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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 10: The Cold War •

The Cold War

A photograph of the 1956 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Othello

Othello, 1956: Othello rages at the confused Desdemona, Act 4 Scene 1. RSC production which was attended by members of the Bolshoi Ballet.

Photograph by Angus McBean, copyright Royal Shakespeare Company (photo reference: C_M331_7)

articles > Periphery and centre...

Cultural drives by the periphery: Britain's experiences

Aiko Watanabe, School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Conventional explanations of the Cold War tend to create models which place the ideological clash between the United States and the USSR at its very heart, resulting in tensions which radiate outwards geographically, forming specific social formations, cultural patterns and individual identifications. Thus, the military and political shockwaves born at the epicentre of this clash were felt in the Soviet satellites and pro-American states, while a less dramatic but equally lasting effect was felt in those countries courted by either side, the non-aligned states. The 'peripheries', just like those places on the fringes of an earthquake, have therefore been seen as one-sided recipients of the political, economic, ideological and cultural forces that were unleashed by the 'superpowers'. Nowadays, such a simplistic model has increasingly been questioned by historians who have highlighted the major political roles played by other countries. (1) It is perhaps the right moment, with the Cold War nearly two decades away and rapidly becoming a distant memory, to revisit these assumptions and to ask ourselves whether we are now asking the right questions about the Cold War. Perhaps, we should no longer view the periphery in geopolitical terms, and instead choose to look at the dynamics of the culture of the Cold War as some kind of periphery in itself. In so turning our attention to this, we can address questions concerning the role culture played in regulating the temperature of the Cold War. Of the non-military methods of influencing political decisions, culture, that is the spread of ways of life and artistic, creative identifications, and even democracy, has proven to be one of the most effective forces.

In the field of cultural diplomacy, rather belatedly, the role of culture, once marginalised by politics, has received significant attention, but almost exclusively directed towards exploring US-USSR contexts. (2) This has been a shame, for if we only rest our gaze on the cultural relationship between the two superpowers, it is likely that we only reinforce the traditional dichotomised model. It is crucially important that we explore the dynamics of the cultural approaches taken by the 'apparent periphery', and therefore place the Cold War into a wider, international context. The case of Great Britain and her cultural activities in the USSR and Soviet satellites will illustrate the intellectual fruitfulness of such an approach. Although Britain participated in the Cold War politically, providing strategic assistance to the United States, she felt a moral obligation and political need to arrest the spread of communism in her own country and the West, but did not possess the military power to have a critical role in shaping the Cold War by geopolitical means. Britain noticeably pursued a policy of cultural projection in the satellites and the USSR, in order to try to reach and influence policy makers and future policy makers through their programme of student exchanges and visitations of cultural manifestations such as the Bolshoi Ballet.

The less than blanket ideological coverage in the satellites, particularly in the early years of the Cold War, offered Britain the opportunity to put a cultural spanner in the apparatus that was responsible for the increasing Sovietisation of Czechoslovakia. One of the most important developments in cultural relations between Britain and any country from the Soviet bloc was the signing of a Cultural Convention with Czechoslovakia in 1947. The British Council, Britain's international cultural organisation operating under the auspices of the Foreign Office, acted as primary agent for the enforcement and execution of this agreement. The importance of concluding the Cultural Convention with this country was not just on the 'general' grounds of promoting a mutual understanding between both countries and spreading the British way of life in Czechoslovakia, but in recruiting culture as a means of wrestling Czechoslovakians' minds away from the Soviet Union.

In 1945, Britain was the sole effective representative of the West in Czechoslovakia, and the presence of British culture in the eyes of Czechoslovakian people in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War was especially crucial in gaining a head start in the ideological conflict that was to emerge between the East and West. If the Czechoslovaks were legally bound to a Cultural Convention, while Communism – an alternative ideology – was yet nothing more than 'an opinion', (3) it was anticipated that this would secure for Britain a foothold in Czechoslovakia, enabling it to try to resist and monitor the tide of Sovietisation. At the very least, it was hoped that it would allow Britain to promote its culture freely in Czechoslovakia. Second, it was a matter of struggling for cultural and political influence in Czechoslovakia within the West itself. Historically, Czechoslovakia had had a close relationship with France, but during the war, France's presence in the country was significantly weakened, and Britain attempted to fill this power vacuum and usurp France's hegemonic position. However, Britain's attempt to win cultural dominance in this country was suddenly significantly curtailed by the increasing tide of Sovietisation in the early 1950s. The intensified military and political influence of the USSR through the establishment of the Cominform in 1947 and the February coup d'état in 1948 drastically changed the cultural and political horizons of Czechoslovakians and tempered Britain's attempt to deal a blow to the Soviet stranglehold in Eastern Europe which would have given the West a strategic and moral victory. Eventually, the Representations of the British Council in Czechoslovakia (as well as Hungary) were unceremoniously closed down by the Soviet authorities in 1950. (4) Does this failure demonstrate the relative weaknesses of culture as a political force? Perhaps so, but Britain was able to learn some important lessons from this experience. The events in Czechoslovakia can only be seen as an unsuccessful drive made by Britain, but this result did not terminate Britain's challenge. Indeed, the British government turned its experiences to good effect, hardening its resolve and pre-existing policies. Armed with a better understanding of the mechanisms through which the USSR controlled its satellites, the British government sought directly to combat the propaganda from its source with renewed vigour.

