Tag Archives: cold war

Eastern Europe: Beyond the Cold War, and Beyond the Stereotypes

Photo of the now-demolished People's Theater in Budapest, Hungary, in 1963.
Photo of the now-demolished People's Theater in Budapest, Hungary, in 1963. (Photo in the public domain.)

The homogenizing force of globalization means that a shopping center in Budapest doesn’t look all that different from one central Turin, or York, or Cleveland. Is “Eastern Europe” as an idea disappearing? What held it together in the first place, beyond stereotypes? Try Jacob Mikanowski‘s essay in the LA Review of Books for some suggestions (and some objections).

Gone are the days of Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series or Susan Sontag exhorting us to read Danilo Kiš while we still had time. Since then, Eastern Europe has been reduced to a backdrop for other people’s fantasies. I know a distinguished scholar of the region, a historian who teaches a regular course on Eastern European history, who told me that every year he has to answer questions from his students about whether people actually love and laugh in this “gray place.” It’s always a bit humiliating to read an English-language book with an Eastern European character. You never know if they’re going to be a world-weary janitor (a Pole), a captivating fraud (a Hungarian), a post-Communist gangster (a Serb), or a source of erotic awakening for a literary-minded man (a Czech for Americans, any of the above for residents of Ireland and the United Kingdom).

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Back in the USSR: A Reading List

Photo: yeowatzup

Svetlana Boym, an eminent Leningrad-born literary scholar, died earlier this month in Boston. She was a versatile and eloquent critic, novelist, and photographer, but is perhaps best known for her work on nostalgia, a cultural and psychological phenomenon that she described as “a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.”

Boym left the USSR in the early 1980s. Since then, her country of birth has formally disintegrated, but has also become one of the most fetishized nostalgic objects of our post-Cold War imagination, a political entity that continues to cast spectral shadows in unexpected places — in Russia, in the former Communist Bloc, and in the West.

Writing about post-Soviet Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Boym described the city, and by extension contemporary Russia as a whole, as a “theme park of lost illusions.” The stories in this reading list — from a haunting travelogue through an abandoned Soviet mining town in the Arctic to Boym’s account of Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations in 1997 — take us on a ride through the park’s gaudily uncanny landscapes. Read more…

On the Difference Between ‘Technical’ and ‘Tactical’ Spies

Photo of Carlo Franzinetti (Left) and Bruno Pontecorvo (Right): Wikimedia Commons

In a recent piece for the New York Review of BooksFreeman Dyson reviewed Half-Life, a biography of Bruno Pontecorvo, a brilliant nuclear physicist and possible spy. Pontecorvo spent six years working on nuclear reactors in Canada, where he may or may not have passed information on to Soviet contacts. However, according to Dyson—who is himself a world-renowned mathematical physicist— even if Pontecorvo had been a spy, the overall effect of his information wouldn’t have been hugely important. Perhaps some of it might have been useful to Soviet bomb designers, but it wouldn’t have been a game changer. Furthermore, the Soviets already had two technical spies (Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall) relaying information from Los Alamos.

This is where Dyson brings up an interesting distinction: that between technical and tactical spies. As a layperson, I’d always presumed a spy is a spy; however, in Dyson’s view, technical and tactical spies belong in entirely different categories. He sees the latter as being responsible for putting actual lives in danger, whereas the former merely steal useful scientific knowledge:

Technical spies were unimportant because the Soviet Union had plenty of first-rate scientists working in the relevant areas of nuclear physics… If a country has this kind of home-grown technical talent, it does not need technical spies to make progress. If a country does not have this kind of talent, technical spies will not be an effective substitute. In either case, the contribution of technical spies will be marginal. Science is a collective enterprise, and needs a community of active participants to succeed in any large venture.

The public vastly overrates the importance of technical spies such as Klaus Fuchs, because the same word “spy” is used for technical spies and for tactical spies. The archetype of the tactical spy is Judas Iscariot, the secret enemy betraying his master and directly causing his master’s death. For two thousand years, the story of Judas has been linked with the image of a spy in the cultures of Europe. Another tactical spy, not quite as notorious as Judas, was Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who held high positions in the British diplomatic service. He gave his Soviet contacts lists of names of undercover agents operating in various countries, so that Soviet authorities could quickly eliminate them. He was directly responsible for many disappearances. Tactical spies are rightly condemned by public opinion and by the traditional rules of war. They have immediate effects on the life and death of fellow citizens. They are fair game for any soldier to kill, with or without a legal trial. But technical spies are different. Technical spies are more concerned with things than with people.


Why then does the American public still consider all spies to be demons? Why does the public make no distinction between technical spies like Julius Rosenberg stealing useful knowledge and tactical spies like Kim Philby destroying human lives? Perhaps it is because the American public is misled by the American secrecy system. The secrecy system is a bureaucratic monster that classifies vast quantities of information as secret, making it impossible for the ordinary citizen to see the difference between important and unimportant secrets.

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The Walls of Berlin: A Reading List

The Berlin Wall still exerts incredible power over our imaginations, 25 years after Germans on both sides of the city began the process of demolishing it. Its existence had always invited wildly divergent reactions, making it not only a physical structure, but also a canvas on which political and cultural dreams could be projected. This is as true today, for a generation that has never lived in its shadow, as it was during the Cold War. Here are four stories that attempt to trace its legacy.  Read more…

The Hidden Truth About the Cold War Roomba

Over at Paleofuture, Matt Novak looks back at the 1959 Cold War cultural exhibitions hosted by both the United States and the Soviet Union. For the United States, the Moscow exhibition was a chance to show off the newest products and technology from companies like IBM, Sears and Kodak—and perhaps the most important innovation of all when it came to highlighting America’s high-tech future:

Today the autonomous robot vacuum cleaner is passé. Or at the very least, no longer representative of something terribly futuristic. iRobot, the Boston-based company that makes the Roomba, has been churning those things out for over a decade. But in 1959, there was nothing more techno-utopian. The Exhibition had one, thanks to RCA/Whirlpool and a little bit of trickery.

The Exhibition had four demonstration kitchens, but the RCA/Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen was by far the most futuristic. It promised super-fast meal preparation, push-button everything, and automatic robot cleaners. There were even large TV monitors for monitoring different parts of the home, which reportedly impressed Khrushchev. But not everything worked exactly as the exhibitors claimed.

“They had a two-way mirror with a person sitting behind it that could see the room,” Joe Maxwell told me over the phone in his light southern drawl. “And they radio-controlled the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher.”

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Photo: Library of Congress, via Shorpy