Cold War: Cultural Aspects

Figure 1.--This Polish boy's choir visited President Kennedy during a 1963 good will tour of the United States. The phorograph was taken March 11, 1963. The press caption read, "Then came the serenade: The members of the boys' and men's choir of Poznan, Poland, applauds President Kennedy as he comes out of his White House office to greet them today in the Rose Garden. The choir, beginning a nationwide tour under the cultural exchsnge program, sang three numbers at the President's request. At right is choir director Stephen Striligreat (sic)." The director's actual mane was Stefan Stuligrosz. The boys are wearing the choir uniform, although their coats were their own. We think the boys here are the Poznan Nightengales.

One fascinating part of the Cold War was culture. This usually refers to the more formal cultural components like ballet and classical nusic. The Soviet Union liked to show cased its famed ballet troops and classical music performers. Surely no country produced ballet performers with the skills of Soviert performers. And Soviet classical music fermomabces were impressive. These achievements were marred, however, by the disquieting tendency for brillint performers to resent the conformity forced on gthem by the Soviet state aparatus. Thus there were stunning examples of some of theiur star performers defecting while participating in tours of Western countries to show case Soviet cultural achievements. And theur wee difficulties with writers resenting censorship and even the freedom to work as authors. The Soviers seem much better at training prrformers which required riqor and discipline than in creating inspired new woirks. This appears to have been the case in all of the arts (art, dance, and literature). Today we can see that the Soviet cultural achievement despite impressive achievement in education and sunstantial subsidies, pails in comparison to Tsarist achievements. And some of the most notable Soviet cultural icons either defected or were ultimately supressed by the state aoaratus. One area in which the Soviets and East Europans did excel was sport. Am mahor effort was made to identify takented youth an d train them. And impressive medal totalks were chieved in the Olympics. This was somewhat marred by rumors of drug usage. The East Germans were found to have relied heavily employed drugs. This was never prived as regrds the Soviets. One not often mentioned apect of culture in the Cold war is popular culture, especially American popular culture. Authors often discuss the big issues in the Cold war such as democracy, civil rights, the rule of law, the Gulag, secret police, frrevmarkets, ect. We now know that one of the most powerful force in undemining the East German regime were commercials that appeared on West German radio and televidion whivh could be received in most of East German. They alerted East Germans as to what life was like in the West and prived much more powerful thn the propaganda on East Germany's state-controlled media. This was not the case beyond Germany, but another powerful force appers to have been American popular culture. This was most important in Eastern European countries most oriented toward the Werst and the Soviet Baltics, but penetrated toa degree even into the Russian hearlasnd of the Soviet Union. This was somehing that the Soviet authorities were unprepared for and never were able to fully confront. But jeans and rock and roll and the freedom they conveyed appeas in the end to have bee more nflkuential than Soviet relism and high culture.

Soviet Realism

From the very beginning in the Soviet Union, culture was seen as a matter of importance. And just as the individuals were to serve the state, culture was seen as important not for itself, but to serve the state, to promote the Revolution. This process began in the earliest days of the Revolution. Most Russian cultural figures sought accomodation. Some chose exile. One such figure was famed singer-actor Fedor Chaliapin. This was common in totalitarian regimes. The NAZIs pursued the same policies. The term Soviet realism was coined. This was a style of realistic art which was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in communist regimes established by the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe after World War II. Socialist realism had two primary elements. One was a realistic depiction in the sence of visual accuracy, in part because the abstract art popular befire the Revolutiin ws seen as decadent. Soviet realism emerged early in rehe Revolution, but did nir become official state policy until 1932. .Thecsecondcaspect was that it further thec Revolution by adhering to guidelines set by the Communist Party. Artists, authors, and eventually film makers role was to glorify the new Soviet state and Soviet culture. They became state employees and could only practice their craft if their work adhered to the guidelines established by the Party. This meant depicting an idealized society and ignoring or hiding aspects of the new country that reflected poorly on the the Soviet Union. Music and dance were less overtly political, but technical competence reflected well on the Soviet Union.


A major question affecting the outcome of the Cold War was creativity. The Communists argued that that people living in poverty were in capable of being creative no matter how gifted they were. We see comments like "People who would want opportunities to be a, let's say, DJ, or ballet dancer, or artist, but yet they live in a village so poor, they can't afford basic materials to even realize their dreams? How are they supposed to express their creativity if they have not enough to afford the materials or training necessary to pursue their ambitions? For example, how many little girls in Africa want to be ballet dancers, but can't even afford food to eat let alone ballet lessons?" Now this might be a sound argument if Communism countries with socialist ecomonies generated wealth and economies delivering prosperous life style. But now we know just the opposite is true. Communism did not generate economic success. In country aftr nother, bith in industrial countrusand in developing countries, communism not only did not generate wealth, but often bject ecinomic falure. There are all too many exmples of this, inxluding East and West Germany, East and West Europe, America and the Soviet Union, Taiwan and China (before market reforms), North and South Koea, Cuba and the Cubans in the United States. And there are examoles of how Communism cam destroy proosperity, such as what Hugo Chavez and the Communists did to once prosperous Venezuela. Or the damage done to argentina and Brazil by Communism light. Once the issue of poverty is eliminated, the next question is does Comminism or Capitalism generate creativity. And as the one great ability that defines humanity is creativity, this is a vital issue. There are two ways of assessing this issue. First is to compare the creative out put of Communist and Capitalist countries. Here the answer is overwealming. In virtually every area of humanic endevor (art, economics, literature, mathematics, medicine, music, science, technology, and other areas), it is the capitlist West that has proven the great generator of human creativity nd innovtion. Nobel prize awards are a quick way of assessing this, but detailed assssments of spcific fields yield the same results. Second, i to assess the nature of Communism and Capitlism to unlock the mechanism by which creativity is promoted or impeded. Our assessment is that there are aspects of Comminist theology that are inately destructive of creativity an innovation. Thee include among others: Marxist historical determinism, the labor theory of value, the dictatorship of theprolereit, and the elevation of equality has the primary societal goal. Lennin and Stalin added features not part of Marx's vission such as sectet police, the Gulag, and Soviet Realism that further inhibited creativity.


Defections were phenomenons of the Cold war, but actually began with the foundation of the Soviet Union. The Bolheviks made emigration a serious crime. Restrictions were legislated to keep Soviet citizes from leabing the worker's paradise. After all each person who left was proclaiming that the Soviet Union was not the land of happy workers and dancing peasnts--essentially an act of treason. Not aot of attention was given to this. Th NKVD did an effective job of hermetically sealing the Soviet Union. As a result, Stalin was able to effectively starve over 5 million Ukrnians with very little word leaking out to the West. There was not all tht much interest in those who suceeded in fedecting until World war II and the outbreak of the Cold war. Suddenly dectors began to become defectors,mespecially the high-profile defectors like Nuriev and Barisnikov. Until World war II, the Soviet Union was the only Communist country of amu importance. After the war, the Soviets established an empire in Eastern Europe, creating people's democraies, meaning police state dictatorships, by using the Red army and NKVD. These satellites adopted the same legal system as perfected by Stalin nd the oviet Union leading to wht winston Churchill coined the Iron Curtain and eventually the infamous Berlin wall. Soviet efectors are the most famous, but there have been defectors hich from other Communist countries as well. Interestingly, this is basically a one way phmomnomn. There jave been spies which spough refuge in Cpmminist cpintries, bur emigration is not illegal in theWest. People are ree to leave whenever they want. The fact is that while left-wing advocates are quick to criticize America, very few had any interest in leaving America and living in Communist countries. And the few who actually did so (like Huey Newton) soon changed their minds. Duing the stalinist era, several were executed or wound up in the Gulag.



In much the same way, sports were also politicized.

Soviet Propganda

The Soviet Union was surprisingly adept at managing its image in the West durung the 1930s abd 40s. Thus while starving millions of Ukranians and conducting the Great Terror condeming other millions to death or the Gulag, many in the West like the Rosenbergs or a substantial part of the Western inteligentsia were convinced that the Sovietrs were building an ideal society. Soviet cultural achievements were a useful part of the Soviet Cold war propganda offensive. Even today if you do a web search on 'Cold War' and 'culture' you get hits on sites about how the U.S. Government exagerated the Soviet threat and the persecution of attacks on artists in the West. As a result of their experyose developed in the 1920s abd 30s, the Soviets and their new Eastern European satellites were well prepared to mobilized a culture offensive against the West as the Cold war developed.

