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The Cold War over the Arts

In May 1961, the Kirov Ballet arrived in Paris. Its star was a peculiar, vain, and willful young dancer whom the company almost did not take with it on tour because Soviet officials could not be sure what he might do once he reached the West.

They had good reason to worry. Rudolf Nureyev stole the show at the Palais Garnier (“the strangest, and uncontestably the most influential, personality—as well as the greatest technician—since Nijinsky, to whom he is the first ever to be so compared,” reported Janet Flanner). Then, to the consternation of his Soviet minders, he made the rounds of Paris, befriending Clara Saint, fiancée of the late Vincent Malraux, visiting the Louvre with the English painter Michael Wishart, Francis Bacon’s friend, and generally staying out until all hours. When the Soviet troupe was bussed to Le Bourget airport in June to continue the tour in London, Nureyev was informed that his mother had become ill (she hadn’t) and that he must return home. A Tupolev aircraft was waiting for him.

He threatened suicide and somehow got word of his predicament to Clara Saint, who contacted the French police, who in turn instructed her that Nureyev would have to approach them. Authorities dispatched two plainclothes officers to linger at an airport bar. They were sipping coffee when Nureyev ran to them, demanding asylum. An official from the Soviet embassy arrived to protest, to no avail.

The West had its first front-page Soviet defector. Nine years later it was the ballerina Natalia Makarova who fled Russia. Then Mikhail Baryshnikov skipped out on the Kirov in Toronto in 1974, dashing from a company bus into a waiting car—the same year that Valery Panov, who in March 1972 had made the terrible mistake of officially applying for permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel, only to be banished from the Kirov and denounced by fellow dancers, was finally permitted to leave the country with his wife, Galina, in grudging response to a vigorous publicity campaign by Western politicians and artists.

Half a century before Panov emigrated, Georges Balanchine departed Bolshevik Russia. The word “defector” did not yet exist. He returned, reluctantly, in 1972 with the New York City Ballet. (“The audiences for most of the performances,” he rightly complained, “were party functionaries.”) Balanchine and his company arrived in the midst of the Panov furor. Fearing Soviet reprisals, including against Panov, Balanchine advised his troupe to avoid the outcast Soviet. Several dancers from the New York company visited Panov anyway. Their visits, said Panov, who revered Balanchine, “made Balanchine’s unwillingness to listen to my despair even harder to accept.” Such was the morass of personal politics, betrayal, and disappointment that was always behind the headlines during the cultural cold war.

David Caute’s excellent The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, which covers not just dance but music, art, theater, and film, evokes the extraordinary power that the arts were believed to have had in shaping politics and society in the postwar years. It is almost possible to feel nostalgic for this dangerous time when the high arts were treated as germane to world affairs and celebrated as nationalist propaganda. I recall traveling around the Soviet Union as a child during the 1960s and early 1970s; music and ballet were constantly touted as exemplifying the virtues of Communist life. As the son of a privileged guest, I was, if memory serves, ten when I was made an honorary Young Pioneer and received my little red kerchief and medal in a solemn ceremony with various other children in starched white shirts and dark trousers waving red flags on a warm May day in Moscow, after which everyone was treated to songs and chamber music by Pioneers, all of them around my age.

Beethoven, Schubert, and Tchai-kovsky were part of these Pioneers’ everyday life. On later occasions, when I was old enough to be horrified by the Soviet system, I was still struck by the ubiquity of classical music on car radios and by the mobs of young Soviets at piano and dance recitals in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent. These are incidental recollections, perhaps slightly distorted by time, and meaningless except that, as Caute reminds us, high art was power once, and that era has passed.

I mean that the Soviet–US conflict framed aesthetic debates as it framed nuclear arms debates and debates about the virtues of the free market versus communism: it gave an urgency to matters of taste and style that frequently transcended the quality of the plays and movies and paintings and music being debated, much of which was absurdly bad. Konstantin Simonov’s The Russian Question, a Soviet play that premièred in 1947 and was staged in six hundred theaters, including in Berlin, became a focal point for early cold war tensions. Simonov was an apparatchik who wrote a vile diatribe in Pravda against the “anti-patriots” in Soviet theater, listing names, mostly of Jews. He campaigned for an “active and relentless ideological offensive” against the United States, of which The Russian Question was his model.

Its main character was a down-on-his-luck fictional American journalist named Harry Smith, a political progressive who once wrote a friendly book about Russia. MacPherson was the name Simonov gave to his tyrannical American newspaper publisher, a kind of William Randolph Hearst. Taking advantage of Smith’s need for money, MacPherson commissioned him to write a negative report about life in Moscow, but once in Russia, Smith could not betray his principles. “Have you noticed that more and more often the word ‘red’ is coming to mean the same thing as ‘honest’?” was a typical line.

