The Dancer Defects: the struggle for cultural supremacy during the Cold War by David Caute

The Cold War was fought on, and behind, the stage and screen, as the work of dancers or directors divided the superpowers. Lesley Chamberlain hails a history of art in the age of ideology
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The Independent Culture

During the Cold War, art and culture were hostages to the political process. Russia and the West used books and plays, films and exhibitions in a needless public argument over whose way of life was superior. Writers, artists and film-makers had exploitable views. A Western communist sympathiser or Soviet dissident was diplomatic gold. This book is an extraordinary testament to that protracted game of cowboys and indians.

The makers of culture were generally uncomfortable at being caught up in a simplistic battle. In ideologically-extreme times - the Soviet Zhdanov period of 1947-48, and the McCarthy era in the US - artists were divided and lives spoiled. The climate of persecution ruined relations between American film-makers Elia Kazan and Joseph Losey and wrecked the nerves of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose trip to America reduced him to a regime puppet.

In the gloomy Brezhnevean 1970s, whose character was signalled to the world by the expulsion of dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, manuscripts were smuggled to freedom, ballet dancers like Baryshnikov and Makarova defected (Nureyev had gone earlier), and Soviet police broke up exhibitions of unofficial art. Governments used the world's press for propaganda, while campaigners and victims behind the Iron Curtain used it for protection. The battle raged between Russia and the West - essentially, America. David Caute has so much material to marshal for posterity that his 700-page volume dealing with art, stage and screen is only the first instalment. Literature will follow.

Divided post-war Berlin was the first battleground. The Russians took off Thornton Wilder's play Our Town because it was "defeatist". When Fellini's 8 1/2 was easily the best entry at the 1963 Moscow Film Festival, Eastern Bloc jurors privately confessed agony at having to blackball a "pessimistic" film displaying "the ruin of creative abilities". Fellini only won to preserve the event's status.

Events like these made both left and right in the West feel confident that they came from a freer world, as they did. It was a good moment for The Rolling Stones in 1967 in Warsaw, when they stopped singing to jeer at the political élite's offspring in the front row.

The situations either side of the Curtain were not comparable. A great film like Mikheil Kalatozishvili's The Cranes are Flying (1957) was acclaimed in Cannes and by the New York Times, but most Soviet films were too boring to show. When good Russian art was produced, its power immediately worried the political masters. The Soviet fate was to destroy their own best products. Andrei Tarkovsky, maker of the unforgettable Ivan's Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1969), but shunned and driven into unproductive exile in 1982, epitomised it. Theatre director Yuri Lyubimov suffered similarly.

Such times, when to own to a complex sense of human values was both urgent and dangerous, created fine literature and - over there - tormented lives. Caute does not do justice to Vaclav Havel by ignoring plays like Largo Desolato, which focus on the ambivalent artist who never asked to be made a moral figurehead. He rightly celebrates Tom Stoppard's wonderful television play Professional Foul (1977) about British academics visiting Communist Czechoslovakia - but then Stoppard lived in a free country, whatever Harold Pinter might think. A nice cameo pictures Stoppard and Pinter together, one despising communism, the other America, for the same crime of inhumanity.

Perversely, the era depended on the power of high art. America poured money into art for art's sake because of its political usefulness, says Caute. Whatever the motive, the miraculous year of 1958 calls for two minutes' silence to remember it. When Peter Hall took three Shakespeare productions to Moscow, the fugitive Soviet spy Guy Burgess was in tears. "I haven't heard this glorious stuff for years," he blurted to Michael Redgrave backstage. Meanwhile, the Moscow Arts Theatre brought a Cherry Orchard to London. The Manchester Guardian adored it, as art triumphing over tyranny.

Such judicious pairings are rare because, on overwhelming evidence, the Soviet side was manic. Its loyal representatives fantastically distorted their reports from the West. One theatre critic damned Broadway without ever setting foot there.

Prizes were always considered politically loaded (as, of course, the Nobel literature prizes were). No art was neutral. That Lenin-inspired error, of politicising everything, was part of what caused the Soviet Union to self-destruct. Caute might have dwelt on the reasons why. What kind of society did the Soviets intend, which banished pessimism and doubt and favoured art suitable for a Sunday school? Why, apart from his native boorishness, did Stalin denounce Hamlet as decadent?

Russia's position on the Western fringe, with a collectivist rather than individualist bias, is the clue to deeper understanding of what split the last century's culture in two. The Russian desire to hang on to Victorian public values, to resist Modernism, to pursue the Enlightenment's reason but not its individualism, are all crucial. The term nekulturny - "not cultured" - used to speak volumes for Soviet small-c conservativism. Caute mentions all this, and, with luck, his conceptual apparatus will grow in the next volume.

I stress this because the facts don't speak for themselves and are less likely to as time passes. It would also be good, too, to have something on media policy, including the BBC.

This is a wonderful biography of the Cold War, fluent and crammed with detail. As a work of reference it only needs a better index. Please, OUP, next time provide a list of works discussed! The conclusion, meanwhile, is worth another book in itself. The subject of America today, and how Cold War studies and the history of the arts are distorted in the current climate of political suspicion, bring out the passion in Caute, who is an excellent writer.

I would only add that there has been a symbiotic relationship between Russia and the US for two centuries. When one progresses, the other falls back, like one of those Bill-and-Ben weathervanes. That, too, is why they always competed. Now the Soviet Union is gone, some features of Soviet crudeness seem, alas, to have resurrected themselves in ruling circles across the Atlantic.

Lesley Chamberlain's 'The Good Man is Russia: a moral history' will be published next year