SAKHAROV, THE KGB AND THE MASS MEDIA
by Jeremy Murray-Brown
For several weeks around Christmas 1986 the name Andrei Dimitrievich Sakharov was found in every major news outlet in the Western world.
On December 19, 1986, on the order of Soviet leader Gorbachev, Sakharov was released from his internal exile in the closed Soviet city of Gorky; at the same time his wife, Elena Bonner, was pardoned from a similar sentence of exile imposed in August 1984. The couple was now free to return to Moscow where they were duly interviewed by the world's press and television networks. In an extraordinary move, the Soviet authorities placed a television studio at Sakharov's disposal so that he could be interviewed directly for American television networks. In editorials, cover stories, and feature articles, foreign journalists speculated on what lay behind Gorbachev's action. Sakharov declared that he had made no deal with Gorbachev, and he took the opportunity of the great amount of publicity given him to speak up for other less well known dissidents.
Sakharov was already famous as the scientist who had given the Soviet Union the hydrogen bomb and had then become the most prominent critic of Soviet abuses of human rights and international morality. To a very great number of ordinary people in the Western world, his name was a symbol of resistance to totalitarian orthodoxy. Though he achieved this position by virtue primarily of his own integrity and courage, he owed some of his standing to the KGB itself, whose efforts to silence Sakharov had the effect of making him better known as a person as well as stimulating an even greater interest in his fate.
For a lengthy period before his release from Gorky, Sakharov was the victim of an unprecedented disinformation campaign, directed by the KGB, which centered around the dissemination abroad of a series of videotapes featuring his wife, Elena Bonner, and himself made without their permission or knowledge. These tapes were taken with hidden cameras and involved the cooperation of many people in the Soviet Union, several in senior professional posts. Their release followed a definite pattern over a period of some eighteen months, and scenes from them were broadcast at one time or another by the major television networks in Europe and America, and probably elsewhere as well.
What follows is a study of this disinformation campaign, what the KGB did in their tapes, and how the Western news media responded.
of Sakharov as a focus of dissent from the closed world of the Soviet
Union's privileged elite has been one of the most remarkable events of
the last quarter century. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it:
In 1975 his book My Country and the World was published abroad and in December of the same year his international stature was further enhanced by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time when he should have been in Oslo to collect his prize, Sakharov was instead planning to attend the trial of a prominent dissident in Lithuania. (The Soviet authorities had denied him permission to travel to Norway - his speech was read by his wife.) Some days before, members of a BBC television team had made their way to his apartment, successfully evading the KGB, and Sakharov had recorded an interview which was shown in Britain on the eve of the Nobel prize ceremonies. That a man of his standing could achieve such prominence in the free world's media, would have been unthinkable under Stalin. But the Soviet authorities could do little about it as long as there were political benefits to be reaped from the policy of detente.
With Solzhenitsyn's forcible expulsion from the Soviet Union in June 1974, Sakharov was left as the best known of Soviet dissidents to whom many others looked for guidance and support. He was not so much their leader as their champion before world opinion. Thus when the Helsinki Watch Group was set up in 1976 by a number of scientist and writer to monitor the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords signed the previous year, Sakharov welcomed the move, though he declined to become a member himself. Bonner, however, did join the group as a founder-member. The major newspapers, magazines and television networks of the free world conducted interviews with him on issues connected with human rights, their Moscow correspondents meeting with him in his small apartment on a regular informal basis. Sakharov himself addressed letters and appeals on behalf of individual dissidents to heads of state and prime ministers, to international organizations and fellow scientists, and to newspapers themselves when he thought his views had been mistranslated or misunderstood. His name was thus invariably singled out in the free world's media whenever American-Soviet relations were being discussed.
These activities reached a climax in a highly publicized correspondence with President Carter as the latter entered the White House in January 1977, pledge to support human rights everywhere in the world. As a result, Time magazine in February 1977 featured Sakharov as its cover story, a striking demonstration of Sakharov's status as dissident-in-chief in the eye of the world. But at this very moment, Sakharov was deeply disturbed by a new development.
On January 8, 1977 a bomb exploded in a car on the Moscow subway killing a number of people and injuring many other. Two days later TASS announced what had happened, and the very same day an article by Victor Louis appeared in the London Evening News which implied that the explosion was the work of Soviet dissidents. Louis is a Soviet journalist who, in several books, has been accused of having ties with the KGB. Sakharov at once put out one of his sharpest statements yet, attacking what seemed to be a new campaign by the KGB to portray the dissidents as terrorists, a campaign which already had succeeded in confusing some foreign reporters. Though he did not accuse the KGB outright of planting the bomb, the tone of his statement clearly implied that they were capable of doing so. "I cannot shake off the deep sense that the explosion in the Moscow subway with its tragic deaths is a new provocation of the agencies of repression - the most dangerous in recent years....I would be very happy to have my concern prove false." To Sakharov, the subway bomb and the KGB's response seemed an ominous reminder of the use the Nazis had made of the Reichstag fire. In the topsy turvy world of Soviet life, it was the organs of the state that regularly resorted to terror and criminal acts, while the dissidents were striving for order and due legal process. Non-violence and insisting on strict observance of the state's own laws lay at the heart of the dissident movement. Sakharov attacked the "criminal acts of the repressive organs" which he itemized as "attack, beating, forgery, provocation, defamation, threats of murder, and, apparently, even the commission of political murder." He drew attention to the "new phenomenon" of "planting foreign currency, pornography, and the like during searches." "No less repulsive," he continued, "is the slander aimed at discrediting dissident in the eyes of trusting and uninformed people in the USSR and the West."
The KGB was, as it turned out, preparing to clamp down on the dissidents behind a smokescreen of disinformation directed at the foreign media. In February and March 1977, Yury Orlov, Alexander Ginsburg, and Anatoly Shcharansky, the chairman and founding members respectively of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Committee, were arrested and a year later, after a delay to avoid embarrassing the proceedings of detente, given harsh sentences.
Sakharov's activities posed a special problem for the Soviets. Because of his work on developing the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb, the government considered it unsafe simply to expel him from the Soviet Union, as they had expelled Solzhenitsyn in 1974. By this time Sakharov's knowledge of Soviet nuclear technology, particularly military technology, was probably of no value to the West; but the pride the Soviets took in their own scientific achievements gave them a sense of collective ownership of the man who had given Russia such military power. He was, after all, a world-famous Russian scientist, if not a dutiful Soviet one.
Because Sakharov belonged to the Soviet Union's scientific elite and maintained many of the privileges of this elite, the KGB could not remove him to a labor camp in Siberia as they did lesser-known scientific who participated in the human rights movement. Thus while other dissidents were systematically harassed, exile, humiliated, subjected to psychiatric torture, or in some cases murdered, Sakharov retained the freedom to speak out on their behalf. His presence in Moscow, where contact with Western media representatives, embassy officials, and fellow scientists was relatively simple, was a constant provocation to the KGB, a festering thorn in their flesh, or, as Khrushchev would have said, a bone in the throat.
The Carter presidency saw the end of detente and a rapid deterioration in the human rights movement within the Soviet Union. With the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in January 1979 and the invasion by the Soviet Union of Afghanistan in the last days of 1979, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States became once more frigid, Symbolized by the American boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. Sakharov had publicly protested the invasion of Afghanistan. The KGB immediately moved against him. In January 1980, he was ordered to leave Moscow for the city of Gorky, 250 miles away, which was closed to all foreigners.
In exiling Sakharov to Gorky, the KGB intended in the first place to isolate him from the contacts with foreigners and fellow dissidents he had kept up in Moscow. It was now no longer possible for him to appear in person at court hearings involving human rights issues or to speak to Western journalists. But his wife, Bonner, was not subject to the same restriction; she was free to travel between Gorky and Moscow, thus maintaining a slender lifeline to their circle of friends and the outside world. Thank to this lifeline, Sakharov was able to publish in the West his important essay, "On the Danger of Thermonuclear War," (in Foreign Affairs, 1983) which challenged Soviet thinking on the subject. But once reports of his exile had received due attention in western news media in the early months of 1980, there was undoubtedly a falling off of interest in Sakharov himself and in the dissident movement generally, measured solely in terms of newspaper coverage. In 1982, the Helsinki Watch Group was dissolved. With Orlov and Shcharansky in forced labor camps, and others threatened with a similar fate, the opposition movement had virtually come to an end.
The KGB had a second motive in their move against Sakharov, which was to separate him from Bonner. Bonner's two children by her first husband, Tatiana and Alexei, had been subjected to various forms of official and unofficial harassment, including loss of job possibilities, negative grading in university courses, and even death threats. As a result, Tatiana and her husband, Efrem Yankelevich, a gifted electronic engineer who was himself the victim of official harassment, emigrated to the United States in 1977, settling in Newton, Massachusetts. The next year, Alexei Semyonov, Bonner's son, also emigrated to Massachusetts, leaving his future wife, Liza Alexeyeva, in Moscow. Semyonov had not yet obtained a divorce from his first marriage; he and the Sakharovs assumed there would be no difficulty in Liza's joining him in the United States once he was free to marry her. But she was now refused permission to leave, another way of harassing the Sakharovs by hurting their children.
Alexei thereupon married Liza by proxy. After further refusal by the authorities to grant Liza permission to join her husband, Sakharov and Bonner underwent a hunger strike in November 1981 on her behalf. They were put into different hospitals, but after 17 days the authorities gave way and a few days before Christmas, 1981, Liza flew to America. In 1980, Bonner's mother, Ruth, had visited the Yankelevich family. Because of the precarious nature of the life that Sakharov and Bonner were forced to lead in Gorky, Ruth Bonner remained in Newton.
On three separate occasions, in 1975, 1977, and 1979, the Soviet authorities had allowed Bonner to leave the Soviet Union for Italy for treatment for her eyes. (It was on the first of these trips, in 1975, that she had been able to return via Oslo to deliver Sakharov's Nobel Prize speech on his behalf.) In 1982, another consultation with her Italian eye specialist became necessary, but this time the authorities simply ignored her request to leave. The strain of travelling between Gorky and Moscow was taking its toll on Bonner's health. Her attempts to give support to friends harassed by the KGB led to increased harassment of herself. On the train from Gorky one night she was verbally abused by fellow passengers and she began to fear for her physical safety.
Meanwhile, the KGB was assiduously promoting the idea that Bonner was an unscrupulous woman who was being used by the CIA and was leading Sakharov astray through selfish motives of her own. "Madame Bonner-Sakharov's evil genius?" read the title of a KGB-inspired article in Russky Golos, a small Russian language paper published in New York in 1976. In 1983, a certain Nikolai Yakovlev published further anti-semitic, anti-american charges against Bonner in a widely read Soviet periodical. The Soviet government then published Yakovlev's articles in English in a book about the CIA which was distributed by Soviet embassies abroad. Bonner and Sakharov decided to sue Yakovlev for criminal libel, but her case was blocked by the authorities.
In April 1983, Bonner suffered a heart attack. Every action she took now caused her great pain; her life was in serious danger. Treatment in Soviet hospitals would have been possible, but both Sakharov and Bonner knew that if she were once separated from her husband in a Soviet hospital, they might never see each other again. Bonner therefore renewed her appeals for permission to leave the Soviet Union for medical treatment in the West. Sakharov added his appeals to his wife's, and together they fought back against the public charges that had been made on Bonner's integrity.
