The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Over the course of six weeks during the height of the Cold War, almost three million Soviets visited an exhibition that celebrated America. American kitchens, American art, American cars, and most especially American capitalism. The American National Exhibition in Moscow was a full-court press to convince the Soviet people of American superiority. It was supposed to be a showcase for how Americans of the 1950s were living and prospering. But like nearly everything American during this time, it was really about selling the future.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Soviet visitors stream into the American National Exhibition in Moscow in July 1959

The United States hosted an exhibition in Moscow during the summer of 1959 that was supposed to showcase the best of the American free enterprise system. The Americans showed off a lot of consumer goods because — unlike heavy industry and space exploration — products like dishwashers and soda pop were areas where the U.S. was way ahead of Communist Russia. Largely unimpressed, Soviet leaders claimed that it was merely a bunch of gadgets. And in some ways they were right. But, oh how glamorous those gadgets were. Even if they weren’t actually in American homes yet.

Americans caught a glimpse of the Moscow exhibit through flashy pictorials in the pages of popular magazines like Look. But there’s one thing noticeably absent from the magazines: the most futuristic appliances on display, like what we might today call the Roomba of 1959, pictured below.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Unpublished photo of a robot floor cleaner originally intended for Look magazine (1959)

Was this an effort to manage expectations at home (as American home builders did after WWII) while showing off a glitzy robot-filled future abroad? Possibly. Would Americans mind? Probably not. They were getting plenty of futuristic gadget-filled promises elsewhere. They just obviously couldn’t be sold as the present reality like they were to the Soviets, who were largely ignorant of how the average American lived.

Planning the Exhibition

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Illustration of plans for the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, Moscow

The American National Exhibition was ostensibly a cultural exchange program. The two countries publicly decided that the best way ease tensions (of which there were many) was to put on different exhibitions showing how each lived. The Soviets would bring an exhibition to New York in June of 1959, and the Americans would put on an exhibition in Moscow in July of the same year. This being the Cold War, each side also saw this as an opportunity to send plenty of spies to gather whatever intelligence they could.

The Soviets came to New York with their machines of industry and Space Age satellites, proudly displaying the tech that had beat America into space. The Americans went to Moscow with their shiniest cars, art, and appliances — many real, and some very much a magic trick.

What were the real reasons for this diplomacy, outside of the fuzzy feel-goody buzzphrase of “cultural exchange?” The Soviets wanted liberalized trade with the West. And the Americans wanted an ideological foot in the door to convince the Soviets that Communism was a failure. Neither got everything they wanted. But at least folks got some Pepsi along the way. Oh, and probably a fair amount of intelligence from spies.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Interior of the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959)

About 450 companies made contributions to the Moscow exhibition. Sears, IBM, General Mills, Kodak, Whirlpool, Macy’s, Pepsi, General Motors, RCA, and Dixie Cup all had a presence, despite the fact that none of their products could be purchased in the Soviet Union.

In asking for their help with the exhibition, the American government appealed to the companies’ sense of patriotism, but of course, also their pocketbooks — at least in the long term sense. The U.S. government knew that these companies wouldn’t see any immediate return on their investment, but it certainly paid off eventually for some of them. For instance, just 15 years later Pepsi would become one of the rare outside companies allowed to sell soda in the Soviet Union.

Racists and Redbaiters Object

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Strom Thurmond after his record-breaking 24-hour filibuster of a civil rights bill in 1957

The American Exhibition in Moscow opened 55 years ago today — July 24, 1959 — but it was almost completely derailed before it even began.

Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with American political conflicts of the 1950s, the Moscow exhibit was not without controversy on Capitol Hill. Everything from how race relations were depicted to the kind of American art that was planned to be on display became a point of controversy for conservative politicians.

Four of the 75 American guides headed for Moscow were African American. President Eisenhower was apparently concerned about how the black guides might represent the United States and its systemic violations of civil rights in 1959. So when Eisenhower invited all 75 of the guides to the White House for a meet-and-greet on June 15th, according to historian Walter L. Hixson, the President quizzed the black guides about how they came to be fluent in Russian.

