- All the World Is a Stage
For those of us who came of age in the shadow of the Cold War, popular culture as much as actual events affected perceptions of the frayed relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the 1980s, judging from the music, film, and art of the time, nuclear Armageddon was the only possible outcome of the political tensions between the two superpowers. And the specter of this ignominious end hovered over the nation’s capital, which was where I watched the end of the Cold War unfold.
Around 1980, a Washington, DC, gallery in Dupont Circle exhibited a painting titled The Last Washington Painting, which presented a photorealistic image of a mushroom-shaped cloud rising from the Washington cityscape as cars cross the Potomac River. The painting even appeared on the front page of the Washington Post Style section with the headline “This Is the Way the World Ends.” On the other side of town, the music playing between sets from punk and new-wave bands inside the black-painted walls of the 9:30 Club on F Street NW echoed fear of a nuclear war and its aftermath. The songs ranged from Fishbone’s “Party at Ground Zero” to Made for TV’s “So Afraid of the Russians,” which had a chorus—if you could call it that—touting a prevailing fear about the USSR: “They’ve got missiles in the air, tanks on the border of Europe, and spies everywhere.” Fear of a US–Soviet nuclear standoff also manifested itself in the television movie The Day After and movies such as Testament—both with graphically imagined scenes of nuclear holocaust—and contrasted with James Bond’s continuing on-screen evolution as a Cold War hero.
By the end of the decade, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the focus of American politics and culture underwent what seemed like a seismic shift. The idea of Soviet domination and destruction dissipated, and Americans shifted their gaze away from Moscow and toward Beijing. Russia occasionally came into view, but with few of the world-destroying qualities it projected throughout the 1980s. Last year, as the spectacle of the Sochi Olympics ended and Russia invaded Crimea, Americans again turned their attention to Moscow.
It was impossible for me to read several of the pieces in the winter issue of VQR and not be reminded of my own memories of the Cold War and its cultural impact. Literary critic Liesl Schillinger and VQR contributing editor Dimiter Kenarov provide two very different perspectives on tensions with and inside contemporary Russia, with their own distinct links to the Cold War era. Both writers examine this world through a lens of history free of apocalyptic visions. Schillinger, the daughter of two professors enamored of Russian history and literature, looks at how the current refreezing of US and Russian political relationships awakened nostalgia for her all-American, yet improbably Soviet-tinged, 1970s and 1980s childhood. Schillinger’s essay, “My Midwestern Soviet Childhood,” also reveals how her unique upbringing affects the way she analyzes the current state of politics in Russia, in light of events in Crimea and Ukraine.
In “The Theater Tsar,” Kenarov gives readers a glimpse into the world of art and politics in occupied Crimea. As Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is performed inside the [End Page 10] theater—just a few weeks after soldiers hidden behind balaclavas outside the theater invaded the Crimean capital of Simferopol—the head of the theater company, Anatoly Novikov, reminds Kenarov that “Leaders, luminaries, emperors, states—they all come and go, but the theater survives.” The accompanying photographs from Boryana Katsarova make clear that Novikov is such a force of nature that the show indeed went on. Katsarova also captures performances of a different kind taking place on the streets of Simferopol, each one every bit as fascinating as the glimpses she provides of the Crimean Academic Russian Drama Theater at work.
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