By the end of 1983, Sakharov's concern for his wife's health led him to conclude he would have to undertake a hunger strike to force the hand of the authorities. In response to his appeals to Soviet leaders (he wrote to Andropov in November 1983, to Chernenko in February 1984) and to his scientific colleagues (a letter to the president of the Academy of Sciences, another smuggled to an intergovernment conference meeting in Stockholm in January 1984, as part of the Helsinki process), Sakharov was given to understand that he would receive an answer by May 1, 1984. Accordingly, he set May 2, 1984 as his deadline for starting the hunger strike. He and Bonner agreed that on that day she would return to Moscow to alert the western media of his decision. The Sakharovs calculated that she would be less at risk from KGB reprisals if she took refuge in the American Embassy. It's not clear if American officials were aware of this plan, although she had left sealed letter with them on her previous visit to Moscow.
The answer to Sakharov's appeals came in the form of a pre-emptive move by the KGB. On May, 1984 at Gorky airport, where she was waiting for her flight to Moscow, Bonner was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. The police brought her back to her apartment in Gorky, placing her under house arrest. But Sakharov had seen what had happened at the airport; returning to the apartment, he had immediately begun his hunger strike and had already sent cables to the KGB and the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, notifying them of his action.
For the next eighteen months, until Bonner herself arrived in the West, having finally obtained her exit visa, no one among the Sakharovs' friends in Moscow on their family in America knew exactly what was happening to them. No western journalist or embassy official could enter Gorky. The KGB monitored outgoing mail and telephone calls. No one was allowed to enter the apartment without KGB permission. There were in any case few Russian visitors; one who was unwelcome to the KGB was forcibly dragged from their company, another turned out to be acting under KGB instructions. At one move, Sakharov and his wife had been cut off from the world.
In these conditions of total isolation, Sakharov - then 62 -entered a time of mental and physical torment no less terrible than those imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. Indeed Sakharov himself drew the parallel between the novel and his actual sufferings. For Bonner, likewise, it was a period of intense loneliness, fear, pain, and humiliation.
On May, 1984 the KGB called Bonner to their office in Gorky for interrogation. Sakharov was with her, sipping from his thermos of hot water, his usual method of handling a hunger strike. At a signal, the couple was surrounded by KGB men in white coats who took them both to the hospital. There Bonner was torn from Sakharov's side and driven to her apartment. She did not see her husband again for four months.
In the hospital, Sakharov was visited by a senior KGB officer from Moscow whose identity was not immediately revealed. Posing as a doctor, the officer approved various methods of forcible feeding, each designed to humiliate and frighten the unfortunate victim, and each, it seemed, more brutal in its application that the last.
The first method to be applied was an intravenous feed. While some men held Sakharov's shoulders down and another sat on his legs, a needle was inserted into a vein causing him to pass out. When he came to, he could not see properly. It transpired that he had suffered a cerebral spasm, or stroke. After some days, the procedure was changed. Instead of the intravenous feed, a tube was inserted down his nose into his stomach, a painful method widely practiced in Soviet concentration camps. In turn, this method gave way to yet a third procedure in which KGB personnel put a clamp on Sakharov's nose, tied his hands and his feet, pried open his jaws with a lever and poured liquid into his mouth, holding his mouth closed after they had done so. Sakharov later described the agony he felt, with the veins in his head ready to burst and an overwhelming sensation of suffocation. On May 27, he gave up. Sakharov noticed that his hands were trembling badly. The doctors told him he had Parkinson's disease and described what would happen to him as the disease advanced. The head doctor, a certain Obukhov, said to him: "We won't allow you to die. I'll get the women's team out again to feed you with the clamp. We've got another method up our sleeve as well. However, you will become a helpless invalid." Parkinson's disease, added Obukhov, would suit the KGB very well, since it cannot be artificially induced and could not therefore be blamed on the authorities. Another doctor explained, "You'll be incapable of putting on your own trousers."
Throughout this harrowing period, Bonner was unable to see her husband. All communication had to pass trough hospital officials who were reporting to the KGB. The doctors told her Sakharov was seriously ill and that seeing her would be bad for him. She now faced alone a trail herself, the charges being presented to her on July 25 and consisting mostly of a number of so-called anti-Soviet statements which Bonner had made or was alleged to have made in press conferences abroad or in interviews at home over a period dating back to 1975. At Bonner's insistence a lawyer from Moscow, Elena Reznikova, was allowed to come to Gorky to handle the case. The two women spent the few days before the trial going over the charges. For Bonner, at least, her lawyer's visit was a temporary release from the isolation she had suffered since May 7. The trial took place in Gorky on August 9 and 10 and resulted in Bonner being sentenced to five years in exile.
A month later, on September 7, at a special hearing convened in Gorky instead of in Moscow, which would have been the normal legal procedure, her appeal was dismissed. The very next day, September 8, 1984, she and Sakharov were reunited.
When many months later she was able to write her own account of these events, Bonner observed that "the only real defense for us and for everyone fighting for human rights is publicity." With her sentence to exile in Gorky, the lifeline to the outside world which she had hitherto maintained trough her contacts with western reporters in Moscow had been cut. She and Sakharov had used this lifeline in all their appeals on behalf of others; now that they no longer had access to it, how could they win the publicity they so desperately needed?
Western correspondents quickly realized that something unusual was afoot in Gorky. They were alerted by a statement issued by TASS, the official Soviet news agency, on May 4, 1984, and published in Izvestia, accusing Sakharov and Bonner of anti-Soviet provocations involving the American embassy in Moscow. Bonner, herself, had failed to appear in Moscow on May 2, as her friends expected. One of these friends, Irina Kristi, traveled to Gorky on May 6 and arrived at the apartment when the Sakharovs were working on their balcony and small garden. The KGB, keeping watch from their command post next door, immediately rushed over and pulled Kristi away, but not before Bonner was able to tell her what had happened at Gorky airport on May 2, and that Sakharov had begun his hunger strike. The KGB detained Kristi overnight; but she was allowed to return to Moscow where she passed on what she knew to the western press. She was then kept under arrest herself, before being allowed to emigrate to the United States the following year, when she was used by the KGB to deliver a forged telegram to the West saying all was well in Gorky.
Thus the news of Sakharov's hunger strike, of Bonner's arrest and of the criminal charges against her, reached the West at the same time as the KGB were forcibly feeding Sakharov in Gorky. On May 13 the Washington Post ran an editorial "Is Andrei Sakharov Dying?"; the New York Times, on May 16, carried an editorial "If The Sakharovs Die" written by Tom A. Bernstein, a board member of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, and Gregory J. Wallance, a board member of the Helsinki Watch Committee.
On May 17, prompted by Sakharov's family in Massachusetts, Home Box Office, America's leading cable television company and a subsidiary of the Time-Life Multi-media conglomerate, gave a special screening of their forthcoming television film entitled "Sakharov," a biographical portrait featuring Jason Robards in the title role and Glenda Jackson as Bonner. The screening coincided with a six week tour of European capitals undertaken by Bonner's daughter and son-in -law, Tatiana and Efrem Yankelevich, to draw public attention to the plight of the Sakharovs.
Once set in motion in pursuit of a story, a free press gathers momentum like a snowball. Throughout the summer 1984, Sakharov's name was constantly in the news, his fate being coupled with the fate of human rights generally behind the iron curtain, his case a reference point for every correspondent writing about east-west relations or Kremlinologists analyzing the death of Andropov and the first hundred days of Chernenko, the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, and incidents in the Cold War. In early June, Vatican Radio joined those pressing the Soviet government for information about Sakharov, as did the Reagan administration. In early July, President Mitterrand of France, in Moscow on a state visit, brought up the same subject. In mid-June, at the request of the Sakharov family in Massachusetts, Home Box Office released their Sakharov movie for showing on cable stations throughout the United States; and it was scheduled for a repeat showing in September.
Although Sakharov and Bonner were unaware of this mounting pressure from outside the Soviet Union, his hunger strike had produce exactly the effect they had hoped for. The KGB's own response to the hunger strike had contributed decisively to this effect, and the KGB was now itself in a dilemma. By isolating Bonner in Gorky, they had created a vacuum of information. So long as she had been free to move between Gorky and Moscow, western correspondents could reassure their readers, viewers and listeners that Sakharov was alive. Without this channel of information, the KGB were obliged to answer themselves for the whereabouts and health of the couple. To bring representatives of the western media to Gorky would create an unacceptable precedent, since the point of Gorky was that it was closed to foreigners. Nor could they risk exposing what they had done to Sakharov. Meanwhile the silence from Gorky spoke louder than words.
On May 30, three days after Sakharov gave up his hunger strike, TASS put out a statement which read in part: "What about the 'hunger strike'? Let us cite exact medical facts: Sakharov feels well, takes regular meals and lives an active way of life." It seems that at one point the KGB were worried that Sakharov might die as a result of the forced feeding, and they used his children by his first marriage to bring additional pressure on Bonner. In their press releases, TASS always cast Bonner in the light of a CIA-inspired provocateur, portraying her as the real trouble-maker in the Sakharov household, the one who had incited him to undertake hunger strikes. Some American scientists who were anxious to preserve cordial relations with their Soviet counterparts allowed themselves to be taken in by this disinformation tactic, causing further distress to Bonner in her isolation in Gorky when the KGB used these American statements in their interrogation of her. But these measures and official statements that Sakharov was in good health did not satisfy western media. What western audiences required was visible proof that he was alive and well.
On August, 1984 the popular West German weekly Bild-Zeitung announced that it was in possession of a twenty-minute videotape which showed Sakharov and Bonner "in their Gorky exile." "Most sequences were evidently taken in early and mid-June," said Bild. "A secret videocamera films everything in black and white - indisputable proof that the Russian civil rights crusader Sakharov is still alive." Simultaneously, the ABC television network in America, having purchased the tape from Bild-Zeitung, broadcast still photographs from it in its evening network news and screened major portions of the tape in its "Nightline" program the following evening.
The KGB's answer to the silence from Gorky was now evident. The Appearance of this videotape was a clear sign that a new disinformation tactic was being attempted. Though Bild did not specify how it came by the videotape, no one doubted that the source was ultimately the KGB.
At the time of the videotape's appearance, Sakharov and Bonner were not yet reunited, nor had Bonner's sentence been confirmed by the special appeals court meeting in Gorky. Had the couple known of the tape, and the secret filming that went into the making of it, no doubt their discouragement would have been even greater. As Bonner was to point out later, for all the outside world could know, she and Sakharov might have been dead at the time the videotape was being shown in the West.
Sakharov and Bonner spent the reminder of 1984 under close KGB surveillance. They were obliged to return to the hospital for Sakharov to have a check-up in September 1984, soon after his release. In November 1984, scientific colleagues were allowed to visit him in Gorky as was Bonner's lawyer, Reznikova, to discuss what they should do next. But colleagues and lawyer alike were indifferent to his account of his hospital experiences, an attitude which, while deeply depressing, steeled his determination to renew his hunger strike. Sakharov filed an official complaint at the conduct of Bonner's trial and sent a detailed description of everything that had happened to him in hospital to the president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Anatoly Alexandrov. A copy of the latter document eventually reached the West and was published there early in 1986.
Bonner's heart condition was deteriorating. Treatment was more urgent than ever and she and Sakharov were as certain as ever that she had to receive this treatment outside the Soviet Union. Sakharov agreed to delay his next hunger strike until after Easter 1985. he began it on April 16, 1985, hoping as before that news of his action would reach the West, prompting concerted, international support fir his appeal. Five days later, on April 21, six men in white coats appeared at the door of the apartment, together with two women and Obukhov, the chief doctor of the hospital where Sakharov had been held in 1984. While the women held Bonner in a separate room, the men surrounded Sakharov, gave him an injection, and carried him out on a stretcher. The door slammed, and Bonner was left alone again. Back at the hospital, Sakharov was subjected again to force-feeding, to KGB men watching him day and night, some masquerading as patients in the same room, others as orderlies. Again he was given drugs, most likely of a kind to affect his judgment, again he was deprived of privacy and the right to communicate with his wife.
