Former readers recall how blatant propaganda in publications available across the Soviet Union contributed to the backlash against communism

In the dying decade of the USSR, people became increasingly frustrated with the inefficiency of the Soviet system and their inability to get their hands on much-coveted western goods.

But however bad things got they were left with one comforting thought: they were still better off than those living under communist rule in North Korea.

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An article in Korea magazine. Photograph: Benjamin Young/NK News

They knew this because Russian-language versions of North Korean propaganda magazines Korea and Korea Today were both widely available across the USSR. The two publications, specialising in often absurd social realism, became a cult hit among intellectuals and contributed to the cultural backlash against communism in its dying days.

These accidental dissident magazines specialised in a bizarre mix of blatant propaganda and inappropriate humour, remembers Russian professor Leonid Petrov. Nobody would dare to mock the Soviet system or Communist party openly, he says, but Korea Today read like a caricature that would never have got past the Soviet censors, he adds.

The magazine became particularly popular during perestroika, a period of relative political and cultural openness in Russia in the 1980s. A wave of new rock bands appeared, some of whom turned to the Korean magazines for inspiration.

Civil Defence, one of the first punk bands of the USSR, who were harassed by the KGB, released a song that openly mocked the positive portrayal of daily life in Soviet propaganda.

The lyrics read: I bought Korea magazine and it shows comrade Kim Il-sung, and it shows that everything there is the same as here. And I believe that everything there is going according to plan.

Turning North Korean propaganda on its head, the musicians used it to criticise the Soviet communist system.

I dont understand how the Soviet authorities, who persecuted people for having books by [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn [a Nobel prize-winning Soviet writer] but allowed the existence of such a die-hard anti-communist satire, says a Ukranian journalist, Maryan Belenky, who credits the Korean magazines with helping to chip away at the regimes ideological stranglehold.

Russian professor and North Korea expert Andrei Lankov agrees the masterpiece of unintended political satire encouraged citizens to question the system.

Lyrics from the band Civil Defence.

One article in Korea Today reported on a field visit by Kim Jong-il to a local chewing gum factory. In Kims opinion, gum is a tasty product which provides happiness to everyone and if the labourers of the plant create more products, working for the people, they will be loved by everyone, the magazine reads.

Seemingly oblivious to their impact, the Soviet authorities never stopped the distribution of the Russian-language versions of the magazines, which are still published in Pyongyang today.

According to Petrov, its possible the Soviets deliberately allowed the magazines to grow in popularity because they highlighted the human face of the Soviet system as opposed to the ugly parody of Stalinist North Korea.

Lankov adds that the the Soviet elite despised North Korea almost as much as the general public or even more. So they did not mind people seeing the North Koreans make fools of themselves.

However, not everyone perceived the North Korean magazines to be a joke. We have plenty to learn from [North] Korea like having a sense of the greatness of ones motherland, Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher and current adviser to the Kremlin, Alexander Dugin told the Moscow Times in 2001.

Those who laugh at Korea magazine are laughing at themselves, he added. I dont think that Juche [North Korean communist ideology] ideas are any weaker than the ideas of globalisation.

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