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Shcherbenok, Andrey

Iron Curtain as a Distorting Lens: The Vision of the Enemy in Soviet and American Cold War Cinemas

In contrast to contemporary, strikingly asymmetric global conflicts, Cold War is often perceived as a largely symmetric confrontation in which two antagonistic yet in many respects comparable socio-economic systems vied for global dominance. However, despite the indisputable similarity of the two superpowers' foreign and even domestic policies, the military balance sustained between the two blocks, the technological modernity that they co-inhabited, and shared cultural trends that made the Iron Curtain much less impervious than it might appear, the fundamental ideological differences between the Soviet Union and the United States were necessarily reflected in the way the Cold War was conceptualized on both sides: the notion of the Cold War was itself an object of ideological battle, so that at any given time there were (at least) two different Cold Wars, and they were not simply mirror images of each other.

In this paper I will address the different ways in which Soviet and American cinema -- a most important medium of ideological warfare – represented and thereby waged the Cold War. In particular, I will concentrate on the central issue of this representation – the portrayal of the enemy.

American and Soviet Cold War films conveyed vastly different notions of the geopolitical "other," which varied greatly from film to film and from one historical period to another. However, these fluctuations notwithstanding, the relationship between "us" and "them" reflected deeper and much more persistent ideological matrixes. This persistency allows me to maintain that each side's Cold War films were not merely ad hoc propaganda statements designed to promote this or that expedient political agenda but also reflected fundamental differences in the way both sides conceptualized the global conflict, so that one can argue that on cinema screens the United States and the Soviet Union each consistently waged its very own Cold War.

The main argument of my paper is that, contrary to the common notion that the Soviet side of the conflict exemplified blindfolding ideological rigidity while the West, allowing greater political pluralism and artistic freedom, enjoyed more adequate perception of the world, Soviet Cold War cinema in fact provided a considerably more nuanced and realistic vision of its antagonist than did American cinema. I will analyze the peculiarities of these competing visions, its dynamic from 1947 to 1986, and the reasons underlying the differences between the two cinemas, such as Marxist emphasis on class analysis vs. the Manichean style of American political thinking; the coordination of Cold War cinema with World War II cinema in the Soviet Union vs. the lack of such coordination in the United States; Soviet traditions of cinematic realism going back to Russian nineteenth-century literature vs. the paramount importance of genre in American movies.

Thursday 29 Oct, 13.45-15.45 SESSION 5
Panel: On the Big Screen: Cinema in the Cold War I