On July 11, Bonner was told that her husband would be returning shortly and that she should be on hand to meet him. It was unusual for her to be forewarned in this manner; fearing something untoward, she waited for him in the street outside the apartment, and sure enough, within an hour a hospital vehicle drove up and Sakharov got out. The couple embraced and entered the building. Sakharov explained to his wife that he had stopped his hunger strike that morning in order to allow an appeal he had made to Gorbachev to be received as favorably as possible. But he would renew the hunger strike in two weeks time, he had told Gorbachev, if nothing came of his hospital.
Sakharov and bonner spent the two weeks as a kind of holiday, revelling in each other's company. They went to the movies, enjoyed a picnic by the Volga, spent as much time as they could in the open air, walking in the woods, picking mushroom, and listening to western broadcasts on the radio, reception being better out of doors.
But there was still no official response to Sakharov's appeal on behalf of his wife. On July 25, he began his hunger strike again, sending a telegram to Gorbachev to this effect. Two days later, Obukhov and his white-coated men and women appeared at the door, and once more Bonner was left alone while Sakharov returned to the hospital.
Meanwhile, three further videotapes had appeared in the West, all form the same source. In them, viewers saw Sakharov apparently eating well while in the hospital, ostensibly for a check-up, exercising, and receiving expert medical care. The most recent tape, released on July 29, when Sakharov was already back in hospital, and well into his third hunger strike, showed the couple during their recent two weeks together. Bonner could be seen greeting her husband warmly as he returned from the hospital; the couple was pictured enjoying life in Gorky; they seemed happy and healthy. Bonner heard of the tape through an unjammed radio broadcast the day it appeared in the West, adding a horrifying dimension to her situation. It was the first she knew of this form of lying.
People in the Soviet Union take it for granted that they are being spied on all the time. A video camera was present throughout Bonner's trail in August 1984, but the only other occasion she had seen, or thought she had seen, cameras being trained on her was on one of her trips to the market in Gorky in the summer of 1984. It never occurred to Bonner that the tape would be used for showing in the West.
Bonner quickly realized, however, the KGB was routinely tampering with every attempt she made to communicate with friends or her family. The KGB scrutinized her letters, postcards, and cables for hidden messages, changing words and dates, falsifying some meanings and forging others. Many were suppressed altogether. On one occasion, she sent a cable to a friend citing a line of poetry: "I have friends, thank God." In the poem which she hoped her friend would recognize, the preceding line would run: "The solitude is driving me from door to door." But the cable arrived with the line she had quoted altered. It now read: "Everything is all right, thank God."
In 1985, during the period from April 21 to October 23, Bonner never used a plural form in connection with Sakharov and herself, no "we," no "kisses from us," no joint signatures. But the recipients of these messages invariably saw texts which contained these plural forms. Not a single message that reached her family in Massachusetts escaped this kind of attention. Irina Kristi, as we have noted , was herself the unwitting bearer of one such false communication.
Such methods did not deceive Bonner's family in the United States, who had their own means of detecting forgeries. Nor were western correspondents satisfied by bland Soviet denials that Sakharov was on a hunger strike or that anything was amiss in his life. On the contrary, the appearance of videotapes added mystery to the subject and provided additional material for editorial columns. Throughout 1985, as in the summer of 1984, pressure was maintained on the Soviet government to clear up the Sakharov case in the interest of important Soviet foreign policy objectives, notably their concern at President Reagan's SDI program and their desire for a summit meeting. By June 1985, the Sakharov family in the United States had received a letter from Bonner, written the previous November and smuggled out of Gorky, which described accurately and in detail all that had happened to Sakharov during his enforced hospitalization from May to September 1984. Bonner's two children, Tatiana Yankelevich and Alexei Semyonov, released details from this letter at a human rights conference in Ottawa attended by Soviet representatives. At the United Nations, the family filed a petition seeking information on Sakharov as a disappeared person, a particularly sensitive forum for the Soviets to have to answer in.
As the summer of 1985 wore on, it became clear to the Soviet government that it could not hope for satisfactory negotiations with the Reagan administration so long as the question of Sakharov's fate continued to attract so much press attention. A senior KGB official, Sergei Sokolov, visited Sakharov in his hospital confinement in Gorky. He was the same officer who had authorized the first, brutal force-feeding, and had attempted cruelly to intimidate Bonner. At his first meeting with Sakharov, on June 30, 1985, Sokolov adopted the customary KGB approach of accusing Bonner of being a bad influence in Sakharov. On September 5, Sokolov appeared again in Sakharov's bedside to strike a deal: If Bonner were allowed to visit her family in America and receive medical treatment abroad, she would have to agree in writing that she would not speak at all to the press, and Sakharov himself would have to renounce his right ever to leave the Soviet Union. Sakharov was allowed to leave the hospital for a few hours to convey this agreement to Bonner. Weeks passed without any apparent development, weeks in which Alexei Semyonov staged a hunger strike in Washington to keep attention focused on the Sakharov case, and the United States Congress passed a resolution in support of him and his family.
In the fall of 1985, anticipation mounted in the news media that Sakharov might soon be released in order to prepare the way for the summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, now scheduled for November 1985. On October 21, Bonner was summoned to the visa office in Gorky; permission for her to leave was forthcoming. The KGB wanted her to leave immediately, they had reserved a seat for her in Moscow the very next day. But they had reckoned without Bonner's strength of will. She refused to leave without seeing her husband, and without their having time to enjoy each other's company after their long ordeal. The KGB tried to trick her into accepting an emigration visa, which would have enable them to prevent her ever rejoining her husband, then into omitting the United State from her itinerary. Bonner was alert to everything. Twenty-four hours later, Sakharov was released from the Hospital, his purpose, at last, achieved. Bonner left Moscow on December 3 for Italy, to see her eye doctor. On December 7, 1985 she was in America with her family.
Bonner's first concern on arrival in America was to obtain treatment for her heart. In January, Boston surgeons performed six bypasses on her heart. Later, they operated also on the arteries of her right leg which had been giving her pain. The Soviet authorities extended her visa for an additional three months, giving her until June 1986 to enjoy her family and an extensive program of activities, including visits to California, Florida, New York, and Washington, and meetings with scientists, academics, and politicians. At the White House, she was received by the president's National Security Adviser, then Admiral Poindexter, who explained how strongly the president felt over her husband, but diplomatic considerations prevented him from meeting her himself.
Sakharov once told Bonner that he wanted to win her exit visa not only because she could obtain proper medical attention, but also because she was his mouthpiece, the one whom he could trust to represent his views to the leaders of the world. During her brief stay in Italy, she met with the Pope and the Prime Minister. In Britain, on her return to Moscow at the end of May 1986, she was received by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Other western leaders would also gladly have given her time.
Bonner's promise to the KGB not to speak to the press created a certain tension for her. She knew better that most people the importance of publicity for all those inside the Soviet Union who were struggling for elementary human rights; but she herself risked being refuse reentry to the Soviet Union if she said a word out of turn. The KGB probably hoped she would do so, thereby giving them excuse to cut her off permanently from her husband, leaving him alone in their clutches in Gorky. Her arrival in the West was widely reported and correspondents naturally hoped she would authenticate what had really happened to Sakharov and herself in Gorky. The difficulty was handled with great skill by her son and son-in law, Alexei Semyonov and Efrem Yankelevich, who flew to Italy to meet her plane from Moscow, and thereafter dealt with the press in their own right as free citizens of the West. As the correspondent for The New York Times put it: "The information about life in Gorky was supplied in interviews and in a news conference today by Efrem V. Yankelevich, Miss Bonner's son-in-law, and by Alexei I. Semyonov, her son.... They said their account was based on telephone conversation with Dr. Sakharov last month and on facts that had slipped out of Gorky. The information, they said, had been 'clarified' but not substantively added to by Miss Bonner."
Among the information which was to slip out of Gorky early in 1986 was a copy of Sakharov's letter to Alexandrov, president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, which he had written in the autumn of 1984 after his release from the hospital. In that letter, dated October 15, 1984, Sakharov detailed exactly what had been done to him by the KGB men in white coats and the doctors and nurses acting on their orders. The material, which the family could authenticate as being Sakharov's own words, made harrowing reading, a devastating indictment of the Soviet police state. This letter and other documents were published in late February and early March 1986 by the U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 24 and March 3) and by the London Observer.
Two days before she left America to the prison environment of Gorky, Bonner completed writing her own account of the three years that led up to her brief enjoyment of the free world. Entitled Alone Together, the book is a striking tribute to the marriage of two very remarkable people. Many of the facts in this present study are taken from this memoir and its invaluable appendices, though the quality of the author's mind and spirit can be fully appreciated only by reading the original and by understanding the circumstances in which it was written during six months of visiting in the United States. Bonner intended the book to complement Sakharov's autobiography which she knew was already in the West (and is yet to appear.) The existence of this autobiography had been kept secret, although the KGB were aware that Sakharov was writing it. Some of the most moving pages of Bonner's book describe occasions when Sakharov discovered the KGB had stolen large portions of his manuscript, leaving him as if bereft of a child. But he had found the strength to rewrite them, just as he found the strength to return to hunger strikes and the hospital tortures that ensued.
Alone Together was published by Knopf in the fall of 1986. When Sakharov's autobiography is published, these two books will constitute essential documents for students of this period of Soviet history.
This brief account of events in Gorky between May 1984 and December 1986 does not do justice to the sufferings endured by Sakharov and his wife. But since the KGB's intentions were to falsify the reality of what happened in Gorky, it is essential to have a firm grasp of the main facts as we turn to the disinformation campaign itself.
By the time Bonner received her exit visa, four videotapes had been released in the West. A fifth appeared in December 1985, timed to coincide with her arrival in the West; two more were to appear while she was in the West, and a final tape was released within a few weeks of her return to the Soviet Union at the beginning of June 1986. Thus the KGB produced a total of eight videotapes amounting to some three hours of pictures. With the exception of the last one, all were shown, in part or in whole, by television stations in Europe and the United States. Presumably they were offered to third world networks as well, though we have no information on this point.
The general nature of this campaign is not hard to discern. Contrary to western reports, the tapes were saying, Sakharov was enjoying life in Gorky. Contrary to anything his wife might say, the tapes claimed to speak with Sakharov's true voice.
To the average, well-informed reader or viewer in the West, such a campaign might seem so obviously fraudulent as to be counterproductive, succeeding only in fueling the flames of western interest in the Sakharovs. Such a conclusion is indeed possible, but before reaching it, the tapes themselves deserve close study. But looking carefully at the way they were produced, we can learn much about Soviet society, and specially about its professional middle class, in addition to learning about KGB behavior and Soviet disinformation techniques. Further, we should note the response of western media to the tapes and the problems that arise for western society when subjected to a campaign of visual disinformation of this nature.
Most readers will understand that a film or videotape consists of a number of different visual images which have been assembled in a particular order to provide the illusion of a continuous visual narrative. In fictional films, the separate shots may be taken in different locations and at different times, sometimes with stand-ins, and often with special effects. The eye of most viewers cannot detect these fictions, nor does it seek to do so. In fictional films, we willingly suspend disbelief. But in factual films - newsreels and documentaries - the case is very different. Here viewers are persuaded that the pictures they are seeing are truly representative of what they show and were taken at the time when, and in the place where, the events took place which they record. We accept on trust the meaning given to the order in which the images have been edited together, and it is this meaning which provides the context in which we view each shot, and which, as it were, authenticates each shot. We have been conditioned into what can best be described as a willing commitment of belief to photographic truth.
