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  • Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union 1921-1941 by Michael David-Fox
  • Silvio Pons
Michael David-Fox , Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union 1921-1941. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xii + 396 pp.

In this ambitious book, Michael David-Fox presents a multifaceted analysis of Soviet cultural relations with the West during the interwar period. He explores the relationship between Western intellectuals and the Soviet authorities by combining two crucial issues that have been discussed separately in historical scholarship: the reception of the Soviet experiment abroad and the construction of Soviet myths. "The center of the book's inquiry," David-Fox writes, "is the mutual interaction between Western observers and travelers with their Soviet hosts and the Soviet system." This approach is profoundly innovative and marks a real breakthrough in the field.

David-Fox dismisses simplistic explanations of Western admiration of Soviet socialism, arguing that the visitors' reactions were often more nuanced—and sometimes even less positive—than previously assumed, and that their motives and experiences should be better understood. Two aspects seem particularly important in his analysis. First, the Soviet myth formed a complex compound of different elements that could exert attract people in various ways when confronted with the crisis of capitalism and liberalism. Its attraction depended less on the revolutionary legacy than on images and practices of modernity, such as state interventionism, social security, economic planning, mass mobilization, and women's emancipation. Second, Soviet cultural diplomacy was seriously developed and effective in influencing a selected non-Communist Western opinion. David-Fox focuses not only on the Western visitors but also on leading Soviet actors and their capacities to build relations of "friendship," convincingly demonstrating how the story of Soviet treatment of visitors was not just an enterprise in deception.

The book draws on extensive research in the Russian archives—particularly, though not uniquely, with the files of the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad (VOKS)—which provides invaluable insight and helps to show how interactions between hosts and visitors actually worked. In a series of fascinating vignettes, David-Fox takes the reader into an intricate world. The Soviet side reveals not only a bureaucratic face made of overlapping administrations but also the skills of Bolshevik intellectuals who shaped cultural diplomacy and their ingenious approaches. David-Fox groups them under the rubric of Stalinist Westernizers, different personalities mastering European languages and culture—such as Ol'ga Kameneva, the wife of Lev Kamenev and sister of Lev Trotsky; Alexander Arosev; Mikhail Kol'tsov; Ilya Ehrenburg; [End Page 156] and, obviously, Maxim Gorky—played a very significant role. Before her removal in Iosif Stalin's "Revolution from Above," Kameneva created basic patterns of cultural relations in Berlin, London, and Paris—inventing a kind of "syncretism" between the Soviet discourse and non-Soviet sympathetic attitudes that was fueled by travel to and from the Soviet Union and that would reemerge by the mid-1930s during the season of anti-fascism (p. 90). The freelance Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin traveled to Moscow in 1927 and afterward acknowledged the role of the Berlin Society of Friends, even though he criticized it for its de-politiczation. But even non-Marxist personalities were occasionally involved in travel and contacts. Among them was John Maynard Keynes.

David-Fox analyzes the moral and intellectual ambiguities of Gorky—the most prominent symbol of Soviet cultural diplomacy by the end of the 1920s—as particularly revealing of the regime's evolution. Gorky's early criticism of the Red Terror did not prevent him from embracing the Stalinist perspective, tolerating its murderous consequences, and even praising its repressive institutions—as in the case of the Solovki concentration camp. His personal relationship with Stalin was based on the shared anti-peasant vision of a new advanced Russia that emerged from the Soviet experiment and would radically overcome its historical dilemmas in the competition with the West. Gorky's vision was not that different from those of some foreigners and cannot be explained exclusively in terms of political calculations. What he did was to legitimize the discourse on Soviet achievements already developed in the...


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pp. 156-159
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