Outfox them!

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union 1921-41 by Michael David-Fox
    Oxford, 396 pp, £35.00, January 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 979457 7
  • Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-41 by Katerina Clark
    Harvard, 420 pp, £25.95, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05787 6
  • Being Soviet: Identity, Rumour and Everyday Life under Stalin by Timothy Johnston
    Oxford, 240 pp, £55.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 960403 6
  • Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Postwar Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism by Juliane Fürst
    Oxford, 391 pp, £63.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 957506 0
  • All This Is Your World: Soviet Tourism at Home and Abroad after Stalin by Anne Gorsuch
    Oxford, 222 pp, £60.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 960994 9

The Soviet Union claimed leadership of the world revolution in the 1920s and 1930s – not surprisingly, since of all the European upheavals at the end of the First World War, theirs was the only revolution that succeeded. But the trouble with leading the world revolution, as far as Stalin and his associates were concerned, was that you had to deal with foreigners. Abroad was scarcely less of a problem for them than for Lord Redesdale, immortalised by his Mitford daughters and famous for saying that ‘Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends.’ The bloodiness of Abroad was something that Stalin and his cohort knew by repute rather than direct experience. Stalin himself made only a couple of brief forays outside the Russian Empire in the years before the First World War, and his political intimates were equally unfamiliar with Europe and its languages. But the fiendishness of foreigners, or at least of the capitalist exploiters who controlled the affairs of foreign nations, was a given.

It had not always been so. When Lenin’s Bolshevik Party took power in Russia in October 1917, it had an abundance of sophisticated, polyglot members, whose years in European exile had made them conversant in several European languages. These former émigrés – including Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin (in short, all Stalin’s major competitors in the power struggle that followed Lenin’s death) – were much more strongly represented in the Party leadership under Lenin than the Party’s ‘committee men’, people like Stalin and Molotov who had remained in the Russian Empire as underground revolutionary conspirators pursued, in an endless cat and mouse struggle, by the tsarist political police. Former émigrés were the elite of the Bolshevik Party, offspring for the most part of the nobility and intelligentsia, whose parents could help subsidise their life abroad. They had studied at the academic gymnasium, where French and German were compulsory subjects, unlike the mainly lower-class committee men, whose secondary education, if they had one, was in seminaries (one foreign language required) or trade schools (none).

Used to operating within the cosmopolitan world of the Second International, the Bolshevik leaders under Lenin had the advantage not only of personally knowing their enemies (of whom, being notoriously recalcitrant, they had many), but also of having old friends and acquaintances scattered throughout the world of European socialism. This was useful when they came to create their own Third (Communist) International after the 1917 Revolution. In its first ten years, the Comintern was led by Soviet Politburo members from the former émigré group – first Zinoviev, then Bukharin. Other former émigrés led and staffed the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs. Olga Kameneva, Kamenev’s wife and Trotsky’s sister, was creator and first head of the quasi-official Society for Cultural Ties with Abroad (VOKS), whose main target group was ‘progressive’ Western intellectuals. Stalin and his people had little contact with any of these institutions in the 1920s. Lacking foreign languages and cosmopolitan polish, they were ill at ease in the company of the Western-looking Russian intelligentsia – ‘crude’ men, as Stalin once said of himself, without apology. Crude was bad on the European stage but in the end good in the Russian Communist Party. In the succession struggle after Lenin’s death, the crude men won.

