When Vladimir Nabokov said, "I am annoyed when the good news is spread that I am ridiculing America," he might have been speaking for Vladimir Posner, the man who fueled an international uproar recently when he criticized President Reagan's speech on the defense budget. Posner's seven-minute TV appearance had U.S. officials in Washington and Moscow blasting him as a "propagandist" and "a liar," Soviet officials coming to his defense and Posner shrugging it off with a Johnny Carson grin.
Paris born, Fifth Avenue bred, the self-styled Soviet patriot, in a conversation here, slips easily into the idiomatic Brooklynese and boyish expressions that have helped make him a Soviet-American phenomenon and an international controversy -- perhaps the only television personality who lists U.S. television networks as well as state-controlled Soviet Gasteleradio among his regular sponsors.
Like Nabokov, Posner comes from St. Petersburg stock (his grandfather was a bridge builder) and speaks several languages (in Posner's case, French, English and Russian). But there the resemblances seem to end. After a childhood in Manhattan, and 34 years in the Soviet capital, he views himself "as a kind of bridge, as someone who could relate to both cultures and try to build some understanding between them."
At 51, Posner is a 19-year Soviet Communist Party member and a fan of American folk music, peanut butter and Coke. His conversation flows easily from the spirited socialist jargon of a true believer to fond remembrances of Manhattan. As an MGM film distributor, his father "was making $25,000 a year," he says. "In those days that was a lot of money." But, "I had a paper route and those kinds of things."
Posner's grandparents left Russia after the revolution. His father, Vladimir Alexandrovich, grew up in Paris and married a French woman. They fled occupied France in 1940, when Vladimir was 6, for New York. For nine years he enjoyed an awkward world of exclusive schools with Wall Street scions, maids, summers on Long Island and homespun socialism.
He recalls the family's Fifth Avenue apartment as "swanky," and his alma maters -- City and Country school and Peter Stuyvesant High School as "posh and progressive."
But his father, who obtained Soviet citizenship soon after landing in New York, "always talked to me about the ideals of the Soviet Union and socialist values."
Trips to Harlem and other impoverished areas of the city and conversations with liberal New Yorkers left an impression. "I could see with my own eyes the kind of inequality that did exist," he says. "I could see that this society was not a just society."
Attachments to the United States were overcome by a yearning for the Soviet homeland -- which he knew only from maps and talks with his father.
"I never felt like an American," Posner says, "because I knew that I was not an American.
"I desperately wanted to go to the Soviet Union," he recalls. "I wanted to speak Russian."
His father was blacklisted in 1947, by Posner's account, and lost his job and apartment. Vladimir moved with the family to occupied Berlin in 1948, where he became a Soviet citizen and started learning Russian in a night school for Soviet soldiers. Posner says he doesn't know how he got his Brooklyn accent, since he never lived in Brooklyn. He has an aunt and cousins in suburban Washington, but he has not returned to the United States since 1948.
As a naturalized Soviet, Posner has embraced Soviet ideals -- and even controversial Kremlin policies -- more readily than many native born. "I very much see myself as a citizen of this country," he says, adding, "Soviet to me being more of a political notion than one of nationality."
Pro-Stalin in the early 1950s, he also backed Moscow's 1956 invasion of Hungary and the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall. At 33, he became one of the minority of Soviets to opt for Communist Party membership. Now, Posner says, "I consider myself a Gorbachev man."
Even Posner's taste for American culture seems to combine the esthetically trendy with the ideologically correct: Thomas Paine, James Baldwin, Woody Guthrie, Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," Bruce Springsteen. "He's a good writer," Posner says of John Updike, the bard of the American upper middle class, "but he has nothing to say to me."
Among Russian artists, Posner's favorites include Sergei Prokofiev, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov.
As he relaxes during the interview, Posner's attire attests to his eclectic tastes and status among the Moscow elite: an American ski coat, an Italian tweed jacket, trousers from London and cigars he describes as "strictly Havana."
After completing courses at Moscow University in 1958 and a succession of jobs -- translator of John Donne and medical texts, editor for the Novosti information service -- he gradually found his professional footing as a "communicator" and in 1970 took his current job at Radio Moscow.
With a salary of up to $1,350 a month, Posner is one of the best paid Soviet journalists. A grandfather of one, he lives in a well-furnished five-room apartment in old Moscow with his wife Catherine and one of their two grown children.
Posner's professional life is varied. For Soviet audiences, he lectures three times a month on everything from U.S. unemployment to American folk music, and occasionally hosts radio and TV programs on Soviet and American themes.
As a Radio Moscow announcer, he broadcasts a five-minute commentary daily throughout North America. And he cohosts infrequent U.S.-Soviet programs on bilateral subjects using audiences from both countries. The most recent, a program with Phil Donahue with audiences from Seattle and Leningrad, broadcast last December in the United States and last month in the Soviet Union, helped boost Posner's status here.
But Americans know him best as the announcer who has made appearances on U.S. networks to defend such Soviet actions as the 1983 shooting down of the Korean Air Lines flight and to rebut Reagan administration positions.
When ABC permitted Posner to respond to Reagan's speech, White House director of communications Patrick Buchanan complained that the network had given air time to "a trained propagandist."
To Buchanan's charge, Posner responds, "Woody Guthrie used to say that for a 5-year-old, a lullaby is a propaganda . . . I have never stated anything I don't believe. When I talk to people, I try to give not just my own prejudices, or objectives, or individual views, but I attempt to look at it from a different angle." Some U.S. officials resent him, Posner adds, "because I am effective."
Ever since Posner first appeared on U.S. television in 1978, his appearances have unsettled U.S. officials, who argue that Soviet spokesmen should not be given air time unless U.S. commentators are allowed reciprocal time on Soviet television.
Georgi Arbatov, director of the Moscow-based Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, came to Posner's defense. "The Americans were always practicing public relations before," he says. "Now they seem to be afraid of it."
Of complaints over his latest appearance, Posner adds, "The reaction was so strident and so shrill that one would have the impression that this, call him what you will, this man from Moscow, could influence the decision. I find that quite funny. Of course, to me it's a comment on the free flow of ideas, and freedom of speech, and what have you."
The question of reciprocal broadcasts is "being discussed," he says. Recent Soviet TV broadcasts include an American reporter in an interview with Posner and a 30-minute program with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Posner said others will follow.
He expresses patriotic, nostalgic, defensive feelings about his adopted country. "I support the goals and ideals of this system," he says. "While I certainly see the shortcomings, I don't see why anyone could think that there would not be shortcomings."