Peacock on Magnúsdóttir, 'Enemy Number One: the United States of America in Soviet Ideology and Propaganda, 1945-1959'

Rósa Magnúsdóttir
Margaret E. Peacock

Rósa Magnúsdóttir. Enemy Number One: the United States of America in Soviet Ideology and Propaganda, 1945-1959. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 256 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-068149-4; ISBN 978-0-19-068147-0.

Reviewed by Margaret E. Peacock (The University of Alabama) Published on H-Diplo (January, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Rósa Magnúsdóttir’s impressive book, Enemy Number One, unpacks the complicated story of how Soviet officials and citizens thought about the United States in the early years of the Cold War. Based on extensive research from the Russian archives, Magnúsdóttir examines the period after the Great Patriotic War when Soviet citizens grappled to understand their relationship with their once ally, now enemy. Magnúsdóttir shows how Soviet leaders and propagandists struggled to construct a cohesive image of the United States-as-enemy for domestic consumption. In their efforts to conjure this new image, they faced what Magnúsdóttir calls the “dilemma of Soviet anti-Americanism” (p. 8). Since the 1920s, the Soviet Union had condemned Americans for their exploitation and racism, while also admiring them for their energy, iconoclasm, and ingenuity. Now, the United States had a new role to play as Cold War antagonist. The United States became the vital “other” against which citizenship would be measured. For Soviet propagandists, the United States played a critical role in Soviet identity formation. How one understood America defined a whole series of beliefs about what it meant to be a good member of Soviet society. At the same time, as Magnúsdóttir argues, the Soviet leadership’s efforts to construct a useful image of the American enemy had serious, unintended consequences. The vision of the foreign, dangerous, but nonetheless free American, ultimately became a measuring stick for those who sought alternative identities than the one promoted by their leaders.

Enemy Number One chronicles the changing image of the United States from the postwar period of High Stalinism in 1945 through the period of Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw and his policy of peaceful coexistence. The book is broken into two parts, with the first part examining the relatively isolated and heavy-handed anti-Americanism of the late Stalinist years and the second part showing how the Khrushchev’s policies during the Thaw period created a new, more complicated image of the United States for Soviet consumption. The story begins in the late 1940s, when propagandists moved quickly to suppress the memory of America as an ally whose soldiers had met the Red Army in victory on the banks of the Elbe River at the end of the Great Patriotic War. During the suppressive and isolationist period of the Zhdanovshchina, which followed, the United States played a central role as the needed antagonist in the Soviet struggle to reject the vagaries of the West. The nation’s Writers’ and Filmmakers’ Unions set out to make movies and write books that focused exclusively on the image of the “Two Americas.” (p. 5) that pitted the decency and solidarity of working-class Americans against the cruelty of their evil bosses. Films like Mikhail Romm’s The Russian Question (1948) worked hard to show the exploitation of American workers, the horrors of its racism, and the brutality of its industrialists. All of this was done in order to create a roadmap for how to live as a good Soviet citizen.

Postwar Soviet censors and police also did everything in their power to counter American propaganda in the Soviet Union that came over the airwaves from Voice of America and in the American publication, America. To the extent possible, alternative narratives about life in the United States became anathema in the late Stalinist period. Being a patriotic Russian was not just defined by what one watched and read, but also by what one did not consume. And yet, at least to some extent, Magnúsdóttir argues that the Soviet people did find ways to listen and read. There could be no denying the presence of American tractors and goods left over from the years of Lend Lease, which seemed to tell a more complicated story about American prosperity. And there was an interest in US culture, if only because people had seen the West during the Great Patriotic War.

Part 1 then examines how late-Stalinist propagandists and diplomats worked to control the image of the Soviet Union in the United States. The Soviet All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS) struggled in these years to project a vision of Soviet advancement and recovery that countered American domestic propaganda. As Magnúsdóttir shows, the insularity and censorship of these years did not lend itself to effective international propaganda, and cultural exchanges were few and far between. Famous Soviet figures like Ilya Ehrenburg and Dmitri Shostakovich made up the sparse group of Soviet citizens who traveled to the United States. Meanwhile, famous Americans like John Steinbeck and Robert Capa were invited to trek across the Iron Curtain in the hopes that they would favorably document the lives of the Soviet people. In all of these programs, language about the United States remained hostile and suspicious—rooted in basic messages about the exploitative and racist vagaries of American capitalism. This was a safe approach for the Stalinist leadership, but as Magnúsdóttir shows, it was also astonishingly heavy-handed, brittle, and unsustainable as a long-term propaganda approach.

In part 2, Enemy Number One looks at the changing image of the United States under Khrushchev’s early leadership. Peaceful coexistence became the new defining ideology of propaganda regarding the United States, which included a less pronounced kind of anti-Americanism. In the years after Joseph Stalin’s death, propagandists put more emphasis on showing what the Soviet Union had to offer in comparison to the United States. While they continued to mobilize the United States’ race problems as evidence of Western perfidy, they also adopted new tactics. Now they focused on the Soviet commitment to peace, internationalism, and support for the young, and the promise that the Soviet Union would soon be catching up to the United States in consumer production.

Ironically, all the openness that had been brought on by Khrushchev’s Thaw exposed the “paradoxes of peaceful coexistence” (p. 100). Khrushchev encouraged more freedom of expression in order to address the legacy of Stalinist repression, to improve the image of the Soviet Union abroad, and to make the Soviet populace feel more invested in their nation’s socioeconomic development. In the process, the Soviet leadership exposed itself to domestic criticism and soul-searching. As Magnúsdóttir, and others, show, the paradoxes of this period appeared most clearly in public propaganda and in the era’s mass, staged events, like the 1957 Festival of Youth and Students, the American Sokolniki Exhibit in Moscow, the Soviet Exhibit in New York, and Khrushchev’s visit to the United States. All of these events reflected a newfound commitment to international exchange and competition. At all of these events, the popular domestic message was that, while the Soviet people might lag behind the United States, they still appreciated how far they had come. They were still grateful and on the path to a better kind of consumption than the Americans had ever known. Indeed, Magnúsdóttir makes a compelling argument that peaceful coexistence was meaningful to the Soviet people as a promise of relaxed tensions and as a hope that improved material conditions were soon to happen. At the same time, Soviet citizens also used this window of opportunity to talk about their own desires for real peace and to embrace a more complicated, more human, image of America.

Enemy Number One is strongest when it examines the domestic propaganda efforts of the Soviet leadership. There are times when the focus of the book shifts to examining Soviet propaganda efforts to American audiences in the United States, which is useful surely, but sometimes seems to pull away from the larger intent of the project. Of particular merit are the places where Magnúsdóttir heroically endeavors to understand how the general Soviet populace consumed their leadership’s propaganda. The research done to get at this question (which includes work in the archives of the Soviet Procuracy) is admirable indeed and offers a glimpse into a question that few historians have been able to answer.

Citation: Margaret E. Peacock. Review of Magnúsdóttir, Rósa, Enemy Number One: the United States of America in Soviet Ideology and Propaganda, 1945-1959. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL:

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