Newly acceding to power, Stalin was happy to point out to an interviewer that the cultured European intellectuals who had been so prominent in the Bolshevik Party before the Revolution no longer played a significant political role. He referred specifically to political second-rankers like Anatoly Lunacharsky (the first head of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment), tactfully failing to mention others who qualified, such as the late Lenin (whom Stalin revered) or the not yet late Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev, his defeated rivals. That was his way of looking on the bright side. Privately he knew that there was a problem, since the Soviet Union had to deal with the outside world and needed cosmopolitan intellectuals to do it. Lunacharsky, in the twilight of his political career, was roped in for foreign liaison duties; so was Karl Radek, even though he had been in the Left Opposition. Maksim Litvinov, a cosmopolitan Old Bolshevik who (untypically for the group) had not been in any of the Oppositions, became Stalin’s foreign minister. The Comintern was the biggest problem, at least until Stalin decided that it didn’t matter. Once Bukharin was ousted from the leadership, poor Molotov, Stalin’s closest associate, had to take over the Comintern, a job he found uncongenial. He took German lessons (Stalin did too), but to little avail. Stalin acquired a few contacts among foreign Communists resident in Moscow (the Indian M.N. Roy, the Finn Otto Kuusinen, the Hungarian economist Eugen Varga), but these people were marginal in the Comintern world of the 1920s. By the time another Stalin contact, the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, took over the Comintern, the institution itself had become marginal in the Soviet world.

It was conventional state-to-state foreign policy that preoccupied Stalin and Molotov in the 1930s. Stalin had various maxims on dealing with the capitalist West: never trust them, recognise their cunning but be sure to outfox them by exploiting their differences. Never forget that they want to destroy the Soviet Union and are just waiting for the next chance to invade. Accept that whether they present themselves as journalists, diplomats or scholars, and regardless of their professed attitudes to the Soviet Union, they are all likely to be spies. This attitude is normally attributed to paranoia, but also surely reflected Stalin’s wary sense that he didn’t know enough about foreigners to be able to tell if they were whom they claimed to be. Moreover, as Robert Service reminds us in Spies and Commissars, in the first, formative years after the Bolshevik Revolution, when almost all the capitalist powers sent military forces to support the Bolsheviks’ opponents in the Civil War, most of the resident foreigners, with the exception of Comintern personnel, were indeed quasi-spies reporting to some foreign intelligence agency, even those with good contacts among ‘cosmopolitans’ in the Party leadership.[*]

Not being intimidated by foreigners was crucial, which often meant talking tough. ‘Give it to them right on the nose,’ Stalin advised Molotov on negotiations with the Japanese in 1929. A few years later, he congratulated Molotov on achieving just the right note in one of his speeches on the international situation: ‘A tone of contemptuous assurance in relation to the “great” powers, confidence in our strength, a delicately simple spitting in the pot of the swaggering “powers” – very good. Let them “eat it”.’

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union closed its borders, trying to keep out the spies but also keeping in the natives. Dealing with and travelling to the West became the prerogative of a diplomatic caste, which until the Great Purges at the end of the 1930s consisted largely of former émigré revolutionaries with foreign languages. As a privileged exception, members of the cultural and political elite could occasionally travel to German or Swiss spas for medical treatment, but their trips had to be approved at Politburo level. Interestingly, the Politburo members themselves, though often ailing, rarely went abroad for treatment or for any other reason. Anastas Mikoian was the sole Politburo member to make a foreign business trip in the 1930s, spending three months in America studying food production and retail trade. To his chagrin, when he and his entourage were fitted out with new clothes suitable for capitalist encounters, they found themselves wearing identical suits, hats and ties.

There was a third dimension to Soviet relations with the outside world: direct contact with (non-Communist) foreign intellectuals. This was an unexpected initiative for the Stalinist regime, given that its leaders were so far from being cosmopolitan intellectuals themselves. To be sure, they were building on foundations laid in the 1920s by cosmopolitans like Olga Kameneva at home and Willi Münzenberg in Europe. But it was in the first Stalinist decade, starting in 1928, that the Soviet outreach efforts really took off, achieving remarkable success in attracting the attention and sympathy of ‘progressive’ Western intellectuals. Stalin played his part, receiving such luminaries as Lion Feuchtwanger and Romain Rolland, but the main roles were played by intermediaries from the Soviet intelligentsia: the writers Maksim Gorky, whose return from emigration in the late 1920s Stalin counted as one of his triumphs, and Ilya Ehrenburg, neither of whom belonged to the Party; the Communist journalist and Soviet publishing figure Mikhail Koltsov; and Molotov’s boyhood friend Aleksandr Arosev, who succeeded Kameneva as head of VOKS. The aim was to mobilise big-name European intellectuals as ‘friends of the Soviet Union’, if possible bringing them in to see a socialist society in the making. Visitors like Rolland and Henri Barbusse, who had demonstrated their loyalty, were fêted and acclaimed; conversely, those like Gide who turned critical of the Soviet Union, bitterly disappointing their hosts, were excoriated.