In the KGB tapes, of course, almost every shot of Sakharov and Bonner has been taken on separate occasions and shown out of context, while the new context created by other shots and by the editing is invariably false. One jump cut is so well made, it can only be detected by looking carefully at the different dates on the calendar in the background. Thus, although each shot my be true in itself, that is a true visual impression of the whole is totally untrue. Bonner puts it well in her book: "That kind of documentary lie can create the impression of truth, and it is harder to refute than as absolute lie." Soviet film makers were among the first to resort to these deceptions in what they claimed were factual representations of reality. The KGB videotapes, therefore, can be viewed as the latest examples of a tradition that dates back to Lenin and the Bolshevik falsification of Russian history.
It seems that the material used was all recorded by electronic cameras on videotape. In this discussion, however, the terms film, tape, and videotape are used interchangeably.
While the study concentrated on the visual aspect of the campaign, it should be noted that the text of the KGB tapes would also repay close attention since the Soviets place importance on putting things on the record, which in this case means on the sound track. Whatever significance the KGB intended in their Russian text, however, is usually lost in translation and editing.
Tape 1 - released August 22, 1984
The first film appeared in August 1984, less than two weeks after Bonner's trial. It runs for about twenty-two minutes and most of it is in color. It purports to show an untroubled Sakharov and Bonner going about their normal business in Gorky. The tone is set by its opening sequence, a series of attractive views of Gorky, the former Nizhny Novgorod,such as might be used to promote a tour of the Soviet Union by western visitors. For close to three minutes we are treated to views of old onion-domed churches, pre-revolutionary architecture, pleasure parks with flowers and fountains, the river, boats and bridges, and ordinary citizens enjoying themselves on the streets and in the gardens.
The purpose of this opening sequence is to establish that Gorky is a beautiful old Russian city and not a new concrete dump in Siberia. But the sequence also plays a more complex role of visual manipulation. If the film is viewed in its entirety, these opening scenes condition us psychologically for the scenes that follow of Sakharov and Bonner. The touristy scenes provide the visual context for what we see of the couple, even though the shots of Sakharov and Bonner may be obscure, disjointed, sometimes takes in black and white and sometimes made up of still photographs. To reinforce this visual context, the film periodically cuts back to similar touristy scenes of Gorky, thus prompting recall of what our eyes have taken in during the film's opening three minutes. It's as though the Sakharovs have retired to a resort of the river Volga.
Against the visual background, then, the film shows us the life Sakharov and Bonner are leading. The first time we see them is when the film cuts from the Gorky resort scenes to a black and white still photograph of the couple followed by an exterior shot of their apartment building. The interior, too, is shown, though without the couple in it. We then see Sakharov at the window of his apartment and in the immediately following shot we see Bonner in her housecoat on their balcony. Viewers might think the couple were together on the balcony, but actually the camera rarely shows them together. In one obscure scene Bonner meets Sakharov on a street corner; in another, a family outing is glimpsed when Sakharov's daughter, Tatiana, and his granddaughter, Marina, visit Gorky. The occasional black and white film includes shots of Sakharov's son, Dimitri, who is also identified on a visit to Gorky. The narration over this early portion is homey, almost sentimental:
"On the whole the couple spend most of their time together -just the two of them. They go out for walks in the town and for drives. And although they keep to themselves, they're glad to welcome visitors at their home, both relatives or simply friends."
The film then deals with Bonner's contacts with American embassy officials, a segment which begins with a black and white still photograph of Bonner at the window of a train saying goodbye to Sakharov on the platform, followed by color shots of Moscow and the American embassy building. The narration here deserves attention. It throws the emphasis on Bonner herself, as if she were acting on her own initiative and for motives of her own.
"Sakharov himself never leaves Gorky, but until recently Bonner had this right and made regular visits to Moscow. According to reports in the Soviet press, Bonner established contacts with the United States embassy and planned to take refuge there so as to blackmail the authorities into granting her request by putting pressure on them."
What request? The film never mentions her heart condition nor her appeal for an exit visa.
"She would have been in much the same position as were recently the group of pentecostals who had lived in the embassy for over five years. To prevent Bonner from taking such actions in the future, she has now been temporarily banned by the authorities from leaving Gorky and at present she goes to local prosecutor's office to give explanations."
Western experts familiar with the case found in these phrases confirmation that Bonner had been tried and exiled to Gorky, facts the Soviets had not made public.
After this digression, the film follows Bonner about Gorky. We see her driving her car, filling up at a gas station, buying tomatoes in a market, visiting a cemetery, and walking about Gorky with another woman and chatting with her on a bench overlooking the river.
"In her everyday life," says the film, "Elena Bonner looks little more dynamic than her husband. It's usually she who fills up the car and she who drives a lot about the town meeting acquaintances and friends. Like all wives, Bonner has taken the burden of housekeeping upon herself. Her husband, though not a vegetarian, prefers a vegetable diet. To be able to provide this diet, Bonner has no choice but to buy fresh supplies for him at the city market."
In the final section of the film, Sakharov is the focus of attention. We see him sitting on a park bench with an unidentified man, apparently discussing some magazines which the man is handing him. So that we, the viewers, can identify the dates of the magazines, the man first holds them backwards toward the camera, out of Sakharov's eyeline. Having performed this obvious maneuver for the camera, the man hands them to Sakharov.
"As for Sakharov himself, he is at present resting. He meets with friends and keeps up with events by watching television and reading the papers, including foreign publications."
We then cut to an interior shot of Sakharov eating alone in a cafeteria of some kind where a woman whom we don't see brings him a magazine and engages him in conversation.
"Sakharov usually eats dinner alone; his appetite is good, he sleeps very soundly and because of this he's now two and a half kilos over his usual wight. This worries him a little, and he watches his health closely, like a scientist."
Next, we cut to a shot of a pleasure boat on a river, the same hydrofoil with which the film opened, and from the boat we cut back to Sakharov on the same park bench, this time wearing some kind of pajamas, talking to the same unidentified man.
"And again a breath of fresh air. What could be more pleasant than a nice chat?"
As Sakharov and the unidentified man get up to leave, they are at once joined by a woman who appears from just out of the camera's frame. The man and the woman escort Sakharov out of the picture. The film ends with a view from the back of the hydrofoil coursing down the river.
The film presents itself as straightforward, factual reporting. Although no reference is made to the rumors circulating in the West about Sakharov's health and no mention is made of Bonner's appeal for an exit visa for the sake of her own health, the film is obviously the KGB's answer to those rumors,the KGB's attempt to fill the vacuum of information created by their arrest of Bonner at Gorky airport on May 2, 1984.
Needless to say, nearly every element in the film is a lie of some sort, but the central lie concerns Sakharov. The film describes Sakharov as resting and eating when he was being held against his will in Gorky hospital, having been subjected to the brutalities of force-feeding. We are not told that the unidentified man chatting with Sakharov on the park is Obukhov, the chief doctor of the hospital, the man who had supervised the forced-feeding, who had taunted Sakharov with his symptoms of Parkinson's disease and threatened him with his brigade of women with clamps. We are not told that Sakharov and this doctor are not sitting on a park bench with a view of the river, but in the grounds of a hospital. The doctor has been co-opted by the KGB to play a leading role in their film, steering Sakharov toward the hidden camera and turning magazines in its direction. All medical personnel seen in the film have likewise been turned into KGB actors. For the parts they have to play, they have been told to wear their street clothes instead of their normal white medical uniforms.
Each shot in this film can be shown to be lie of omission, if not one of deliberate distortion as those described above. Thus we are not told that the Sakharovs' apartment is not situated in the pretty part of town, as the film implies, but in an unmaintained section where a puddle of mud surrounds the building and dust and debris blow in the wind.. Nor can we tell that the pleasure boats on the river are out of bounds to the Sakharovs. The film does not say that the woman seen with Bonner, described as a friend as if she were one of many Bonner could have been strolling with, was her lawyer, Reznikova, on a special visit from Moscow to discuss Bonner's forthcoming trial. The Sakharov were not allowed to visit in Gorky; they had no friends, none at least since the death in 1981 of a distant relative, Yuri Hainovsky, whose grave Bonner used to visit.
We cannot know that the film includes material shot years earlier, that the scenes of Sakharov's two children visiting Gorky were most likely taken in 1980 and 1981, while the two black and white still photographs of the couple date from the 1970s. The existence of this film material, taken years earlier and stored in KGB files gives us an idea of the vast amount of visual material that must be accumulating in KGB archives. They would be recording, as a matter of routine and on a regular daily basis, an untold number of individuals considered to be in need of surveillance. The resources of manpower and video equipment committed to this purpose must be enormous. One can thus easily imagine someone saying: Why don't we make a film out of some of it? We can sell it to the West!
Tape 2 and 3 - released June 28, 1985
The next two videotapes appeared simultaneously in June 1985. Both address directly the question of Sakharov's health and both are introduced by the same female doctor, who is identified as Natalia Evdokimova. The first film runs for 34 minutes and is nearly all in color, the second runs for 40 minutes and is nearly all in black and white. In the first, Evdokimova claims to have been Sakharov's doctor since 1981; in the second, she says Sakharov has been under medical observation since 1980. Evdokimova comments on Sakharov's health in much the same terms in each of her introductions. In the first, she explains his presence in the hospital as a routine checkup which he undergoes every six weeks; in the second, she makes a lengthy statement about Sakharov's medical history, saying that he suffers from problems of circulation to the brain and the heart, and from early signs of Parkinson's disease - a somewhat alarming analysis which Evdokimova implies requires these routine visits to the hospital. "At present, Sakharov's condition is satisfactory," she says. "He is a punctual and disciplined patient who follows his doctor's advice scrupulously."
It is not clear why these two rapes were produced separately and released together, and not combined into one. It's possible that, knowing Sakharov was intending a further hunger strike, the KGB anticipated he might die or suffer a more debilitating stroke as a result of their treatment of him, and so they prepared for any eventuality by having alternative film scenarios ready. There is only one brief scene duplicated in them both, apart, that is, from Evdokimova's two introductions. So we cannot know if they were made to serve different purposes; the order in which we review them here is one only of convenience. The order could just as well be reversed.
The first, then, which is nearly all in color, opens with shots of teleprinters typing out news releases of Efrem Yankelevich's complaint to the United States about Sakharov's disappearance. A videographic display identifies an Agence France Press report form Paris of May 31, 1985, and an Associated Press report from New York of June 5, 1985. The russian words, "Where is Sakharov?" are then superimposed as a title following a color photograph of Sakharov. The tape, it's clear, is going to answer this question.
After a brief montage of Gorky scenes, the film cuts to Evdokimova seated at her desk. She puts down a pen and addresses the camera; then she leaves her chair and walks toward the camera which zooms into a close-up of her face. She has been speaking about his health and treatment. There's a cut to a brief scene in black and white of Sakharov stripped to the waist being examined by a Professor Troshin, a neuropathologist, this being part of a longer scene extracted from the second tape. The film cuts again to numerous documents, mostly of medical nature.
Throughout the film we cut regularly back to Evdokimova, sometimes standing and sometimes sitting behind her desk. She is, in effect, the narrator of the film and she takes the opportunity personally to rebut charges of medical maltreatment made in the West, calling them "twisted reports." These reports that Sakharov was subjected to drugs and hunger, she says, are an insult to our human and professional dignity. Evdokimova's wording at this point is carefully chosen. She does not say that the reports specified that Sakharov was being treated with mind-altering drugs, which was a widespread rumor circulating in the press and in Moscow in the summer of 1984, nor does she refer to a "hunger strike." Instead, she rebuts the charge that the hospital inflicted "hunger" on Sakharov.
As the documents are flashed on the screen Evdokimova tells us that Sakharov gets free medication, that the personnel of the hospital are friendly with him, and that as a token of his gratitude both he and his wife sign the hospital visiting book in appreciative terms.