Western Propganda

The West was much lest prepared in this regard. Westernn artists and authors like Sarte like Hollwood today were often social critics who depicted the failings and weaknesses of capitalist society and often as not were lionized for doing so. Similar work behind the Iron Curtain would meant at the least expulsuion from the professional organizations (artists, composers, dancers, writwrs, ect) which would mean the end of careers. During the stalist era it could mean arrests and bullet in the head or a long sentence in the Gulag.

Cultural Exchanges

An aspect of the cultural competition were well publicized cultural exchanges of various sorts.

German Commercials

Authors often discuss the big issues in the Cold war such as democracy, civil rights, the rule of law, the Gulg, secret police, frrevmarkets, ect. We now know that one of the most powerful force in undemining the East German regime were commercials that appeared on West German radio and televidion whivh could be received in most of East German. They alerted East Germans as to what life was like in the West anbd prived much more powerful thn the propaganda on East Germany's state-controlled media.

Biased Assessments

One interesting aspect of the Cold War cultural confrontation was how the American media and academia has depicted the cultural competition. Wikipedia in their summary, for example, tell us, "The Cold War was also reflected in the attitudes of people in their everyday lives. In the United States, the Hollywood blacklist determined who would create, work on, and star in motion pictures; in politics the House Un-American Activities Committee questioned those thought to be communist sympathizers." [Wikipedia] This is a fascinating summary of the topic. First of all it is factually wrong. The Black List did not determine which could work, it determined weho could not work, a matter of some importance. Secondly there in fact Communist sympithizers as well as a very extensiuve Soviet espionage aoparatus. Thirdly and most significantky is the mind booggling bioased displayed here. We have no problem discussing the issues of American infringement of civil liberties. In a free society it should be discussed, but ehere is tghe discussioin of Sioviet supression of civili liberties including the actions taken against the artistic and creative community. This Wikipedia statement eloquently exemphlifies the bias often at play in both Hollywood and academia.

American Popular Culture

The general association with American popular culture and the Cold War is the idea tht there was an unjutifiable paranoia and a corrosive state of seige mentaility that supressed cultural freedom. This can be seen with a basic Google search. Actually, American popular culture proved to be a major factor in the Cold War, but not in America. American popular culture penetrated the Iron Curtain to an amazing degree. And this was a totally unanticipared development. It was not something that the U.S. Government conciously promoted. In fact, many older Americans were offened and objected tonthe developing popular culture. American post-War culture, especially the artistic element (Hollywood, artists, musicians, and authors) promoted the idea of freedom. They criticized many of the important societal institutions in Ametrica. This melieu added support to the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and eventually Gay Rights as well as less positive features such as the drug culture. And mixed in with the more serious messages was a heavy dose of personal freedom and teen angst bordering on anarchy. Good examples were films like 'The Wild Ones' (1953), 'Easy Rider' (1968), and 'Hair' (1979). The much dicussed Hippie movement and theAnti-War movement were other aspects of this cultural ferment. And of course Rock music became the music of the Cold war generation, and not just in America. It was quickly adopted in Europe. Major rock bands appeared in Engand, but were influential througout Europe. The Paris Student Riots were an early manifestation (1968). And American populsr cultute had enormous appeal throughout the Soviet Empire. The KGB and their Eastern European clones could stop a great deal of Western publications and other material from penetrating the Iron Curtain. They totaly failed with rock music. This was most important in Eastern European countries most oriented toward the Werst and the Soviet Baltics, but penetrated to a degree even into the Russian heartland of the Soviet Union. This was somehing that the Soviet authorities were unprepared for and never were able to fully confront. Authorities struggled mightedly. As in the West for example they attempted to prevent boys from weaing their hair long, but as in the Wrst eventually gave up the struggle--as long as the hair wasn't too long. It seems that blue jeans and rock and roll music along with the freedom they conveyed appears in the end to have been far more influential than Soviet relism and high culture.


Wikipedia. Culture during the Cold war. Accessed July 13, 2012.


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Created: 3:17 AM 2/29/2012
Last updated: 12:17 AM 8/4/2015