Vladimir Pozner

The Pozner Paradox, Part II

VTR Date: December 2, 1987

Guest: Pozner, Vladimir


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Vladimir Pozner
Title: “The Pozner Paradox”, Part II
VTR: 12/2/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and last week I asked my guest, then whether he would stay for this week, too. So I’m going to open the program exactly the same way by saying: You know, I began to wonder the other evening just why people appear on this program. I know why I do, why I have for over 30 years now: I’m genuinely curious to learn of and from the ideas and information, and points of view of particularly interesting and accomplished persons from various other disciplines and persuasion. But why are they here? Surely not to hear what I have to say. Most of them don’t know me from Adam, and really couldn’t care less what I have to say about anything at all. Nor should they. Besides, except on rare occasions, I don’t say what I have to say…which is probably the key to my long life on the air. So that they – my guests – must indeed want to press upon or to share with the rest of us their ideas and points of view, want to enough to take their valuable time and to make real efforts to come here to our roundtable. Lord knows they’re not otherwise rewarded, except as the coin of this realm is access to your eyes and ears. So today, perhaps more than ever before, I really would like to know just what brings my guest here, metaphorically speaking…not from across town or around the corner, but from the USSR. For today on THE OPEN MIND my guest is Vladimir Pozner, commentator for the North America Service of Radio Moscow who escaped from Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940, lived right here in New York for nine formative years, then moved to East Berlin with his Russian-born father, and on to Moscow as a biology student at Moscow State University, then as a writer, editor and translator. Now I’ve reminded Mr. Pozner that we actually met in Moscow a couple of decades ago. I was there to study Soviet television, of all things. Educated early on here in the United States – indeed, Mr. Pozner’s high school, Stuyvesant, was the archrival to mine, DeWitt Clinton – he was a joy to know in Moscow. A friendly face, a familiar accent, and a lot in common…these were a wonderful presence for a wandering American, a very welcome sight for sore eyes. But whether or not then in Moscow he had anything in mind other than offering genuine helpfulness, as he joins me on THE OPEN MIND today, I hope it’s not ungracious for me to ask Mr. Pozner what his agenda here is, why he appears so frequently on American television. Surely not just because Mr. Gorbachev visits us, because Mr. Pozner has for almost a decade now been such a constant Soviet presence on our home screens. Indeed, Mr. Pozner, John Corry of The New York Times seems to find puzzling, even troublesome, the access American television has offered you to its viewers, something no American has in the USSR. To what, then, does at least THE OPEN MIND owe the pleasure of your company?

And he went on and told me why, told me how he disagreed with John Corry and you came back again today, Mr. Pozner, and I’m so grateful to you for that because I don’t think there are very many exchanges like this that have taken place. I wanted to start today, if I may, by referring to an article you may be familiar with. It was the cover story in Time magazine. It was Roger Rosenblatt’s essay on that piece on “A Day in the Life of the U.S.S.R.”. Toward the end of his essay, Roger wrote, “Americans believe that people were destined to live comfortably with their emotions as with all else. Soviet citizens to the contrary, believe that people are meant to live uncomfortably with their emotions as with all else. And so they do it well”. And he was trying to establish a kind of basic difference between you and me, between Soviet citizens and Americans. And I wonder if that hits the nail on the head.

Pozner: I think that that’s one of the most interesting statements I’ve heard in a long time in trying to distinguish between people in my country and people in this country. A serious, I would say profound statement, not one based on any attempt to sow enmity or antagonism. I’m not sure I agree with the word “Soviet”. I don’t think a Soviet character of that difference has been formed in seventy years. But if he had used the word “Russian” then I think he’d be very close to the mark. I think it’s true that Russians tend to feel that it is necessary to live uncomfortably with your inner self. And that it is in the combat with this inner self that a human being moves towards perfection, never attaining it. That to be comfortable with one’s self almost means to be, almost means to be spiritually and mentally dead. That is only when you’re uncomfortable with yourself, with your inner life, with your own ideas and emotions that you become greater as a human being. I don’t know whether he hit the nail on the head for Americans, but he certainly, in my opinion, hit it on the head for Russians.