This elaborate introductory sequence prepares us for the main body of the film which consist of scenes of Sakharov performing various activities in the hospital. In the first of these, we see Sakharov having his blood pressure measured by Evdokimova and the hidden microphone picks up portions of their conversation. The KGB's transcript of the tape gave this exchange as follows:
"'It's a bit low today for some reason, Andrei Dmitrievich,' she says, 'How low?' he asks. 'The top 105.' 'And the lower?' ask Sakharov. 'The lower is quite good. It is 70 or 80,' she replies."
Next Sakharov's heart is discussed, an electronic image of it being projected onto the screen and Sakharov himself shown on an exercise bicycle. At this point we become aware that the KGB filmmakers have taken great pains to provide us with visual corroboration of the dates on which these activities supposedly took place. A calendar is suspended on a cabinet beside his exercise bike in such a way that it faces the camera at the same time as the camera shows us Sakharov. A cut gives us the date on this calendar in close-up. That is to say, some kind of marker has circled June 5, and the calendar appears to be of 1985.
The film now deals at length with Sakharov's eating habits. Evdokimova talks about his diet, holding up what she says are his menus, and the camera cuts to a series of shots of Sakharov eating, propped up on his bed, with a white sheet around his neck and a blue pillow behind him. Above his head, another calendar is prominently displayed, with dates in June marked as before. Every so often, the camera will zoom in to bring these dates more obviously into view. The noise of the camera lens as it zooms in can be heard on the sound track, but evidently this did not arouse Sakharov's suspicions. Evdokimova tells us about his breakfasts, lunches and suppers. We have shots of the hospital kitchen to emphasize what she's saying. In all, we seem to see him eating well on at least three days in June - June 5, 6, and 7. In one shot we see him making his bed; as he passes between us and the wall calendar, it appears that he has moved the marker on the calendar, advancing it from June 8 to June 9. In other shots, we see Sakharov watching television in a lounge, reading papers and being handed mail, which includes foreign scientific journals and news magazines. These are all carefully photographed in close-up and graphic montage to reveal clearly their subject matter, tittles and dates. The covers of Time and Newsweek are of their June 3 and May 27, 1985 issues respectively.
In the final scene of the film, Sakharov is once again sitting up on his bed and this time he is being shaved by a girl. The calendar above his head is marked at June 13. The hidden microphone records part of his conversation which the KGB script translates thus: "'You aren't a squeamish client ,' she says. 'Let me rub in some cream.' She offers him aftershave, but he refuses, saying he isn't use to it." The last words are those of the commentator: "Well, now we have answered the questions, 'Where is Academician Sakharov, and how is he?'"
In the second medical tape, which is longer and mostly in black and white, there is a different visual emphasis. In the first, Bonner is not featured at all. In the second, she appears to be with Sakharov as he receives his checkup. In many scenes, the camera focuses on her while we hear Sakharov's voice off camera and the voices of medical personnel. There's no suggestion in this second tape that Sakharov has had to be hospitalized for any reason. On the contrary, we see him in his street clothes stripping to the waist for an examination by Evdokimova and the neuropathologist, Professor Troshin. The way the tape is edited here strongly suggests that two hidden cameras were in operation, unless the scenes were recorded on different days, which does not fir with the known occasions of Bonner's appearance at the hospital with Sakharov. Bonner can be heard discussing Sakharov's eating habits and other personal health matters. The doctor asks Sakharov about his appetite. Sakharov replies: "One could eat less, but Elena Georgievna cooks very well." A date is mentioned - April 10; apparently it was important to the KGB that the date should be placed on record. If this is April 10, 1985, then we have to remind ourselves that six days later Sakharov began another hunger strike, and on April 21, 1985 he was back in the hospital being force fed. Toward the end of the film, a young nurse in a white coat enters and sits on the couch. Sakharov reappears, dressed, and the nurse takes a blood sample from his finger. With this, the film somewhat abruptly ends.
These two "medical" tapes are the most skillfully made of the series. Without the detailed information which only Bonner or Sakharov himself could provide, and which had not yet reached western sources, it is almost impossible for an outsider to detect the falsehoods concealed by the manner in which the material has been edited together. it is hard to gainsay the visual evidence that Sakharov was alive and eating and being well looked after. This impression is reinforced by the casual nature of the recorded snippets of conversation and the presence of Bonner at different points. The viewer has no means of knowing what is the reality that lies behind the tapes. Scenes of Sakharov eating heartily, which would be consistent with his coming off his fist hunger strike, could only have been taken between May 27 and September 8, 1984, when he was released. Shots of him receiving pills must also date from 1984. According to his wife, at no time during his enforced hospitalization in 1985 did he eat or knowingly take medication. But the calendars so prominently displayed are all meant to suggest that everything we are seeing took place in June 1985.
There is something strange about this calendars, something suspicious about the emphasis on this particular week in June, as though, with a twist worthy of George Orwell, the year 1984 has been abolished. It would be possible technically to insert an image of a 1985 calendar into the picture long after the picture had been recorded on videotape, but this is a lengthy, intricate and expensive matter, particularly where camera movement is involved. Frame-by-frame examination of the KGB tape shows no sign of the original having been tampered with in this way. A possibility is that scenes were truly recorded in 1984 with a calendar which had Sundays in the first column on the page. June 3, 1984 would then have been a Sunday, June 9 a Saturday. If they already possessed these shots taken in 1984, then it would be a simple matter for the KGB to fabricate a similar-looking 1985 calendar in which the first column on the page would be Mondays, so that the dates - June 3 to June 9 - would read the same across the page. The calendars in the film, it me be noted, are not Russian calendars with cyrillic lettering. In the shots where Sakharov is seen eating, the year cannot be made out with certainty. Only in those shots where Sakharov is not eating can the date with the year be clearly seen (on an exercise bike, receiving mail and periodicals).
But it is also possible that these scenes of Sakharov eating were indeed taken in June 1985 and on the dates indicated by the calendar behind his head. In a letter to his family in Massachusetts, written in November 1985, Sakharov describes the violence that was used against him after he started his new hunger strike on April 16, 1985. "I resigned myself to eating," he wrote, "only when the 'feeding team' was present in full strength and only when I was actually in the ward. Twice, they dragged me into the ward with the help of KGB men."
Though his words appear to mean he offered no resistance to being fed by others, it may be that he did, on these rare occasions, feed himself. If this were the case, we can imagine the scene at his hospital bed, now turned into a secret television studio. Out of sight, but intimidating by their presence, stand the "feeding team" with their straps, clamps and iron spoons watching while Sakharov unknowingly performs for the hidden cameras.
Among the documents flashed on the screen, one which bears Sakharov's signature is used to carry narration to the effect that he receives free medication. It is, in fact, a prescription for Bonner's eyedrops, Timoptic, which was hard for her to obtain since it is produced in the West. Family and friends in the West had always to supplement her supply.
Another document is used to carry narration that Sakharov and Bonner were on friendly terms with the hospital. We are shown an inscription in a book with Sakharov's signature. The book, it turns out, is a driving manual for women and is inscribed by him "on the occasion of the day of the health worker." One can imagine a young nurse learning to drive, and perhaps facing a test, appealing to Sakharov's generous nature on this Soviet occasion. The date, we should observe, is June 17, 1984.
Once again, in addition to the central lie about Sakharov in hospital, there are the lies of omission. On in particular is worth mentioning, concerning the magazines and scientific journals which Sakharov is shown to be receiving, apparently regularly and freely. In their memoir, Bonner describes how the KGB would play macabre tricks on them with their mail. On one occasion. a package of scientific journals from his Moscow Institute arrived for Sakharov at the apartment. When they opened it, the pages were found to be infested with cockroaches - put there by the KGB as a form of petty harassment. Naturally no cockroaches are to be seen in the KGB film of Sakharov opening his mail. Nor are we shown the man whom the KGB had primed to act as a fellow patient in the bed next to Sakharov who maintained an endless tirade against Bonner - one of the KGB objectives being to attempt to drive a wedge between husband and wife. Sakharov was forced to make up his bed in the corridor of the hospital until the KGB removed their man.
Viewers, then, could easily be misled by these tapes into thinking that everything was after all well with Sakharov and his wife in Gorky in 1985. The couple speak cordially to the medical staff. The situation is visually plausible, even though it is highly unethical since we are eavesdropping on private medical examinations. But western viewers are accustomed to receiving medical reports on the lives of their leaders., often including details of the most intimate kind. On television as in life, doctors speak with the voice of white-coated authority. Evdokimova describes the tape as documentary. It sounds as if the patient, Sakharov, has agreed and is cooperating in the film-making
Tape 4 - Released July 29, 1985
This short tape - it runs for about 10 minutes - shows Sakharov leaving hospital and being greeted by his wife outside their apartment. From a wall poster in the background, the date is given as July 11, 1985. The Sakharovs are then seen strolling about Gorky, shopping and outside a movie theater. Bonner heard about this tape from a radio broadcast she picked up in Gorky, the first indication she received that she was being secretly filmed for KGB disinformation purposes.
The tape, it should be noted, appeared the day before a conference attended by many Western foreign secretaries was due to open in Helsinki commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Helsinki Accords on European security. The question of Sakharov was certainly going to be raised at this conference, and the West's news media were pressing the Soviets for an answer.
Tape 5 - Released December 9, 1985
The fifth videotape appeared two days after Bonner was at last reunited with her family in Newton, Massachusetts, an event covered by the world's news media. Bonner had agreed not to speak to the press during her stay in the West, though her family could do so. She was in effect blackmail into silence by the KGB; for Sakharov's sake, she could not risk being refused reentry to the Soviet Union.
The film is in color, last 25 minutes, and has a tittle: "On the Occasion of Elena Bonner's Departure." It has two main themes. The first theme could pass as straightforward news coverage of Bonner's preparations for her visit abroad. In a number of scenes, viewers see Bonner in a Gorky office obtaining her visa. On the application form her nationality is shown as Armenian. The picture here has many awkward cuts in it. One minute Bonner is without a woolen bonnet, the next she's wearing it; one minute she's alone, the next she's with Sakharov. Sakharov is then pictured shopping, getting out of a taxi, and making a telephone call from a desk about a ticket. Toward the end of the film, he is shown carrying his wife's two heavy bags onto the train at Gorky station. Finally, Bonner is seen with friend outside her apartment in Moscow and at Moscow airport, where she is surrounded by the press.
The second theme shows us Bonner visiting a dentist in Gorky, which is made to seem a natural part of her preparation for her trip. The occasion provides an excuse for including a conversation between Sakharov and Obukhov, the chief doctor of Gorky hospital and by now a seasoned KGB film performer. The way the film is edited invites us to imagine this conversation taking place while Bonner is in the dentist's chair. The two men discuss arms control and the American Strategic Defence Initiative.
In releasing this tape at this time, the KGB knew that Bonner would already be in the West. It therefore offers a most interesting into KGB thinking on the subject of western media. Among the items of visual falsification which should be noted are the shots of Sakharov carrying his wife's bags onto the train. There are three shots here edited together into a sequence lasting 58 second. The first shot is taken outside the station and lasts 10 seconds. Sakharov enters the picture and walks toward the doors of the station building. The second shot is on the platform and lasts 13 seconds. Sakharov is walking down the platform.
The third shot ia taken from the end of the corridor of the train and lasts 35 seconds. Sakharov enters from the far end of the corridor and struggles toward us, stopping at the compartment Bonner will be occupying. A viewer cannot tell from the way these three shots have been edited together that for Sakharov to carry his wife's bags onto the train was a slow and painful business, in which he had to stop many times to catch his breath. Sakharov had asked his KGB guards to help him carry the bags; they refused. Looking closely to the third shot, we can indeed see that his mouth is open and he is breathing hard. But the narrator has not alerted us to this detail. In fact, there is no narration, only snippets of synchronous sound (as when Bonner is seated in her train compartment) and occasional actuality sound (we hear the "March of Slavic Woman" as the train pulls out of the station).
