Tool for cultural advancement and greater understanding, or mind-numbing distraction? That’s a question people ask about every new communication technology. As Russian historian Kristin Roth-Ey writes, it was a particularly tricky one for Soviet officials and citizens in the 1950s and ’60s, when television was new and exciting.
Roth-Ey writes that the Soviet government immediately saw television’s potential. It was a way to demonstrate the regime’s technological capacity, promote the idea of a socialist “good life,” and bring domestically made media into citizens’ homes.
“For a regime struggling, and mostly failing, to prevent its citizens from tuning in to foreign radio, television was a very alluring alternative,” Roth-Ey writes.
The early televisions had screens the size of a postcard and broke down frequently. There wasn’t much to watch, either. In the late 1950s, the most active station in the country, Moscow TV, only broadcast for four hours a day. And yet as early as 1954, a New York Times reporter observed that Muscovites were “frankly wild about television.”
While it wasn’t until 1970 that the majority of Soviet homes had TVs, many households got them much earlier—and not only wealthy ones. In 1955, a visiting American marveled at houses that sagged in the mud but were equipped with TV antennas.
Despite its evident propaganda potential, Roth-Ey writes, TV production was far from a centralized government endeavor. In the early days, ham radio clubs run by civil defense groups set up local stations. For ambitious apparatchiki, TV was a tricky medium. It was impossible to see—or to report to one’s superiors—how many people actually watched a broadcast, or how they reacted. As the Communist Party magazine Kommunist complained in 1959:
To some people, reading a lecture on television seems not a terribly important affair, while appearing in a lecture hall seating 300–500 people seems so much more responsible: after all, you can count how many people were there and how many questions were asked.
Officials also hoped to spread cultural literacy through TV, Roth-Ey writes. In 1965, Kommunist described the medium as “aesthetic education’s most widespread and flexible instrument” and “a powerful tool for the propaganda of the beautiful.” Stations were allowed to broadcast feature films within as little as a month of their theatrical release, and TV crews brought many theater and dance performances to home audiences.
Still, the artistic world distained television. It became the domain of young creative intellectuals who couldn’t find success elsewhere. Soviet intellectuals often viewed watching television as a lazy, self-destructive pastime. Sixties newspaper cartoons depicted viewers absorbed in TV, ignoring everything happening around them.
As in the U.S., elite distrust of television was matched by mass enthusiasm for it. By the mid-1970s, the overwhelming majority of people in the country had TV, and Communist leaders acknowledged the need to use it well—to the alarm of dissident intellectuals, who nicknamed the huge Ostankino television tower in Moscow the “needle” for its role in injecting propaganda into the veins of the masses.