Caute recounts how this drama, after receiving bad notices from Western journalists—an exception was Le Monde (“une pièce vivante“)—helped to win for Simonov the Stalin Prize and caused a ruckus in Berlin, where its staging was regarded by the US and Western European officials as an unprecedented act of outright cultural aggression by a previous ally. “Politics have returned to the Berlin stage in as crude and crass a form as in the heyday of Hitler and Goebbels,” was The Times of London’s assessment.

In fact, the Nazis had been generally more adept propagandists, and in retrospect what’s significant about The Russian Question, of course, is that something so banal could have been taken at all seriously as propaganda—as were its American equivalents, execrable Hollywood red-baiting films of the 1940s and 1950s like Republic’s The Red Menace or RKO’s I Married a Communist or Warner Brothers’ Big Jim McLain starring John Wayne as a HUAC investigator hunting Communists on the Honolulu waterfront (“Operation Pineapple” was the hunt’s code name).

Obviously many good artists during the cold war were also inspired by the fact that what they did might matter to world affairs. Solzhenitsyn, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Ilya Kabakov in the Soviet Union, and Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan in the United States were just a few examples of those who worked from very different perspectives but who, out of suffering or inner necessity or both, made memorable art from the circumstances of the conflict. For its part, the press gave the kind of attention to these works, and to other plays, books, films, symphonies, and tours by classical pianists and ballet companies, that today would be reserved only for a few commercial films, pop music acts, and reality television shows.

Caute’s book reminds us of the stupidity of some of the Soviet and American propagandists. Senator Jack B. Tenney on the Anti-American Activities Committee in California gravely announced in 1948 that investigators had “unmasked an irrefutable fact, that the Theatre Laboratories”—Tenney meant the Actors’ Laboratory Theatre—“accomplished two productions of some Russian guy called Anton Chekhov.” On the Soviet side, there were Party lackeys like the critic I. Kulikova, who lamented the preponderance in American college theaters of “detective and criminal plays” like Murder in the Cathedral. Caute also has an amusing chapter on the duels between national exhibitions of the 1950s, those Potemkin villages of Soviet and American life set up like vast trade fairs, with tractors and refrigerators replacing plays and books as instruments of propaganda. It was at one of these, in Moscow, that Vice President Nixon and Khrushchev famously debated in the kitchen of a model American ranch house, the same fair at which the benign offer to provide exhibition visitors with new toilets by the American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation was rejected by the Soviets, apparently fearful that masses of people might become infatuated with American plumbing and contemplate revolution.

Of course the struggle for cultural dominance was far more tragedy than farce. As James Reston put it, Soviet arts policy was a kind of Victorianism, but it was Victorianism enforced by a police state. Pasternak once told Isaiah Berlin about the time that the actor Livanov was scheduled to perform Hamlet. At a Kremlin reception, Livanov asked Stalin about how to play the part. “Hamlet is a decadent play and should not be performed at all,” said Stalin. So Hamlet was canceled in Russia. After Stalin died, Shakespeare was widely produced (in a way that, incidentally, he has not been in the United States arguably since the nineteenth century, when his works pervaded the repertory of popular theaters). But the young British director Peter Hall, upon returning from a hugely successful Shakespeare Memorial Theatre tour to the Soviet Union in 1958, expressed shock at the persistent anachronisms in the Soviet theater world and the lack of knowledge about the theater elsewhere. Chekhov’s Three Sisters used décor from 1905, he noted. He found educated Russians who had heard of Arthur Miller but not Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, or Samuel Beckett. New plays seemed to Hall “unbelievably crude, sentimental and political.”

Sentimentality and a lack of awareness of modern developments in the arts were among the most commonplace complaints by Westerners attending Soviet cultural events. The paradox was implicit: change in the arts seemed a threat to a Marxist regime based on a doctrine of historical progress. Hélène Bellew, the Danish-born dancer, although admiring of the financial resources at the Bolshoi’s disposal when she visited Moscow in 1956, wondered

how the spirit of twentieth-century experimentation and invention could have passed by the many choreographers and producers of this huge organization…. All the ballets performed are like perfectly kept period pieces, jeal-ously preserved within their heavy, lavishly ornamented, nineteenth-century frames.

This was Balanchine’s observation, too. The same might also be said of official Soviet painting and sculpture, with its doctrinaire adherence to nineteenth-century styles.

As Caute describes it, there was, in fact, incremental change in the Soviet arts, but it could be instantly reversed. Meyerhold, Stanislavsky’s follower, was partly to be redeemed after Stalin’s death, notwithstanding the Soviet Union’s continuing ban on any mention of his arrest and torture, and his execution after being forced to denounce other artists as subversive. Something of the same could be said about the revival of Mayakovsky, “the enfant terrible of Bolshevik poetry and dramaturgy,” as Caute calls him, who became integral to the revival of expressionist drama in the Soviet theater in the 1950s.

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