The Thaw and the 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow

Edward Beliaev

I was asked to share my memories of late 1950-s and1960-s, in particular, my memories of the 1 st American exhibition of 1959. I have indeed visited it but quite honestly I do not remember much except for two particular exhibits, exhibit of the contemporary American sculpture and the exhibit of the American jazz. Both were memorable because it was the first time, I think, I saw contemporary sculpture not in the art books but in the open air. And since it was the time when the Soviet press started to discuss openly modern art. This particular exhibit did not impress much. But it was a joy to listen the Count Basie Orchestra through huge loudspeakers.

Dmitri asked me to muse about the significance that this event had for Soviet culture or for Soviet intelligentsia. I do not know what significance it had if any. I don’t have any data and I doubt they exist. Without the data whatever my memories tell me is just a speculation, especially bearing in mind that I was too young at the time: 1959 was my last year at the university. Besides, I never belonged to the so-called cultural intelligentsia.

So what follows is rather my musing on the time past. I think, we cannot understand the importance (or unimportance) of this event - the American exhibition - without looking around. And looking around we find that the Exhibition was just one of the numerous events of the same kind that had been taking place in those years.

I don’t remember exact dates and I am not a historian, but roughly I am speaking about the decade of the middle 1950s- middle of 1960s. And in those years we see a Mexican exhibition of contemporary and ancient Mexican art, which had a long and memorable impression on me. There were many visiting symphony orchestras from the US and Europe , theaters and ballet troupes, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, many translations of fine contemporary literature and art publications.

All that was in the atmosphere that Ylya Ehrenburg dubbed a “thaw”. The old Soviet world with its stale art, literature and propaganda was melting down under our very eyes. I think that was more important than anything else. No American exhibition could have more impact on the Soviet culture than the mere fact that you could finally say or publish almost all you want. Only in this atmosphere of openness - for us, the participants of this process – can the impact of the American Exhibition be understood. After all it was not the import of the Western cultural artifacts that brought about the short flowering of the Soviet culture in that period. The Soviet culture as any other culture had its own dynamic. One should not forget that the 1920s had seen the same flowering of culture in the Soviet Russia./Soviet Union. And those people, at least many of them, who witnessed it or took active part in its creation were still alive in the 1950s- 1960s. I doubt that those people were unable to create their art without Western influence. Shostakovich was not under the Western influence (at least not in 1950-60s), and I doubt that the Soviet film makers of that time needed much Western input, although undoubtedly they knew about the developments in the Western cinematography.

The Soviet people were educated, curious and now they had a small window to look on what was going on around them and the opportunity to express themselves without much fear. That was enough to burst the fountains of creativity. Not all had been published, not all had seen the light, not all reached the public, not everything could be said openly, clearly, loudly, directly. Still it was an inner dynamic of the Soviet culture and life, not the Western imports that brought about the flowering.

The general atmosphere and, yes, the opportunity to see the things from abroad and to listen to discs that came from abroad, the opportunity to talk to people, sometimes friends, who went abroad and to the foreigners and even an opportunity to go abroad ourselves- even if that had been just a neighboring socialist country - played a tremendous role. In other words, many factors played together.

Take jazz, for example. We all know that in the 1960s there had been a proliferation of small jazz ensembles of young musicians and even jazz clubs with their jam sessions. It was entirely new experience – the creation of our own jazz subculture. And although in the 1920s and 1930s there had been jazz orchestras in the USSR which often imitated the jazz music of the American jazz orchestras, here we had young boys and girls self-taught, still learning how to play and sing without any “live” teachers, imitating but also creating something new. Without Willis Connover at the Voice of America’s Jazz Hour, without numerous records that got into the hands of young people, without tape recorders, that would have been impossible. Soon it was suppressed and those boys and girls, most of them, finished either in ordinary “estradny” ensembles or emigrated or died. Just a couple of them succeeded in the West. One of them, Sokolov - although I am not quite sure that I remember his name correctly -played a trumpet at the Dizzi Gillespi Orchestra in the 1980s.

One should not forget, however, that the contact with foreign countries and foreigners was not limited to art and fine literature. It is important to remember this because, again, social, scientific and political ideas that were taken from abroad had a tremendous impact on the Soviet psyche. It pushed the Soviet thought, art and actions in totally unexpected directions. The trips of our social scientists, some of whom spend many months not only in the socialist countries but also in the US and Great Britain, business trips to the Third World countries of young people who just graduated from the university, foreign students in the Soviet universities on exchange programs had tremendous fermenting effects in many areas from politics, to science, to arts. It was interaction of ideas, techniques and technologies in the arts and in science and politics.

