Michael David-Fox, Showcasing the Great Experiment: Cultural Diplomacy and Western Visitors to the Soviet Union.
The "pilgrimage" of interwar travellers to the Soviet Union is a notorious phenomenon in the political and intellectual history of the 20th century. Until recently, the historiography in the field has been dominated by books researched during the Cold War, including works by Sylvia Margulies, David Caute, and particularly Paul Hollander's Political Pilgrims (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) which appeared in its fourth edition in 1998. Michael David-Fox is one among a number of scholars, including David C. Engerman and Ludmila Stern, who in recent years have been using Soviet sources to revisit the experiences of Westerners in the Soviet Union. Showcasing the Great Experiment, based on extensive mining of the massive archive of the All-Union Society for Cultural Ties Abroad (VOKS), provides a nuanced portrait of visits to the Soviet Union but, further, explores these visits in the context of a larger web of cultural relations between the USSR and the West--a web that exerted influence in both directions.
Many ideas in the West about Russia and Russian ideas about the West predated the 1917 revolution but persisted in the Soviet period with new complexities. To some Westerners, Russians were a backward race, a primitive and exotic "other." Bolsheviks could, in this view, be seen as heroic, intellectuals pulling the Soviet Union unwillingly into modernity. Quirks of the "Russian soul" could be offered as explication for the brutality and repression of the regime. To the Soviets, the attraction of the industrial modernity associated with the West was great but this attraction was balanced against xenophobia, class-based suspicions about bourgeois intellectuals, and fears of capitalist aggression. In the Soviet era, a novel twist on traditional Russian attitudes towards the West was the idea that Soviet communism would not merely "catch up" to the West, but surpass it. Under Stalin, great pains were taken to have foreign visitors confirm that this superiority had, in fact, been achieved.
Judgements about superiority and inferiority --made both by and about foreigners in the Soviet Union--recur frequently in Showcasing the Great Experiment. David-Fox claims that his "approach throughout has been to detect, trace, and interrogate the expressions of superiority and inferiority that were at the heart of the interwar pilgrimage." (25) Fortunately, the book does much more than this. The "superiority/inferiority" trope is certainly a relevant one--whether David-Fox is writing about the peculiar appeal of the Soviet Union to a number of Germans on the far right (an extraordinary relationship that is the focus of much of a chapter) or to British Fabians or to Paul Robeson--but the nature and motivations of the sentiments are so various as to make it a weak organizing principle to tie a wide-ranging book together. The range and specificity of Showcasing the Great Experiment is its major strength; David-Fox conscientiously avoids sweeping generalizations (contra, for example, Hollander's thesis about "utopia-seeking" intellectuals alienated from their own society) and roots each of his examples and cases in rich historical context both inside and outside the Soviet Union.
One of David-Fox's contributions is his analysis of VOKS and its officials. Created in 1925, largely through the efforts of Olga Kameneva, Leon Trotsky's sister, VOKS became "at best a modest, mid-level force in power-political terms within the party state." (41) Nevertheless David-Fox's close study reveals much about the politics and inner workings of the Soviet bureaucracy. VOKS' intersection and interactions with other agencies included a strained and occasionally hostile relationship with Intourist, the profit-oriented Soviet tourist company; a separate spheres arrangement with branches of the Comintern (VOKS focused principally upon notable non-Communist Party cultural and scientific figures, the Comintern on Party members and the working class); and a constant dialogue with the secret police. Because of the nature of VOKS' work, key figures in the organization such as Kameneva were cosmopolitan, multilingual intellectuals with many contacts abroad; David-Fox describes these figures as Soviet "westernizers." This profile made them highly vulnerable in the xenophobic atmosphere of the purges of the late 1930s. These caused disruptions within VOKS simultaneously with a decline in the demand for its services from foreign intellectuals, a decline that reached its nadir with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.
VOKS had to wrestle with what David-Fox calls the "Potemkin village dilemma." (98) The purpose of foreigners' visits, from the Soviet perspective, was to create positive impressions and so these visits required careful planning and control. On the other hand, for a positive impression to be achieved, visitors could not feel that they were being prevented from seeing the "real" Soviet Union, VOKS developed several strategies to overcome this challenge. Packed itineraries, for one, could limit a tourist's freedom to find places and people that might provoke negative views of Soviet progress, VOKS guides, however, were also equipped to handle encounters with less-than-ideal conditions in the USSR; their narrative encouraged visitors to see the present of the Soviet Union always in terms of transition between a dark past and a bright future. Nevertheless, David-Fox finds that many of the roughly 100,000 visitors to the USSR in the period considered by his book were critical, asked difficult questions, and pushed their guides to explain evidence that did not fit official explanations. The degree to which agencies such as VOKS were successful in "duping" foreign visitors has been exaggerated, David-Fox suggests.
The "cultural show" foreigners experienced in the Soviet Union was, nevertheless, misleading. Famous foreigners were taken to visit model or model-experimental institutions, such as schools, or prisons, factories, or farms. These sites were often not entirely artificial (i.e. created for the benefit of tourists), but they were exceptional. They were not merely intended to inspire foreigners; they were, also, to provide examples of practices that would ultimately (in theory) be followed throughout the USSR. Foreign endorsements added to their legitimacy in this regard within the Soviet Union while also promoting a positive view of the Great Experiment abroad.
Maxim Gorky, falling somewhere between the foreign and domestic audience when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1928 after a seven year exile, was guided through model prisons and his positive impressions were used to combat circulating accounts and evidence of forced labour and inhumane conditions. As with the other examples of famous figures whose visit to the USSR David-Fox examines at length--including George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, the Webbs, Romain Rolland, Theodore Dreiser, Lion Feuchtwanger, and others--Gorky's experience of the Soviet gulag is richly contextualized in terms of the motivations and biography of the visitor, the history and circumstance of the sites visited, and what contemporary evidence exists for what transpired during the visit itself. David-Fox uses this context to reveal the extent to which the travel writing published by Soviet visitors, including Gorky, is a "genre of political text par excellence" replete with literary strategies and formulas. (109) The actual experience of Soviet visitors was often at variance with their representation of that experience. In some instances this was because of deliberate, politically motivated self-censorship, but Showcasing the Great Experiment suggests that this is only one of many, often complex reasons for the choices visitors made about how to describe what they saw, including, in Gorky's case for example, a hope to guide the direction of Soviet policy and practice.
By studying the establishment of "Soviet Friendship" societies in a variety of national contexts--societies that were (secretly) funded by VOKS--David-Fox adds an important element to the study of foreign visitors. Through these societies, VOKS cultivated long-term relationships with foreign intellectuals that in many cases preceded and followed visits to the USSR. Becoming a "friend" of the Soviet Union could result in a patron-client relationship that exchanged status and recognition in the USSR for loyalty and public support abroad. In some cases, David-Fox writes, "friendship was virtually a contractual relationship that both sides understood." (208) If the Soviet Union hoped to shape influential foreign opinion, what did its "friends" seek? Some had "illusory aspirations" (209) about playing a role in shaping the USSR, others had developed close personal relationships with Soviet mediators, still others had hopes invested in the success of Soviet communism that were linked to their own domestic politics and aspirations.
The erudition on display in Showcasing the Great Experiment is exceptional. David-Fox's footnotes lead to a vast array of historical scholarship in several European languages. This reading, combined with the extensive archival research and insightful analysis, make this a remarkable transnational study. It contributes significantly to Soviet historiography, but is also relevant to any historian interested in the influence of the Soviet Union--or the "idea" of the Soviet Union --on the West.
Mount Royal University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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