Images of Peace and Nuclear War

In the autumn I attended a conference on “Unthinking the Imaginary War: Intellectual Reflections of the Nuclear Age, 1945-1990” in London. The very same weekend another cohort of academics were attending a conference on “Accidental Armageddons: The Nuclear Crisis and the Culture of the Second Cold War, 1975-1989” in Washington. The Cold War is a hot topic at the moment. Increasingly scholars are taking interdisciplinary approaches, using film, novels, and art, to explore how this ever-looming, but unconsummated, conflict was imagined, and the emotions it generated. In London I learned how peace activists, scientists, politicians, and the general public reacted to the nuclear threat, with papers on a range of countries including Germany, Britain, France, Japan, and the USA.  Curiously, the Soviet Union, the red menace behind so many of these anxious projections, often seems to be missing. The question of how Soviet society regarded its adversaries in the capitalist world, and how fears of nuclear annihilation were handled, is nevertheless a fascinating one and some interesting work is beginning to appear.

I recently enjoyed a comparative piece by a Sheffield colleague, Andrei Shcherbenok, on images of the enemy in American and Soviet cold war films. In an article for the journal KinoKultra, Shcherbenok suggests that in contrast to American cinema, Soviet films contain relatively few scenes showing actual combat with the Cold War enemy and that they ultimately fail “to foster fear and hatred towards the United States” 1 He gives at least two reasons: firstly, the very recent experience of invasion and occupation made actual depictions of a US attack on Soviet territory too raw and painful; secondly, the Marxist underpinnings of Soviet culture meant that American society could not be essentialized as an homogenous enemy, but was instead painted as a site of ongoing class (and racial) conflict.    

As elsewhere in the world, and as Shcherbenok argues, the Second World War played a very important part in how Soviet citizens responded to the escalating Cold War in the late forties and fifties. In his work on the Soviet peace movement, Tim Johnston has argued that although the official rhetoric stressed Soviet might – its military strength the guarantor of peace – ordinary supporters were more likely to express pacifist sentiments.2 In particular, women who had lost husbands, fathers, sons, lovers, articulated their desperate desire to avoid another war at any cost.

But World War III, if it happened, would be a very different kind of war. The atomic age made war something even more terrible: not just the destruction of a generation, but the annihilation of entire cities, and – it was feared – the ruin of the whole planet. In the West, at least some artists and film-makers began to contemplate these possibilities. But what about in the Soviet Union? As Shcherbenok notes, the first Soviet film depicting the aftermath of nuclear war – The Letters of a Dead Man – did not appear until 1986.

I was recently browsing through copies of Krokodil, the Soviet satirical magazine, to see how the Cold War was represented visually. In the late Stalinist era, a clear connection was made between the peace movement and reconstruction: one front cover shows happy participants on a Mayday march, carrying banners saying “Peace” and “Greetings from the builders of Moscow”;3 in another image, peace activists are shown wearing the dungarees typical of those involved in construction. 4 Representing peace – the absence of something (war) – is notoriously difficult;5 here the nebulous task of fighting for peace is transformed into something physical and tangible, like rebuilding a bombed building. Soviet citizens are presented as unquestioningly confident about their future; fear is an emotion only for their adversaries. 6 As in film, real conflict – and its potential consequences – is not portrayed. In the early Cold War issues, we see nuclear weapons stockpiled by fat, top-hat-wearing capitalists, but the missiles are never launched. The mushroom cloud, such a ubiquitous icon already in the 1940s in the West, does not seem to appear until after Stalin’s death. By the 1960s we find it on the pages of Krokodil, but always associated with an anti-American message, always with a certain light-heartedness.7. Of course this partly reflects the nature of the publication, but, as far as I can remember, I have not come across visual depictions of nuclear explosion in the Soviet press or other publications.

Before reaching any firm conclusions, I need to survey a wider range of publications, but in thinking about this topic over the last few months, it strikes me that Soviet culture struggles with the concept of nuclear annihilation, perhaps even more than was the case elsewhere. Marxist ideology was predicated on the inexorable journey towards a communist society: how could it all end up in self-destruction? But just because the artists, directors, politicians and censors behind Soviet culture did not produce visualisations of atomic war, this did not mean that citizens were oblivious to the potentialities of the new weapons. Did they not create feelings of anxiety and fear akin to those expressed in other Cold War societies? And if they did, what did they do with these unwelcome emotions?

  1. Andrey Shcherbenok, “Asymmetric Warfare: The Vision of the Enemy in American and Soviet Cold War Cinemas,” KinoKultura, 28 (2010).
  2. Timothy Johnston, “Peace or Pacifism? The Soviet `Struggle For Peace in All the World’, 1948-54,” Slavonic and East European Review, 86, 2 (2008), pp. 259-282.
  3. Krokodil, 30 April 1952.
  4. Krokodil, 20 December 1952.
  5. Benjamin Ziemann, “The Code of Protest. Images of Peace in the West German Peace Movements, 1945-1990,” Contemporary European History, 17 (2008), pp. 237-261.
  6. Krokodil, 10 May 1952.
  7. Krokodil, 20 May 1962; Krokodil, 10 May 1962
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4 Responses to Images of Peace and Nuclear War

  1. Jeffrey Hardy says:

    Thanks for the post Miriam. One avenue for exploration on this theme would be the World Peace Council’s Vienna Appeal, which was signed by millions of Soviet citizens, including Gulag inmates, in the mid-1950s. I’m not sure what materials were distributed to accompany the petitions, but it is likely they included visual and written depictions of nuclear weapons in the hands of American warmongerers. I can only imagine that you will be able to find letters from citizens to newspapers and party officials accompanying this campaign.

  2. Andrew Jenks says:

    Hi Miriam,
    This is really interesting. I’ve often wondered about the seeming contrast between fears of nuclear annihilation in American society (expressed perhaps best by Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangeglove) and the relative absence of such expressions in Soviet society. But as you point out, just because the Soviet media did not propagate apocalyptic visions of nuclear destruction and Omega Men locked in mortal combat with irradiated zombies doesn’t mean Soviet citizens weren’t concerned about total world annihilation. Or does it?

  3. Miriam Dobson says:

    Well that’s what interests me Andy. My current project is on evangelical Christianity and I found that many late Stalinist court cases involving so-called ‘sects’ include accusations that they preach the end of the world. I’m trying to probe the relationship between religious apocalypticism and the arrival of the atomic age as I think there may be a connection – just as there was in the US. It’s hard to pin down concretely though.
    Jeff- thanks for the pointer.

  4. Pingback: Atomic Anxieties: The Cold War and the Apocalypse | History Matters

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