Who Will Beat Whom? Soviet Popular Reception of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959

Article excerpt

The U.S. industrialist Norman K. Winston, special adviser to the American National Exhibition held in Moscow from 25 July to 4 September 1959, had predicted to This Week magazine earlier that year:

   We know the life we have is good. By the end of the summer, the
   millions of Russians who have seen our exhibit will know it too
   .... Unless I am a completely inept judge of human nature, that
   experience is going to stir not only hearts but also desires. Let
   it. Let the Russians want what we have. Let them clamor for it from
   their leaders. And let the clamor be so loud that it will demand
   answering. Perhaps then the Russian leaders, to keep their people
   happy, will divert some of their manufacturing facilities from
   weapons to the production of furniture, electric mixers, and
   prefabricated homes. (1)

In 2005, Victoria de Grazia invoked the exhibition and the famous Nixon-Khrushchev "Kitchen Debate" that took place there to illustrate a pan-European prostration before America's "irresistible" market empire:

   By the end of the 1950s, it was clear that the United States had
   won hands-down on the scorecard of standard of living. True, the
   left press, as well as a wide band of public opinion, would have
   agreed that in the United States there were no social safeguards
   for workers: as Khrushchev was quoted, "if you don't have the
   money, you sleep on the street." But whatever the defects, the USSR
   was becoming irrelevant as offering an alternative vision of
   collective well-being. (2)

The American National Exhibition (ANEM) was the first Soviet mass encounter with America--as America wanted itself to be seen--on Soviet turf. "A transplanted slice of the American way of life," emphasizing leisure, consumption, and domesticity, the experience it offered Soviet viewers was a kind of virtual day trip to America in the heart of Moscow, in the absence of any realistic prospect of their being able to travel to see the real thing. (3) It was held in Sokol'niki Park under a September 1958 agreement between the United States and the USSR, according to which national exhibitions demonstrating developments in science, technology, and culture were to be exchanged; the reciprocal Soviet National Exhibition had already opened at New York's Coliseum on 29 June 1959. (4) Among the exhibits at ANEM were a life-size model modern home of "the average American," in whose yellow General Electric kitchen the notorious "Kitchen Debate" between Nixon and Khrushchev took place, three further kitchens including Whirlpool's fully automated "Miracle" kitchen of the future, consumer goods for the home, toys, cars, fashion, voting machines meant to demonstrate the mechanisms of democracy, books, contemporary art, and the Family of Man photographic exhibition. (5)

Visited by some 2,700,000 Soviet citizens over its six-week run, did ANEM stir the hearts and desires of these millions, as Winston and others predicted, and make them covet and clamor for what Americans had? (6) Conceived, as he indicates, as a soft weapon of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, did the exhibition have the decisive impact historians have ascribed to it? Was it the fatal close encounter that "led" inexorably to the collapse of the Soviet Union 32 years later, when the United States "won" the standard-of-living race "hands-down" and left the USSR's alternative, socialist vision of collective well-being in the dust? (7)

"You are mistaken if you think you can convert [the USSR] to capitalism," Khrushchev warned U.S. governors visiting Moscow a few weeks before the exhibition opened. "The Soviet people are proud of the accomplishments like the Sputnik, et cetera. They will not be converted." (8) Khrushchev would say that, of course. But was his confidence misplaced bravado? Contemporary U.S. reports from this Cold War front, produced during and immediately after the exhibition, were also significantly less confident in its success, as even Walter Hixson's doggedly triumphalist account acknowledges. …

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