Heffner: But, of course, you’ve lived here. You know more about us than most Russians.

Pozner: Well in that sense I would say that “Yes”, but perhaps not all Americans would agree with that. I think that when you read the best there is in American literature, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Penn Warren, there is a lot of inner turmoil, a lot of suffering with feelings and emotions. So perhaps the best part of the American mind is very close in that sense.

Heffner: Well, what would you say…I appreciate what you say that perhaps[s the best party of the American mind needs to and does suffer, too. Quite seriously, what are the implications for the relationships between Russians and Americans of this kind of observation? What it is you need and what it is we need, by and large?

Pozner: You know, I think that we always find attractive that which we lack. Russians find Americans attractive precisely, perhaps, because Americans are different in that sense. They are, it would seem much more at ease with themselves and with the world. They’re easy-going, they’re relaxed, they’re casual, and Russians know that they’re not. That they are not. And they like this. But on the other hand, Americans who have visited the Soviet Union and particularly who have been in Russian homes and met Russians, when they leave, they miss what the Russians have, which is this inner turmoil, this desire to sit at a table all night and talk about everything in the world intensely and passionately. So, if we agree that opposites attract, you know, plus/minus, the magnet and so on, then I think that this is part of our relationship and part of what I believe is the attraction we have for each other. I think we do have one, very much so. Regardless of the political differences which are very profound.

Heffner: You know, I again appreciate what you’re saying about opposites attracting and Americans who go to the Soviet Union sometimes come back and say, realize that there was something profound in the deep emotions of Russians that they envy. I have to look at it, of course, from the other point of view. I have to ask you, you’re my expert there, I have to ask you what the implications are of Russians adopting and adapting to, increasingly, the American pattern of things.

Pozner: I’d have to ask you to clarify that. What do you mean by “adopting and adapting to…”

Heffner: Well, we’ve heard so much talk here in the past few years of the rise in the Soviet Union of a kind of enterprise attitude, a willingness to adopt, to some extent at any rate, a kind of mobility and fluidity in your economic system that wasn’t characteristic of the Soviet Union before. Is that a fair statement of what’s happening?

Pozner: I think it’s a fair statement. I think that if you’re looking at what you would call a “free market” society or economy that exists in many countries of the world, it exists in many West European countries, as you know. And yet it does not make a German particularly like an American, although you have the same kind of economy. What I’m driving at is the fact that we may adapt to a different kind of economic system is not going to change the basic character that we’ve been talking about and I’m very thankful for that, because if economies created the same kind of people all over the world, the world would be a terribly boring place.

Heffner: Mr. Pozner, are you not an economic determinist?

Pozner: (Laughter) No, I’m not. But to get back to your question…

Heffner: You’re not?

Pozner: No, I’m not. No, I’m not. I do want to say that what we’re adopting has nothing to do with the American model. I don’t want to lecture, this is not the place to do it, but I would say the following: the slogan of Socialism, as it was born and formulated is, “From each according to his ability. To each according to his work”. Now, clearly that means that people have different abilities and should be paid differently for the work they do in relationship to that ability. And if you ability is higher and the work you do is better, you get more. That is the essence of Socialism. And that is something that we have ignored for nigh on seventy years.

Heffner: What happened to “Each according to his needs”?

Pozner: Aha! That’s Communism.

Heffner: And you’re saying you are abandoning Communism?

Pozner: I’m saying that we have a lo-o-ong way to go before we can reach Communism. This is one of the main misconceptions in the United States. We are not a Communist society. We’d love to be. That is our ultimate goal, to build a Communist society where, indeed, everyone can have according to his needs. No way can we do that today. No way. Socialism, according to Marx, is the first and lowest phase of a Communist society. Before we reach true Communism, I will die for sure. I don’t think my children will see it, and I’m not even sure my grandchildren will see it. And to be perfectly frank with you, I’m not sure it can be done. It’s a great ideal to me. I’ll work for it because I think it’s possible, but I would not say, “I know it’s possible”.

