- Nylon Curtain: Transnational and Trans-Systemic Tendencies in the Cultural Life of State-Socialist Russia and East-Central Europe
This book, consisting of essays by scholars from several countries (mostly Norway and the United States), is very useful in covering such an interesting phenomenon as the life of intellectuals in the Soviet Union and East-Central European countries under Stalinist rule after World War II. Formally, the book is about the cultural links between Communist countries and the West in music, literature, architecture, and film-making. Challenging the idea that the Soviet Union and East-Central European countries (all of which were under Communist rule) were isolated from the West by an Iron Curtain, the contributors to the book show that, in fact, the two camps were separated by only a weak “Nylon Curtain,” which permitted extensive contact between representatives of the two cultures. The editor, György Péteri, believes that the Western and socialist cultures were almost equal in power and that largely free competition existed between the members of the cultural elites representing each side (p. 6). George Orwell’s ghost does not hang over most of the authors as they analyze the interaction of the “two states of mind.” If Orwell had been consulted, this book project would have changed its theoretical framework and abandoned the concept of “two minds” and the notion that they were free to challenge each other’s ideas. The essays here largely ignore the crucial role of fear in the behavior of intellectuals in Communist societies and their eagerness to adjust even to the absurd dogmas of official propaganda in order to save their lives and careers. Péteri and most of his fellow contributors evidently wrote their texts under the sway of postmodernism, with its disregard of “the material world” in favor of “subjectivity.” They depict the attitudes of cultural elites toward “both worlds” as shaped by internal mental conflicts, thus ignoring the role of direct or indirect coercion exerted by the Communist regimes.
Danielle Foster-Lessier, in her chapter on the evolution of attitudes toward Béla Bartók in Hungary after World War II, claims that these attitudes were shaped by the struggle between “two aesthetic views,” modernism and socialist realism, and between “two musical styles” (pp. 14–15). Meanwhile, describing each turn in the improving attitudes toward Bartók in Communist Hungary, she neglects even to mention the major political events behind “the aesthetical fight”—namely, Josif Stalin’s death in 1953, the first wave of liberalization in the Soviet empire (p. 17), and the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1956, which brought the condemnation of Stalin’s terror and helped improve Bartók’s status in his native country (p. 19).
Another “musical” chapter of the book—Kiril Tomoff ’s “A Pivotal Spring and the Soviet Construction of a Cultural Sphere”—also does not help Péteri substantiate his thesis about “the fight of minds” and the strong belief of Soviet intellectuals in Soviet cultural superiority. The leaders of the Communist Party were the ones who determined what “musical forms” were acceptable for official culture in the ideological struggle with the West. In no way should the move away from Western musical forms [End Page 175] be ascribed to Soviet or Hungarian intellectuals, who, in the aftermath of the seizure of power by the Communists (the Soviet agents) in the late 1940s, immediately became admirers of “socialist realism” and started to hate “atonality, serialism and other features characteristic of high musical modernism in the West” (p. 56).
The major defenders of socialist realism in the book are the cultural commissars such as Boris Yarustovskii (discussed in Tomoff ’s chapter) and Aleksandr Arosev (see the chapter written by Michael David-Fox), who, fearing for their lives, were ready to carry out any order issued by their superiors. It is remarkable that Tomoff and David-Fox, as well as the editor, do not even mention the persecution...