Michael David-Fox’s Showcasing the Great Experiment is the story of Soviet wooing of the Western intelligentsia, focusing on VOKS under Kameneva and Arosev. About a hundred thousand foreigners visited the Soviet Union in the prewar period, many of them left-leaning intellectuals, and the story of their ‘duping’ is familiar from Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims (1981). David-Fox makes it a more complicated and more interesting story, with the West seen bamboozling the Kremlin while the Kremlin bamboozles gullible Westerners; the Soviet side is no longer a monolith but includes a variety of players with their own agendas, notably the ‘Stalinist Westernisers’, intellectuals who actively sought cultural contact with the West. The conflict between Soviet feelings of inferiority and superiority is crucial to David-Fox’s picture – perhaps too crucial, since the cosmopolitan intellectuals didn’t suffer from it as the Communist leaders did. People like Koltsov and Ehrenburg felt themselves to be on a more or less equal footing with their Western counterparts. This was understandable as (pace Hollander) they had a lot to offer. It was not just the Great Experiment in social engineering that the foreign intellectuals and artists came to observe, but also the international cutting edge in theatre and the cinema (as represented, for example, by Meyerhold and Eisenstein) and in the theory of education (Makarenko). For all the complaints about VOKS’s over-controlling and bureaucratic approach, that was basically what VOKS wanted to show them.

David-Fox argues that historians have consistently underestimated the ‘centrality of Western eyes’ in Soviet self-understanding or, to put it differently, the degree to which Soviet leaders worried about how their actions would look in the West. This could reach ludicrous proportions: when the 1937 census came in millions short of the projected population figures, virtually the first thought of the Soviet leaders, as the archives reveal, was that it would lend credence to Western allegations of famine. The census was suppressed.

More radical than David-Fox, Katerina Clark even suggests that a mission of international leadership was central to Stalinism: not leadership of world Communism, as one might expect, but leadership of ‘world culture’. As Muscovy had once dreamed of becoming a Third Rome, standard-bearer of Christianity, so Stalinist Russia would be a Fourth Rome (the metaphor is Clark’s, not Stalin’s), the world’s exemplar of secular civilisation.

The standard story of the mid-1930s is that it was the era of the Great Retreat, when the Stalinist leadership abandoned revolutionary internationalism and settled for a Soviet version of Russian nationalism, while at the same time jettisoning avant-garde art in favour of traditional cultural forms. Clark proposes instead that we think of a Great Appropriation, involving a simultaneous embrace of European culture and Russia’s own cultural heritage. High culture, Soviet spokesmen claimed, had never been so warmly appreciated as it was in the Soviet Union: no other country honoured its culture-bearing intelligentsia so much. The commitment to European culture was symbolised by the rebuilding of Moscow in a monumental style that combined Renaissance with classical elements. Translation of European literary classics into Russian (and of European and Russian classics into other languages of the Soviet Union) became a huge industry, to the point that Soviet boosters claimed that Soviet readers knew Shakespeare better than the British.

Clark focuses on several of the same intellectual brokers as David-Fox, though she calls the group ‘cosmopolitan patriots’ instead of ‘Stalinist Westernisers’. We meet Ehrenburg and Koltsov again, the latter flanked by his partner in the 1930s, the glamorous and popular young German Communist Maria Osten; Eisenstein and the avant-garde writer Sergei Tretiakov also have central roles. These four (two of them Jewish, all of them fluent German speakers) exemplify the Soviet intellectuals and artists who saw themselves as ‘part of a pan-European intellectual space’ that included Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Hemingway and Malraux. A key moment in the Soviet bid for leadership of a world culture threatened by Fascism was the 1935 Paris Congress for the Defence of Culture, attended by everyone who mattered in the left-wing intelligentsia. Many of the same people showed up for the Spanish Civil War the next year, memorialised in Koltsov’s Spanish Diary, Malraux’s Man’s Hope and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (featuring characters based on Koltsov and Maria Osten). Not that it was necessary to leave Moscow to encounter the flower of the cosmopolitan culture of the European left, since thousands of German-speaking intellectuals had been driven into exile there by the rise of Nazism.

