Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 2000
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Merrily, we control along...
A career high note
Home remedies revisited

Merrily, we control along...

At the end of 1936, the Soviet trade union newspaper Labor published a front-page picture of Joseph Stalin as Grandfather Frost, the Russian Santa Claus. Adjacent to the photo was an illustration of children dancing about a "New Year's Tree." Stalin was the "father of the nation," and a poem said, "The whole country exalts, laughs, and gleams with merriment/ because children live joyfully/...because, for us children/our great Stalin is our best friend."

History professor Jeffrey Brooks takes a keen interest in this page from the newspaper because it says much to him about the bizarre cult of Stalin that was foisted upon the Soviet people by the state-controlled mass media of the 1930s. Brooks spent a decade reading copies of Labor, Pravda, Red Star, Izvestiia and other newspapers, to examine and explain the public culture created by the Communist regime from the revolution of 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953. His scholarship was recently published in Thank You, Comrade Stalin! (Princeton, 2000).

Brooks had previously studied Russian popular culture from before the 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. That pop culture had been vigorous. A popular film industry flourished. Publishers churned out pop detective stories by the thousands, as well as Russian versions of Horatio Alger stories. "I was curious to know what happened after the revolution," Brooks says, "when everything changed."

The official Soviet culture included art, music, literature, film, dance, drama, public lectures, and radio. But the most commanding voices, he says, were the newspapers, so he concentrated on them. What he found was complete, ruinous state control that eventually led to a bizarre sort of ritualized theater played out in the newspapers that he studied. The Bolsheviks obliterated commercial pop culture by nationalizing local firms, destroying stocks of goods and halting imports, and curtailing print translations. On only the second day of their rule, they issued the "Decree on the Press" that closed down opposition newspapers. Says Brooks, "They believed the press and the publishing industry was a weapon the bourgeois used to mislead the people." Article 14 of the new Soviet constitution read, "To guarantee working people real freedom to express their opinions, the Russian Socialist Federation of the Soviet Republic terminates the press's dependence on capital and puts all technical and material means for publishing newspapers, brochures, books, and other printed material in the hands of the working class and poor peasantry and ensures their free distribution throughout the whole country." What actually happened was much different.

Jeffrey Brooks
The Russian press before the revolution, says Brooks, had been censored but diverse and open to a certain amount of genuine dialogue. And it was driven, to a limited extent, by consumer interest, so it printed what they wanted to read: serial novels, some political debate (though it drew the line at reporting anything positive about political opposition), and stories of everyday problems and calamities. "The [pre-Soviet] newspapers reflected the society that was there, with all its tension," Brooks says. "If there was a murder or a flood, they printed the story."

The Soviet government after 1917 began dictating all content of the popular media, telling the people, in effect, what they should be curious about and what they needed to know. Adds Brooks, "The Soviet press would report a flood in Japan, but not in Russia."

To an extent, says Brooks, in the first years of the Communist government the press was a means for the elite to talk amongst themselves, with limited dialogue on how the state should advance the socialist revolution. And it made some effort to convince the public. But under Stalin's dictates, any semblance of dialogue disappeared as the press and all other forms of popular culture became instruments for celebrating the state's accomplishments and transmitting orders from the government. Newspapers became filled with articles congratulating the state or the Communist Party for its wisdom and success, accounts of a robust economy (whether it was actually robust or not), stigmatizing portraits of the state's enemies, and unending praise of Stalin.

The Soviet government used the press to create what Brooks characterizes as "the economy of the gift": everything good in life was a gift of the state, for which the people owed gratitude. Newspapers published letters from workers and peasants thanking Comrade Stalin for everything imaginable--the chance to exceed a quota for wheat production, for a happy life, for raising the Soviet Union's children. These expressions of gratitude grew to take up one-third of a typical newspaper's daily edition. Stalin was the all-wise father of the country, the bestower of gifts. Says Brooks, "He was God and Santa Claus and everything else tossed together."

World War II posed a problem for Stalin worship: The first months after Germany invaded in 1941 were a disaster for the Russians. Millions of soldiers and civilians died, major cities like Minsk fell to the invaders, and a spring offensive ordered by Stalin in 1942 proved a costly failure. Brooks observes that until Soviet fortunes turned around in 1943, Stalin nearly vanished from the papers. In the 18 months before the Nazi invasion, his image appeared on the front page of Pravda 31 times; during the first 30 months of battle, Stalin's image appeared only 25 times. And only nine of those were current photos of him in action; the rest were shots from before the war or formal portraits. The center of adulation and reverence became the Red Army or the nation as a whole. Not until 1943, when the Russians began winning the war, did Stalin again take center stage.

After the dictator's death in 1953, Brooks says, the government maintained its control on the media, though without the same cult of personality. This iron grip was part of the Soviet Union's downfall, he says. In his book, he writes, " the end, [control of the media] left little room for a critical commentary adequate to recognize [the state's] own defects and to provide a nuanced understanding of its accomplishments."

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Brooks notes, the language of this monopolized public discourse changed, but many attitudes remain. He says, "It was not surprising that Boris Yeltsin introduced Vladimir Putin to the people on New Year's Eve, the holiday that the Soviets celebrated instead of Christmas, with a New Year's tree in the background. Putin was Yeltsin's gift to the Russian people, and the presumption was that they would now thank him for goods and services. -Dale Keiger

Photo by Walter H. Scott
A career high note

Renowned pianist Leon Fleisher, who has served on the Peabody Conservatory faculty for more than 30 years, was recently inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, located in Cincinnati.

Fleisher, one of the country's most distinguished pianists, conductors, and teachers, was among the third group of inductees to this hall of fame, which was founded to honor and promote American music and musicians. Among those inducted with Fleisher this year were Eugene Ormandy, Walter Piston, Beverly Sills, Rudolf Serkin, and George Szell. Previous inductees have included Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Charles Ives, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington. -DK

Photo by Jay Van Rensselaer
Home remedies revisited

Ever wonder what people stashed in their medicine cabinets in past centuries? When the Charles Carroll family left the Homewood House in 1834, putting the house up for sale, they penned a list of family pharmaceuticals lining a cabinet in the office. In some ways, the inventory reads trendy late 20th century: herbal medicines. On the other hand, most people today don't keep opium behind their bathroom mirrors.

As part of a regular series of Homewood House tours meant to capture the lifestyle of the era, museum staff featured the herbs and essential oils commonly used in the early 1800s. "The goal is to provide insight into how our forebears used what they had, to deal with seasonal changes," says Judith Proffitt, museum program coordinator. Spring routinely brought bugs, heat stroke, and cleaning projects. "Families used herbs for many of the things we use chemicals for. . . . These were the medicines of the day, as well as the house-cleaning products and moth repellents."

As odd as some herbal uses sound, the link between past and present is stronger than most would imagine. As Proffitt notes: "Almost 200 years later, we are back to using them."

Spirits Salt: To revive a person who has fainted

Rhubarb: Digestive purgative (much like prunes)

Nitric Ether: Refrigerant, diuretic, antispasmodic

Borax: Sedative, astringent, and in some forms insect killer

Red Pepper: Digestive stimulant

Fowler's Solution Arsenic: To treat fevers, relieve headaches

Sal Ammoniae: Tonic, antacid

Oil of Cinnamon: Numb teeth and gums, aid teething infants

Oil of Almonds: Internally, expectorant for coughs

Opium: Pain killer

Honey: Expectorant, also useful to asthmatics

Wax: Beeswax used to polish furniture

Camphor: Ointment for chest colds, also used in cleaning products

Spirits Lavender Compound: To heal burns and skin rashes, and relieve lethargy and headaches
-Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson