30 Years of Newsstand Competition Between Washington and Moscow
WASHINGTON (AP) _ When they do business in the United States, the Russians take a Madison Avenue approach to sell the American people on Soviet Life, an oversize, glossy, monthly magazine which carries the Soviet message to American newsstands.
″We do direct mail regularly ... sending out leaflets describing the magazine and offering introductory rates,″ a sales technique unknown in the Soviet Union, said Oleg Benyukh, Washington editor of Soviet Life.
Sweepstakes - offering free trips to the Soviet Union - have been another sales boost, a promotion familiar to the Russians. But Benyukh notes that sweepstakes in his homeland require entrants to do more than simply to fill out a blank. Often they must submit an essay or photograph.
Soviet Life didn’t conduct a 1986 sweepstakes contest because, the Soviets say, the magazine is selling nearly as many copies as allowed.
A 1955 agreement allows up to 62,000 copies of Soviet Life in the United States and of its counterpart, America Illustrated, in the Soviet Union.
On the 30th anniversary of the magazines, officials from each magazine say they could easily sell more.
″Our readers are people from practically all walks of life,″ Benyukh said. ″We now live in such a time when more and more people want to know about what’s going on in the other half of the world.″
Benyukh described the magazine’s largest group of readers as ″intellectuals. ″
He said Soviets seem to have a greater thirst for information about Americans than the other way around, but that U.S. interest is growing.
The Soviets control promotion and distribution of their magazine in the United States. In negotiations last year that produced a three-year renewal of the agreement, U.S. attempts to raise the limit failed because the Soviets wanted U.S. government agencies to help distribute their magazine, said Robert A. Poteete, editor in chief of America Illustrated.
The Soviet agency Soyuzpechat handles the U.S. Information Agency publication there.
″They notify us a day or two before it is put on sale and we promote it on Voice of America,″ Poteete said. ″An official from the U.S. Embassy goes out in Moscow on the day it goes on sale and observes it being bought at the newsstand.″ U.S. officials are allowed to give away about 2,000 copies each month. ″Whenever embassy people travel, they take it with them - as many as they can carry,″ Poteete said. ″We know the powers-that-be read it. They attack us in the press.″
The magazines have been published through periods when superpower relations were chilly, and both feel a tug when the political strings are pulled. When President Carter pulled the United States out of the 1980 Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the normal 2,000 unsold copies jumped to 8,000 and stayed there.
The magazines offer a sanitized peek at life on the other side, replete with lifestyle features and fashion layouts, but they never lack an ideological message.
The November issue of Soviet Life features a cover story on the Goodwill games last July and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s statement announcing the extension of his country’s moratorium on nuclear testing.
Other stories include a remembrance of Samantha Smith, the Maine schoolgirl who visited the Soviet Union to promote world peace and later died in a plane crash; a profile of a young Soviet family, and a feature on Soviet scientific accomplishments.
American readers ″want to read about practically everything that is going on in the Soviet Union. They want to see the negative side, the drawbacks in our development as well as how we are improving our society,″ Benyukh said.
Poteete says America Illustrated, printed in Russian, has adjusted to a Soviet society that knows much more about the United States than it did 30 years ago. About half of its material is reprinted from American publications.
U.S. law prevents most USIA-produced material from being distributed domestically and most Americans have never seen it.
The October issue carried an innocuous feature on roadmaps - subtle propaganda for an audience that has a tough time getting them.
The anniversary issue also includes a reprint of Ernest Thompson’s play, ″On Golden Pond,″ an environmental piece on the return of the wild turkey and a story about avant-garde performance artist Meredith Monk.
The magazine often features contemporary art that ″demonstrates the fruits of freedom of expression.″ A pretty good show-and-tell for people in a society that forbids it.