fredericks, rhiannon dowling

Communism, Consumerism and the Competition over the "Good Life": the Making of Ninotchka, and The Russian Question and the Early Cold War

What is the place of the “good life” in a good society? This was the paramount question for both U.S. and Soviet propaganda officials in the years after the Second World War, as both countries rushed to develop and propound their own competing visions for the future of war-ravaged Europe. The Americans decided rather quickly: widespread enjoyment of “the good life,” defined by consumer abundance within a world market as open and integrated as possible, was the fundamental precondition for a good society. For Soviet arbiters of ideology and culture, the idea of “the good life” was altogether more fraught, and its place in the communist good society much more difficult to discern. The role of consumer goods in Soviet society (be they lacking, promised or lauded) always needed to be worked out in terms which engaged in competition with the abundant West.

Long before the “Kitchen Debate” there was The Russian Question, 1948, by Mikhail Romm, shown in spring of 1948 in newly-rebuilt German theaters under Soviet occupation. The film portrayed the American “good life” of consumer plenty as poor compensation for the spiritual and moral bankruptcy of capitalism. As a rejoinder, the American occupation administration offered German movie-goers the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch film Ninotchka.

This paper is part of a larger project based on research in archives in Hollywood, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. and is primarily focused on the debates of the directors, producers and writers who created these two films—films whose screenings amidst the rubble of divided Germany became the first salvos of the cultural Cold War. Both teams of creators were deeply concerned that their films have the greatest possible (and most patriotic) political impact, and both debates were centered around the uneasy relationship between free individual consumption, and a good society. These debates and these films marked a particularly salient transformation within the Soviet Union, as it attempted to wage the competition in terms of a “good society,” and instead found itself battling over the meaning of a “good life.”

Thursday 25 October 08:30-10:00 Panels III, Panel 7 Popular Culture in the Cold War Competition (Hall 7)