Heffner: What then can be done, particularly if the concept of the free market, whether it comes from the United States alone or other countries, is insinuating itself into Soviet life?

Pozner: It’s not a free market in the capitalist, to use an economic term, in the capitalist sense. Because in the capitalist sense, a free market, first of all, means private ownership. It means you or I can own a bank or an industry. It means that you or I can hire labor and exploit that labor and make a profit out of the people who are working for me and you. And that is what capitalism is really all about. In the Soviet Union that does not exist, cannot exist and will not exist. I can, today, in the Soviet Union open a restaurant where all the labor I can have is my family or what is called a cooperative, where we all equally share the profits. I cannot own an industry, I cannot own land. I cannot own what is called “the means of production”. That’s a very different kind of free economy. It’s not at all the same. It remains Socialist in character.

Heffner: You mean it’s not a free economy the way we know it.

Pozner: Absolutely not. And what Americans, I think again, (find) confusing is that the Soviets are taking the American model, the capitalist model and bringing it into the Soviet Union and thereby they’re changing Socialism. What Mr. Gorbachev has been saying all along is, “What we’re doing is having more Socialism. We’re developing what Socialism was all about, which we did not do for so many years and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve done so poorly”.

Heffner: Of course there are so many Americans who would say, “Well, that’s fine then because if the Soviets have done so poorly”, to use your phrase…

Pozner: Yes.

Heffner: …”we hope, therefore, they will continue to do so poorly”…

Pozner: Of course.

Heffner: …”by not adopting our system”.

Pozner: Right.

Heffner: Do you think that will happen, though?

Pozner: I don’t. When I say that we’ve done poorly, I’m measuring it by our own standards.

Heffner: What do you mean?

Pozner: Let me tell you this: You know and anyone who’s acquainted with the Soviet Union knows where we started seventy years ago, an extremely backward country. Extremely backward. Seventy-seven percent illiteracy, hardly any developed industry. What’s more a country ravaged by the Civil War, ravaged by World War I, and so on and so forth. And when you look at how far the Soviet Union went, became the first country to open up the space era, with the Nazi onslaught in World War II and notwithstanding the terrible destruction inflicted by the Nazis, came back to its feet very quickly. When you look at that fact that it does not have unemployment, that nobody lives in the streets, that there is a roof over everyone’s head, you cannot say the Soviet Union hasn’t done anything. But we feel that we could have done much better, had we truly observed Socialism, which we did not do. Now, if Americans say, “Well, we’re glad that they’re not going to adopt our system because that means they won’t be successful”, I’m happy with that. What I’m hoping is that we will really be able to inject Socialism into the society, to the measure it should be injected and then you will see how well we will do.

Heffner: They you’re saying all the reports many of us have heard of real economic trouble in the Soviet Union aren’t true.

Pozner: Oh, I’m not saying that at all. We have very serious economic problems, very serious. What I’m saying is that if you look at the seventy years of our development, you have to admit that certain tremendous achievements were made. You can’t just write it off and say, you know, every Five Year Plan way back when in 1929…when the first one was announced, The New York Times was the first paper to say, “They’ll never fulfill that Plan”. We did. There’s always been the West saying, “They won’t do anything”, and we’ve done it. But today we have serious economic problems and the first person to admit that has been Mr. Gorbachev and the Communist Party. And, in fact, Mr. Gorbachev has said that the fate of Socialism in the Soviet Union hangs in the balance. If we don’t solve our economic problems, our Socialist experiment will fail.

Heffner: Of course, we can’t, at least in this country, we can’t discuss economic matters totally outside of the question of other matters, human rights…matters of human rights. When you’ve been here in the United States, have you felt fearful? Have you been fearful? Have you been frightened here in the US?

Pozner: A couple of times.

Heffner: Crime in the streets or official?

