International Youth Festival

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

One summer morning in 1957, Muscovites awoke to find their city’s main streets bedecked with multicolored flags. Ordinarily, holidays were celebrated with red flags hanging from lamp posts, but what was about to take place was not an ordinary Soviet holiday. It was an International Youth Festival, official approval for which had been given before the chilling of the cultural “thaw” had descended over the country in the spring. Instead of the hammer and sickle, the symbol of the festival was Pablo Picasso’s doves of peace.

The festival marked a departure from normal Soviet life in other respects. Each of the three art exhibits at the festival contained works by abstractionists that violated the canons of socialist realism. Jazz, which had been hugely popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s but which under Stalin was officially condemned as decadent and had been forced into the underground, was performed by a British jazz ensemble. The international film festival staged concurrently with the youth festival showed Soviet viewers how outdated socialist realism had become. Finally, the sheer presence of foreigners from outside the Soviet bloc mixing freely with crowds of Soviet citizens added to the festive atmosphere and left an indelible impression on those fortunate enough to have experienced it.

The propaganda coup that cultural authorities had anticipated fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. The giddy sense of freedom unleashed by the week-long festival was not forgotten, and became a beacon for youth around the country. Maiakovskii Square, witness to the carnival of dance in 1957, became a gathering point for young poets and other discontents, eventually catalyzing the birth of the dissident movement.

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