According to Hixson’s book Parting The Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961, Eisenhower was “satisfied” by their responses, and safely assumed they weren’t going to criticise America and its atrocious treatment of black people in the 1950s. America’s subjugation of blacks was the one big thing that the Soviets could and would continually point to whenever questions of personal freedom in the USSR were raised.

“And you are lynching Negroes,” (А у вас негров линчуют, A u vas negrov linchuyut) was a popular trope that permeated Soviet/U.S. relations. Sadly, they weren’t wrong. But it was obviously a deflection from their own human rights abuses.

As if on cue in the lead-up to the Exhibition, segregationist politicians in the U.S. protested when they learned that white people and black people would be depicted in normal social situations together. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond (a man who after his death would be revealed to have fathered a child with his family’s 16-year-old black maid) was outraged by a fashion show planned for the exhibition. The show was going to depict a black couple getting fake-married in front of a crowd of white attendees of a fake-wedding ceremony. Thurmond’s protestations caused that portion of the fashion show to be cut.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

The latest American fashions are showed off in Moscow during the Exhibition (1959)

Then there was the problem of what kind of American art would be on display for the Soviets. Despite hearings in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and demands from influential American conservatives that certain art — including works by Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, and Jack Levine — be removed from the planned display, even the most controversial art remained.

But it wasn’t exactly a victory for modern art. The supposed compromise was to make the art exhibit even bigger, so that the modern art which conservatives found so objectionable would only comprise a significantly smaller portion of the exhibit’s total works.

Of course, the great irony of all this was that Soviet officials also saw modern art as dangerous, only theirs was from a decidedly communist perspective. They felt modern art reflected a bourgeois culture, and Nikita Khrushchev railed against Soviet artists who deviated from representational art in the late 1950s. Modern art’s abstract nature was to be feared and suppressed, as far as Khrushchev was concerned. At least the Americans and the Soviets had that in common: their leaders thought modern art was a great threat to their own ideologies.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s somewhat amusing that so many objections were made by American conservatives of the art exhibits. As it’s now known, the CIA was at the same time using modern art as a cultural weapon to fight communism. Paintings, photography and sculpture that challenged the status quo in various abstract forms was promoted with what was called a “long leash.” American individualism and self-expression shined through, even if it made so many older people uncomfortable.

American Ambassadors: Students and Spies

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

An American guide answers questions at the Family of Man exhibit (1959)

Even more so than art and fashion, it was the on-the-ground guides that would act as America’s face at the exhibition, goodwill ambassadors who earnestly answered questions and actively engaged in humble debate with the Russian attendees.

Seventy-five Americans would go to Moscow to act as guides and ambassadors at the Moscow exhibition. The group included 27 women and 48 men, all of whom were between the ages of 20 and 35. America was being sold as a young country, because it was one. All guides were fluent in Russian and some were (almost certainly) trained in intelligence gathering.

Dan Slobin, a retired professor from UC-Berkeley, digitized his journal from when he worked at the exhibition. He was just 20 years old at the time, one of the youngest guides in the bunch, and his journal (complete with photographs) provides a fascinating look into what it was like working there. I spoke with Slobin over the phone this past fall.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Left: Dan Slobin on July 24, 1959; Right: President Eisenhower with student ambassadors

As Slobin tells it, he worked six days a week; three days from 11am until 10pm, and three days from 2-10pm. One of the things that seemed to shock Soviet visitors the most was that there wasn’t a discernibly consistent party line being spouted from exhibit to exhibit.

If a visitor asked an American guide at the car exhibit a politically loaded question they could receive a completely different answer at the book exhibit. According to Slobin he could proudly respond that he had no idea what the other guides were telling Soviet visitors to the Exhibition. It was his own opinion that he was giving, and not some official government statement.