But the significance of this fifth tape lies in the conversation staged by the doctor with an unsuspecting Sakharov. After Bonner had left the dentist that day in Gorky, Sakharov remarked to her that he couldn't understand how a busy man like obukhov, in charge of an active hospital, could afford to spend two or three hours drinking tea with him and discussing current political events. Sakharov did not know, of course, that the question asked by the doctor were phrased in such a manner that Sakharov's reply could be used with the questions edited out. What the viewer hears appears to be Sakharov expressing his own opinion about the arms race and SDI; what he was actually doing was describing the official Soviet view of these matters.
This videotape, then, marks a change of direction in the KGB disinformation campaign. Its target was clearly Bonner herself, and it was timed to appear at the very moment she arrived in the West. The average viewer in the West will not think so much of the struggle she and Sakharov have had to win her exit visa; they will see instead how amiable were the Soviet visa authorities, how easy it was for her to catch a train to Gorky, be driven by her friends to Moscow airport and escorted by them onto the flight to Italy. Viewers in the West will not hear from Bonner during her stay in America; her lips have been sealed by her agreement with the KGB. Instead, they will hear Sakharov himself speaking in synchronous sound on matters where his views carry weight. The KGB had consistently painted Bonner as a bad influence on her famous husband, the one had subverted an honest scientist from his Soviet duty. With this tape, the KGB moved onto the offensive. Don't believe what you may hear from Sakharov's wife, the KGB were saying, believe Sakharov himself, whom you can see and hear for yourself on our tapes.
Tape 6 - Released March 24, 1986
The sixth tape lasts 18-1/2 minutes and is in color. It opens with scenes of Gorky winter. Children are playing in the snow. People are warmly dressed. Sakharov appears wearing a fur hat, walking with his characteristic stoop. The narrator says: "It's three months since Bonner left for abroad." He's going to tell us how Sakharov is doing in her absence. And so the title comes up: "Sakharov Speaks." The tape, it soon becomes clear, is a further attempt by the KGB to separate their image of Sakharov from the one given by his wife, who is now in the West. Hence their choice of title, which is the same as one of Sakharov's best known books, published in the West in 1974. Their method is to eavesdrop on Sakharov's private conversations, which are of two types. The first type of conversation is made up of shots of Sakharov talking to his wife in Massachusetts from two telephone booths in Gorky, identified by the numbers 3 and 4 on the exterior of the glass. The second type of conversation consists of a lengthy discussion with Obukhov, the chief doctor of the Gorky hospital, once again on the subject of arms control. It seems to be partly a repeat of the scenes shown in the tape of December 9, 1985, and it is edited to imply Sakharov's support for Gorbachev's position.
The editing of the rest of the tape follows a logic found within the sound track, which consist almost entirely of Sakharov's voice with a minimal amount of KGB narration. Bonner's voice is not heard. Visually, we jump from shots of Sakharov going about his business in Gorky to shots of him in telephone booths, and the shots of him in telephone booths cut back and forth indiscriminately from booth 3 to booth 4 without attempting to make it seem one continuous conversation. It's not possible to establish if the sound in the telephone booths is synchronous, but this hardly matters. Sakharov is obviously speaking to his wife and it's his voice that provides the sound track linking the visuals, a technique common in American television news practice.
In this tape, then, Sakharov tells his wife he saw Mrs. Obukhov today (the doctor's wife, who is also a physician) - "I'm excellent," he says to Bonner, "everything's fine" - and we see him entering her hospital building and discussing his cardiogram with her. Sakharov tells his wife he's been with scientific colleagues from Moscow - "We had a nice talk" - and we see one of them with him. Sakharov tells his wife the garage fix his car for free, and we see him at the garage, helping to push the car out of the snow and filling it up at a gas station.
One obvious purpose behind the release of this tape was to show that Sakharov was fit and enjoying himself in Gorky while his wife was away. He's fit enough to push his car in the snow, and friends visit him. Did the KGB hope that his wife might not return to him?
In the last part of the film, we see Sakharov out shopping. We have seen him earlier in the film escorted by a woman, who may have been a nurse, entering a building from a car. On this earlier occasion, he went to meet Mrs. Obukhov. Someone now is driving him about town, perhaps a taxi, perhaps a friend. He buys flowers and puts them on the back seat of the car. He gets out of the car and enters a building carrying the flowers. We cut to one of Sakharov's telephone conversations. He's telling his wife ha cannot go abroad because of his knowledge of defence secrets, that he was engaged in illegal activities and so must accept his punishment. He ends with words of affection. The picture cuts to show us Sakharov with an unknown woman. They are living the building together. She's carrying flowers, holding them so that, although wrapped in paper, the camera can show them to be flowers. The film ends with this unknown woman walking with Sakharov across the street in a circular direction where the camera can follow them. You are invited to draw your own conclusions about Sakharov's relationship with this woman to whom, the film implies, he's presented the flowers.
This tape, then, is a useful reminder of the sordid lengths to which the KGB filmmakers go to frame unsuspecting people. Many western news correspondents have been trailed and photographed in such a way that when edited their most innocent actions are made to seem suspicious, if not criminal. It is necessary only to recall the Daniloff affair of late summer 1986 in this context.
In this case, we are naturally not to know that Sakharov bought roses to celebrate his wife's birthday, that the building he is seen entering is his own apartment building, and that he celebrated Bonner's birthday alone. Nor can we tell from the way his conversation with her has been edited that he is quoting a statement put out by Gorbachev about himself. It was Gorbachev who said that Sakharov had been engaged in illegal activities and must accept his punishment. Sakharov, needless to say, acknowledged nothing of that kind.
Tape 7 - Released May 30, 1986
As in tape 6, released two months before, the emphasis in the seventh tape is verbal. Released on the eve of Bonner's return to the Soviet Union, it was again intended to suggest that she was giving a false account of Sakharov's situation in Gorky and distorting his ideas.
The tape shows us Sakharov talking to Gorky citizens about the issue of nuclear energy, following the accident at Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. He has been accosted on the street by these citizens, and his answers to their questions are contrasted with statements attributed to Bonner which were published in the Italian magazine, Il Sabato. These statements by Bonner are read in Russian by a female announcer as an English translation is put on the screen. Bonner, in fact, did not make these statements nor did she even give an interview to Il Sabato. The newspaper published its accounts based on remarks from one of Bonner's friends.
After each statement, the tape cuts to a montage of Sakharov answering his street-corner interlocutors. One of these "passers-by" is the ever-obliging, ever-role-playing Obukhov, by now a regular stooge of the KGB. Another is a young man with a beard and a hold-all who says he is a reporter from a local newspaper. In a third setup, two women have positioned by Sakharov's car. In a fourth, Sakharov is in a telephone booth, presumably the same as in the March tape when he was pictured talking to his wife. They have all been rigged with radio microphones and the camera is hidden across the street. In one shot a heavy truck passes trough the frame. Toward the end, as he finishes his conversation with the two women, Sakharov gets into his car; the young bearded man takes his photograph. The tape opens with a title in Russian, 'Bonner and Sakharov talk about Chernobyl," and it ends with the same title, plus the words, "You have seen it." Total length 13.45 minutes.
Tape 8 - Released June 18, 1986 (not viewed)
As reported in the press, this final tape in the series is a recording of a conversation between Sakharov and Bonner in their apartment after Bonner's return - a recording obtained, presumably, by bugging their rooms. Their voices are used as background narration to scenes of the couple walking about Gorky. Apparently the conversation is of Bonner reproaching Sakharov for being provoked into discussing sensitive issues for the benefit of KGB cameras.
From the foregoing description, the intentions of the KGB disinformation planners seem clear:
- Sakharov is seen to be alive and well at times when others said he was on hunger strike and being badly treated;
- Bonner is portrayed as being an unreliable witness to her husband's situation and to his views; and there's enough to suggest that she may be leading him astray as well;
- The tapes appearances coincide with Soviet political initiatives;
- Sakharov, the Soviet Union's most famous nuclear scientist, a Nobel laureate with enormous prestige in the West, is shown to support the Soviet position on arms control and on President Reagan's strategic defense initiative.
If the intentions of the KGB are clear, what can be said of the other side of the equation, namely the response of the West's news media to such a prolonged disinformation campaign?
We do not claim to give a comprehensive answer to this question, and we certainly cannot claim to have made an exhaustive study of how the western media an exhaustive study of how the western media in every case handled the Sakharov material.
The most significant aspect of this campaign, however, is the form in which it was conducted. The production of so much video material by the KGB seems to indicate that their disinformation tacticians are moving in a new direction, one in keeping with the way Soviet leaders are also turning to television to present themselves on the world's stage. In this section of our study, therefore, we focus on the place television occupies in western cultural life and the special visual character of the medium.
It was in the 1960s that television established itself as the dominant medium of mass communication in western society. If an arc is drawn from Japan through North America to northern Europe, and the number of households calculated where television sets are viewed, it can be shown that in these households people are spending between a third and a fifth of their lives watching television. By the 1980s viewing television has become the third most common activity for Americans after sleep and work. Television is now the source whereby most Americans obtain all their information about their country and the world, a fact that has overwhelmed other media, making television in effect the medium of the media.
In corroboration of this extraordinary phenomenon, it seems that we must accept that illiteracy is also on the increase in the United States. To the number of those wholly illiterate, estimated to be in the region of 25 million, must be added the 35 million or more who are functionally illiterate - that is, who are unable to process simple written information, like instructions on a medicine bottle, or applications for employment, or titles on a television screen. Thus we have a total figure of some 60 to 70 million Americans - perhaps 40% of the adult population - whose experience of the world is entirely mediated by visual/oral means. At the opposite end of the cultural scale, it seems that a knowledge of history, and especially of recent past, is declining among high school and college graduates, a trend which many have attributed to the onset of television viewing habits in this generation. Yet another consideration bearing on the nature of mass communication today is the phenomenon of percentage of aliteracy, to which the Librarian of Congress has draw attention - the percentage of adult American who can read books, but do not do so, estimated to be about 44%.
In terms of traditional ideas of what constitutes an educated society, these considerations are discouraging, to say the least. Clearly a cultural revolution has taken place of spectacular dimensions and unpredictable consequences. In human history, every time a radical change had occurred in the technology of communication it has been accompanied by an equally radical change in the way the social organism perceives itself and its surroundings. Some observers have likened the psychological consequences of today's electronic revolution to those that took place in the late 15th century with the invention of printing, or with the yet more revolutionary change that overtook ancient civilizations with the discovery of alphabetic writing. Whatever may be thought of this proposition by communicators themselves, or by statement, legislators and educationists, one thing is certain. The KGB's choice of videotapes as their new weapon indicates that the television audience is now the primary target for psychological warfare, an audience, in other words, that is defined by a medium of communication rather than by other demographic factors,
With this in mind, we must first note the manner in which the videotapes appeared in the West, which was the same for all eight, following a regular pattern established with the release of the first tape in August 1984.
In all eight cases, then, the KGB chose as its sole distribution outlet in the West the popular West German daily paper, Bild-Zeitung. Its intermediary throughout the campaign was believed to be a Soviet citizen, Victor Louis, whose name is often mentioned in connection with other Soviet disinformation campaigns. (It was this same Victor Louis, it will be recalled, who ran the story that the Moscow subway bomb of January 1977 was the work of dissidents.) In June 1984, Bild published two photographs of Sakharov and Bonner, naming Louis as their source. The publicity these photographs attracted in the West may well have given the KGB the idea for the videotape campaign that soon followed. Louis' part in these campaigns has always been ambiguous; his interests, it seems, are as much commercial as political and not always coinciding with those of the KGB. Bild has denied receiving money itself from its distribution of the tapes.
