What was it like being a speechwriter in the Soviet Union? Despite what we who live in the NATO countries may think, in many ways, it wasn’t all that different from being a speechwriter in any other setting. That’s at least the sense you get while reading over the published diaries of former Soviet official Anatoly Chernayaev, who for decades prepared speeches and other official texts as part of his work in the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
One theme that Chernyaev returns to several times in his remarkably candid diaries concerns audience reaction to speeches. Like any speechwriter in the West, Chernyaev was acutely aware of whether a speech connected with an audience—or failed to stir a reaction.
For example, Chernyaev wryly describes the outpouring of speeches that took place during a 1973 plenum (meeting) of the USSR’s Central Committee as follows:
And everywhere speeches, speeches and speeches, which will be broadcast over the radio and television several times. Nobody feels the “reverse” reaction of the common man, of the masses, not to mention the intelligentsia.
Also in 1973, Chernyaev laments how a visit to India by Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, which included many speaking engagements, only managed to draw attention to his poor health:
Brezhnev’s visit to India is over. Thousands upon thousands of nice words have been said. Possibly and almost certainly something useful will come of it in practice… but at the cost, oddly enough, of another big step (to use the language of our “journalism”) towards the loss of any prestige: people are sick of the newspaper columns with speeches, toasts, documents, endless TV broadcasts of speeches, receptions, presents, kisses, handshakes, meetings and farewells.
No one tries to understand, people couldn’t care less about these ceremonies. Our leader looks absolutely ridiculous with this passion for profuse public speaking coupled with his terrible articulation and muttering of the simplest words. When it comes to Indian names, it’s a complete embarrassment. The absurdity of it all is so universally recognized that all kinds of people talk about it openly, with no embarrassment or reservation, in the street, in trolleybuses, everywhere.
The worse Brezhnev’s health became, the more speeches he delivered—as if to show he was in excellent shape. In a 1974 diary entry, Chernyaev writes: “all that people notice are [Brezhnev’s] speech defects,” to the point that “from the perspective of building authority, all these countless anniversaries and speeches are backfiring.”
As the USSR began to liberalize in the 1980s, Chernyaev became an advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev, and helped him with key speeches. In a 1990 diary entry, after several years of serving in this role, Chernyaev observes how Gorbachev’s speeches abroad wowed foreign audiences, while his domestic addresses fell flat.
He can no longer make successful impromptu speeches at home, in front of his own people. They are boring and confusing, in contrast to the brilliant, talented impromptu speeches he makes during trips abroad. There, he senses the friendly and understanding environment and therefore allows himself not to conceal what he really thinks. There he is sincere, while at home he is dodgy…
Another 1990 diary entry records how:
The days are gone when crowds of people would rush to [Gorbachev] with questions after his speeches. He walks off the stage alone, accompanied by his bodyguard Volodya. One feels pity for him. And it is terrible when you feel pity for the head of state. But he is already pitied publicly, in newspapers and on television.
And in 1991, his diary notes:
[Gorbachev] made a truly deep speech…at the award ceremony for outstanding workers (April 30th). But who is reading it? Who is listening? It’s all the same—beautiful words! They’ve [i.e., the audiences] had enough of them!
An additional excerpt from Chernyaev’s diary that many speechwriters can likely identify with appears in April 1972, where he summarizes aspects of his work that he enjoys, alongside some complaints.
On one hand, he writes: “I notice that at work, a well-written paper gives me a feeling of satisfaction regardless of its actual significance.” His role makes it “possible to play an advisory role in the determination of real political positions (in respect to this or that party, communist movement, some matters of foreign policy, some actions in the sphere of political propaganda).”
On the other hand, with all his writing intended to serve the needs of his superiors, Chernyaev volunteers his feeling that “my job, most of the time, is a profanation of real aspirations.”
Given Chernyaev’s proximity over many years to top Soviet leaders, his diary gives us perspective on what it was like to work directly with them on edits to speeches. His 1973 diary includes an entry listing some difficulties he encountered while editing a speech for Leonid Brezhnev:
… However, the primary cause of our suffering is the fact that [Brezhnev] cannot articulate his thoughts, even at the level of a lower-level party organization. His every second word is a curse word. Not to mention putting words together in some sort of order for a public speech. He does not even have the resolution (though he is quite a resolute man) to pick the more or less necessary subjects from a list of possibilities. As the result, for twelve hours we were reenacting an “accordion”—he would tell us that the speech needs to be cut down by one third. We would cut it down, bring it to him. He would swear and restore the previous version, saying that he is used to that text and we should cut something else. So we cut something else. He restores it again. Etc.
A 1989 entry includes this observation about working with Gorbachev:
I am getting tired of Gorbachev. Or rather, of his instrumental attitude to me. He is so sure that if I take up a task it will be done right, that he stopped “talking” with me. He no longer advises with me, only unburdens his mind on rare occasion. And now he almost never formulates ideas ahead of time for the assignments he gives me, as he used to do…
He must think that I have no “personal life” and need no “free time.” That is why he calls me on Saturday, Sunday, late at night, sometimes at midnight. If he cannot reach me, he makes displeased jokes.
In 1991, Chernyaev, doubting whether Gorbachev would continue on his reformist course, drafted a letter of resignation which he entered into his diary. It reads in part:
For some time now we, your advisers, have noticed that you do not need us. We know nothing of your intentions, plans or prospective actions or nominations… You are clearly not interested in our opinions. But that does not mean that we do not have opinions about what’s going on.
I have sincerely and truly devoted everything I could to your cause, but now I consider it my duty to tell you the following.
Your speech at the Supreme Soviet is a sign of the end. It is not what our country and the world were waiting for. It is not the speech of a great statesman at a time when his entire cause is hanging in the balance. It was confused, inarticulate…with a faulty “plotline” of events, about which the world knows ten times more. There was a total sense that you are simply uninformed or are trying to tiptoe around what you really wanted to achieve…
Available online (at no cost) from the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the Chernyaev diaries make for fascinating reading—not only for Chernyaev’s erudite perspective on Soviet history as it unfolded, but because of his plain-spoken remarks about his life as a speechwriter.