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In 1984, a former KGB agent, Yuri Bezmenov, claimed in a lengthy interview that:

@32:11: [...] progressive intellectuals; writers, journalists, publishers, professors of colleges [...] For us they were just a bunch of political prostitutes to be taken advantage for various propaganda operations.

which he describes multiple times as "useful idiots". For example, about a professor of political science in Delhi University:

@48:53: He is made to believe he is invited into USSR because he is a talented, sober thinking intellectual. Absolutely false, he is invited because he is a useful idiot, because [...] when he is coming back to his own country he is going for years and years to teach the beauties of soviet socialism [...] thus promoting the soviet propaganda lie.

According to Bezmenov, there are 4 stages:

  1. The "useful idiots" start occupying positions of power and "demoralize" a nation:

    @1:09:43: Marxism, Leninism ideology is being pumped into the soft heads of at least 3 generations of American students without being challenged [...]. The result: [...] drop-outs or half-baked intellectuals are now occupying positions of power in government, civil service, educational system

  2. "Destabilization" follows by attacking/destabilizing:

    @1:13:50: [...] economy, foreign relations, defense systems.

  3. Then follows what he calls "crisis":

    @1:14:38: a violent change of structure, power and economy

  4. "Normalization".

In another interview where Bezmenov describes the stages in detail, he refers to the key contributors as leftists that should be stopped before the situation escalates into the crisis stage:

Why didn't you stop the process here [points at demoralization stage], when Grenada was just approached by leftists


Question:

Was KGB really using leftists in an attempt to damage nations in the ways described by Yuri Bezmenov?


Note 1: He uses the term "progressive", "liberals", "leftists" several times throughout his speeches. I can't post a single quote because Yuri Bezmenov's "claim" is very fragmented.

Note 2: I'm not interested in discussing politics, whether communism is good or bad, whether the attack described by Yuri would succeed or not, or its flaws. I'm looking for evidence (preferably official documents, not newspapers) that discredits (or, however unlikely, confirms) the above conspiracy-looking theory.

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    a comment on the note: that is better suited for a quick conversation in chat or a question on meta. asking meta questions in the foot of a question on the main site is poor form (as it leads to lengthy discussions in the comments) – Federico Aug 11 '17 at 12:39
  • Ok, but how do I phrase it so that readers don't get the wrong impression that i endorse the professor's claims? – Maria check profile Aug 11 '17 at 12:41
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    Ideally you shouldn't try to present a claim as though you endorse it or not. Adding additional content to advertise your personal beliefs doesn't help anyone and may detract from objectivity. – Nat Aug 11 '17 at 14:18
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    The way you phrase the question it sounds as if the claim is that marxism/leninism - I don't think Bezmenov used the word "liberal" - was only a tool for the KGB to reach the goal of destabilizing countries. But the context around your quotes sounds like he is saying that the KGB is using marxist propaganda to destabilize countries in an attempt to turn them stalinist (but not with the primary goal of just causing harm; it's just that Bezmenov sees stalinism as harmful). Phrased that way, it doesn't sound as much as a nonsense conspiracy theory, but like a biased summary of soviet propaganda. – tim Aug 11 '17 at 18:19
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    It would definitely help if you could add timestamps for all quotes and possibly a bit more context for them as well. It would also be good to make it very clear what the claim in question actually is (that [the KGB?] invited professors? In the hope that they would adopt a stalinist ideology? Which they would in turn teach their students, leading to a violent change of structure, power and the economy (resulting in an adoption of stalinism)?). – tim Aug 11 '17 at 18:20
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These kinds of claims did not originate with Yuri Bezmenov, and he is not claiming some kind of scoop. For example, the phrase "useful idiot" was not popularized by anyone in Russia but by anti-communist writers in the United States. Another famous person who claimed that Russians found Americans easy to manipulate was the Gulag Archipelago author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who argued that virtually all attempts to negotiate with Communists expected good faith that the other side didn't have:

I would like to call upon America to be more careful with its trust and prevent those wise persons who are attempting to establish even finer degrees of justice and even finer legal shades of equality - some because of their distorted outlook, others because of short-sightedness and still others out of selfinterest - from falsely using the struggle for peace and for social justice to lead you down a false road. Because they are trying to weaken you; they are trying to disarm your strong and magnificent country in the face of this fearful threat - one which has never been seen before in the history of the world.

