A Cold War Battleground: Catfish Row versus the Nevsky Prospekt
On 26 December 1955 the first US theatrical production to perform in the Soviet Union opened in Leningrad. In January, the Everyman Opera production of Porgy and Bess ran in Moscow for eight days, then moved to Poland and Czechoslovakia. The African American cast was the toast of the Soviet Union, enjoying cheering crowds wherever they went. Russian media trumpeted the tour, with Nikolai Mikhailov, Minister of Culture, declaring it a successful strengthening of cultural ties. The tour was not sponsored by the US government. Despite pleas from the Everyman producers, the State Department refused to fund it (although it would fund other legs of the tour). Instead, the Soviet government sponsored the company and made much of the presence of the African-American actors, who could move more freely in the Soviet Union than in the USA. While the company’s presence may have been the result of a thaw in US–Soviet relations after Stalin’s death in 1953, it also marked the fierce cultural battle the two powers were waging with race as a significant front. At stake were the many non-aligned nations of colour who were suspicious of both powers. This paper will explore the ways in which the Soviet Union used a cultural product of the USA against it in the global struggle over race that so marked the Cold War. Drawing on first-person accounts, Soviet reviews, and archival materials, I will demonstrate how theatre was a vital weapon in the Cold War arsenal for all combatants.