January 01, 2009

Culture Wars

The Soviet Union was far from alone in putting art to the service of propaganda in the 20th century. Hollywood, home to the most powerful film industry in the world, has a long track record of using the Silver Screen to create stereotypes and propaganda (see Russian Life, November/December 2008).

As recently as 2001, Langley collaborated closely with noted director Wolfgang Peterson on the CBS series The Agency, in which the CIA all but got veto power over scripts. The Democratic Party provided extensive financing of anti-war films during the Vietnam era. And clandestine “organs” have used film as a front in their interagency budget battles. For example, by a strange convergence of events, the film Enemy of the State, which focused on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) methods, appeared just as the scandal over the NSA’s Echelon global eavesdropping system was unfolding. Hollywood’s criticism of American policy aside, on film, U.S. security agencies are generally portrayed positively: as exceptionally capable professionals and, often, intellectuals.

That the Soviet Union had a “cultural policy,” therefore, is nothing unusual. But its scale dwarfed anything seen before or since. And the effect of what Lenin called “the most important” of all the arts has been enduring. Even today, many Russians perceive the 1930-50s based on what they see in old movies, regardless if it meshes with reality. Thus, the movie Swineherd and Shepherd (Свинарка и пастух, also known in the West as They Met in Moscow) shows an abundance of food at the Exhibition of the Achievements of the People’s Economy (VDNKh), but, in fact, during that time, hunger reigned in the country.

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