Americans are less than enchanted by 'Soviet Life'

Lenin is standing at the head of a procession of Russian Communists, his familiar cap shading him from the sun. Red flags and banners adorned with slogans are flying all around him.

The poster by Boris Shatokin is reproduced on the cover of the July issue of Soviet Life, an English-language magazine, published by the Soviet Embassy and sold in the United States. It is intended to be a general-interest magazine, but 40 percent of the current issue is devoted to the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Communist Party.

Such editorial content - ''pure and simple solid propaganda,'' as Dimitri Simes, a noted Sovietologist, describes it - keeps the magazine's circulation small.

Mr. Simes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that, despite the avenues opened to the Soviets by free flow of information in the US, the Soviet Union reaches more people through the statements of Soviet leaders and through Tass wire service reports than through direct mass-media contact with Americans.

''I think frankly that Soviet Life and Radio Moscow (broadcast on shortwave) are entirely irrelevant,'' Simes says. ''From my point of view, they're wasting their time.''

But the US Information Agency, a part of the US government, is in some ways pleased with the existence of Soviet Life because, by reciprocal agreement, it has placed its own magazine, America Illustrated, on Soviet newsstands for the last 26 years.

Both Soviet Life and America Illustrated are restricted to a maximum circulation of 62,000 in each country. A US government official says that Soviet Life ''can sell barely half that.''

America Illustrated is sold in almost all of the major Soviet cities. The Soviets return some 7,000 to 8,000 copies a month as ''unsold,'' despite the fact that newsstands stocked with 100 to 150 copies of the magazine often sell out in an hour or two, says a knowledgeable US official.

Oleg Shibko, an information officer at the Soviet Embassy, would not say how many issues of Soviet Life went unsold. He did say that the magazine ''provides some persons with free subscriptions.'' He added that the purpose of the magazine was ''to provide better understanding between the peoples of our two countries.''

Vladimir Belyakov, managing editor of Soviet Life, would not answer questions over the phone, but said that if questions were submitted to him in writing, he would respond to them by letter.

While Soviet Life is the only magazine published under such an agreement, it is one of several general-interest Soviet periodicals that circulate in the US.

Soviet Life and other Soviet English-language periodicals, such as Moscow News and Sputnik, ''really have a very small circulation,'' according to David Powell, a research associate at Harvard University's Russian Research Center.

''Most of them are available in much greater supply than there is demand for them,'' he says.

Another means of Soviet mass-media contact with Americans is through Radio Moscow's shortwave broadcasts to North America. But they do not appear to reach a very wide public.

Kim Andrew Elliott, assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, cites a recently compiled survey of ''a group of the most active (shortwave radio) listeners.'' It was found that, on average, they listened to Radio Moscow three days a month.

How many people listen to Radio Moscow is not really known, but one Sovietologist said that some 284,000 North Americans probably tune in once a week.

That figure, from a survey by a Canadian market research firm, was cited in the 1978 annual report of the Board of International Broadcasters, the agency that oversees Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe.

''Virtually no one pays any attention to Radio Moscow,'' Mr. Powell says. He says that research he has seen suggests that those who do listen are motivated by ''curiosity at the odd statements being made.''

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