The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

By David Caute | Go to book overview

Introduction:
The Culture War

The cold war between the Soviet Union and the West was simultaneously a traditional political-military confrontation between empires, between the pax americana and the pax sovietica,1 and at the same time an ideological and cultural contest on a global scale and without historical precedent.2 The cultural cold war was shaped by the new primacy of ideology; by the shared and bitterly contested heritage of the European Enlightenment; and, not least, by the astonishing global ascendancy of printing presses, of film, radio, and television, not overlooking the proliferation of theatres and concert halls open to the broad public, particularly in the USSR.

By the time John F. Kennedy occupied the White House in 1961, Russia’s sputnik in the sky signalled to the West that the Soviet system was offering an unexpectedly formidable educational and scientific challenge: the team that got the first astronaut or cosmonaut on the moon and brought him back alive would not only be cock of the cosmic walk but would inherit the Earth. The Soviet Union faltered and failed in that endeavour; twenty years later, between 1989 and 1991, the Communist system itself collapsed throughout the Soviet constellation of satellites, culminating in the disintegration of the USSR itself. The curtain came down on the hammer and sickle after seventy years of Party hegemony; the city of Leningrad is now St Petersburg.

Leaving aside the role of God invoked by Kennedy and every other American president, was the defeat of the Soviet system primarily ‘economic’, a failure to keep pace with American cybernetics and computers in a world economy increasingly dependent on silicone chips and software? Or did the Soviet leviathan succumb to the heart-stopping weight of its own military armour?3 These were certainly powerful factors, yet the mortal ‘stroke’ which finally buried Soviet Communism was arguably moral, intellectual, and cultural as well as economic and technological. Citizens of the USSR and the satellite People’s Democracies had long since ceased to believe in the system’s viability and pretensions; suddenly—the swiftness of the debacle astonished expert observers—they were no longer prepared to put up with its

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