Bild is published by the Alex Springer organization, a West German media conglomerate whose other papers mostly support the conservative policies of the Christian Democrats, the party in power in West Germany throughout the period covered by this campaign. Bild, however, with a circulation of twelve million daily, a fifth of the West German population, appeals mostly to blue collar workers who are more likely to support the Social Democrats, the party that favors closer ties between West Germany and the Soviets.
Bild's style is that of tabloid journalism aimed at the new mass public whose principal cultural activity is watching television. Its layout is strong on headlines and pictures, and weak on content to the point of near invisibility. Politics jostle for space with stories of crime and scandal, and photos of world leaders appear next to those of women in bathing costumes. The brazen, hard-sell approach is like the blurb to a paperback one picks up at the airport to throw away at the end of the flight, an approach common to many of the multi-media corporations which have emerged in the age of television, such as the Murdoch and Turner empires in the English speaking world, which market information aggressively as a consumer product and whose commercial success is likewise based on appealing to the tastes, values and ephemeral concerns of the new mass television public.
It can be said of this new commercial journalism, more entertainment than information, and which tends always toward erotic arousal, that it desensitizes viewers - and therefore readers - to the real subject matter by reducing everything to the same level of melodrama. In the pages of Bild, therefore, the fate of Sakharov and Bonner is trivialized through overemphasis and kitsch language. It's as if Bild were advertising a television soap opera, as these sample headlines suggest:
You can even hear Mrs. Sakharov coughing"
Service filmed them from a box"
- The horrible sufferings of a human being"
much is killing him"
Tapped Day and Night"
on the Telephone: 'All the best, Love and Kisses'"
What probably makes Bild an attractive distribution center to KGB media operatives is the paper's editorial adventurism, what other journalists describe as a "hit or miss" approach to the news and quality of "deniability." You can easily disavow a Bild attribution because no one respects the paper's journalistic integrity. At the same time, by favoring Bild with sensitive information before releasing it officially, the Soviets help promote the paper's commercial success. Early in 1986 the Soviets chose Bild for the public release of two letters from Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to West Germany's Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and it was Bild that first disclosed that Anatoly Shcharansky was to be freed as part of an East-West diplomatic exchange.
For its part, Bild is just as aggressive in giving publicity to what the KGB wishes to have said as it is in declaring that its source is a secret videotape made by hidden KGB cameras. Either way, Bild will attract attention and sell its copies. In this dubious alliance between a conservative German institution and the Soviet state, one is reminded of a similar liaison formed after World War I to get around the provisions of the Versailles Treaty between General von Seeckt, the architect of Germany's secret military revival, and the new Bolshevik regime.
In the United States press coverage of Soviet affairs has always been of uneven quality. Some western correspondents are critical of their own colleagues in Moscow, citing cases of unprofessionalism, inexperience and careerism which make them easy targets of disinformation and personal manipulation which characterize Soviet dealing with the press. News organizations are also nervous of losing the favor of Soviet official in Moscow to commercial rivals. Although the Sakharov-Bonner saga received comparatively timely and well-informed coverage in national daily newspapers like The New York Times and the Washington Post, reporting of human rights abuse in the Soviet Union generally has been poor, according to most Soviet exiles. Of regional papers, the Boston Globe through its proximity to the Sakharov family in Massachusetts, could be expected to take special interest in his case. But reporters from the Boston Globe, like most American journalists, tend to believe that Soviet dissidents are biased in what they say about the Soviet Union and that this bias needs correcting in the interest of objectivity. Such an attitude, of course, plays into the hands of Soviet disinformation experts who encourage the idea that the Soviet Union and the United States should be treated as equal societies. The West's news media as a whole, say critics, seem fearful of contributing to a new cold war atmosphere and so are unable on a day to day basis to provide an objective context for their coverage of Soviet affairs.
In the case of the KGB videotapes, it seems that wire agencies and newspaper correspondents seldom, if ever, took the trouble to investigate the material in detail for themselves. Are they, indeed, competent to do so? As a result, the print media usually reproduced Bild's statements about the tapes, which statements, in some significant details, often reproduced KGB distortions.
Nevertheless, until recently it has been the print media that have provided the main lifeline whereby the plight of Soviet dissidents was made known to western public opinion. And it was largely in response to the pressure exerted on the Soviets over Sakharov by the print media that the KGB began releasing their videotapes.
When the first videotape turned up in Bild's hands in August 1984, television news stations throughout the western world showed immediate interest. The three American networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, competed for exclusive rights to the material, with ABC winning the auction. It os thought that ABC paid some $50,000 for these rights, though one account quoted $67,500. In Europe, extracts from the tapes were shown at various times in Britain, France and Germany - America's major NATO partners - and elsewhere. That the western alliance was intended as the KGB's main target is suggest by the inclusion in the tapes of Europe and America periodicals - Bunte Illustrirte, Paris Match, Il Sabato, Time, and Newsweek.
It is safe to say that had either of ABC's rivals won the auction with Bild they would have handled the material in much the same way as ABC did, the editorial attitudes and practices of the three networks being virtually identical. ABC's approach, therefore, can be studied as being typical of the American television news media.
Having secured exclusive rights, then, ABC News featured the first KGB tape in its Nightline program on August 23, 1984, promoting the fact with stills form the tape in its main newscast and in Nightline the evening before. Announcing the program, ABC declared that the tape was "almost certainly a production of the Soviet KGB, which may be one of the world's most feared secret police organizations. But when it comes to making movies, subtlety is obviously not its strong point."
Before showing the tape, Ted Koppel, the host of Nightline, briefly sketched in the background facts, such as they were known. Koppel went on to warn viewers to watch out for a number of points. Sakharov on hunger strike? asked Koppel rhetorically - he's shown eating. Both Sakharov and Bonner are said to be in poor health, Koppel continued, but she's shown smoking, shopping, driving a car, and he's shown reading, chatting and walking. Koppel pointed out that the KGB had provided visual evidence for the date of scenes by clumsily inserting shots of western news magazines; and he ended his introduction by noting the visual effect of the "fulsome Travelogue" (which ABC did not show) with which the KGB had begun their film in order, as Koppel put it, "to diminish the impact of exile."
ABC then broadcast five minutes of the videotape with its Russian narration translated into English, giving viewers a fair idea of the original. After the screening of the tape, Koppel introduced viewers to three people with specialized knowledge of the case. In Boston, there were Tatiana Yankelevich, Sakharov's stepdaughter, and Ladislav Bittman, "a former deputy chief of the disinformation department of the Czechoslovak intelligence service who now works and lives here in the United State" (Bittman teaches at Boston University, where he heads a center for the study of disinformation). In New York was William Hyland, "Soviet expert," editor of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, and a former deputy director of the National Security Council.
This was a formidable array of experts. Between then they corrected many of the KGB falsifications in the tape. Bittman disposed of Victor Louis, the KGB contact man who brought the tape to Bild, and spoke of KGB methods and intentions, such as trying to drive a wedge between Sakharov and his wife. Tatiana Yankelevich spoke about the physical appearance of her mother and stepfather, saying how their ordeal had aged them, but agreeing that since the tape seemed recent it looked as if Sakharov was not now on hunger strike. We were shown additional scenes from the tape while she was talking, a technique often used, but one that can be confusing, especially to viewers who may not have been listening attentively. Hyland discussed how this disinformation campaign fitted in with wider Soviet political objectives. With a break for advertisements halfway through, the studio portion of the program lasted 14 minutes in all.
Having established a special interest in Sakharov and the KGB tapes, ABC protected its investment in the subject, as it were, by purchasing the rights to the next tapes as they appeared, showing excerpts from them in their evening newscasts in June, July and December 1985, and in March 1986.
Nightline is broadcast late in the evening (11:30 to midnight in major East coast markets) and compared with the mass audience for prime time entertainment its audience is small and selective. In contrast, the television network news is broadcast in the early part of the evening (6:30 to 7 p.m. in some markets, 7 to 7:30 p.m. in others) when the competition for audience share is at its most intense as each network builds up to the hours of peak viewing, "prime time," when the audience size will normally amount to some thirty million viewers for each network. The television network news, therefore, has to appeal to the mainstream of the population in the context of popular entertainment. It is the principal means whereby the public informs itself about national and world affairs. On December 9, 1985 the latest KGB tape formed the lead story in ABC's evening bulletin. The way the network handled the story is once again typical of American television news practice.
On December 9, 1985, then, ABC News opened its evening bulletin with its newscaster, Peter Jennings, saying: "Good evening. We begin tonight with another exclusive look at the Soviet Union's most famous dissident, Andrei Sakharov. Another secretly made and heavily edited film of Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, has been made available by the Soviets to a West German newspaper, the Bild. And ABC News has purchased it. Soviet officials in Moscow said today that Sakharov, the former Nobel Peace prize winner, should not be considered exiled in the closed Soviet city of Gorky, where he is forced to live, because Gorky is just like Detroit or Cleveland. As we shall see, not quite."
ABC then showed two and three-quarter minutes of the latest KGB release (see tape 5,) using the original Russian dialogue (synchronous sound, recorded when the pictures were taken), but putting over it its own commentary spoken by Peter Jennings. In cutting the material down, ABC followed the shape of the original KGB version: first, Bonner in the visa office, then Sakharov on the telephone, then Bonner in the dentist's chair, then Sakharov talking about arms control and SDI, apparently while waiting for his wife, then Bonner rejoining her husband. The final shot are of Sakharov carrying his wife's bags onto the train for Moscow. Each of these sequences has been shortened. In the final sequence, for example, ABC shows only two of the shots instead of the three in the KGB original, cutting the time down from 58 to 15 seconds. Jennings' commentary which accompanies the tape give viewers information about the contents of the film (jennings paraphrases the Russian dialogue) and also alerts them to KGB methods. It is carefully worded script written by a highly professional newscaster. For instance, Jennings points out that: "Despite some prodding Sakharov will not take the official Soviet line that Star Wars, or SDI, enables the United States to strike first."
As it reads, ABC's script for the KGB material is unexceptional. It may seem somewhat tortuous in places, but it sounds less so when matched against pictures. Also to be explained by television news practice - that is, maintaining an appearance of objectivity - is the apparently illogical nature of part of the commentary. "Did they know they were being filmed?" asks Jennings at one point, when a moment later we are informed by another reported that, no, Bonner did not know she was being filmed.
From these two examples, then, it's fair to say that within its own terms of news values, ABC's handling of the KGB tapes in Nightline and the evening news was responsible and informed, as informed, say, as the New York Times or the Washington Post. It should also be pointed out that by buying the rights to the KGB tapes ABC forestalled their commercial exploitation by television companies more prone to Bild's sensationalist approach.
On the positive side, also, as Tatiana Yankelevich said in the Nightline program, the release of the first tape by the KGB showed that the Soviets were sensitive to western public interest in Sakharov's fate. She called "a minor victory." The KGB had been forced to respond to western media pressure, albeit in this highly objectional form. Since publicity in the West help the dissident's cause - is, indeed, their only weapon against the power of the totalitarian Soviet state - the arrival in the West of material showing Sakharov and Bonner in Gorky undoubtedly provided the couple with greater media exposure at a time when they certainly needed help from outside. In general, it seems that the television coverage was well handled. That the material came from the KGB using hidden cameras was clearly stated; obvious disinformation purposes were identified, well-informed commentators addressed important aspects of the case, and the views of Sakharov's family in Newton were freely aired. From one point of view, the news media were turning the tables on the KGB to the benefit of the Sakharov and their fellow dissidents.
Yet we have to ask: would the television networks have responded in the same way to the tapes if they had been offered by the Soviet embassy in Washington, London, Paris or Bonn? If the answer to this question is in the negative, then we have to consider the case from another angle. For what the Soviet succeeded in doing with their Sakharov taped was to preempt space on western network news outlets in prime time on occasions of their choosing.
