When the stage was set for war

The use of culture as a tool of national rivalry is as old as national rivalry itself. European princes competed with one another for the services of court musicians, Renaissance magnates vied to commission the best painters, Versailles was constructed in order to display the power of the French king.

But the cultural rivalry inspired by the Cold War stands in a league of its own. The United States and the Soviet Union competed, after all, not about the odd palace, but over every conceivable human activity, from science to sculpture to ice hockey. At the height of the Cold War, the defection of a ballet dancer from the Soviet Union to the United States could become an important political event, and the publication of a composer’s posthumous memoirs abroad could inspire bitter denunciations in the Soviet government press.

As David Caute puts it in this comprehensive history of the cultural Cold War, the battle was an “ideological and cultural contest on a global scale and without historical precedent”.

Yet at its heart, this rivalry was not really about art or music at all. The real struggle was about the nature of the two countries’ political systems, whose differences themselves made the battle an odd one. On one side stood the Soviet Union, whose centrally planned economy and totalitarian political system could almost have been designed to produce musical prodigies, prima ballerinas and pre-teen gymnasts. Children of talent were selected early, sent to special schools and given intensive training, the better to enable them to compete with the Americans.

Yet in any endeavour that required genuine creativity – the writing of novels, say, or the painting of pictures – Soviet artists were crippled by heavy censorship and forbidden to produce anything, at least officially, that did not conform to rigid political and aesthetic rules.

American post-war artists, by contrast, often went out of their way not just to ignore the political establishment, but to shock it. The Cold War began, after all, in the era of abstract expressionism, and continued through psychedelic music and op-art. Although some successful attempts were made to channel and control American culture for political purposes, most of the time artists did what they wanted.

Whatever the quality of the final product, the freedom of its creators was, in the end, the most appealing aspect of American culture. Indeed, the Soviet public lapped up American and Western culture – trading pirated jazz tapes on the black market, standing in queues all night to see rare exhibitions of foreign artists – precisely because they saw it as a by-product of political freedom. Soviet culture, with the exception of a handful of classical musicians and dancers, many of whom defected, made hardly a dent on post-war America at all.

It is this odd and ill-matched competition, between the American avant-garde and the Soviet establishment that Professor Caute sets out to chronicle in this ambitious book. Rightly, he condemns the historians of this subject who have become obsessed with criticising the secret funding of artistic groups, or the CIA support for notable achievements such as the excellent magazine Encounter. In his conclusion, he attacks those who are sucked in by the fallacious belief that “almost everything of cultural importance has been engineered by one power elite or another, by some ‘hidden hand’ bearing a hidden agenda”.

In fact, many of the most significant Cold War-era artistic works on either side of the Iron Curtain – the music of the Beatles, say, or the films of the Polish director Andrzej Wajda – clearly succeeded despite their respective political establishments, not because of them. In much of this book, Caute rightly prefers to stick to the works themselves, focusing on a handful of important cultural markers.

This approach can at times make the book hard going for those who are unprepared. At times, Caute seems to prefer critical analysis to the straight writing of narrative history, and the book becomes bogged down in detailed descriptions of the plots of films or plays. He also seems more interested in the political analysis of Western culture on the one hand, and Soviet culture on the other, and rather less interested in the story of how they competed. This leads him into an overlong discussion of McCarthyism and unnecessarily detailed descriptions of the political evolution of French intellectuals, subjects about which he has written other books.

The best scenes and anecdotes in this book are found in Caute’s accounts of the moments of intense competition: the enthusiasm surrounding the first American exhibition in Moscow; the storm caused when a female Russian discus-thrower was caught shoplifting on Oxford Street; a Russian performance of Porgy and Bess; the impact of the Beatles on Russian youth (Caute speculates that the Russian “passion for melody” led the Beatles to become a permanent part of Soviet, and indeed contemporary, Russian culture, whereas the Rolling Stones never quite caught on).

There are many such details in the Dancer Defects, and they go a long way towards recapturing, at least in part, the mentality of an era that is growing ever more difficult to recall.