Clark is primarily interested in culture, not politics. But her work raises interesting questions about how policy emerged in the Stalinist Soviet Union. If a cosmopolitan tendency did indeed hold sway in the 1930s, should we attribute this primarily to influential intellectuals who were ‘cosmopolitan by inclination’ or to their political masters, who were not? Of course, Koltsov and the rest were dependent on Stalin’s continued patronage and approval, just as Litvinov was in foreign policy. Yet as the French historian Sabine Dullin showed in Men of Influence: Stalin’s Diplomats in Europe, 1930-39 (2008), the main lines of Soviet foreign policy up to 1939 were crafted by the cosmopolitan ‘expert’ Litvinov, though under Stalin and Molotov’s watchful eyes, with many disagreements, lots of tutelary lectures from Stalin, and never anything resembling a blank cheque. Perhaps the same was true of the Westernising intellectuals.

The Great Purges of the late 1930s mark a shift in both Clark’s book and David-Fox’s. Many of the Stalinist Westernisers (including Koltsov, Tretiakov and Arosev) were killed, along with Comintern functionaries, German literary exiles and many other resident foreigners. Litvinov survived, though embittered, but Molotov’s German tutor vanished into the Gulag, leaving him to take over Litvinov’s job and conclude the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact still unable to understand Ribbentrop without interpreters. At this point (1939), the young British historian Timothy Johnston takes up the story, though with a different slant: unlike David-Fox and Clark, he focuses on popular opinion, particularly opinion about foreigners and international affairs. His main sources are the reports on ‘popular mood’ regularly compiled by security, police and regional Party officials, along with the official Soviet press. There’s a whiff of the dissertation in Johnston’s Being Soviet: readers may become irritated by the appearance every few pages of the term ‘bricolage’, signifying Soviet citizens’ sensible habit of taking on board only the bits of official propaganda that made sense to them and ignoring the rest. Still, that’s an improvement on the assumption – common in some earlier scholarship – that brainwashed Soviet citizens believed everything the regime told them.

Johnston’s Soviet citizens are as indignant as the regime about the Allies’ slowness to open a second front during the war, and more inclined to attribute it to bad faith. They are not particularly grateful for Lend-Lease, and often criticise the quality of the goods the Allies shipped under the programme. In Arkhangelsk, on which Johnston has gathered some of his most interesting data, the popular attitude to the British troops in residence was marked by a certain reserve, but local women and children, more curious than the men and interested in the consumer goods the soldiers had to offer, were often ready for fraternisation. It all sounds very much like British wartime reactions to American troops and their supplies of cigarettes, chocolates and nylons.

The Second World War Alliance had some unexpected by-products, including the first Russian-language journals produced by foreigners for Soviet readers since the Revolution. The British Embassy put out Britansky soiuznik (the ‘British Ally’), which sounds stodgy but was in fact rather lively, and the Americans published Amerika, a title conjuring up exotic new worlds for the Soviet reader. Copies of both disappeared instantly from kiosks. The Soviets continued to publish their own journal of world culture, International Literature, in several languages, as they had done throughout the 1930s. While the German exiles who had dominated its German edition in the 1930s were gone, the Russian and English editions took over as the cutting edge under a young anglophile editor with excellent political connections.

