In the red corner it’s the USSR – maker of superhuman gymnasts and dogs in space. In the blue corner, the U S of A – maker of the fast food franchise, Dynasty, and the teen movie. Their rivalry spanned decades and contained many battles like who’s got the biggest rocket, best gunship, largest hot dog weenie known to man. But it wasn’t all just fun and games. Warfare, even when served gazpacho style, is as much a battle for hearts and minds as it is for wanton destruction. But how does a superpower win hearts and minds? It’s a tricky question and one that has perplexed many; however, there’s a simple two word answer – popular culture. You’re out in the field all day farming, you come home, feet up, turn the TV on and want something good on the box. A quick comparison between the two superpowers shows the USSR to be woefully incompetent when it comes to popular culture. Where’s their answer to Who’s the boss? Exactly, there wasn’t one. Pac-man? They’re too busy playing chess or reading philosiphy or something to come up with matryoshka dolls the computer game.
At the beginning of the Cold War, American attitude to Communism was directed internally at it’s own citizens. An obsession with Commies had infiltrated American men and they were convinced these sub-humans were sleeping with their daughters rather than Chad, the school quarter back. Much of this hysteria gradually melted away as the threat was rationalised in the publics mind to be elsewhere and the idea of a turned America proved unlikely. Vietnam proved Commies showed Commies could come from Vietnam and not just Russia and Cuba. Besides that, not much happened. Just some people talking and stuff. A few folks in newspapers claimed that America, over the period of the Cold War, went on a process of dumbing down but evidence clearly shows the opposite. From Abstract expressionism to Pop art then to the avant-garde performance troop, Wrestlemania 7, starring Jake the Snake Roberts and Hulk Hogan, modern culture clearly had never had it so good as during the Cold War.
By the eighties, if you were Russian or Gary Oldman you had exclusive rights on baddie roles in all Hollywood movies. Only babooska starring, ironically it must be said, as Wonder Woman on American TV, seemed able to buck this trend. Hollywood is a good signifier of trends of the era. The revenge film, with Russia as the enemy, was in vogue and Sly Stallone – from Sly and the Family Stallone fame – funk singer turned action hero – was at hand to spearhead it. Surely the USSR’s officials must have know their potemkin village was about to come collapsing around them when they viewed Rocky VI, a social slumming event where Rocky took homespun to whole new levels of self-deception. One almost expects him to pull out some baggy trousers, a pot of coffee and pretend he’s in The Grapes of Wrath at certain points, such is the self mythology. Perhaps the finest scene in the movie is when the Russian officials applaud him at the end rather than their own chap.
In summary, if we look at an Americans shopping basket you could be confronted with cheese in an aerosol can, snickers confectionary spread, and all manner of colourfully packaged items. the Russian, grey items of slop. And really, one feels this is the key difference. If the USSR had spent less time obsessing over chess champions, gymnasts and sinister criminals in polo-neck jumpers and more time creating stuff of the future like salad in a tin, or B-Movies, or a whole chicken in a can then they might have stood a chance. As it is, they now have to suffer Miley Cyrus like the rest of us.