Conference reports Report from Helsinki. Hot feelings about Cold War

During the Cold War each side produced propaganda which highlighted the differences between the two systems and peoples, “the others”. There were, however, also conceptions of “the other” derived from sporadic but real meetings, meetings which awoke curiosity and a willingness to establish closer relations. The Aleksanteri Institute’s ninth annual conference, “Cold War: Interactions Reconsidered”, held in Helsinki fall 2009, examined these more low-key contacts and varying interpersonal relations and attitudes.

Published on balticworlds.com on februari 24, 2010

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The Cold War was not only a power struggle between two superpowers flexing their military muscle and maneuvering in the international political arena. It was also a period of abundant contacts across the “Iron Curtain” between individuals and groups. These groups and individuals interacted with and inspired one another. Each side produced propaganda which highlighted the differences between the two systems and peoples, “the others”.

There were, however, also conceptions of “the other” derived from sporadic but real meetings, meetings which awoke curiosity and a willingness to establish closer relations.

The Aleksanteri Institute’s ninth annual conference, “Cold War: Interactions Reconsidered”, held in Helsinki, examined these more low-key contacts and varying interpersonal relations and attitudes.

“It was difficult to choose among all the interesting contributions. But we did not wish to hold an overly large conference, since we wanted everyone to have time to meet and get to know one another. The papers that are now included are of high quality”, said Sari Autio-Sarasmo, one of those responsible for arranging the conference.

And, during three intense conference days, the majority of the participants expressed agreement with this opinion.

The majority of the contributions focused on European and Russian events, meetings and relations, though the U.S. was a constant presence.

The Aleksanteri Institute’s Riika Nisonen–Tranka has looked at how Eastern European and Soviet researchers and scientists traveled to the West, and how they impressed Western colleagues with the achievements made in the East.

One example of this is the soft contact lens, which Professor Otto Wichterle from Czechoslovakia demonstrated to American scientists at a congress, and which was later developed by Barsch & Lomb. There were mediators, people who traveled between the two worlds.

Truck drivers made up a group that got through the Iron Curtain. They turned into smugglers, diplomats, traders, story-tellers, and news distributors, as Emiliya Karaboeva, of the University of Sofia, explains in her paper “Truck Drivers as Transnational Actors in Cold War Europe”.

Women would travel to the Women’s World Congress where they met and socialized across the East-West borders. They brought with them accounts of the issues and battles that engaged them at home. The discourse took place on two levels, according to Janou Vorderwuelbecke of Leibniz University.

During a 1975 World Congress held in East Berlin, an official manifesto was agreed upon; at the same time, informal discussions took place among women from the same countries. The shared experience of being women was the basis for cross-border meetings, impelled by an ambition to agree on a joint formulation.

According to Nelli Piattoeva of the University of Tampere, the Soviet Union’s educational system functioned, at times, as a model. High-quality education for all was, for many years, a powerful logo of Soviet socialism.

The Soviet Union offered Third World countries support and funding for the development of an educational system, and many people came to the Soviet Union as guest students. After the fall of Communism, the Soviet educational system was re-evaluated and rejected as being slanted and steeped in ideology.

The Soviet Union was not alone in ideologically regimenting its citizens’ thinking. Richard H. Cummings, an independent researcher, gave details on the background of the Crusade for Freedom, a CIA-financed campaign for the collection of money for Radio Free Europe. American citizens arranged flea markets, bowled, spread flyers, and signed manifestos in support of the free news service. Cummings has gone through the movement’s surviving accounts and has found that none of the money collected actually reached the radio channel. The whole campaign was a scheme to mobilize the American people against the Soviet Union and build a popular movement for freedom, democracy, and “American values” — a kind of ideological mobilization directed from above.

Ioana Macrea-Toma, of Central European University, pointed out that Radio Free Europe’s news broadcasting was done very much in the dark. No one knew who was listening, how the audience lived, or what its members wanted from life. It was necessary to fabricate an image both of the listeners and the reality in which they lived. Several papers were presented in two well-attended sessions entitled “Dealing with the Traumatic Past”.

Some of the questions raised were: How should one approach oral narratives?

How can we handle the violence, and then move on? How should one expect people to react when they realize that the groups to which they belong are considered perpetrators? Throughout the entire conference, a recurring theme was precisely the necessity of understanding and accepting the Cold War era in order to place contemporary events in their context.

Yale Richmond, an expert from the United States in inter-cultural communication, expressed the view that cultural exchange between the USA and the Soviet Union led to the fall of Communism.

According to Richmond, when Soviet students were granted an opportunity to see and experience America, they understood what freedom, capitalism, and democracy meant. They then brought this knowledge home with them. The Soviet leadership was allowed to watch American movies before they were censored. The movies were shown again and again to a delighted socialist political elite. Richmond mentioned “Some Like it Hot” — a great success within the elite. With time, he claimed, many would want to have what they had glimpsed when they visited the West or encountered Western (in this case, American) culture. “When American theater and dance groups toured the Soviet Union, everyone was astounded at what they saw and thought that ‘if the West can produce something this fantastic, then there must be something wrong with the picture of the West provided by the propaganda’”, Yale Richmond said. “When the Russian Ballet or circus troops toured on exchange visits to the

USA, everyone was amazed at what they saw, and thought that ‘if they can produce something this fantastic, then there must be something wrong with the picture of the Soviet Union provided by the propaganda’”, objected a woman in the audience.

Historian Jessica Gienow Hecht of the University of Cologne expressed the opinion that state-sponsored cultural diplomacy, as it existed during the Cold War, was a historical parenthesis. Before the World War I, and at present — particularly after 9/11 — the task of organizing and carrying out cultural exchange has been left to private groups and individuals. Gienow Hecht applies the term NGO to all private actors and interest organizations that spread a nation’s culture with the aid of different programs and exchanges. She warned of the risks involved in states again relying wholly on NGOs for their cultural diplomacy. NGOs are difficult to control; they can be manipulative, using their freedom of movement to spread their own preferred image of a given nation and its values — an image which does not necessarily coincide with the official picture the state wishes to convey.

An analysis of the rich material on Cold War cultural diplomacy shows that cultural diplomacy does have a role to play. Learn from history and be wary of leaving the task to NGOs, Gienow Hecht urged.  

“That the NGO manipulates the state — that is an interesting thought, is it not usually the other way around? This I want to know more about!”, “Can you name one cultural exchange carried out by NGOs that has had a negative result?” and “Putin has probably heard what you are saying” were some of the reactions in the audience. The Cold War calls forth heated feelings even now. Research on this era is still relevant to people’s every-day lives. ≈