“That was the best propaganda that the USIA [United States Information Agency] could devise, because then people would say, ‘but you’re not answering the same question as that guide over there,'” Slobin told me.

But it’s not like they weren’t coached in some capacity. On the long ship voyage from Montreal to Russia, guides were put through different sessions, anticipating how their Soviet audience might respond. One by one they would be put on the spot in front of their peers and asked difficult questions, like why America has racism or why America has economic inequality. The guides were allowed their own responses, but there was no question where their loyalties were, and each guide was clearly chosen for their diplomatic nature.

Slobin said that once he got on the boat it became clear that only about half of the American guides travelling to Moscow were students like himself. “The other half were from the RAND Corporation or CIA or various government agencies who were planted in there as if they were other student guides,” Slobin told me.

Of course, the Soviets were keeping a close eye on the student ambassadors as well. “We were all tailed by the Soviets all the time. We learned how to recognise that after a while. And you never knew if somebody who befriended you was honest or was trying to entrap you.”

“It was a totally different era,” Slobin explained. “It was like the first American adventure behind what we called the Iron Curtain. It wasn’t all darkness and despair there and that was big news in the United States.”

Some elements of Soviet society were surprisingly pleasant, according to Slobin. In his view they had a lot of social and educational issues worked out, and were ahead of the Americans in some ways. Slobin was surprised to find that many people seemed genuinely happy with their lives, even if they struggled or felt oppressed sometimes. They had hope for the future, and faith that their government would deliver on its promises.

“And then when I got back [to the United States] there were heavy interviews by the FBI,” Slobin said. “We had a few days of debriefing when we landed before they let us go home.”

This, of course, was natural and expected given the spy tactics of each superpower during the Cold War. Approaching visitors to spy on their own countries was not unusual for either side, so it only made sense that the FBI would want to know things like if he’d been in contact with any Soviets since returning. Slobin told me he hasn’t yet requested his own FBI file to see what it contained, but that he’d like to one day.

“Is This Typical?”

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Soviet onlookers check out the latest in American automobiles (1959)

The April 10, 1959 issue of Pravda magazine didn’t mince words when it ran the headline “Is This Typical?” This was only the start of the Soviet propaganda offensive against what was seen as manipulation by the U.S. exhibit to depict a lifestyle far outside the means of the average American. The show hadn’t even started yet, but the magazine raised a valid point that would be repeated throughout the six weeks of the exhibit. The Americans were in many ways showing off the two things it sold best: consumer goods, and the future.

According to the Associated Press, the TASS news agency took many issues with the “typical” American homes on display at the exhibition. Special attention was paid of the $US13,000 American house (about $US100k adjusted for inflation) which was being planned and furnished by Macy’s for an additional $US5,000 (about $US39k adjusted for inflation).

TASS explained, “Many wives of American workers will be surprised indeed to learn that their ‘typical’ kitchen is fully equipped with the most marvellous latest automatic devices.” TASS contended that even if the average worker had $US5,000 to spend at Macy’s, “he could hardly succeed even for this sum in buying such furniture as is shown by the firm of Macy with the air or propaganda.”

“Actually,” TASS wrote, “there is no more truth in showing this as the typical home of the American worker than, say, in showing the Taj Mahal as the typical home of a Bombay textile worker, or Buckingham Palace as the typical home of an English miner.”

While the furnishings on display may have been a bit extravagant, American home ownership was indeed soaring. In 1960, median household income for American families was $US5,620, meaning that a $US13,000 house was well within the middle class’s reach when they took out a mortgage.

The Soviets may have been correct when they asserted that much of the furniture on display was not within reach of most Americans. But that average house, believe it or not, was actually the norm. Behind the scenes, this fact terrified Soviet officials.

Battle Over Books and Brownies

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

American literature display at the American National Exhibition in Moscow (1959)

What was ignored in the Soviet press was the incredible amount of censorship that occurred across all forms of media in the Soviet Union. The American book display was a particularly sensitive point of negotiation in the lead up to the Exhibition. There were vicious fights over what books were allowed, nearly derailing the mutual cultural exchange in its early days.

