Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970 at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

The dawn of the cold war was literally freezing. The winter of 1947 was the worst ever recorded in Europe. From January to late March, it opened a front across Russia, Germany, Italy, France and Britain, and advanced with complete lack of mercy. Snow fell in St Tropez, gale-force winds building up impenetrable drifts; ice floes drifted to the mouth of the Thames; barges bringing coal into Paris became icebound. There, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin found himself "terrified" by the city's coldness, "empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse". A slight thaw was followed by a further freeze-up, locking canals and roads under a thick layer of ice. In Berlin, Willy Brandt described how the icy cold "attacked people like a savage beast". Ghostly figures roamed parks looking for benches to cut up into firewood. The Tiergarten was hacked down to stumps, its statues left standing in a wilderness of frozen mud; the woods in the famous Grünewald were completely razed.

Just as American journalist Walter Lippmann coined the phrase "cold war", the weather cruelly drove home its physical reality, carving its way into the new, post-Yalta topography of Europe, its national territories and populations mutilated, its ideologies braced in antagonistic poses. The Soviets were swift to move in behind the cold front, grasping the potential of the widespread instability of postwar Europe. With an energy and resourcefulness which showed that Stalin's regime could avail itself of an imaginative vigour unmatched by western governments, the Soviet Union deployed a battery of unconventional weapons to nudge itself into the European consciousness and soften up opinion in its favour.

Experts in the use of culture as a tool of political persuasion, the Soviets did much in the early years of the cold war to establish its central paradigm as a cultural one. Lacking the economic power of the United States and, above all, still without a nuclear capability, they concentrated on winning "the battle for men's minds". America, despite a massive marshalling of the arts in the New Deal period, was a virgin in the practice of international Kulturkampf. But such innocence was soon to be forfeited in what high-level US strategists were already calling "the greatest polarisation of power on earth" (space, for a few years yet, was off-limits) since Rome and Carthage. "We have to show the outside world that we have a cultural life and that we care something about it," the diplomat George Kennan told an audience at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "I for one would willingly trade the entire remaining inventory of political propaganda for the results that could be achieved by this."

And so it was that, against the backdrop of Europe's bombed-out cities, with all basic infrastructures in a state of collapse, a weirdly elaborate cultural life was constructed by the two superpowers as they vied with each other to score propaganda points. As early as 1945, when the stench of human bodies still hung about the ruins of Berlin, the Russians were staging brilliant performances at the State Opera, pomaded generals listening smugly to Gluck's Orpheus, punctuating the music with the tinkle of their medals. The Americans returned fire, opening the Amerika-Häuser, comfortably furnished (and heated) institutes offering film showings, concerts, talks and art shows, all with "overwhelming emphasis on America". Within a few years, the arsenal of unconventional weapons with which each side conducted its offensive and defensive operations had swollen to include highbrow literary magazines, paintings, sculptures, comic books, motorcycles, fashion, chess, sports, architecture, design. Everything, in truth (and this is what both sides claimed to have the monopoly on), including the kitchen sink.

The kitchen as a site of ideological conflict was pointedly iterated by the "Kitchen Debate" between then US vice-president Nixon and Soviet premier Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition, staged in Moscow in 1959. The encounter - over a lemon yellow kitchen designed by General Electric - still registers as one of the iconic moments of the cold war. "Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets? Is this the kind of competition you want?" Nixon challenged Khrushchev. "We too have such things," Khrushchev bragged, though he failed to mention that the "we" was far from all-inclusive. Of the estimated 2.7 million visitors to the Moscow exhibition, only a fraction would have the opportunity to possess the kind of commodities on display.

"Refrigerator socialism", harnessed as it was to a command economy, was never as widely available - or quite as attractive - as capitalism's glossy counterpart. But this was not the point: as Nixon and Khrushchev's sharp exchange shows, the question was whether items in the kitchen were mere domestic appliances, or rather the cultural equivalents of ballistic missiles, offensive weapons in the war of ideas. As the American National Exhibition explicitly stressed, a kitchen was no longer just a kitchen, but an enclave where "liberty and the pursuit of happiness" - the prizes of the Enlightenment, no less - could be attained through panel-controlled washing machines and electric waste grinders.

The Kitchen Debate has been endlessly recycled as a story of basic antinomies to evoke the black-and-white, them-and-us chequerboard of cold war politics. Cold War Modern, edited by David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, and accompanying the V&A exhibition they have curated, introduces a more sophisticated narrative that explores the interstices of this all-too-familiar grid. American officials in charge of the American National Exhibition reported breathlessly on its "overwhelming success". But the visitors' comment books, according to design historian Susan Reid, reveal an ambivalent response: "And this is one of the greatest nations?? I feel sorry for the Americans ... Does your life really consist of only kitchens?" This is one among many critical entries. A small charge, but enough to detonate the official victor's history that the "freedoms" and innovations offered by the American National Exhibition were such to make all Soviet citizens salivate and long for more of the same...

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