Pozner: No, not official. But I’ve been threatened a couple of times. I had one rather unpleasant incident at one public speaking event where some people broke into the hall and seemed to be very threatening. I’ve had a few of those. I don’t scare easily, but, you know, there have been a couple of times when I felt, when I was a bit afraid.

Heffner: But generally, I gather paranoia aside…

Pozner: (Laughter)

Heffner: …you’re not a fearful person here.

Pozner: I’m not.

Heffner: And yet my level of paranoia isn’t very high, too. And yet – and it has been some years since I’ve been in the Soviet Union, and yet there…I told on this program about Bill Benton saying to me that my weeks in the Soviet Union would be the most exciting time in my life and the day I left would be the happiest day of my life. And that, in a sense, was true each of the times I was there. A sense of oppression. Now, maybe it was paranoia. But we feel, in this country, and I don’t think it’s unfair for me to say, “we feel”, that there is a considerable lack of concern for individual rights, for human rights in the Soviet Union. Now, we’re not going to debate that there because I presume you’ll say “No”, that that isn’t true, but do you see a changing attitude now in the Soviet Union toward individual rights, toward human rights, toward the lot of those who would leave the Soviet Union of their own free will?

Pozner: Well, I’d have to respond first to what you said about visiting the Soviet Union. I fell that very many Americans go to the Soviet Union and have been conditioned to fear it before they go.

Heffner: Perhaps.

Pozner: And as I have been here, I know that I have been tailed by the FBI. And I know that I’ve been under observance. It doesn’t scare me because I…in fact I invite it. I want them to know everything I do and to know wherever I go. But when you turn it around and say, “You know, I know that I’m being watched by the KGB and that’s scary”, that’s a difference of interpretation. I think we, we Soviets, are watched here just as closely by your organizations as you are by ours when you visit our country. And there we’re totally equal. And it’s a sad state of affairs, but that’s the way it is. Just like our travel is limited in both countries and so on. Now, do I see a change? Of course I see a change. Of course I see a change because if you look at our seventy years of existence and you look at, in particular, the Stalin period and what happened during those years, and how we live today, not to see the difference is to be blind. There are changes, we are growing more sophisticated. We are growing more sure of ourselves. We have, we are less, we have a smaller, if you wish, inferiority complex vis-à-vis the world, than we did once upon a time. But you have to understand that we are still a very young society and we still feel threatened. If I may draw a parallel. When this society, the United States of America, was seventy years old, in the 1840s, there are cases of people being tarred and feathered and lynched for saying they were in favor of the British crown, because in those years America was still fearful of the British. Today, any American can get up and say, “I want the King” and people will say, “Hey great, come have a drink with me” or something. No threat. It doesn’t scare. We’re just moving out of our revolutionary experience…

Heffner: So you…

Pozner: …what I’m saying is that the difference in attitude has a lot to do with the history, but I see a change, yes I do.

Heffner: But you wouldn’t recommend that someone get up and say the equivalent of…

Pozner: I wouldn’t. I still wouldn’t. And there would be a violent reaction, not just from on top. There’d be a violent reaction from the crowd. There really would be because people are still very intense about what happened seventy years ago. There are still some people who remember it. It’s almost like if someone today here in this country said, “Oh yeah, I remember George Washington. I saw him”. It’s a different situation, but as we evolve, our attitudes change and we become sure of ourselves.

Heffner: You know, talking about attitudes, changed attitudes and different attitudes from our own, we’re taping this program early in December and in this morning’s New York Times there’s this, what has to be a very amusing story about Soviet tongues wagged over Mrs. Gorbachev. And this has to do with Tom Brokaw’s NBC interview with Mr. Gorbachev the other night. They quote Tom Brokaw, the interviewer, “We’ve all noticed the conspicuous presence of Mrs. Gorbachev in your travels. Do you go home in the evening and discuss with her national politics, political difficulties and so on in this country?” Mr. Gorbachev: “We discuss everything”. Mr. Brokaw: “Including Soviet affairs at the highest level?” Mr. Gorbachev: “I think I have answered your question in toto. We discuss everything”. But as Soviet viewers…that’s what we heard…

Pozner: Okay.