Books were a powerful weapon during the Cold War. We know now that the CIA was actively printing and distributing copies of the novel Doctor Zhivago throughout the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and 60s. The book was officially banned by the Soviets, though there’s no indication that it was openly on display at the Exhibition.

“This book has great propaganda value,” a CIA memo from 1958 said, “not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Marylee Duehring of General Mills in the Betty Crocker Kitchen (1959)

Books would often go missing from the displays, just as the food baked in the kitchens (officially off-limits for sampling by order of Soviet officials) would mysteriously disappear. But the Americans didn’t worry too much about the stolen books; they’d brought plenty to replace them with.

The same went for the food. As General Mills notes on its blog, the company shipped seven tons of food to Moscow for the exhibition. A missing plate of brownies here and there was seen by the Americans as a welcome introduction into the world of easy-bake products. To get around the ban on handing out samples, the demo women learned that they could simply turn their back on finished desserts and the crowd would descend on them quickly.

IBM’s Answer Computer

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

IBM’s RAMAC 305 computer in a business setting in an undated photo

One of the more popular exhibits around was the IBM RAMAC 305 computer. It could answer over 4,000 questions within a wide range of topics — some of them quite uncomfortable for Americans to address.

Not only were common questions like “What is the price of American cigarettes?” and “What is jazz music?” answered with a printout in just 90 seconds, thornier questions about race relations and lynching were also pre-programmed to give diplomatic responses.

“How many Negroes have been lynched in the U.S. since 1950?” was one of the difficult questions that the computer was often asked. With an answer coming from a machine, it’s unclear if the Soviets would have trusted the response more or less than a human. Perhaps we intrinsically trust machines to be less biased and shed any emotional baggage when answering tough questions. Or perhaps that’s just an anachronism that 21st century Americans so tuned into the internet may concoct as we use Google and Wikipedia like intellectual crutches.

As James Schwoch describes in his book Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-69, this wasn’t the first time that IBM’s RAMAC had interacted with the public — that would be at the World’s Fair in Brussels the previous year — but it was a milestone for what’s now called “information diplomacy.”

Glimpses of the U.S.A.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

The multi-screen film Glimpses of the USA being shown to Soviet visitors in 1959

Soviet visitors wanted to see what real America looked like. And the Eames design team, in some capacity, delivered.

Glimpses of the U.S.A. was a film by Charles and Ray Eames that depicted life in America as told through still images projected onto seven giant 20 by 30 foot screens. It was shown in a theatre designed by Buckminster Fuller, and above we see the “highway interchange” portion of the film — or, if not film, multimedia experience?

As much art as instructional commentary on what life was like in the U.S., the film is composed of about 2,200 images and runs for 12 minutes. Viewers are inundated with images carefully curated by the Eames design team, some photos shot by Charles and Ray themselves.

You can watch a short excerpt from the film on YouTube.

It should probably be noted that I submitted FOIA requests to the FBI for any files on both Charles and Ray Eames, yet have been informed that they don’t have any. I find this incredibly hard to believe, given their involvement with the Exhibition and their influence on the world of design in general, but will update this story if my FOIA appeals are granted.

The Kitchen Debate

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Khrushchev and Nixon discussing the common American household via translator (1959)

Arguably one of the most seminal non-combat moments of the Cold War happened at the Exhibition on opening day. Today, it’s known as the Kitchen Debate, and it was broadcast the following day on all three major American networks, as well as on Soviet TV. But the debate that aired, videotaped in colour (very high-tech for the time!) was of course just one part of many debates waged between Nixon and Khrushchev as they toured the Exhibition together.

The two men sparred over everything on display, with Nixon insisting that American capitalism allowed for a much higher standard of living. Khrushchev oscillated between insisting that the average American couldn’t afford the things that Nixon was showing him and then saying that even if they could, the Soviet people would have those same consumer goods soon.