Britain's clandestine cultural activities in the USSR were conducted by the British Council's Soviet Relations Committee (SRC). Established in 1955 in response to Foreign Office requests for a body that would be responsible for 'the promotion of closer relations between Great Britain and the USSR', (5) it is argued that, in the first place, the British government wanted the SRC to act as a bulwark against the activities of 'domestic' Communist friendly societies, who had been conducting Communist propaganda work since the inter-war period. (6) In geographical terms, it can be said that the superpower's ideological shockwaves had already reached and intimidated the country for a couple of decades. In the period of the Cold War, where straightforward diplomatic tactics did not meet its political requirements, the British government, by establishing an officially 'governmental' organisation, the SRC, in an officially 'non-governmental' body, the British Council, succeeded in helping to increase the influence of democratic public diplomacy both at home and in the USSR. Through its close co-operation with the Royal Society, the BBC, and other organisations, the SRC greatly increased the number of British scholars, scientists and artists who visited the USSR, which managed to counteract the prolific visitations of Soviets to Britain supported and, in many cases, originally organised by the friendly societies with the USSR. (7) In the winter of 1955, the first Shakespearean play, Hamlet, directed by Peter Brook, was successfully performed in Moscow; and in the autumn of the following year, the SRC invited the Bolshoi dancers to Stratford-upon-Avon, where they enjoyed seeing Othello, another Shakespearean performance. Although the British Council was self-confident enough to broadcast 'how well equipped the British Council is in the field of activity [concerning] the handling of professional visitors from overseas', (8) it was the SRC, a committee of the Council laced with political intent, which made all the exchanges with the USSR proceed.

The SRC was well aware of the dangers and benefits associated with cultural penetration, and, from the outset, was anxious to avoid getting involved in protracted negotiations over a binding cultural agreement, the content of which, it seemed to Britain, would obstruct the free and spontaneous (therefore 'normal') exchange of ideas, persons and culture. Whilst resisting Soviet advances to create a formalised agreement, the SRC acted as a stent, keeping open a channel of communication with the Soviet authorities, and implanting – in Soviet eyes – the corruptive seeds of democracy. The precise success of this strategy is, however, dubious. Again, the politics of international cultural relations being conducted behind the Iron Curtain changed rapidly with events in world affairs during the 1950s, such as the Hungarian Crisis. The ambivalence of the SRC's status presented an obstacle to the Soviet authorities that initially held them at bay, but, in the end, proved to be counterproductive and ultimately ineffective, resulting in its disbandment in 1959. Nevertheless, the achievement of the SRC was that it helped to increase the volume of Western representations of democratic ideals both at home and in the USSR, and fostered a relationship with the USSR that was far from being merely passive. Indeed, Britain's cultural diplomacy in this period was a raft of unique and subtle strategies, which, though it ultimately failed, attempted to challenge the Communist cultural hegemony.

Archival sources also show that Britain awaited its chance to make a renewed cultural play in the satellites. Britain soon recognised that, although the satellites were politically no match for the USSR, they were not always handled sensitively by their masters, and that cultural dissent from within the satellites could be harnessed and supported. The earlier crude attempts of the British Council to implant British culture into the satellites were abandoned and replaced with the much more sophisticated idea that each nation had their own specific cultures which predated Sovietisation and which could be resurrected and should be celebrated. They would provide a much more effective and realistic challenge to Soviet cultural hegemony because they came from within. It is perhaps obvious to cite the example of the Prague Spring here, but evidence abounds that, though Soviet military force maintained the direction of satellite policy during the early and mid course of the Cold War, Soviet culture was unable to fully reinforce the binary oppositions between West and East, capitalism and communism, since prior, national cultures of historic origin survived the various onslaughts. A closed document produced by the British Embassy dated October 1956, indicates just how encouraged they were by news of the 'extent to which the discussion on the arts in the satellite countries has run ahead of that in the Soviet Union', and a Soviet literary critic revealed overall 'Soviet anxiety' concerning this new climate. He describes, for example, that Soviet socialist realism, originally established in the 1930s, was rejected by Polish and Yugoslav writers in the 1950s regarding it respectively as 'a weapon for destroying art' or as being 'antiquated', and internal forces in the USSR were in part responsible for revising it with a sense of 'full horror of Satellite deviation'. (9) Obviously, this kind of cultural resistance came to the surface after the 'Secret Speech' made by Nikita Khrushchev in February 1956, which first induced the softening of Soviet cultural control over the satellites. It is not merely a coincidence that the internal document was dated in the same month when two distinctive political turbulences occurred in Poland and Hungary. As a result, Khrushchev, who regarded culture as 'a sharp ideological weapon' of the party, re-enforced cultural policy for the next couple of years. (10) This freeze of cultural de-Stalinisation from 1957–59 was exactly the period when the SRC was gradually squeezed out of the Soviet cultural relations.