Thus, two days after Bonner arrived in the United States, the KGB commanded two and a half minutes of lead time on American television network news; on the eve of Bonner's return to the Soviet Union, as she prepared to meet with Prime Minister Thatcher in London, the KGB commanded time on British television. On March 24, 1986, in the weeks following the publication in Britain and America of Sakharov's tortures at the hands of the white-coated members of the KGB, the KGB once again commanded time on the major television news outlets in the West.
And so in each case except the last (dare we say the eight tape is the last in the series?), each time the KGB released a tape featuring Sakharov, western news media responded by responding the fact and by incorporating parts of the tapes in television bulletins, thereby giving publicity to the alleged contents of the tape and confusing viewers over the actual facts. On seven separate occasions, therefore, the KGB succeeded in creating a news event for the benefit of the West's media. The news event should more accurately be described as a media event.
What this case study therefore confirms is the increasing tendency of the West's news media to divert themselves into stories about the processing of news, rather than the news itself, about surface operations, rather than substance. There can be little doubt it is television itself, with its visual emphasis and dazzling technology, that has largely brought about this changed perception of what constitutes news. We must now, finally, consider the KGB tapes in the light of the television medium itself.
Television is primarily affective, a medium of the emotions and not of the intellect. In the presentation of information, factual or fictional, its essential form is drama - dramatic music, dramatic graphics, dramatic titles, dramatic delivery by announcers, dramatic cutting from one scene to another, one shot to another, and - not least - dramatic advertising pitches. Given a choice between two visual images, we will always take the stronger, the more dramatic one. What is, therefore, being transmitted through this form is predominantly emotional information. When the verdict is delivered at a well publicized trial - Claus von Bulow's, for example - the camera will show us the defendant's face, his emotional expression, and not the foreman of the jury. When catastrophe occurs - say, the Challenger disaster - the cameras will focus immediately on the family of the victims. In talks shows, interest is generated by frequent changes of camera angles, that is to say interest arises from manipulation of the visual, or affective, element and not from what is being said. In news programs, brief excerpts from interviews are inserted more as an attention-getting effect than to provide significant factual information. Appropriately enough, the industry calls these brief excerpts "sound bites." They are intended to snatch at the emotions, not for intellectual digestion.
In the tension that exists between words and images, the discursive, rational quality of speech is opposed by the intuitive, literally eye-catching nature of pictures. What goes on in the visual field will normally pre-empt attention, but we have to be told what it is we are looking at, and we will normally believe what we are told. In news programs in particular, visual information has to be communicated instantly, so that images are selected for their symbolic meaning, a meaning that will be grasped at once at an emotional level by the greatest number of people in the shortest possible amount of time.
Most viewers spend several hours each day in front of their television sets; what they retain from a viewing experience is an impression, not an orderly argument or clear record of facts. Separate program elements merge into a continuous kaleidoscope of sound and images and there is neither opportunity nor inclination for detailed analysis of the images. Ask viewers about a factual program they have seen, and most will tell you their feelings about it; and if you press them about their thoughts on the subject matter of the program, you will usually find that their thoughts are no more than reflections of their feelings.
On further point needs stressing. Since television news is the only source of information for most Americans about the outside world, their perception of events and personalities, their interpretation of reality, is based only on what can be seen. What cannot be seen, that is, looked at on a television screen, has no existence in popular imagination. This makes interpreting the true nature of closed societies like the Soviet Union to western audiences virtually impossible. In the 1970s small quantities of eight millimeter film made as appearance in the West, mostly taken secretly by dissidents and smuggled out. One film showed a Soviet labor camp near Riga, in Latvia, and it caused a sensation among European communist parties fearful of the effect on television audiences of such visual material. But the secret films were not in sufficient quantity nor of sufficiently interesting action to justify their fears. Thus the reality of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, its vast extent, its past crimes and cruelties, its demoralizing effect at all levels of Soviet society, this reality is virtually unknown to mass audiences because it cannot be pictured on a regular basis. On this subject, and unlike its Nazi equivalent now encapsuled by the term"the Holocaust," there is no repertoire of symbolic images of the Soviet Gulag derived from previous viewing experiences to provide the visual references necessary to provoke an emotional response from western audiences. The problems encountered by ABC in its series "Amerika" are testimony to this difficulty.
Summarizing these points as they bear on the campaign against Sakharov, the first thing to say is that a television news program cannot show what has not been recorded visually, and in television terms news is defined by those stories for which visual material is available. Stories without visuals are generally avoided.
Second, given the bias of television toward visual drama, what viewers retain from television news programs are visual impressions which cannot thereafter be unimagined, as it were. The images are lodged in the memory through emotional associations which reason can't gainsay. The great success of television advertisements rests on this mnemonic principle.
The net result of these two factors suggests that most television viewers lack the perceptual and psychological defenses to counter a KGB campaign which sets out deliberately to falsify and confuse by means of visual images.
Thus Sakharov is seen to be eating; there is no doubt the visual fact is authentic, and it is this visual fact that will stick in the mind while what may be said elsewhere, perhaps later in a studio discussion, will be forgotten or ignored. We may be told Sakharov was on a hunger strike, but no visual fact to impress itself upon our imagination. Instead, we will retain the images of Sakharov "eating heartily."
Then Bonner is seen with a woman walking the streets of Gorky and chatting with her on a bench overlooking the river. The viewer responds: How nice it is Gorky! Even if we knew that the woman with her was her lawyer and not a friend (and the film doesn't tell us this, nor did the ABC newscast), there is no visual imagery available suggestive of the strain and isolation from which Bonner was suffering at this time. If someone tells us later that actually Gorky is a hell hole, we may receive the information intellectually, but emotionally we will remember that Gorky looked a pretty place.
Sakharov is seen carrying heavy suitcases. The picture speaks of his ability to do so. Although an American newscaster can explain that actually he was so weak he had to stop every few paces to rest, the viewer has no mental image of a Sakharov having to rest every few paces. These images do not exist.
The serious, long term implications for the West of this disinformation campaign need pondering. It is virtually impossible for most western viewers to understand how totally different from western norms is life in the Soviet Union, how far apart are western legal and ethical standards from the conduct of the authorities in the Soviet Union, conduct which has produced a pervasive cynicism throughout Soviet society. The KGB tapes provide striking evidence that responsible member of the professional classes, will participate in glaring fashion in unethical conduct of the most offensive kind. Bonner was not exaggerating when she described these medical folk as the Mengeles of their country. Obukhov, the Gorky doctor in charge of Sakharov's case, was rewarded by the state with the most prestigious title the Soviets can bestow upon a doctor - People's Doctor of ten USSR. The award, we may think, which was made in November 1985, was as much for his services as an actor and "stoolie" as a doctor. Had any western video agency attempted a
similar piece of hidden filming, Sakharov and his wife would no doubt have had grounds for legal action, claiming severe penalties for the violation of their right to privacy. Yet American television networks did not seem to consider it necessary to protect the rights of these individuals when they were not responsible themselves for the secret filming. Why should the guidelines the networks have laid down for the conduct of news gathering at home be waived when material is handed to them by the Soviet KGB?
We have to conclude, therefore, that the KGB has succeeded to a remarkable degree in establishing a precedent - several precedents, actually - whereby the accepted standards of television journalism have been broken, and broken not once but several times over. The breach of these professional standards must have corrupting effect on news operatives and television audiences alike.
Television news executives are in a dilemma when it comes to reporting on Soviet affairs. One of them, Robert Murphy, defended ABC's decision to use the Sakharov videotapes while acknowledging
that all visual material from behind the Iron Curtain is suspect. "We know we're dealing with the KGB, or some part of the Soviet structure, when we deal with pictures taken in a closed Soviet city out in the open." And Peter Jennings said of the tapes, "It's as close as you can get to a visual medical report...it's keeping people in the West as aware as we can of how he may be doing." "The whole situation is dicey," added Murphy. Such apologies sound weak and are unconvincing. Is it too much to ask that television news media refuse to handle material that comes to them from such sources as the KGB, with or without the services of a paper like Bild?
This study goes no further the June 1986. Six months after Bonner's return to Gorky came the dramatic telephone call from Gorbachev to Sakharov which prepared for the exiled couple's return to Moscow. When western correspondents met Sakharov at last back in his old haunts, they saw that he had aged terribly through his ordeals in Gorky. He seemed to be a sick man, his voice faltering. But it is, perhaps, thanks to his sufferings that many scores, even hundreds, were released in the months ahead from their confinement. His sufferings and those of his wife may have been used by the KGB propaganda machine to dramatize the new policy of openness, but in the post-Gorky world of Soviet politics, who can say where this policy will lead?
A final observation should be made. Photographs are ambiguous documents. We can't always be sure what detail will catch the viewer's eye to frustrate the photographer's intentions. With moving images, the ambiguity is more teasing because of the fleeting time the image is before us on the screen.
But you can't view and review three hours worth of material without becoming impressed by the central figures, without entering into a kind of internal dialogue with their personalities. And so from these tapes, persistent viewers will soon become closely acquainted with Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner. They will come to recognize at once Sakharov's figure, his slight stoop, the rounded dome of his head; and they will recognize, too, without having to be told, the sweetness of his character, his consideration for others, his devotion to his wife. What Solzhenitsyn called his "serene trustworthiness that comes from his own purity." In one shot, taken for other reasons by the KGB, we can't help being struck by the way Sakharov rises and thanks the young nurse who has been attending them. In other shots, again intended by the KGB to tell a different story, we are impresses by the patient courtesy he extends to people who accost him on the street corners, he himself being unaware, of course, of their real purpose in doing so.
these small details scattered throughout the tapes a much truer image
emerges that the KGB film makers could have believed was possible, an
image of nobility, serenity, courage and determination. This image finds
its counterpart in that of his wife. Elena Bonner also has her moments
in the tapes which tell us more about her than could ever a KGB narrator:
the slow way she moves because of her heart, the way she uses her hands,
carries her head, her laughter, the tone of her voice, above all the way
she smokes - alas, much to the chagrin of her American doctors. Thanks
to the KGB, we now possess these visual records of a very remarkable couple,
records which will long outlive the shoddy purposes to which the KGB put
1. Solzhenitsyn, A. "As Breathing and Consciousness Return" in A. Solzhenitsyn and others, From Under the Rubble. London: Fontana Paperbacks 1976, p.5.
2. Sakharov, A. Alarm and Hope. Edited by Efrem Yankelevich and Alfred Friendly, Jr. New York: Alfred Knopf 1978, p.62; Rubenstein, Joshua Soviet Dissidents. Boston: Beacon Press 1980, p.233.
3. Alarm and Hope, p.90.
4. Bonner, E. Alone Together. New York: Alfred Knopf 1986, p.15.
5. Victor Simpson for the Associated Press, December 3, 1985, International News section, quoting Alexei Semyonov.
6. Serge Schmemann in The New York Times, December 4, 1985.
7. Alone Together, p.156
9. Boorstin, D., Books In Our Future. Report of Joint Committee on the Library. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office 1984, p.12.
10. James Markham, "An Unlikely West German Vehicle for Soviet News Leaks," The New York Times, February 5, 1986. See also Bonner, Alone Together, p.119, and Ladislav Bittman, The KGB and Soviet Disinformation, McLean,Va.: Pergamon-Brassey's 1985, p.98.
11. Markham, op. cit.
12. See David Satter, "Western Correspondents in the USSR and the Flow of Information" in Fifth International Sakharov Hearing (1985: London). London: Andre Deutsch 1986.
13. Associated Press, August 23, 1984, Domestic News section.
14. Peter Boyer, Television column, The New York Times, March 25, 1986.
15. Solzhenitsyn, A., The Oak and The Calf. New York: Harper & Row 1980, p.368.