At any stage of the Cold War, Soviet film culture was inevitably influenced by the political and ideological content of the conflict and by fluctuations in its course. Soviet films represented confrontation with the West with various degrees of directness, dealing with such issues as ideological struggle, espionage, the fear of global hostilities (influenced by traumatic memories of the past world war), and ostentatious or genuine attempts at rapprochement with the other side. Soviet ideologues and commentators from different cultural fields were mobilized to defend Soviet filmmakers and film audiences from possible contamination. Western cinema was condemned as a source and emblem of bourgeois decadence and regarded as a tool of enemy propaganda. Films produced in the United States were the main targets of this condemnation: in stark contrast to the general friendliness which had characterized Soviet attitudes toward American filmmaking during World War II, with the advent of the Cold War they were commonly described as a "filthy torrent of slander against humanity produced by Hollywood's conveyor-belts." (1)
Against considerable odds, however, during the Cold War American cinema remained an important presence within Soviet culture and generated a significant effect on its Soviet counterpart even during the conflict's most difficult periods, when most American cultural products were rejected as unfit for Soviet consumption. (2) Even in the conditions of growing ideological repression and thorough filtration of anything that was perceived as a product of American capitalism and a tool of imperialist subversion, American films reached the Soviet intelligentsia, as well as "common" Soviet viewers. The new xenophobic atmosphere (fueled by "anti-cosmopolitan" witch hunts and "courts of honor") did not prevent Soviet filmmakers, who since the earliest days of Soviet cinema had demonstrated enthusiastic interest in American representations of dynamic modernity and American film techniques, from being perceptive observers and processors of America's cinematic achievements. (3) Moreover, in spite of the declared intent to fence out contaminating Western influences, Soviet ideologues paid close attention to the developments in American cinema, sanctioning the use--for very different ideological aims--of stylistic and narrative patterns commonly associated with Hollywood. (4)
This article examines certain channels and mechanisms of American cinema's penetration of the Soviet realm at the Cold War's initial and, arguably, most acute stage, the parameters of which were shaped in the last years of Stalin's rule by the most violent official rejection of Western culture. It explores two interrelated issues: patterns of Soviet bureaucratic, intellectual, and popular reception of American films; and U.S. efforts to secure a position in the Soviet film market. The first issue opens another perspective on the two superpowers' ideological and cultural rivalry; the second specifies the problem of cultural influences in a situation when the influencer has to circumvent powerful mechanisms of defense.
By demonstrating and explaining diverse responses of Soviet audiences, authorities, and filmmakers to one of the most popular and accomplished products of American culture and one of the most powerful instruments of U.S. cultural policy, I aim to give a more nuanced picture of a period traditionally regarded as one of the lowest points in the relationship between the USSR and the United States.
American Films in the USSR during World War II
The history of Soviet attitudes toward American cinema in the early course of the Cold War would be incomplete without a look at its reception in the Soviet Union during World War II. (5) First, positive attitudes toward American cinema prevalent at that time provide a dramatic contrast to the mood of the subsequent Cold War. Second, the wartime access to allied countries' films, and the fact that large numbers of foreign movies were obtained as war trophies, profoundly influenced postwar Soviet filmmaking and the general cultural situation in the USSR.
The wartime Soviet-American alliance led to a considerable liberalization in official Soviet attitudes toward the "bourgeois" culture of the United States. This brought about a wave of enthusiasm in regard to American cinema on the part of the Soviet film community--a wave that was, in its turn, used by the authorities to demonstrate their positive feelings toward the new ally.
Among the highest points of wartime cultural cooperation was the conference on American and British cinema held at the Moscow House of Architects in August 1942. (6) It was organized by the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad (VOKS) and attended by prominent Soviet film workers, who delivered passionate tributes to their American colleagues. Thus in his opening speech Sergei Eisenstein called Hollywood "the very heart of world cinema" and compared American cinema to "a giant epic on a par with The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, or The Song of Prince Igor." (7) Eisensteiffs words were echoed by the words of Vsevolod Pudovkin, who recalled American cinema's attraction to the Soviet film community of the 1920s: "The romanticized American hero was close in his spirit to our people; and the methods of directing, brought about by his image, were, quite naturally, the weapons which young Soviet filmmakers craved to find in their impatient search." (8) At the conference, Soviet filmmakers demonstrated their willingness to revive the fond relationship with the film culture that had shaped their formal and thematic interests two decades earlier.
Evidently, for a number of veteran Soviet filmmakers who worked during World War II and in the first years of the Cold War, the phenomenon of American cinema contained a strong nostalgic value. By praising it as a democratic art with great creative potential, they evoked memories of their own youthful excitement and--in a more oblique way--political and artistic conditions that differed drastically from the situation under Stalinism. (9) Together with other Soviet artists, they regarded the more relaxed conditions of the war as a promise and a possibility of a more open, liberal culture of the future--a culture in which interaction with other nations would play a major role as a stimulus to creativity and a channel for alternative modes of aesthetic representation. "At the end of the war and immediately after it, in 1946," the writer Konstantin Simonov reminisced 40 years later, "to a large circle of the intelligentsia it seemed ... that something should move us to the side of ... greater simplicity and ease of socializing with the intelligentsia even of those countries together with which we fought against the common enemy.... There was in general an atmosphere of ideological optimism." (10)
Soviet filmmakers' perception of American cinema as an embodiment of democratic sentiments and ideals generally corresponded to the official Soviet position, which distinguished between "democratic" art and profit-oriented "bourgeois" cultural production and underlined dissimilarities between the American system and the rest of the capitalist world. There were, however, key differences in the degree of sincerity with which the ideologues, on the one hand, and the creators and connoisseurs, on the other, looked at American cinema, as well as in the personal experiences that these two groups brought to American film culture. Soviet filmmakers studied "Americanisms" with the aim of creating an even more advanced cinematic mode, which would support both the Soviet drive toward humane and dynamic modernity and their own experiments with cinematic language. Soviet cinema's political supervisors centered on Hollywood: it was perceived as an efficient production system, elements of which could be integrated, in spite of their capitalistic origins, into the process of Soviet image-making. (11) They also appreciated Hollywood as a provider of quality entertainment, broad access to which would be pernicious for the Soviet population but which could be used as a relaxing distraction by the ruling elite and as a creative model for a select circle of trusted cultural workers. This pattern continued until the last days of Soviet power: American and other Western films remained a valuable currency within the Soviet system of cultural, social, and political communication. They were used as a status commodity and as a means of remuneration for services provided to the Party by representatives of the intellectual elite.
