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Aleksanteri Conference







Seeing Red: (de) Constructing the Russian Enemy in Western Popular Culture

During the Cold War, popular culture in the West was obsessed with depictions of the Russian enemy. The social, cultural and political life of the Soviet Union was frequently unpacked in the films, novels and other literary and visual miscellanea of the period. In the climate of containment, McCarthyism and the Korean War, popular constructions of the Russian ‘other’ were invariably propagandistic. In keeping with the then prevalent ‘Orthodox School’ of Cold War History, which argued that the conflict was caused by Stalin’s objective of spreading world communism, the Russians were presented as ideologically polluted, emotionally shallow and ruthless totalitarian adversaries. In contrast, Westerners were portrayed as right-thinking, brave and decisive patriots. By the late 1960s, however, in the context of détente and the Vietnam War, traditional ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ ideologies had blurred, with certain sections of Western popular culture portraying the Russians as benign, misunderstood idealists. Our panel seeks to examine and reflect upon ‘imaginings’ of the Soviet bloc in Western travel writing, British spy fiction and the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. Mass-produced, ubiquitous and avidly consumed, each ‘genre’ formed a powerful vehicle for the formation of popular perceptions of the Soviet Union. Moreover, because the discipline of ‘Soviet Studies’ was largely absent from Western academe until the 1970s, these products arguably had a disproportionate in shaping these perceptions.  

Paper I: ‘Peeping through the Curtain: Revealing the ‘Real’ Russia’, Professor Christopher Read.

Travel-writing by individuals who had gone through the ‘iron curtain’ had a significant influence on perceptions of the Cold War. This paper will concentrate on travellers from the west – centrally, though not exclusively, John Gunther, Laurens van der Post and Hedrick Smith – in order to compare and analyse their approaches. In particular, the paper seeks to probe the emergence of various components of a ‘mindset’ focused on revealing the ‘true’ or ‘real’ Russia perceived by the travellers, a ‘truth’ implicitly distorted or concealed by the mainstream media. Travellers invariably claimed that their ‘in depth’ experiences penetrated a world closed off from ‘ordinary’ perceptions of the Communist ‘other’. The paper will also reflect on the implications of this genre in the light of Edward Said’s critique of the ‘orientalist’ imperial gaze. Perceptions of Russia pose particular problems in the construction of an ‘other’ not based on race or culture as such, but on politics and interacting propaganda.

Paper II: ‘Hitchcock’s Cold War: Filming the Soviet Menace’, Mr Simon Willmetts.

Alfred Hitchcock is now widely acclaimed by film scholars, historians and cultural theorists as one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema.  From auterism to structuralism, a number of analyses have been deployed to cement the reputation of his oeuvre as a significant cultural force.  Yet surprisingly little has been written about the politics of his films and, more specifically, his engagement with the ideological and discursive underpinnings of the Cold War.  This paper will seek to investigate Hitchcock’s role as a cultural cold warrior, a master propagandist who confirmed and propagated the Manichean western consensus of Russia as an ominous menace to democratic values in need of address. Through an analysis of Hitchcock’s Cold War espionage films such as Notorious, North By Northwest, Torn Curtain and Topaz, this paper will seek to explore Hitchcock’s construction of the Soviet Other. 

Paper III: ‘Russophobia and the British Spy Thriller’, Dr. Christopher R. Moran

This paper examines and reflects upon portrayals of the Russian enemy, in particular the KGB and GRU, in the British Spy Thriller. Using the fiction of Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Len Deighton, it seeks to explore how ‘representations’ of Soviet spies changed during the course of the Cold War. The enduring popular image is perhaps that of Rosa Klebb, the asexual, toad-like Soviet intelligence operative, who attempts to kill James Bond by way of poisoned-tipped dagger embedded in her shoe. By the 1970s, however, it was not uncommon to see fictional spies from the West working with, rather than against, their opposite numbers from the Eastern Bloc. Was this a case of popular culture simply reflecting the diplomatic timetable? I should also like to consider the reception of British spy fiction in the former Soviet Union. According to KGB defector, Oleg Gordievsky, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party routinely watched James Bond films in the vain hope that its scientists could replicate ‘Q Branch’ technology.

Saturday 31 October 12.00-13.30 Session 8