Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to Soviet Union, 1921-1941

Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to Soviet Union, 1921-1941

Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to Soviet Union, 1921-1941

Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to Soviet Union, 1921-1941


During the 1920s and 1930s thousands of European and American writers, professionals, scientists, artists, and intellectuals made a pilgrimage to experience the "Soviet experiment" for themselves.Showcasing the Great Experimentexplores the reception of these intellectuals and fellow-travelers and their cross-cultural and trans-ideological encounters in order to analyze Soviet attitudes towards the West.

Many of the twentieth century's greatest writers and thinkers, including Theodore Dreiser, André Gide, Paul Robeson, and George Bernard Shaw, notoriously defended Stalin's USSR despite the unprecedented violence of its prewar decade. While many visitors were profoundly affected by their Soviet tours, so too was the Soviet system. The early experiences of building showcases and teaching outsiders to perceive the future-in-the-making constitute a neglected international part of the emergence of Stalinism at home. Michael David-Fox contends that each side critically examined the other, negotiating feelings of inferiority and superiority, admiration and enmity, emulation and rejection. By the time of the Great Purges, these tensions gave way to the dramatic triumph of xenophobia and isolationism; whereas in the twenties the new regime assumed it had much to learn from Western modernity, by the Stalinist thirties the Soviet order was declared superior in all respects.

Drawing on the declassified archival records of the agencies charged with crafting the international image of communism, David-Fox shows how Soviet efforts to sell the Bolshevik experiment abroad through cultural diplomacy shaped and were, in turn, shaped by the ongoing project of defining the Soviet Union from within. These interwar Soviet methods of mobilizing the intelligentsia for the international ideological contest, he argues, directly paved the way for the cultural Cold War.


As I made my first visits to the Soviet Union starting in the late 1980s, it was impossible not to become aware of the extraordinary stature foreigners, especially visitors from the West, were accorded by almost everyone from the most humble to the most powerful. My own reception there, particularly as a participant in certain foreign “delegations” that still bore the imprint of earlier eras, gave me some personal insight, even if only on a small scale, into what foreign travelers experienced when the Soviet experiment was still young: lavish yet formulaic hospitality, evaluations on both sides, and, yet, also intense unofficial exchange meaningful to visitors and hosts alike. the most recent turn— from the effusive post-Soviet opening to the outside world, to a frequently anti-Western, Putin-era reaction against humiliating treatment as inferiors— fits with almost perfect logic into the long-term patterns of the Russian historical process. So did the initial post-Soviet influx of Western travelers, experts, and advisors. the idea for this book was born as I became increasingly aware of the need to analyze continuities in the long history of European and American interactions with Russia and the ussr that stretched across radical changes of regime. Looking back, I can see how my personal experiences as a frequent visitor and foreign resident in Russia contributed, in their own way, to the original interpretive framework I have developed: to approach the reception of foreign visitors through the prism of expressions of superiority and inferiority on both sides.

In researching and writing this study, I received an extraordinary amount of support, which allowed me to make eight research trips to former Soviet archives lasting a total of about two years. Early on, a National Council for Eurasian and East European Research (NCEEER) grant gave me two semesters for research. American Councils for International Education (ACTR/ ACCELS) provided unparalleled logistical support during several research . . .

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