Illusionary Spoils: Soviet Attitudes toward American Cinema during the Early Cold War

By Kapterev, Sergei | Kritika, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Illusionary Spoils: Soviet Attitudes toward American Cinema during the Early Cold War


Kapterev, Sergei, Kritika


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. …

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