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My View of the West: Mining the Soviet-era archives to study art exchange

Simo Mikkonen

Last month, I wrote about my key research interest, art in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. What follows, is a quick glance at what kind of activities I have been engaged in regarding the topic.  For about ten years, I have been searching through archives, especially in Moscow. Some of the political archives contain reports, decisions and correspondence of Soviet officials between different domestic actors as well as foreign actors. By contrast, the other archives I have been investigating have more cultural content, including materials produced by artists and artistic organisations, and detailing their foreign activities and attempts to interact with their colleagues.

My interests have focused both on the official level, including cultural diplomacy and the use of culture as part of Soviet foreign politics, and on the lower levels of organization. When we look at the interaction of individual artists and artistic organisations, foreign politics play a much smaller role compared to the more official level. The emphasis is more on the transnational networks, the making of art, and attempts to overcome political and ideological divisions in doing so. At the same time, the borderlines of these different layers are far from clear.

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Quite often, my research falls into what is called the study of the cultural Cold War. This concept is elusive; therefore, I found it important to participate in defining it in a volume called Entangled Histories of Cold War Europe I edited for Berghahn in 2015. After editing this volume, I wanted to focus more on Soviet cultural diplomacy, which resulted in Music, Art and Diplomacy (Routledge 2016). Finally, in Entangled East and West (2018), which I edited as part of the Rethinking the Cold War series by De Gruyter, I examined the concept of cultural diplomacy and especially how it can be supported through empirical research.

Today, my research on the topic continues. Through interviews with artists and administrators as well as by examining new archival material, I aim to gain a better understanding of how interactions with the West influenced Soviet art. Furthermore, issues that I feel require further research are the nature of the interaction of artists and how they experienced contacts with the West.

The author is Finnish Academy Research Fellow (2014-19), Docent of Russian History, and Senior Researcher (on leave) in University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.