Minneapolis Star and Tribune Tues., July 15, 1986


A doubting propagandist meets his end

By Kurt M. Campbell

Cambridge, Mass.
Dean Reed, an American-born singer who spent the last 15 years of his life behind the Iron Curtain, died last month in East Germany. He was one of the Kremlin's favourite performers, and Pravda praised him as "a true friend and comrade". Yet his passing drew scant attention in the West, and obituaries in major newspapers failed to capture the tragedy of his life and the possible intrigue shrouding his death. In the end, the Soviet system he strived so tirelessly to promote might very well have ended his life.

Who was Reed, virtually unknown in his native country but idolized in Eastern Europe?

He was a desaffected American cultivated by Moscow to serve as a propaganda pawn in its ideological struggle with the West. His odyssey began in 1962, when at 22 he purportedly left his country because of racism at home and American imperialism abroad.

Reed spent several years in Latin America and Italy singing anti-American protest songs in coffee houses and bars. The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed an exodus of defecting Soviet performers to the West, and Soviet authorities realized the propaganda value of an American who abandoned the United States for the Soviet bloc. Soviet officials cultivated Reed and eventually brought him to Moscow in the early 1970s. From ths point on, he became a kind of cultural ambassador for all things Soviet, reassuring Eastern Europeans of the superiority of their political system and way of life.

Reed recorded 13 albums. His repertoire included protest songs about Chile's military government, U.S. support of the contras in Nicaragua and renditions of popular American hits such as "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Rock Around the Clock". He starred in 18 films, many of them Westerns, which led a Soviet reviewer to call him "our version of Clint Eastwood." He traveled widely in the Third World under Soviet sponsorship and never publicly veered from Moscow's foreign-policy line.

Western visitors to the Soviet Union will remember that in any discussion about the Kremlin's human-rights policies, Soviet citizens and officials would accuse the United States of oppressing one of its greatest stars, Dean Reed. The puzzled reactions by Americans to this unknown served only to reinforce Soviet preconceptions about the power of the American media to repress information.

For his loyalty, Reed was given all the acclaim and comfort that the socialist system could bestow. He was the only American - he retained his citizenship throughout his self-imposed exile - to win the Lenin Prize for artistic achievement. He was provided with a fine house in East Germany and married an East German actress, Renate Blume-Reed. Yet the accolades and rewards ultimately did not satisfy him.

Reed's manager and longtime associate, Dixie Lloyd, confirmed that the singer had grown increasingly restless under the serve artistic restrictions imposed by the Soviet bloc and longed to return home. In his one exposure to an American audience, on "60 Minutes," Reed spoke in eerily accented English about a desire to return to Colorado, launch a socialist political party and win Gary Hart's Senate seat. He visited Denver, his hometown, last October for the opening of "American Rebel," an American-made documentary about his life.

The East German press agency reported that Reed died from a "tragic accident" but provided no other details. His mother, Ruth Anna Brown, said she was told by East German authorities that he drowned while swimming in a lake near his home. However, his manager charged, and some Western diplomats stationed in East Berlin speculated, that the security apparatus had a hand in his death because of a fear that he would turn on his socialist masters and "defect."

With Reed's death, the Soviet authorities can preserve the unblemished legacy of his commitment to Soviet socialism without fear of some future indiscretion. His mother expressed hope that we in America would "remember him with love and admiration." However, for most Americans, Reed died as he lived, in obscurity.

Kurt M. Campbell is a fellow at the Center for Science and International Affairs at Havard's Kennedy School of Government

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Letzte Änderung: 2010-07-27