drinking beer at midday in the brasserie he named after his mother.

He has outlived Soviet bureaucracy and his own private corruption to become a study in being neither here nor there, in the disorientation of living and breathing a fervent ideology only to lose it. And because his maturation has consisted of the slow stripping away of belief in communism, his story is quintessentially Russian.

"Once your belief system is destroyed, it's almost impossible to pick up another one," he says. "How do you react, how do you live after that? Most people just go to pieces. They say, 'Well, in that case, I don't give a damn about anything.' "

He ended up in Moscow because he was the child of exiles, raised on nostalgia for a Russia he'd never seen. He was born in France and reared in New York, where he was a paperboy and his father earned enough at MGM for a sprawling apartment in a polished corner of Manhattan. The family left America when his father, who Pozner believes worked as a Russian spy, flouted his boss' demand to relinquish his Soviet citizenship and consequently lost his job.

Never mind that Pozner's family arrived in the twilight of Stalin's Terror, that his father couldn't find work. The biggest snowflakes he'd ever seen spun in the windows of the Metropol Hotel. He was on the edge of Red Square. He was 18, and he was home.

"He educated me politically that the Soviet Union was the only just society, and he remained a true Red patriot until his last day," Pozner, 74, says of his father. "He never, ever told me about working for the KGB, and he never, ever complained or hinted at having made a mistake by coming back."

Pozner went to a college meant for Russian officers who'd missed out on education because of the war, and he fell in love. He married a Russian woman and got a job as a propagandist.

He's sorry now, and says so often. His lowest point, he says, was making excuses for the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. At the slightest prompting, he launches into a description of regret.

"It lies on my conscience," he says, "and I'll never be able to overcome it."


These days, when Pozner is known for his weekly current affairs talk show on Russia's First Channel, nobody really remembers his old job. For one thing, his voice was sent overseas on broadcast waves; he was never meant for domestic consumption and had no local audience. If people think of Pozner as a propagandist, they see him as a figure whose purpose is purely contemporary and domestic.

In the shadowy and mutually suspicious realm of today's Russia, Pozner draws criticism from both extremes of the political spectrum. Hard-liners look askance at his liberal leanings and foreign upbringing; opposition figures scoff that he's the journalistic equivalent of political parties set up by the Kremlin to create the appearance of robust opposition.

"For [the government] he plays this role: 'Look, we have this person and he's a liberal and you can see him on our TV,' " said Sergei Muratov, a television critic and journalism professor at Moscow State University. "I don't think they're particularly happy having him on the First Channel, but he's a very famous journalist and they don't want to lose him."

There is always that whisper, trailing public figures who worked for the Soviet state and split their time between Russia and the West, of intelligence entanglement. Crisply and absolutely, Pozner denies any intelligence ties. He was banned from travel overseas for 30 years, he says, as punishment for resisting the advances of the KGB.

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