Heffner: …and saw here in this country. But as Soviet viewers heard the superimposed Russian translation tonight, Mr. Brokaw first asked if the Gorbachevs discussed public issues. Mr. Gorbachev’s first answer remained uncut, but the second question and answer were cut entirely”. And this was the only change in the entire broadcast and presumably it was a significant one because of the role of women in Soviet society. Is that a fair interpretation?

Pozner: No. No. I don’t think so at all. I don’t know…first of all I’ll have to say that I watched the conversation here in the United States. I was in Washington when it went on the air and I haven’t seen the Soviet version and I haven’t heard the translation and I say this, not to dodge your question but…

Heffner: Let’s assume this is true.

Pozner: If this is true, I would say that first of all the second, the part that supposedly had been cut is a repetition of the firs question anyway. And secondly, I would also say that this may reflect a desire not to aggravate a certain part of the population that has been growling and voicing unhappiness, as it were, at the prominence of Madame Gorbachev. We have a very fickle, we are a very fickle nation. Before Mr. Gorbachev became the General Secretary, our leaders never too0k their wives with them when they traveled, as differing from Western leaders. So the people in the Soviet Union were all grumbling about that. They said, “See, al the Western leaders have wives and ours don’t”. Now Mr. Gorbachev travels everywhere with his wife. And people say, “Well why is she going everywhere with him?” This is…it’s almost funny. But I think that perhaps that issue was kept in mind and perhaps that explains…

Heffner: Do you think he’s a little too modern, a little too Western? Some would say…

Pozner: I don’t think so.

Heffner: …for Soviet tastes.

Pozner: No, he’s not, he’s not Western at all.

Heffner: He’s not Western?

Pozner: No. I don’t quite understand when people…this one is Western and this one is not Western…what do they mean by that? I think he’s very Russian. He’s very typical, in a good way, of his generation. I would say virtually the first generation of Soviets to have been born after the Revolution and gone through the entire system and acquired a university education. No Soviet leader before Mikhail Gorbachev had a university degree except Lenin, the man who lead the Revolution. This is a new, a new generation that’s come to the forefront. Many, many people in the Soviet Union are like Gorbachev in the sense of being that generation. They’re not Western, they’re Russian.

Heffner: The question then has come up whether being the first of this new generation, whether he can maintain himself in power.

Pozner: Well, he’s the first to become the leader of the nation, but he’s not the first of this generation.

Heffner: No, I understand.

Pozner: There are many people around him who are from that generation. You know, back in the…I think it must have been the 1860s, a wonderful, a truly wonderful Russian historian, Solovyov was his last name, delivered a series of lectures at Moscow University on the two hundredth birthday of Peter the Great. And the first lecture was on the issue of what is a great statesman. And he examines that in detail and he comes to the conclusion that a great statesman is a statesman who has come at the right time, is doing the right thing, the right man, doing the right thing, at the right time. And I think that’s precisely what you have with Mr. Gorbachev. He is expressing the needs and the desires of his time. It is not a question of whether or not he can stay in power. It is a question of to what extent what he does, fully expresses what the nation needs and desires. And I think that is exactly what he is doing. Now since there are immense changes occurring and since people all over the world resist change, we’re all a little bit conservative, we all say, “Yeah, change is fine as long as it doesn’t affect me”. There are some people who feel threatened, insecure, don’t know how to cope with the change. These are not some plodding bureaucrats, these are just normal people. So there is some resistance at that level. There are also bureaucrats who resist because they see this as a threat to their job. But by and large, what is happening is a reflection of a need. It’s not a goody-goody guy doing something good. That’s what’s important.

Heffner: What’s important too, is that our time is up and you’ll have to come back still again sometime in the future.

Pozner: (Laughter)

Heffner: Thank you so much for joining me today, Mr. Pozner.

Pozner: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s topic, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.