Probably the most famous instance of the Soviet rulers' reception of an American film was Stalin's favorable reaction to Julien Duvivier's The Great Waltz (1938). This lavish, music-filled MGM biography of Johann Strauss was deemed by the Soviet authorities to be fit not just for their own consumption. In 1940, The Great Waltz was released to Soviet audiences, together with Henry Koster's 100 Men and a Girl (1937), a romantic comedy built around a story of a symphonic orchestra. (12) The choice of these particular films could be influenced by the fact that they both dealt--directly or indirectly--with the idiom of high culture (the films were actually directed by Europeans--implicitly, bearers of the classical cultural tradition). By the end of the 1930s, cultural conservatism had supplanted the radical aspirations of early Soviet art; and the new aesthetic could, to a certain extent, accommodate concepts and conventions of "bourgeois" cinema. While 100 Men and a Girl introduced to Soviet filmgoers Deanna Durbin, who was to become their favorite Western star for many years to come, The Great Waltz became a major stimulus for a cycle of screen biographies of Russian composers, opened in 1947 by Leo Arnshtam's Glinka and ended in 1953 by Grigorii Roshal' and Gennadii Kazanskii's Rimskii-Korsakov. Films of this cycle shared Hollywood's penchant for the artificiality and pomposity of costume dramas and its attention to production values; however, formal and psychological pyrotechnics typical of Hollywood's productions about creative personalities were replaced in late Stalinist biopics by academic solidity and didacticism.
The reception given by Soviet policymakers to The Great Waltz provides a clue to their vision of American cinematic products. While publicly declaring their support for American culture's progressive democratic values, in reality they preferred the kitschy aesthetics of the less discerning Hollywood products. This taste for Hollywood schmaltz contributed significantly to the formation of the so-called Grand Style, the most prominent stylistic feature of late Stalinism. Indeed, the monumental grotesquerie of such Stalinist epics as The Oath (1946) and The Fall of Berlin (1950) appears to have quite a lot in common with Cecil B. DeMille's pageants of the 1930s and their derivatives, the biblical spectacles of the 1940s-50s.
The 1940 exposure of Soviet audiences to two typical Hollywood products anticipated Soviet imports of American films in the course of the two countries' wartime alliance. All in all, in 1941-45 the Soviet Union bought 20 American feature films plus 2 Disney animated shorts. (13) Among other things, they included two Durbin vehicles (her singing of the Russian-Gypsy song "Two Guitars" in Frank Borzage's musical comedy His Butler's Sister  affected the tastes of a whole generation of Soviet people); MGM'S Edison the Man (1940), another model for late Stalinist biopics; Disney's Bambi (1942), an unusually emotional animated feature which was a thematic and formal revelation for Soviet animators; (14) Lillian Hellman and William Wyler's The Little Foxes (1941), which impressed more sophisticated viewers with the seriousness of Bette Davis's acting and the expressiveness of Gregg Toland's deep-focus photography; several pro-Soviet productions, including the notoriously pro-Stalinist Mission to Moscow (1943); two disaster melodramas, In Old Chicago (1938) and The Hurricane (1938); the parodic musical comedy The Three Musketeers (1939); and Sun Valley Serenade (1941), a film that charmed Soviet audiences with Glenn Miller's performances, figure-skating numbers, and another female star, Sonja Henie. A 1946 report to the U.S. secretary of state noted that "among the ... pictures purchased, only one--Miss Hellman's Little Foxes--might be considered as freighted with social consciousness." (15) Indeed, the 1941-45 American imports to the USSR constituted typical Hollywood entertainment, whose indisputable technical quality allowed Soviet filmmakers to familiarize themselves with recent technical developments in cinema, but whose main novelty was that war-exhausted Soviet viewers were able to see glimpses of another, exotically calm and comfortable existence. The importance of this American intervention in Soviet cultural affairs cannot be overstated. Although, obviously, not on a par with the many shocks of wartime, it still had a momentous impact upon Soviet life.
The wartime alliance not only brought to the Soviet Union a modest but steady and diverse stream of American films. It also invigorated personal contacts between Soviet and American filmmakers. From the summer of 1943, the Committee for Cinema Affairs of the USSR Council of People's Commissars was represented in Hollywood by Mikhail Kalatozov, the director of Valerii Chkalov (1941), a screen biography of a heroic pilot who flew from the USSR to the West Coast of the United States. The film was released in the United States as Wings of Victory, and it is quite likely that its positive portrayals of Americans facilitated Kalatozov's move to Hollywood. Kalatozov's most famous work, The Cranes Are Flying (1957), would bear more than one trace of his knowledge of wartime American melodramas--such as John Cromwell's Since You Went Away (1944), with its emotional farewell scene--which testifies to his use of the bureaucratic position of the Soviet envoy to Hollywood for a diligent study of its products and achievements. (16) Kalatozov's personality comprised qualities of an outstanding filmmaker and those of a politician and …