Culture wars, unlike games of football and chess, do not yield undisputed winners and losers; they tend more towards the judgemental system prevailing in gymnastics, diving, and ice-dancing, with the jurors as much on trial as the performers. In the opinion of this writer there was never a moment when the USSR gained a clear cultural ascendancy; even after Sputnik (1957), when American educators were pouring into Russia to study the educational system and the scientific institutes, the Soviet Party could be counted on to haemorrhage its advantage by its suppression of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and its dire persecution of the author. Gagarin had no sooner become the first man in space than Khrushchev crashed into the Manezh Gallery like a baited bear, crudely tried to stifle Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, yelled at Yevtushenko and Ehrenburg, and allowed the Fellini affair at the 1963 Moscow Film Festival to damage the international gains made by The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, and Ivan’s Childhood. Even so, Moiseyev, the Bolshoi, the Kirov, and the Moscow Art Theatre performed to huge applause in the Western capitals, as did many renowned Soviet soloists, a credit to the teaching methods which spawned them. The years 1954–63 undoubtedly marked the height of Soviet cultural prestige, before the long twilight of Brezhnevism extinguished the candles.
If the West won the cultural cold war it was more by default than by artistic achievement. The Congress for Cultural Freedom could not present a playwright better than Brecht, a composer as popular as Prokofiev or Shostakovich, a ballet company superior to the Bolshoi, instrumentalists more skilled than Richter, Oistrakh, or Rostropovich, ensemble acting more subtle than the Moscow Art Theatre’s, or, with the single exception of Bobby Fischer, chess players to compare with the Soviet grandmasters. The dominant Western idiom in the elite arts—‘modernism’—was not particularly popular with the broad Western public, which generally found it inaccessible if not downright perverse; yet it prevailed over Soviet ‘realism’ far more thoroughly than it would have done if the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had not sought to stifle the modernist avant-garde with every weapon at its disposal.