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Where propagandists have a 'day' of their own

Sept. 26 was national propaganda day here. Pravda's front page told me so over breakfast. "A big day for propagandists, " read one headline. "With the inspiring word of the party," ran the title of an accompanying editorial lauding the Soviet propaganda machine.

We in the West have given propaganda a bad name. We have saddled the word with all sorts of unappetizing connotations.

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Soviet officials, by contrast, think propaganda is a fine thing.

President Leonid Brezhnev, easily the most quoted man in the country, put it this way a few months back: "The party's ideological and propaganda activists play the paramount role in further developing the Marxist-Leninist education of the masses."

Moscow is a city full of propaganda, much of it on signs near streetsides, in the middle of wide avenues, in parks, and atop buildings. There is no precise equivalent in what the Soviets call the "bourgeois democratic West."

The signs do not say "Drink Pepsi-Cola." They go beyond even the genre of "Uncle Sam wants you!"

There is something of the spirit of a football pep rally in them, the political echo of "Beat Tech!" Yet even this is an incomplete explanation.

The parallel in Reagan-era America would be, perhaps, a billboard in downtown Washington proclaiming: "We are all good supply-siders. . . . Together, we shall march forward to increase military spending, trim social programs, and cut taxes!"

This year's Soviet propaganda day fell, as it happened, on a glorious autumn day. Moscow was ablaze with yellow leaves, awash with a gentle breeze. Large red signs were dappled with sunlight. Slogans sat atop buildings backed by a bright blue sky.

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"The tasks the party sets, we shall fulfill," announced one sign. (I am omitting the omnipresent exclamation marks.)

"Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," cried another.

"With the party, forward to new victories," proclaimed a third.

And there was propaganda about propaganda.One enormous slogan set permanently on top of a downtown building, quoting Lenin, declares: "The newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and collective agitator, but also a collective organizer."

Posted nearby is a P.S. of sorts: "The press is a powerful weapon of the working class."

There is more critical material in the Soviet press than some outsiders assume. Corrupt or incompetent officials are sometimes taken to task. Problems like alcoholism, divorce, and economic inefficiency are aired periodically.

More rarely, an individual commentator may stray from -- or embellish on -- the straight party line on particular issues.

But there are limits. Criticism, even implied criticism, of the political system as a whole is off-limits. So are unkind words about Mr. Brezhnev and other top leaders. So is the reporting of foreign criticism of the Soviet Union , unless properly, acridly, criticized in turn.

Many Muscovites, although by no means openly anti-Soviet, seem to tune out much of the propaganda.

Driving downtown, I noted a lengthy slogan beginning, "Workers of Moscow, strengthen discipline. . . ." Later I asked a young friend, no dissident, whether he could digest the lengthier signs from a moving car. "I don't know," he replied, smiling. "I don't really try."

Mr. Brezhnev called in February for the exorcising of "stereotype phrases" from Soviet propaganda. There must be a bit more pizazz in the party line, he suggested, and "more concrete living reality and actual facts."

Otherwise, "The Soviet citizen . . . simply turns off his TV or radio, or sets aside his newspaper."

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