That was Khrushchev’s promise to the Soviet people, proclaimed for all the world to see. The Soviet Union would not only meet, but exceed the consumer-driven wealth of postwar America, he insisted. Interestingly, it was the Soviet Union’s youth as a country that Khrushchev saw as its greatest strength in making that happen.

“America has been in existence for 150 years, and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite 42 years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, we will wave to you as we pass you by.”

Nixon ever so diplomatically disagreed.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Vice President Nixon and Premier Khrushchev debating in front of colour TV cameras

According to the FBI file on Khrushchev, President Eisenhower wasn’t that enthusiastic about engaging with the bombastic Soviet leader. As we can see from an excerpt of the July 20, 1959 FBI memo below (just four days before the Exhibition was to open), Nixon was very much pro-engagement, and wanted to extend an invitation for Khrushchev to come to the United States. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was “dead opposed.”

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Nixon seemed to earnestly believe that as long as people were presented with capitalism and communism openly and honestly, American-style capitalism would win out.

But Nixon’s trip to Moscow was as much about running for President as it was for cultural exchange. The August 10, 1959 issue of Life magazine devoted nearly as many pages of photos to he and his wife’s trip as they did to the Russian response to the Exhibition. Nixon, the fervent anti-communist, was no doubt campaigning with every step and calculating with every seemingly good-natured laugh at Khrushchev’s boisterous antagonism.

The 1959 Roomba That Never Was

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

A demonstrator sits in the Miracle Kitchen (July 21, 1959 issue of Look magazine)

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.”

Now in his 80s, Maxwell talked to me about his work at one of America’s most influential design firms in the 1950s, Sundberg-Ferar. Maxwell was in his mid-20s when he moved from Auburn, Alabama to Detroit, and loved working for the firm that had its focus on the future. I called up Maxwell to learn about his work on Whirlpool’s Miracle Kitchen, which amazed Soviet visitors. It was indeed a miracle, in the sense that what people saw was rightly hard to believe.

Here in the United States, the Miracle Kitchen was sold as just around the corner. But in Moscow, it was presented as the American kitchen of today.

From the promotional film, which was adapted for live demos in Moscow:

In this kitchen you can bake a cake in three minutes. And in this kitchen the dishes are scraped, washed and dried electronically. They even put themselves away. Even the floor is cleaned electronically.

“We didn’t try to predict things. We were trying to show off things that we knew were coming,” Maxwell told me.

As he spoke I couldn’t help but imagine what he and the city must’ve looked like when he arrived in Detroit in the mid 1950s. Detroit was a destination city then. People came from all over the United States and the world to work as Detroit grew fat and happy, churning out car after car. Culturally, the city was a billion miles away from the Soviet Union. Today, one can’t help but think that Detroit has more in common with the rougher parts of Moscow than we’d care to admit. Each, a crumbling monument to the harshest elements of 20th century extremist ideology.

“The technology for a lot of that stuff was on the verge of being there, but not all of it was there,” Maxwell continued. “And Whirlpool was interested in getting some stuff out, like getting ready to issue refrigerators that were frost-free.”

What’s the height of refrigerator advancement in the late 1950s? Frost-free design.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

A demonstrator demos the Miracle Kitchen (July 21, 1959 issue of Look magazine)

I asked Maxwell about the robot again, curious about how it worked compared with how it was depicted in films and at the American National Exhibition in Moscow.

“They said it was sniffing a wire in the floor, which it could have been,” Maxwell told me. “But it was easier just to have a person behind this mirror that could make all the things happen — from opening the doors and lowering the shelves and all of those different things. It was easier to do that than to put in all of those sensors all over the place, and do what the push-button said to do. It was simpler just to have a person operating that stuff remotely. That was for expediency more than it was for lack of technology.”

Maxwell paused to correct himself a bit. “But there was a lack of technology. We did not have anything near what we have today. We had computers, but they were big boxes.”

