By Petr Podkopaev–
Michael David-Fox is a co-founder of what has become a very important journal in the field, Kritika (which means critique in Russian). With such a title, one should not be surprised to find out that David-Fox’s work revaluates the Western historiographical understanding of the Soviet Union. David-Fox’s lecture—titled “The Iron Curtain as a Semipermeable Membrane”—was based on his recent book Showcasing the Great Experiment, which focuses on Western, foreign visitors in the Soviet Union in the period of 1921-1949. David-Fox is one of the avant-garde forces in the academy: always pushing our understanding of the Soviet Union in novel and unexpected ways. By examining foreign visitors from the West, David-Fox was able to better understand and transmit that understanding to the lecture audience of these important topics. First, the Soviet Union was structured on a permanent comparison with the West in order to rise above the perceived West materially and, most importantly, culturally. Second, even during its most isolated period, the Soviet Union was not a closed society. Lastly, understanding the Soviet Union’s relationship with the perceived West helps one to better understand why it collapsed.
There is no doubt that the Soviet Union was a closed off society during Stalin’s reign but for whom? David-Fox convincingly argued that Western fellow-travelers were allowed and even encouraged to enter the USSR. Their visits were highly orchestrated in order to convince the Western audience of the Soviet Union’s progress and superiority. The Soviet masses had no to little contact with the West, until, of course, World War II when soldiers of the Red Army directly experienced life outside the USSR. But there was a select group of individuals who were intrigued by the West and had access to it, the Soviet elite. Beginning with Vladimir Lenin who admired Western ways and despised Russian backwardness, the Soviet elite were using their perceptions of the West as a measuring stick of Soviet progress. David-Fox calls this the inferiority/superiority complex.
Initially the Soviet elite felt inferior to the West and attempted to surpass it. The main mode of this competition was cultural: Soviet citizens would become highly cultured people who would value the arts and other forms of high culture. Here David-Fox truly demonstrates his brilliance. Even before the Cold War officially began, the Soviets were creating a model for cultural and ideological competition with their archenemy, the West. But surprisingly, the enemy of the USSR was a source of admiration and fascination as well. The Soviet elite collected Western goods and modeled Soviet society on surpassing the West, thus placing it on a pedestal of secret admiration. As the Soviet cultural building project began to take form under Stalin, the feeling of inferiority toward the West began to vanish and was supplanted with a chauvinistic sense of cultural supremacy. The Soviet people were not mired in petty-bourgeois consumer values of the West, but were beacons of high culture and ideological superiority.
The Stalinist cultural supremacy model had its flaws. Its identity was based on a direct comparison with what the Soviet leadership perceived to be Western cultural values. Though during Stalin’s reign Soviet culture had reached a pinnacle of superiority, it was always tethered to the West because it was based on proving its superiority. The reason behind Soviet accomplishments was a deep feeling of inferiority. Thus Stalinist and Soviet culture had no real autonomous foundation and made it quite fragile: the Soviet cultural direction was in the hands of the Soviet leader(s). After Stalin’s death, the Soviet project of instilling high cultural values was scrapped by Nikita Khrushchev in favor of using consumer goods as a measuring stick of cultural and ideological dominance. This had a disastrous influence on the fate of the USSR. The Soviet economy was ill equipped to provide basic consumer goods let alone compete with advanced Western economies. Stalin helped the Soviets believe in their superiority, but as the years progressed and the promise of material plenty failed to materialize, the Soviets became disenchanted with the cultural project and the system as a whole. It lost the fight because it was fighting the wrong battle. Had the Soviet Union continued to wage high-cultural warfare, the system may have not collapsed.
David-Fox’s talk on the permeability of the Iron Curtain had an unexpected repercussion, though no doubt it was planned by the lecturer. David-Fox was able not only to succinctly explain the nature of Stalinism but go beyond it, outline the reason for the collapse of the Soviet state, and paint a better picture of the nature of the Soviet system.