One example comes to mind. It was late 1950s or the beginning of the 1960s when a book by an official from one of the industrial ministries of the Soviet Union (I think his name was Sevostianov but I am not sure) was published on his trip to the US . In his book he described in details the area between Washington and Boston . The way he presented it made one imagine the totally new world of the future, it all sounded like a science fiction: huge bustling megalopolis, tremendous roads full of cars, scientific establishments studying nature, humans and machines, laboratories full with unheard of equipment with a lot of supporting personnel, the social scientists applying their findings in governmental policies, and social scientists working in the government. And almost no criticism (at least I don’t remember any). It was really an exciting book, available in any big bookstores. I think that one should not dismiss this kind of events. I don’t want to say that this book was a pivotal event in the development of the Soviet society, or in my own life, nor even that it had any influence on many minds, I simply want to say that it was indicative of the period called “the thaw”. The Soviet society was under the bombardment of many ideas and impulses coming from without but also from within.

I don’t want to present a very rosy picture of the society we lived in those years. There had been restrictions and even persecutions, although the latter started mostly after 1964, with the fall of Nikita Khrushchev. There were several trials of students accused in the creation of anti-Soviet organizations including some students I knew personally because they studied at the same philosophy department. of Leningrad State University where I studied. That was in 1958, I guess. But I also want to say that for people of my generation all that was going on in terms of changes happening in culture, science and society at large had been almost natural. We were young looking for new ideas and new creations. We were open-minded. We were discovering new worlds. There were some puzzling discoveries too, however, which only much later I came to understand.

Sometimes, our new foreign friends were leaving us crying, crying that they have to return back. How strange! They were returning if not to the paradise than, at least, to the better future. And sometimes we would hear something, some confessions from them that very much resemble the Soviet propaganda. I mostly dismissed it as just indoctrination of young minds by the leftists. And also sometimes we would meet people who were very conservative in a psychological sense, adhering to the ideas and modes of behavior that were totally incompatible, as we saw it, with the mores of modern society On the other hand, I don’t remember any of my foreign acquaintances engaged in Western propaganda - if one does not take some criticisms of the Soviet society for propaganda.

That was actually very interesting. If we, the young people, university students, were more experienced we would have recognized that open propaganda was not very potent. The KGB and the party apparatus knew it very well and were actively engaged in their own war of ideas, mostly in the III World countries. I think we understood in those years that such things as the American exhibitions or the magazine Amerika, published by the US government were acts of propaganda. But we did not mind it. We wanted it. We liked it. As for American orchestras and jazz bands and ballet troupes, American films, American exchange students. . . . No, they were not propaganda, we thought. However they were. A deliberate, often sinister propaganda of the American way of life. I dare to say it was imperialism in action. And huge amounts of money were thrown for such propaganda. And it was aimed at destroying the Soviet society and the Soviet way of life. Here I am speaking not as a recipient of this propaganda, not as somebody who was involved in defending the Soviet society, and not that I am defending the Soviet society now, but as a neutral (and equidistant from both societies) observer, as an unengaged social scientist. The Soviets were conducting their propaganda, the US their own. And the US is doing it now, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not.

But when you have planned government actions directed at destroying other societies we should be very careful in assessment of these actions and be aware of the dire consequences they might have for the whole societies and for the well being of millions of people. We can take sides in that sinister game pursuing our own interests, which is totally natural to do but the scientists, observers, analysts, politicians, statesmen should always keep it in mind and act coolly but appropriately. Change is inevitable. And nobody knows the consequences of one’s own actions but to respond to such societal actions as propaganda in a purely emotional way just because we like or dislike something, as very often does intelligentsia, especially Russian intelligentsia, seems to me irresponsible. One can find many examples of such angry rhetoric directed at the Soviet Union , its institutions and its leaders. Please understand me correctly. I did not forget censorship and repression. I do remember the meetings of Khrushchev and Iliichev with the so-called creative intelligentsia. But one also has to remember that it was the intelligentsia itself who persecuted their own members and played the sinister game in the hands of party apparatus. A. Siniavski in one of his lectures I happen to attend said that the only thing that the intelligentsia cared about was to freely chat and visit foreign lands. And I totally agree with him. I do not defend the Soviet system. I am simply sharing my memories with you, the memories of a young, naïve, university student, who was not familiar with the inner mechanics of state craftsmanship but who, with all other young people, was exploring the new world. And it was an exciting and interesting world. And I also am trying to assess those processes in retrospective and I find that it was not that simple as sometimes I see in Russian and Western publications, depicting that period in black and whites tones and criticizing only one side in that complex interaction – the Soviet Union.