Pepsi and that American Flavour

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Young Soviet visitor to the American National Exhibition sampling Pepsi-Cola

Coca-Cola declined to participate in the Exhibition, but Pepsi dove in with both feet. The most common question from Soviet men about Pepsi seemed to be whether it contained alcohol. Many were disappointed when they were informed that it did not. But Nixon and Khrushchev posed for a photo together, each drinking Pepsi, in a photo that was distributed around the world.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

A group of men drinking Pepsi at the American National Exhibition (1959)

This no doubt greased the wheels for Pepsi’s entrance into the Soviet Union in 1972, after Nixon’s re-election. Detente was succeeding in the early 1970s and there was a kind of swap: Pepsi would be introduced to the Soviet Union if Russian vodka could enter the American market.

According to academic Ludmilla Grincenko Wells at the University of Tennessee, the two countries signed a 10-year countertrade agreement, allowing Stolichnaya vodka in the U.S. and Pepsi into the USSR. It’s fair to say we got the better end of the deal.

Mere Gadgets

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

High-tech heart-lung machine on display for Soviet visitors (1959)

The Soviet reaction to the six-week exhibition was filled with contradictions. Some people were impressed (however stoically), while others dismissed the entire show as frivolous. What mattered, according to many of them, were the machines of industry that would catapult the Soviet Union into the future, not “mere gadgets.”

In her 2008 paper on the Soviet public’s response to the exhibit, Susan E. Reid, a professor of Russian studies in the UK, examined the varied takes, trying to delicately parse honest opinions from available documents. The visitors’ books were perhaps most useful in this exercise, giving a peek at what the average attendee might be thinking — even if Soviet agents may be looking over their shoulders.

Some of the responses in the visitors’ books betrayed the conflicting ideas behind present and future communism. As much as the Americans may have been “cheating” with some of their futuristic displays, the Soviets were just as confused in their own responses to American superiority in some areas.

For example, one teacher wrote, “The exhibition displays kitchens, a house, frigidaires, vacuum cleaners — all of which we have. If we don’t have enough of these things at present we will have more of them in the near future.”

Another commenter wrote, “The Miracle kitchen is very interesting but improbable.”

“A shortcoming you show what you produce, but you do not show what you produce it with,” wrote another. This was a common complaint.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Soviet onlookers take in the American fashion show (1959)

When it came to fashion and music, Soviet visitors were intrigued, but when it came to attractiveness, many Soviet men were frankly not impressed by the American women who were modelling their clothes.

“There were fashion models and they felt sorry for them, and they would come up to me and say, ‘they’re all so skinny, why do you starve your women like that?'” Slobin the former American guide in Moscow told me over the phone.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Curious Soviets check out the latest in American cars (1959)

So what were the Soviets most impressed with? Apparently the cars. “I want to buy your cars!” one commenter wrote. This was seen as perhaps a natural reaction since the engineering behind Soviet-built automobiles was often the butt of jokes, even inside the USSR. Russians couldn’t help but be impressed with Detroit’s latest models and everyone wanted a peek under the hood.

Americans who combed through the pages of those visitors’ books (the Soviet exhibition in New York also had visitors’ books, with similarly negative feedback sometimes) were no doubt delighted to hear that General Motors was considered a point of envy.

The Competing Soviet Exhibition Next Door

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Russians examine the TV sets on display at the competing USSR exhibit next door (1959)

The Soviet government had already done their best to show Americans what the country had to offer in New York a month prior, but they were nearly as eager to show their own people. They set up a competing exhibition next door in the summer of 1959, but it likely did more harm than good. The products on display were far less flashy, and sometimes simply served as a reminder of what consumer goods the common Russian didn’t have access to in the late 1950s. The severe housing shortage in the Soviet Union caused many to wonder when they might have their own apartment — for many Russians, their own TV set was a futuristic fantasy.

“That the Soviet people now may know more about the U.S. than they did prior to the Exhibition puts a greater strain on the regime to make its propaganda more credible,” one social scientist for RAND who worked as an ambassador wrote in a 1960 report.

