The Iron Curtain as Semi-Permeable Membrane

By Caroline Johnson–

Michael David-Fox recently presented at Miami University for a lecture series organized as part of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies.  His lecture identified the Soviet Union during the Cold War as possessing a “semi-permeable membrane” rather than the famous Iron Curtain described by Churchill and discussed how the image of the west impacted the communist society.  He focused on the link between international and domestic spheres, which he dubbed the “internal/external” nexus.  His discussion brings ideas of the Soviet Union back in conversation with other histories around the world rather than secluding it as a completely disconnected entity.

Often, the Stalin period is seen as a strict era of isolationism.  David-Fox suggests that we can use the idea of a semi-permeable membrane to better understand the Soviet Union’s interaction with the west both during and after the Stalin era.  David-Fox’s argument extends from some of his previous literature.  In one of his articles entitled “The Implications of Transnationalism,” he asserts, “the boundaries that need to be transcended are not those of the nation-state, but the Iron Curtain (887).”  Essentially, in order to best understand a discussion of communism and the Soviet Union, David-Fox argues in we must first understand the communist movement and Soviet experience in relation to the west.

To support his argument, David-Fox presents three key subject areas through which to understand this interaction.  First, it is necessary to understand the origins of what he termed the Soviet superiority complex.  During this period, Stalin supported the notion that the Soviet Union would “catch up and overtake” the west.  The Bolshevik Revolution held out the promise to go “beyond the west” in terms of social equality and economic prosperity.   Stalinism supported the idea of outright Soviet superiority over the imagined west.  The term imagined must be used, as what Soviet society thought to be the west and the realities of the west were two different ideas.

David-Fox’s second part of the lecture addressed what he called the western movement of the Soviet Union (1939-1945), when Soviet soldiers occupied European countries.  This was seen as a contrast to isolationism, as it further allowed elements of western culture to penetrate Soviet society.  During Stalin’s era and the growth of the superiority complex, other nations were dubbed “uncivilized” in comparison.  As the Soviets expanded westward and tension at the borders eased, this notion did not hold true for all Soviet citizens.

Finally, David-Fox showed how the Thaw and decline of the Soviet superiority complex under Khrushchev increased western influence and clashed with previous ideas held under Stalin.  Though Khrushchev was more optimistic in his approach than Stalin, he still believed the USSR was superior.  By this time, the idea of “catch up and overtake” no longer held value for Soviet Society.  If the Soviet Union truly was “superior,” then there would be no need to “catch up.”  This sense of over confidence in Soviet superiority played out through consumerism as the USSR became more open to the rest of the world.

David Michael-Fox’s interpretations are significant for understanding the Soviet experience as one in conjunction with the world it is so often set in opposition to.  His arguments challenge previous notions of Soviet history, especially those under the so-called totalitarian model.  He shows how the changes after Stalin’s death (during western movement and the Thaw) and movement toward consumerism (both during and after Stalin) undermine the goal of a classless society by creating elite culture. Ultimately, Michael David-Fox shows that interaction with the western world had major influence on how the Soviet world functioned.   By looking at the USSR from a global perspective, it becomes obvious how “ideological overstretch,” similar to that of imperial overstretch, can be detrimental to any society.

Caroline Johnson is a senior at Miami University majoring in History

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