It’s striking, given the fate of many of the old Stalinist Westernisers in the Great Purges, that a new Westernising cohort, oriented more towards Anglo-American culture than Germanic, emerged so quickly. Many of them, including the new director of VOKS, came from MIFLI, the elite Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. But their heyday was relatively short. Soon after the war, Britansky soiuznik and Amerika were closed down, and most of their Soviet staff arrested. The Russian edition of International Literature didn’t even make it until the end of the war. Its editor and his actress wife were arrested, despite their connections in the Central Committee, and charged with fraternising with foreign spies.

By the second half of the 1940s cosmopolitanism was not only out but the target of an ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign. This was not confined to Jews, as is often thought, although that is the way it developed. At first, it was just as much against foreigners and the people who associated with them. The group included scientists interested in international collaboration, composers who were allegedly more interested in elitist European modernism than popular folksongs, Latvian sailors who told stories of the good life in Western ports, soldiers who returned from Berlin impressed by the German standard of living, women who had married foreigners during the war, anyone who openly admired Western culture and denigrated Russian, and so on. As the major target, the Russian intelligentsia, with its irrepressible Westernising tendencies and large Jewish component, was traumatised. Johnston’s reports on popular opinion suggest that people outside the intelligentsia were largely unmoved. There was some pride in the Soviet Union’s new international status, but the strongest popular emotion about the outside world seems to have been fear of a new war and another foreign invasion. Johnston notes that the official peace movement launched at this time was ‘unusually successful’ with the public.

A different though not necessarily contradictory picture comes from Juliane Fürst’s Stalin’s Last Generation, which deals with the cohort that was too young to fight in the war but grew up in its shadow in the 1940s and early 1950s. She shows this cohort – or at least the urban and metropolitan part of it that is her real subject – to be as intrigued by Abroad as Lord Redesdale’s children, despite hearing so often that foreigners were fiends. Young people’s infatuation with the West is often seen as a characteristic of the post-Stalin era, but Fürst – like Mark Edele before her – points out that the stiliagi, young lovers of jazz and homemade ‘American’ clothing, were already a countercultural phenomenon in the immediate postwar period, years before the Thaw. Stiliagi were a bit like Soviet Mods or Teddy Boys, but without the working-class resentments of the British groups: their statement was aesthetic rather than political. Young men like Vasily Aksenov, future novelist and jazz aficionado, were the peacocks of the counterculture: still an adolescent in Kazan, he managed to acquire a reindeer sweater like the one in the 1941 Hollywood movie Sun Valley Serenade. Nor was it only stiliagi who watched Sun Valley Serenade. Nitpicking censorship and other difficulties having brought Soviet film production almost to a standstill in the postwar years, the regime was forced to substitute Western ‘trophy’ films (booty from Germany), with the result that a whole generation grew up on Tarzan, alongside the wildly popular German-Hungarian film Girl of My Dreams, starring Marika Rökk. The Komsomol looked disapprovingly on the extravagant outfits of the stiliagi, and dutifully passed on the message of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign. In Fürst’s account, however, young people tended to be baffled rather than threatened by the campaign (unless they were Jewish) and didn’t stop dreaming of reindeer sweaters and Marika.

Given the proclivities of Fürst’s ‘last Stalinist generation’, the Thaw of the mid-1950s seems a natural outcome. Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful co-existence and cultural opening to the West was welcomed; the international Moscow Youth Festival of 1957 was a tremendous success (though all that fraternisation worried the KGB); Dior was invited to Moscow to put on a fashion show; and Muscovites flocked to the 1959 exhibition of American consumer goods at which Khrushchev and Nixon held their famous ‘kitchen debate’. The intelligentsia rejoiced in its new access to Western high culture, young people began a love affair with American pop culture and the whole urban population started to covet Western consumer goods. Polish cosmetics and Czech furniture, though not as glamorous as French or Scandinavian, were sought after, and the ‘people’s democracies’ of Eastern Europe found a new function as cultural bridge between the Soviet Union and the West.