If the Americans could fudge their way through a meticulously planned trade show, presenting new products that the average citizen hadn’t been exposed to thanks to censorship of Western media, then there was no way for the Soviets to hide what was missing from their own lives. Just another few years, they were told by their government, not unlike the American government had done during times of particular duress. Just another few years. Be patient, and the techno-utopian world of tomorrow will be here.

But the mistrust between the two countries was too great for either to learn much from the other. The incredible amount of spying probably didn’t help.

“It turns out that some of the former guides had been arrested in the Soviet Union as American agents,” Slobin told me. “And one of them was a student […] who, in fact, came back in an exchange of spies and confessed that he had been a spy sent back into the Soviet Union.”

The U.S. and Soviet Union would never again have a similar cultural exchange on such a scale during the Cold War. But ideas had been planted. The future — whatever that meant to the average citizen — was coming, and it was filled with washing machines, robots, Pepsi, and the fervency of the Space Race.

The All-American Expo That Invaded Cold War Russia

Russians walk by the wares displayed at the competing USSR exhibit (1959)

But this leads us to the fundamental question that is perhaps at the heart of all studies of old futurism: “What time is the future?” And I don’t write that to be glib or weird. I mean it quite literally. What time is the future? And for whom is the future built?

Most of us here in the early 21st century simply sit watching Cold War 2.0 slowly bubble up to the surface with every political tweet from each side, every pointed finger thrust into an opponent’s chest by way of ones and zeroes zipping around the world. But for better and for worse, we are living in the future, if only from a chronological perspective with one year quickly fading into the next. We are in Khrushchev’s future and Nixon’s future, even if it’s not the ones they planned for us.

When is the future? With the New Cold War™ in full swing, here’s hoping we get our answer before things get as nasty as they once were. The two exhibitions in New York and Moscow served as only a brief moment of pause and cautious cultural exchange before things went south yet again. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just three years away.


“Report on Service with the American Exhibition in Moscow” by John R. Thomas, Social Science Division The RAND Corporation (1960); As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s by Karal Ann Marling (1996); Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users edited by Ruth Oldenzeil and Karen Zachmann (2009); “Exhibiting Art at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959” by Marily S. Kushner (2002); Parting The Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961 by Walter L. Hixson (1997); “Who Will Beat Whom? Soviet Reception of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, 1959” by Susan E. Reid (2008); “The Khrushchev Kitchen: Domesticating the Scientific-Technological Revolution” by Susan E Reid (2005); “Selling a New Vision of America to the World: Changing Messages in Early U.S. Cold War Print Propaganda” by Andrew L. Yarrow (2009); “Moscow ’59: The ‘Sokolniki Summit’ Revisited” by Andrew Wulf (2010); “Displaying American Abundance Abroad: The Misinterpretation of the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow” by Barrie Robyn Jakabovics (2007)


Entrance to the American Exhibition via PepsiCoDigital on Flickr; Map of the proposed exhibition grounds, scanned from the 1997 book Parting The Curtain by Walter L. Hixson; Robot vacuum cleaner can be found at Shorpy, though it’s from the Library of Congress collection of Bob Lerner’s photos taken at the exhibition; American guide talks to Russian visitors at the Family of Man exhibit via PepsiCoDigital on Flickr; The Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen, scanned from the July 21, 1959 issue of Look magazine; IBM’s RAMAC 305 computer via the Associated Press; Nixon and Khrushchev examine an American kitchen display, scanned from the 2007 book Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury; Nixon and Khrushchev debate, via the Library of Congress; Young man drinking Pepsi, screenshot from the 1998 CNN documentary mini-series Cold War; Men drinking Pepsi, scanned from the 1997 book Parting The Curtain by Walter L. Hixson; Crowds viewing the art exhibit via Archives of American Art; Marylee Duehring, General Mills’ supervisor of product counselors in the Betty Crocker Kitchens does a demonstration via the General Mills blog; Temporary Russian exhibition from the Library of Congress