restricted access Special Issue: Culture, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War
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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.1 (2002) 3-5

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Culture, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

General Introduction

Musya Glants and Pamela Kachurin

Over the last quarter-century "culture" has become a significant topic of scholarly inquiry. 1 The abundance of recent scholarship within the category of "cultural studies" attests to the increasing salience of culture in investigations of historical and political epochs. 2 Cultural studies trace the complex matrix of factors that contribute to a particular historical moment, allowing us to discern events and influences that often go unnoticed. The relationship between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War is an excellent example of how culture--both mass culture and high culture--was employed as a mode of communication and manipulation.

The goal of this special issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies is to illuminate lesser-known facets of the role played by high culture during the Cold War. The articles that follow touch upon several important themes: the extent to which the U.S. and Soviet governments relied on cultural products as political [End Page 3] tools; the authority invested by the populace in cultural products and phenomena as repositories of sociopolitical paradigms; and the prominence of individuals operating in the cultural sphere as representatives and creators of societal attitudes.

The impact of Western cultural products on the Soviet Union during the Cold War has rarely been studied in any depth by Western scholars, in part because of the paucity of evidence and in part because of limited interest. Yet it is widely acknowledged that the Soviet Union sought to use both Western and Soviet cultural output to shape popular opinion. Western films, music, and literature were seized on by the Soviet authorities to demonstrate the alleged decadence and shortcomings of Western societies. The ideological sympathies of select representatives of Western high culture, including Paul Robeson, Rockwell Kent, Pablo Picasso, and Jean-Paul Sartre were exploited to legitimize Communism. Cultural figures such as Louis Aragon and Bertold Brecht were enlisted by the Soviet regime as spokesmen for the global "peace movement," itself a vehicle for propaganda. This is not to suggest, however, that the implementation of these policies was monolithic or uniformly successful. The arbitrary, shifting, and occasionally ineffective nature of these activities depended greatly on the Soviet leadership and on the status of relations between the Soviet Union and the West.

Even while denigrating some aspects of Western culture, the Soviet government actively promoted the "classics" of Western culture to the Soviet public. At the same time, the Soviet authorities invoked Russian and Soviet music, ballet, theater, and literature to foster a mood of cultural superiority both abroad and at home, which would facilitate official efforts to foster a Soviet brand of patriotism, founded in part on fear and chauvinism. Soviet leaders also hoped to suggest that Soviet citizens, unlike their Western counterparts, valued high culture and literary endeavors over material concerns. Almost inevitably, however, these policies could--and arguably did--have the opposite effect: They cultivated an intense curiosity about and admiration of Western life. The craving for anything Western and the decreasing ability to keep Western cultural production out of the Soviet Union undoubtedly helped spur the social reforms under Michail Gorbachev. 3

The U.S. government's reliance on cultural production--both high culture and mass culture--as a psychological weapon in the Cold War has been the subject of numerous recent studies. 4 The United States exported its own [End Page 4] brand of cultural values in the form of modern art, allegedly free from governmental proscription, technological innovation, and popular culture. The pol-icy was not always free of controversy at home, however, as Marilyn Kushner's article makes clear.

The implications of Cold War ideologies, in both East and West, reach into the contemporary period and are ripe for scholarly attention. The conflicts and debates that arose about cultural exports during the Cold War are useful, in retrospect, in showing the multiple meanings of cultural phenomena. The potential for conflicting or ambiguous interpretations...