A few years ago, the contemporary Kremlin political strategist Viacheslav Surkov observed that the massive apparatus used by the Soviet state to inculcate ideological doctrine via the mass media, school curricula, youth groups, fine arts, political education, and so on was one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet regime. At the same time, Surkov and Putin have also acknowledged that the “mighty complex” of Soviet ideological effort ultimately led the regime into a blind alley of distorted information flows and stunted intellectual life.

David Brandenberger's study concentrates on Soviet propaganda in the 1930s, the period when Stalin's personality cult was established and dogmatic ideological control was asserted over all forms of communication. As Brandenberger shows, these impulses were in fact at odds. A system of intellectually coherent doctrine to guide the study of history and the understanding of contemporary society could not be elaborated so long as the personal rule of Stalin remained the paramount source of authority over ideology. The chronic tension between the propagandists' desire for a consistent set of doctrines and heroes to serve as the foundation for ideology and the ruler's need to remain free of any ideological constraints led to a constant crisis in the propaganda system. Leaders who previously had been extolled as paragons of devotion to the revolutionary cause were regularly exposed as counterrevolutionaries. The perverse logic of this system of politically determined ideological requisites was most brilliantly captured by George Orwell. Brandenberger employs archival sources to show how much confusion was created by the frequent changes in the line. The publication of the definitive Short Course in 1938, far from resolving the contradictions in Soviet doctrine, only created new problems as a result of its apodictic and confusing style.

The great dilemma for scholars of Soviet ideology, as it was for Soviet ideological officials themselves, is to gauge the actual impact of its efforts. Although the postwar Harvard refugee survey project gave us some idea of the effectiveness of the system, it is difficult to distinguish specifically Soviet influences on popular values and beliefs from those originating in older cultural templates. By the late 1970s, Soviet leaders themselves recognized how ineffective ideological work was, findings they based on their own internal public opinion surveys. Archival sources provide glimpses of popular reactions to the twists and turns of Soviet propaganda but constitute no more than anecdotal evidence. The actual state of public opinion in the Soviet era remains a matter of interpretation and conjecture.

Ideology is never a closed system; rather, it is given purpose and direction by a regime's policy goals. The turn to the broad-tent, popular front strategy in foreign policy in 1934, as well as the adoption of patriotism and elements of demotic traditionalism, reflected Stalin's calculations about the relative priority of mobilization and demobilization in state building. A more systematic consideration of the relationship between ideology, power, and policy would have strengthened the book. More attention to Stalin's own role in determining the central strategic priorities reflected in propaganda at each point would have helped give the book a clearer narrative structure. Nonetheless, the book makes a useful contribution to our understanding of the complexity of building and operating an ideological polity.