Why today’s diplomats should read about the Cultural Cold War

Richard Pipes portrait

Know your enemy. So inveighed Richard Pipes, the great historian of Russia, in a mid-1970s warning to American policymakers about the dangers of détente. This was how he put it: ‘It is surely unreasonable to expect that the increase of US-USSR trade from $1 billion to, say, $5 billion a year, or agreements on joint medical research, or broadened (but fully controlled) cultural exchanges will wipe the slate clean of centuries of accumulated and dearly bought experience.’ He argued that fostering closer links through the Iron Curtain was an irrational policy, derived from the unfounded optimism that all countries and cultures were basically alike. There was no American inside every Russian, itching to get out. Instead, Communism was the latest manifestation of Russian authoritarianism, violence and expansionism.

Forty years later, research on the ‘Cultural Cold War’ – precisely that cluster of East-West ties that Pipes deemed trivial at best, but more likely dangerous – has become a major historical activity. Is it worth it? It is, not least because today’s policymakers should take a look.

But it’s important first of all for its own sake. The ‘transnational’ approach to Iron Curtain Europe has taken us to little-explored places, such as the new Soviet city of Tol’iatti, where Western and Soviet car manufacturing came into useful synergy. It has made possible a new picture of Soviet winemaking, shadowed by East-West exchange. There is the Bulgarian tobacco corporation that looked West, and the West German tourists who looked East.

Beneath this is a deeper message, entirely inimical to the Pipes anti-détente manifesto of 1976. Some of the historians who pursue this research are presumably convinced of a basic plotline: that ideological differences between East and West existed alongside common practices of everyday life, and that shared features of modern humanity mixed freely with very particular characteristics of national culture and character. Russians were not a different species, then or now.

And there is a more specific, urgent point. In 1980, the Soviet melodrama, Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Some Western critics, such as The Guardian’s, reacted sniffily: for them, the film was imitation Hollywood. But the Soviet press treated the award as an honour, a proof of mutual respect.

Perhaps American and European diplomats might learn something from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. After all, finding elaborate and appropriate ways of expressing respect might be a more sustainable – a more diplomatic – way of dealing with Russia than bluster, fake indignation, and the free run of undoubted dislike.

(Image: Richard Pipes, http://harvardmagazine.com/2004/11/the-historian-autobiogra.html)

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