'USSR at Earls Court': exhibiting the Soviet ‘way of life’ in Cold War Britain, 1961-79
The ‘USSR Industrial Exhibitions’ were held at London’s Earls Court exhibition centre in 1961, 1968 and 1979; each displayed striking Soviet cultural propaganda in Britain during the Cold War. The popular first exhibition – attracting over half a million visitors and comprising 10,000 exhibits - was reportedly the biggest Soviet show that had been staged abroad, arousing enormous press and public interest. Whereas reciprocal British exhibitions in Moscow were strictly aimed at boosting private trade interests and deliberately sought to avoid ideological conflict, the Soviet shows in London overflowed with eye-catching ‘prestige’ displays of the communist ‘way of life’: space technology, engineering, education, fashion, housing, transport, art and consumer goods.
This paper focuses on British perceptions of Soviet culture via an analysis of the organisation, presentation and reception of these illusory visions of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It highlights British involvement in, and the complexity of changing British attitudes to, the cultural Cold War and the Soviet Union. Whilst some greeted the first show with eager curiosity informed by pre-existing stereotypes, the political reality of the Czechoslovakian invasion during the 1968 exhibition visibly undermined the Soviet rhetoric of ‘Peace’ and ‘Friendship’ on display. By 1979, the USSR exhibition was small-scale and poorly attended. The paper analyses how the impact and reception of these exhibitions shifted over time and were modified in response to external political events.
Paper given at the Fifth Fitzwilliam Colloquium in Russian Studies "British Perception and Reception of Russian Culture, 18th-20th Centuries", Cambridge, 2012. Full text published in A People Passing Rude: British Responses to Russian Culture, ed. By Anthony Cross. Open Book Publisher, 2012