Xenophobia

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The Cold War inspired anxieties and pathologies in most of its participants, East and West. If American authorities hunted Communists behind every unorthodox thought or utterance in the late 1940s, Soviet authorities were no less vigilant against traces of alien influence. These were the years of Zhdanov’s campaign against cosmopolitanism, years of spy scares and personnel checks in every Soviet institution.

The battle against alien influence was conducted on two fronts, the legal and cultural. The right of Soviet citizens to associate with foreigners, already subject to police surveillance, was severely restricted by a February 1947 law prohibiting marriage to foreigners. Many international couples were forced into years of separation and harassment by the new rule. Soldiers labored under draconian disciplinary code of 1946, which made commanders responsible for all infringements of secrecy by their subordinates. All citizens were subject to the 1947 codification of state secrets that made almost all information concerning the military, economy, science or technology, and was reinforced by an edict that made disclosure of such secrets acts of treason or espionage subject to stiff terms in the labor camps. Though the Cold War information discipline started to weaken with the death of Stalin, many of these rules stayed in place in one form or another until the demise of the Soviet Union.

On the cultural front the war was more difficult to wage, the enemy more difficult to distinguish. Cultural doyens made the exaltation of all things Russian and condemnation of all things western mandatory. Molière was inferior to the Russian playwright Ostrovskii; foreign-sounding camembert cheese had to be renamed zakusochnyi or snack cheese; aviation was declared by the Great Soviet Encyclopedia to be a Russian technology developed with little western help. Grigorii Aleksandrov’s new film, Meeting on the Elbe, examining a moment that had recently been celebrated as the pinnacle of Soviet-American fraternity, detailed how the alien music of jazz carried with it a range of social pathologies. The xenophobic vaccine often infected the young people it aimed to protect.

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