Solzhenitsyn's speech is worth reading, because he expressed what both of these defectors were worried about with a bit more nuance and depth. It's not that American leftists propagate Russian lies per se, but rather that American leftism is frequently anarchist, anti-hierarchy, and anti-violence, and that from the perspective of Russian leftism, which stresses "dictatorship of the proletariat," this comes off as utter naïveté, which can be manipulated not merely to "spread lies" but also to directly gain the upper hand in diplomacy.

I now return to Bezmenov's claim that leftists are brainwashed by crafty Russians to "teach the beauties of Soviet socialism". This was an oversimplification on his part. (I reiterate that I think he was trying to say what Solzhenitsyn actually said.) It has a grain of truth to it but is not a correct generalization.

It's true that to some extent Russian propaganda can be shown to have an influence over those with socialist tendencies abroad. For example, the Communist Party USA and Japanese Communist Party, to name two examples, were both Stalinist right up to Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956. They both propagated Russian-invented lies about Stalin's purges and the Holodomor.

Plenty of examples of similar naive acceptance can be found, including:

  • Western visitors to the Soviet Union were strictly controlled by the secret police, especially during the Soviet famine of 1932–33, e.g. Édouard Herriot [French Prime Minister at that time] said that Soviet Ukraine was "like a garden in full bloom".
  • Henry A. Wallace [United States Vice President at that time] visited a Soviet slave labor camp in Magadan in 1944 and believed that the prisoners were volunteers.

There were also plenty of reporters who collaborated with Stalin's cover-up of the Holodomor.

So, there is some basis to Bezmenov's claim.

However, the truth got out about Soviet Communism from a very early stage on the American left. There were plenty of leftists who showed that they were not naive at all, at least in their ability to doubt Stalinist propaganda. These dissenters were already massive in the 1920s and eventually created the Fourth International as a direct confrontation to Stalin.

Responses to the Fourth International created a strong, critical intellectual climate that spawned journals like the New Left Review and Dissent. This intellectual crowd was very familiar with the Soviets and very critical and skeptical of them. It is unfair to characterize them as Bezmenov did.

There were also plenty of Westerners who exposed various propaganda operations:

Victor Kravchenko, Gareth Jones, George H. Earle, William Bullit, John C. Wiley, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Whittaker Chambers, Elia Kazan, Major George Racey Jordan, John Van Vliet, and Ivan Krivosertsov, the last a Russian peasant who witnessed and told about the execution of Polish officers in the Katyn forest by the Soviets, but was found dead, mysteriously, some years later in England.

All of their reports faced opposition from some leftists but have eventually been integrated into mainstream history.

Claiming that Western leftists, as a whole, were simple dupes of the Soviets is a distortion of history that removes agency from the Westerners in question.

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    "Bezmenov is probably referring to communism-inspired "values" as the true weapon (which supposedly causes inefficiency, dysfunction etc). " So what is your actual question, then? Whether Russia was itself a dysfunctional country that was purposefully trying to export that dysfunction to the west? I'm not sure a neutral answer to that is possible. I think politics.SE may be a better forum for that question. – Avery Aug 12 '17 at 6:58
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    @Avery: You're missing Bezmenov's point! He absolutely didn't imply the brainwashing was to create belief Soviet Union was all sunshine&rainbows! Its goal was to destroy the US elites by filling them with people of a completely useless mindset that neglects strategic issues, removes competent people from positions of influence and creates so much of internal conflict that USA becomes powerless against a military aggression. It doesn't matter the engineered mindset happens to incorporate many Marxist ideas. It's not about accepting USSR or communism, it's about making USA internally weak! – SF. Sep 18 '17 at 13:54
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    ...never mind reaching for examples nearly a century old misses the entire point - it's the current generation of academic teachers who are supposed to be the actual successfully built network of unwitting "brainwashers", and the current, and most recent generations of students to be the first wave that is to occupy the positions of influence, replacing neutral competence metrics with enforced racial and gender parity for professional positions. And the whole Neonazi-Antifa riots are exactly the kind of instability the program wanted to achieve. – SF. Sep 18 '17 at 14:03
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    @Avery: Your summary is "Claiming that Western leftists, as a whole, were simple dupes of the Soviets is a distortion of history that removes agency from the Westerners in question." Nowhere do the sources, or the question imply "leftists as a whole" so restricting your conclusions to that qualifier simply doesn't address the matter. The fact many leftists oppose the radicals, is just another internal conflict (as intended). – SF. Sep 20 '17 at 9:34
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    @Avery: If the "social justice" mindset (as defined by Bezmenov) is accepted by a large fraction (not ALL!) of leftists in positions of power then the alleged goals of KGB (as defined by Bezmenov) are met. Whether the prevalence of that mindset is mere result of naïveté or purposeful brainwashing, that is the very gist of the question. The alleged goals as stated by Bezmenov, are currently met, that's an indisputable fact. The only question remains: Was this KGB's doing, or did it happen "all by itself" for other reasons? – SF. Sep 20 '17 at 9:44
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Oleg Gordievsky was a KGB colonel who spied for the British. In his autobiography "Next stop execution" he writes about his work with "agents of influence" and "confidential contacts of influence".

