20 March 2015

Curtain Twitchers

by Harrison Salisbury
Columbia Records 1960

This book is as much a fragment of the cold war as a piece of the Berlin Wall. It could not have been produced at any other time and it resonates with all the tension of a stand-off between two giant ideologies.
In the USA of 1960, with its diners, rock and roll, Cadillacs and kitchens, this was just another thing you could buy. The Panorama series was launched that year by Columbia Records as a subscription service that would inform and entertain. There were to be three ‘programs’ covering art, nature & science, and travel. It was a multimedia marvel that would offer an experience far beyond the writing – “See it” with colour slides, “Hear it” with a long-playing record, “Read about it” with a handsomely bound guidebook. You could take out a 10-day trial, for which you would get a free Panorama Colorslide Projector and your first ‘adventure’. If you were impressed enough to carry on, it would cost you $3.95 per month.
Columbia pitched this series to be authoritative and serious, but in a way that an ordinary American family could engage with. For a small monthly outlay, you could have the wonders of the world explained to you by a dream team of experts and celebrities, whose commentaries were recorded onto 7-inch vinyl calibrated at 33rpm. Who better than Charles Boyer to introduce us to France, Vincent Price to give a languid, faintly sinister guide to Spain or Walter Cronkite to crane his neck with us as we marvel at a rocket to the moon? To immerse us even further into our new experience, the photos on the slides come from the very best cameramen of the age – Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson and Eliott Erwitt among them.
Our guide to the USSR could not be better qualified. Between 1949 and 1954, Harrison Salisbury was the Moscow Bureau chief for the New York Times. His dogged work in the face of the Soviet censors earned him a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1955 and he would go on to report from all over the world. His was a long and honourable career that saw him cover the Civil Rights Movement, be among the first journalists to vocally oppose America’s involvement in Vietnam and be a witness to events at Tiananmen Square.
On reading some of the text that accompanies each slide, it seems a little odd then that a journalist of such apparent integrity should apply a mocking, almost boastful tone to his subject. But this was the Cold War approaching freezing point, and one way to reiterate the superiority of the American Way was to point up the terrible plight of those living under a different system. As the lucky subscribers slotted their card of transparencies into the projector, they could ponder the lot of their Soviet counterparts whose closest brush with a consumer paradise came at the grim GUM department store in Moscow.
Here the merchandise was “shoddy and expensive”.  All the products on sale were Soviet made and, as well as clunky cameras and functional kitchen ware, you could buy for $120 a man’s suit “badly sewn, made of sleazy materials and cut with bell-bottomed trousers”. If you wanted a dress, you would have to buy the patterns and fabric and make it yourself, but you could up the glamour with a bottle of the “heavy, sweet scent” called ‘Kremlin’ that came in onion-dome bottles.
Salisbury’s derision is mostly aimed at the “cold machinery of the party” and the bureaucratic absurdities thrown up by over-rigid state control. But the people often get caught by passages of patronising observation that give an impression of the Soviet Union as a nation of friendly simpletons. Whether it is a peasant rewarded for exceeding production quotas “hung with medals, gaping at the sights of Moscow” or women covetously watching a fashion show for “stylish stouts”, we are presented with a herded, docile population whose limited freedoms are in stark contrast to the lives of subscribers to the Panorama series.
By 1960, the SovietUnion was still emerging from the shadow of Stalin who had died seven years earlier. There were the beginnings of a cautious opening-up alongside a campaign of “de-Stalinization” including, in 1961, the removal of his body from its place beside Lenin and the renaming of Stalingrad as Volgograd. In 1959, around 10,000 American tourists visited Moscow, all as guests of the state tourist agency Intourist which was dedicated to “rolling out the red carpet for visitors and seeing that they stay on it”.
The thawing, though, was only superficial. In the background was some increasingly aggressive willy waving from both sides. Salisbury’s text is studded with begrudging references to the Russian space programme. In an echo of griping over costs that would surround the USA’s own Apollo programme some years later, he tells us that “it has not been possible for the Russian government to produce both Sputniks for the state and comforts for the consumer”. Elsewhere, he notes that it “seemed that a Russian dog could make the trip to outer space more readily than a Russian citizen could travel across the border”.
The continuing development of nuclear hardware in ostensible defence of the different political systems meant that attempts at cultural exchange were often fraught with animosity. In his commentary on a slide illustrating how 45% of the Russian labour force were women (“they drive buses, operate cranes and steam rollers, lay brick, operate lathes…”), Salisbury quotes Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev as saying “we think so highly of our women that we never put them in the same class as capitalists”. That quote comes from a notorious incident with which Salisbury was well acquainted. 

A year before the publication of this Panorama guide, the Americans had been invited to stage the American National Exhibition at the newly opened Sokolniki Park centre in Moscow. The exhibition was opened by Kruschev and Richard Nixon, then Vice-President of America. As Nixon showed Kruschev around the wonders of the modern American home, the two fell to debating the relative merits of Communism and Capitalism. A crowd of security and press followed them through the display house and the two statesmen stopped at a barrier marking off the typical American kitchen. Journalist William Safire later recalled that at this point the two men’s backs were to the crowd and no one could hear what they were saying. Safire was there as press agent for the company that had built the house and was accompanied by Harrison Salisbury and other newspaper men. He hit on the idea of telling the security guards that Salisbury was a refrigerator demonstrator so they would let him through to the barrier. Once there, Salisbury sat on the floor and proceeded to take notes on behalf of the press pool.
“I want to show you this kitchen,” said Nixon. “It’s like those of houses in California. See that built-in washing machine?”
“We have such things.” Replied Kruschev.
Nixon persisted by saying that he wanted to make life easier for American housewives. As quoted by Safire, Krushchev’s reply was subtly different from the one quoted in this book: “We do not have the capitalist attitude toward women.” Salisbury's wording seems like a watering down of what was a quite barbed attack on the place of women in capitalist societies.
As the ‘kitchen conference’ became more heated, Nixon suggested that maybe it was better if the two sides competed in washing machines rather than rockets. “Yes,” replied Kruschev “but your generals say we must compete in rockets.” As each man defended his position with increasing vehemence, Elliott Erwitt was able to get his famous shot (not included in the Panorama guide) of Nixon prodding Kruschev’s lapel in the heat of debate. This was an image later re-sold to the American people by Nixon in his bid for the White House in 1960.
 Perhaps the propaganda aspect of these guides is easier to identify in hindsight. At the time it would have seemed a seamless new product line in the infotainment market place, keyed in to the times. Columbia’s choice of subjects for its series would, for commercial reasons at least, have chimed with current concerns. If you kept up your subscription, you could for example choose another pack of slides and commentary called The Atomic Submarine and Polaris. Slide 29 of this adventure was captioned “15 minutes from target”. Slide 31: “Polaris Away!” The last slide: “Power for Peace”.