In the Cold War context, because cultural resistance was frequently suppressed by political force, it is not easy to deconstruct the conventional dichotomised model with politics at the core and culture on the periphery. Yet, from what we have seen above, although the crucial incidents of the Cold War were generated at the epicentre, sending out shockwaves that spread to the periphery, in another sense, those marginalised countries were able to aim cultural blows back towards the centres, and even fuelled political tensions, such that we can say the periphery was, to some extent, able to absorb and redirect the velocity of the two superpowers.

  1. For example, Peter Hennessy's The Secret State: Whitehall and the Cold War (2002) investigates the ways in which the British government through intelligence aimed to play a primary role in the Cold War. For further material on the British context, see: A. Defty, Britain, America and Anti-Communist Propaganda 1945–53: the Information Research Department (2004); A. Varsori, 'Britain as a bridge between East and West', in Europe, Cold War and Coexistence, 1953–1965, ed. W. Loth (2004), pp. 7–22. Back to (1)
  2. As for the US-USSR context, see, F. A. Ninkovich, The Diplomacy of Ideas: US Foreign Policy and Cultural Relations, 1938–1950 (Cambridge, 1981); W. L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War (Basingstoke, 1997); N. Prevots, Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War (Hanover, NH, 1998); Y. Richmond, Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (Pennsylvania, 2003). Back to (2)
  3. T. W. Simons, Eastern Europe in the Postwar World (Basingstoke, 1991), p. 58. Back to (3)
  4. The Representations of the Council only reopened after the new Communist charm offensive of the Khrushchev era when a string of cultural agreements were formulated with many different nations including the United States and France. Back to (4)
  5. The National Archives of the UK: Public Record Office (hereafter, TNA: PRO), BW 2/572. Back to (5)
  6. In Britain during the inter-war period, Communist groups such as the 'British-Soviet Friendship Society' and the 'Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR' were actively promoting cultural exchanges between Britain and the USSR. The Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR, founded in 1924, was recognised as a British counterpart of the 'Soviet Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries' (VOKS), and, in principle, aimed to recruit new members from the limited ranks of the intelligentsia. The British-Soviet Friendship Society, established in 1927, which tried to attract supporters from a wider base, mainly from the working class, had a membership of about 12,000 individuals along with some 50,000 affiliated members in 1954 (TNA: PRO, FO 371/116672). For a description of the British Council's cultural propaganda before and during the Second World War, see A. Watanabe, 'The British Council's Soviet Relations Committee: a departure from its "cultural brief" or the manifestation of an inherent political tendency?', Odysseus (Journal of Area Studies, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo), 7 (2003), pp. 74–95. Back to (6)
  7. TNA: PRO, BW 2/557. Back to (7)
  8. The British Council, Report on the Work of the British Council 1934–1955: Anniversary Report (1955), p. 39. Back to (8)
  9. TNA: PRO, BW 2/519. It must be emphasised that some of the materials used in my research are, to date, still categorised as being 'closed files' in The National Archives, London. For this reason, permission to access and make use of the material contained in these files was granted by the British Council on the signed undertaking that the names of individuals mentioned would not be published. Back to (9)
  10. R. G. Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR and the Successor States (New York, 1998), pp. 404, 406. Back to (10)

Aiko Watanabe is currently undertaking further research on the Czechoslovakian case, and looking into the situation in various other satellites including Poland and Hungary. She is author of 'Exercising a "cultural veto": the politics of Britain's cultural diplomacy with the USSR, 1955–59' (*Japanese article with English abstract), International Relations, 134 (2003), 121–35 and 'A survey conducted on cultural exchanges between Japan and the United Kingdom' (*Japanese report with English summary), Japan Foundation (2005).

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