These were likely to be people whose political inclinations might make them sympathetic to some aspect of the Soviet view of the world; many were idealists, and most "gave" their help unwitingly.

[...]

"Contacts" did not usually know they were being pursued, or that the "press atache" [...] buying them a drink or a meal was in fact a KGB officer. Many would have been horrified if anyone suggested they were actively "helping" the adversary.

Gordievsky then relates his contacts with a wide range of characters in the British left at the time.

"My conclusion is that if the Labour Party had been returned to power in June 1983 the KGB would have been in a strong position. [...] With Labour in power the KGB would have been able to pick up a great deal of information about what was going on within the British government.

As well as cultivating possible sources of information the KGB also tried to create positive publicity for the USSR. However this was much less successful. One exercise described by Gordievsky involved a group of sympathetic journalists from The Guardian being taken on a tour of the USSR. However the resulting coverage was so tepid that the KGB officer who had organised it had to fend off accusations of incompetence.

  • "However this was much less successful." - Besides the failed Guardian tour, are there other evidence or hints that this is the case? I don't mean isolated cases where positive publicity failed. – Maria check profile Sep 6 '17 at 5:23
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    @MariaBl. The relevant chapter has a number of anecdotes of a similar kind. The Communist Party was subsidized, but to no effect. One of Gordievsky's clandestine contacts was Ron Brown, but his Scottish accent was so thick that Gordievsky couldn't understand him. Brown backed the Sovient regime in Afganistan, which the Kremlin counted as a success, but in reality this merely made him a target of ridicule in the UK. Gordievsky doesn't draw specific conclusions, but the whole tenor of his memoir is that the KGB was Dilbert with the death penalty. – Paul Johnson Sep 6 '17 at 6:58
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YES, but...

the real question is how impactful it was and how much money KGB spent on it.

During Cold War both the US and USSR were fighting to establish control, for example you can see CIA's work in Iran, Chile and Afghanistan. It would be naive to assume that CIA/KGB only operated with guns and bribes, they also used "PR" methods.

"Problem" with your question is not if KGB tried to influence "leftists" but how much money they spent on it and how impactful it was and I think it is very very hard to know that since a lot of data about this is missing/classified and interpretation depends on human experts that are less precise than machines due to their biases (for example of this problem you can see this Wikipedia article - it is hard to know if rock music actually made any big difference or it was just a visible manifestation of underlying processes in the society).

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • Welcome to SE.Skeptics! Since this site's all about skepticism, answers are generally required to have references. – Nat Sep 13 '17 at 23:26
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This was pretty much the "common soviet narrative". Like "Americans know that the US is the best country in the world" and "Muslims consider all infidels worthy of death", "Soviet people know that USSR supports all the leftist movements in the world, as it should" (either covertly or overtly). /of course, not everyone thinks that way, but "most" do/

One way observable to me in Moscow was that, apparently, the whole print of the "Morning Star" was distributed in the USSR:

Soviet bulk orders ended abruptly in 1989, and the termination of this order, with very little notice, was the cause of "huge financial disruption".

More wonderful examples come from the Bazhanov's memoir, one of them is translated in Foreign Investment and Lena Goldfields; here is the punchline, one should read the whole thing:

Bukharin: “the most remarkable thing is that these cretins in the Labor party have taken our arguments at face value…I propose that we send Comrade MacDonald to be secretary of the Party committee in Kyshtym, and appoint M. Tomsky prime minister in London.”

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