Foreign tourism, largely cut off in the late 1930s, was officially renewed in March 1954. It was a two-way process, but Anne Gorsuch’s book focuses on the travel of Soviet citizens abroad. Khrushchev himself may be regarded as the first great Soviet tourist, admiring American hotdogs and highways as well as French irrigation schemes, though not forgetting to remind the capitalist powers that the Soviet Union would soon overtake them, even in the consumer realm. Half a million Soviet tourists travelled to foreign countries in 1956, and ten years later the number had doubled. Most Soviet tourists went to Eastern Europe, but a significant minority got to see Paris and other great cities of the West. Tourism was a privilege, but tourism to capitalist countries was a still greater privilege, with a more rigorous selection process. Tourists travelled in groups with tightly organised itineraries and were encouraged to keep each other under surveillance and behave appropriately as ambassadors for their country. The familiar Soviet narrative emphasises the Alice in Wonderland effect of foreign tourism: in the words of one Soviet traveller to Rome, ‘I felt as if I was in some kind of fairytale dream.’ But Gorsuch concludes that the majority of Soviet tourists, though (sometimes grudgingly) impressed by the West, still maintained a sturdy ‘home’s best’ approach in the face of its temptations.

‘Show how cultured you are, don’t let yourself be intimidated’ was the message to Soviet tourists preparing to face the dangerous but seductive West. That’s a far cry from Moscow as Fourth Rome. The rebuilding of Moscow continued yet more grandly after the war, with seven new skyscrapers built in ‘wedding cake’ style transforming the horizon. But there was too much defensiveness in this xenophobic period to support a Soviet sense of cultural mission. Even in dealings with postwar Eastern Europe, in theory a periphery to the Soviet socialist metropolis, Soviet attempts to project cultural authority foundered on the locals’ stubborn belief that, as Europeans, they were the superior ones. This makes one wonder how much the vaulting ambitions of the 1930s owed to the energy, not yet dissipated, of the Revolution, for on the face of it the Soviet Union was in a much stronger international position after the Great Patriotic War than it had been before. The ‘world’s first socialist state’ was not only a victor in the war but now one of two superpowers – though, like Britain, it was also in a state of postwar exhaustion, rather than reinvigoration, like the United States. No doubt leadership of world culture had always been a mirage, but Soviet grandiosity had a new element of klutziness in the postwar period. As Clark wryly points out, there was a ‘slight mathematical mismatch’ in the claim that the eight new ‘wedding cake’ skyscrapers represented the seven hills of Rome.

Khrushchev’s promise that full Communism was around the corner suggests that Soviet utopianism was not totally dead, and the cosmonauts’ achievements in space gave new backing to what Gorsuch calls ‘Soviet narratives of superiority’. Sputnik was a source of enormous pride among the population as well as the political leadership, as James Andrews and Asif Siddiqi demonstrate in Into the Cosmos.[†]ß But not even Sputnik could bring back the old conviction of a destiny to lead. Moscow as Fourth Rome had been a vision of moral and spiritual leadership. Now a jarring materialist theme crept in: to the politicians as well as the public, leadership was starting to mean primacy in consumer goods. The Cold War strategy of bombardment with nylon stockings and dishwashers (recommended, tongue in cheek, by the American sociologist David Riesman in 1951) had paid off. It was not enough, it appeared, to let Soviet tourists out with meagre allocations of hard currency to window-shop in the West. The borders had to be open, and New Russians with dollars and euros in their pockets had to be able to buy. For all the current post-Soviet nostalgia for Stalinism, nobody in Russia wants to go back to closed borders: for post-Soviet Russians, the freedom that really matters seems to be the freedom to travel. The loss of the old superpower status is still mourned in Russia, where a prevailing assertive Russian nationalism betrays a suspicion that it is Russia’s destiny to lag behind the West. Moscow has been revamped once again, but not in the image of a Fourth Rome. Forget utopian visions: what matters is access to the really existing Rome, where Russian tourists, less immediately identifiable by their clothing than in Soviet times, can drink espresso on the Via Veneto.

[*] Macmillan, 440 pp., £25, November 2011, 978 0 230 74807 1

[†] Pittsburgh, 384 pp., £25.95, September 2011, 978 0 8229 6161 1