- Americans Experience Russia: Encountering the Enigma, 1917 to the Present ed. by Choi Chatterjee and Beth Holmgren
The problem of mutual interest and mutual misunderstanding between Russians and Americans can be traced back through the two centuries of their official encounters. The decades of the Cold War worsened the problem by accentuating the differences but also induced the governments of both countries to foster serious study of the “most probable enemy,” the other side. Since the end of the Cold War, new generations of scholars have emerged, unhindered by the political constraints of a bipolar world. They have gradually turned the study of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian relations into sociocultural research, presenting the history of bilateral relations in a new light. The collection of essays compiled by Choi Chatterjee and Beth Holmgren is a good example of this scholarship.
The book consists of twelve essays grouped into five parts and preceded by the editors’ introduction. David C. Engerman’s chapter serves as an additional introduction; he describes the beginnings of the professional study of Russia in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Three essays in the first part deal with the experience of Americans who traveled and lived in Soviet Russia. Lynn Mally provides an interesting analysis of the influence of early Soviet theater on the innovations of the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project through the work of its head, Hallie Flanagan. Although much has been written about the early Soviet fascination with the U.S. economy, the reverse flow of ideas and practices needs to be [End Page 277] studied more. In Frank Costigliola’s depiction, George Kennan’s first encounter with the USSR in 1933–1934 was a series of pleasurable experiences in talking to powerful Bolsheviks and entertaining beautiful women. When this situation came to an abrupt halt with the start of the Great Terror, Kennan had firm personal reasons for disliking the Stalinist regime. Lisa A. Kirschenbaum describes the experience of a famous U.S. journalist, Harrison Salisbury, in the USSR during World War II and the Cold War, focusing her study on the siege of Leningrad.
Part II is devoted to Soviet and Russian themes in American pop culture and includes essays by the editors of the volume: Chatterjee analyzes the impact of Russian romance on U.S. popular culture, and Holmgren examines the problems that Hollywood faced in picturing the Soviet front of World War II. In Part III, an essay by Emily S. Rosenberg deals with a visit by Maidenform’s Ida Rosenthal to the Soviet Union, and Barbara Walker questions the cultural difference of understanding the nature of gifts presented by the American correspondents to Moscow to the Soviet civil rights activists. The fourth part demonstrates the problems and discoveries of U.S. scholars gathering field data outside Moscow. David L. Ransel describes his experience of interviewing Russian village mothers, and Kate Brown finds strikingly similar attitudes to the secrecy and organization of life in Russian and U.S. “plutonium cities.” Finally, the fifth part contains two pieces that can serve as primary sources for future researchers of the topic: an interview by the editors with Russian-American filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya, and notes by a U.S. writer living in Moscow, John Freedman.
Several essays touch on one problem: differences in cultural contexts led to different understandings of the same text or behavior in the two societies, and the authors or politicians needed either to justify themselves or to face misunderstanding in at least one of the two countries.
Thus, Kirschenbaum shows that Salisbury was “surprised that his Soviet critics, even more that the Western critics, did not understand the primacy of the heroic narrative and the largely functional secondary nature of the anti-Stalin narrative” in his book about the Leningrad siege (p. 77). The problem of Russians’ and Americans’ different judgments about U.S. fictional accounts of the Soviet front (many times repeated since Salisbury’s book) stems from the fact that one...