When Cold War enemies clashed in the kitchen

24th July 2009, Comments 0 comments

The so-called "kitchen debate" erupted 50 years ago when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and American Vice President Richard Nixon got into an impromptu argument about the merits of their countries' economic systems.

Moscow -- One of the Cold War's fiercest clashes took place 50 years ago in July, but instead of a conflict in Africa or Asia, this battle of US and Soviet might unfolded in a model kitchen.

The so-called "kitchen debate" erupted on 24 July 1959, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and US vice president Richard Nixon got into an impromptu argument about the merits of their countries' economic systems.

The two men held their debate amid washing machines, gas stoves and other US consumer goods brought to Moscow for the American National Exhibition, an event that gave many Russians their first glimpse of life in the capitalist West.

Half a century later, witnesses recalled how the exhibition changed their lives -- and how its revelation of US affluence to deprived Soviet citizens dealt a blow to the foundations of Communism.

"It was something of a shock," said Eduard Ivanian, a former official in the Soviet Culture Ministry who helped bring the 1959 exhibition to Moscow.

"The exhibition did not show extraordinary technical achievements or things that stunned the imagination. It showed kitchens, washing machines, and gas stoves. And all these things were ordinary things for Americans," Ivanian said. "Our political leadership needed to show that this was all specially created and that everything at the exhibition was propaganda."

Some 2.7 million people visited the exhibition during its six-week run from July to August 1959 to gawk at products like Chevrolet cars, Polaroid cameras and Pepsi, three million cups of which were consumed at the fair.

The sprawling fair at Sokolniki park in northeast Moscow opened thanks to a US-Soviet deal in which the superpowers agreed to host duelling exhibitions to showcase their achievements.

But the corresponding Soviet exhibition in New York that year was largely greeted with yawns by Americans, who perhaps had better things to do than examine models of a Soviet passenger jet, Sputnik and a collective farm.

The famed kitchen debate, on the opening day of the American exhibition, began in a television studio and continued as Nixon led Khrushchev to a model American home, surrounded by a swarm of journalists, aides and translators.

Nixon -- a future US president -- played tour guide and acted as diplomatically as possible while the earthly Khrushchev scoffed and insisted that Soviet housewares were just as good as American ones.

"I want to show you this kitchen. It is like those of our houses in California," Nixon said, according to comments later published in US newspapers.

"We have such things," Khrushchev said. In fact the majority of Soviet households did not even have refrigerators at the time.

Pointing to a dishwasher, Nixon said: "This is our newest model. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installations in the houses. In America, we like to make life easier for women."

"Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism," Khrushchev retorted.

The debate pointed to a flaw in the Soviet command economy that ultimately undermined the Communist regime before its collapse in 1991.

Though the system could build rockets and atomic bombs, it failed to provide its citizens with many of the consumer goods they wanted.

Food shortages, queues and endless waits for products like cars -- usually of inferior quality compared to their Western-made counterparts -- became a recurring problem of Soviet life in the last decades of Communist rule.

As long as censorship kept Russians in ignorance about life in the West, the system was safe.

But events like the American exhibition of 1959 opened cracks in the Iron Curtain and raised doubt about the "workers' paradise."

US guides at the exhibition were inundated with questions from visitors about life in America, said Hans Tuch, a retired US diplomat who was working as the press and cultural attaché for the US embassy in Moscow in 1959.

"People had a lot of questions. I mean, thousands of questions," Tuch said, speaking at a recent conference at the US ambassador's residence in Moscow dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the exhibition.

Some of their questions, Tuch said, included: "How much do you earn at work? How much does this car cost in number of hours that a man has to work? ... Are you an American spy because you speak Russian?"

Comments left in visitors' logs also showed a fascination with US consumer goods, especially the cars.

But the Communist Party's mouthpiece newspaper Pravda was scathing in its review of the exhibition.

"'Where is the technology? Where are the achievements of American science?' That is what visitors found themselves asking the tour guides," Pravda wrote several days after the exhibition opened.

"The thirst for knowledge about the technical achievements of the USA cannot simply be quenched by the refreshing drink 'Pepsi-Cola' which visitors were treated with."

AFP / Expatica

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