Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 11:20 UK

From Cold War to consumer world

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

The cocoon-like curves of a Modzelewski chair, fashioned in shiny red fibreglass and the aerodynamic shape of the iconic Vespa scooter - both are objects designed during an era of at once anxiety and aspiration, the Cold War.

Modzelewski chair
Objects offered comforting, enclosing designs during an era of fear

A new exhibition, opening this week at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, reveals how the period of icy relations between the Soviet Union and the West stimulated a feverish creativity which propelled us forward toward the modern era, generating much of the technology that dominates everyday life.

But could a new Cold War be round the corner? Russia's recent military intervention in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, wresting control of two separatist enclaves as the country turned to embrace Nato shocked the West, and Russia took offence at the West's objections.

Suddenly, it seems, mutual suspicion, hostile rhetoric and overt competition between the former superpowers has returned.

"What does the Cold War produce?" asks Jane Pavitt, the exhibition's co-curator. "It produces radar, satellite, microwave ovens, computers, transistor radios, the internet!

"In one sense, the Cold War created our contemporary push-button world - the technology of the microwave, computer, or even the bomb. There is a tension about this technology - it is both a tool of annihilation and optimism."

Cool winds

The exhibition's topicality, coinciding with heated language from both Russia and the US - with Russia saying it is "not afraid of a new Cold War" and the US warning Russia against a return to "isolation" - was, she admits, a surprise.


A look at some Cold War icons that feature in the new exhibition

"But it demonstrates how powerful that rhetoric is," Ms Pavitt says. "It still has the capacity to conjure up a sense of looming threats, we are still defined by these terms."

Spy writer and Russia expert Nigel West, author of a series of novels exploring the role of the intelligence services during the period, dismisses talk of a new Cold War, suggesting instead that any thaw was never really complete.

Messerschmitt car
Design during the Cold War combined elements of the military and the civilian
"The new generation, the new Russians who indulge in the consumer society remain very hostile to the West. They still see things through an East/West prism," he says.

"They still believe that Nato is an offensive bloc surrounding Russia, they truly believe that one of these days one of the military exercises they organise will turn out to be real. They think very differently."

Objects of desire

The exhibition, which covers the period between 1945 and 1970, contrasts the screaming politics of government propaganda posters with the clean lines and studied simplicity of household objects empty of message, designed for function alone.

But the show also argues that such objects - plastic tea-sets, armchairs and coffee machines - were often used as proxy weapons in the fight between capitalism and communism.

Citizens became, above all, consumers, and domesticity became a sphere of a war over who - the state or the free market - would provide the objects to furnish it.

Curator Jane Pavitt
Who won the Cold War? Consumerism. It's a hollow victory. Do we replace ideology with shopping?
Jane Pavitt
Cold War Modern curator

One of the most revealing exhibits projects a young couple tripping across the screen in front of a modern apartment, gleefully bursting into song at the idea of having their very own coat-stand and a kitchen big enough to dance in.

Based on an operetta by Dmitri Shostakovich, the Gerbert Rappaport film Cherrytown speaks of the promises of modern domesticity during the era of Russia's Nikita Khrushchev.

It echoes a famous exchange during the 1959 American National Exhibition, in Moscow. With the backdrop of a state-of-the-art American kitchen, US Vice-President Richard Nixon asked Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: "Wouldn't it be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets?"

Richer modern-day Russians are famously some of the world's most prodigious consumers, with a seemingly endless appetite for labels and luxury goods.

But, says Mr West, a hunger for consumer choice has not been accompanied by a desire for political variety.

"While they are happy to have a wide range of goods in supermarkets, they don't seek democracy and a choice of parties," he says.

"We assumed that with satellite television and Marks & Spencer those central and eastern European states would become consumer-orientated and the socialist experiment would be abandoned," he says.

Sharing the same brands, he says, does not mean that two peoples cannot have views of the world that are utterly at odds.

"Whereas there were overt signs during the Cold War that this was a totally alien culture, today you have to sit down and discuss it [with Russians] to find out how very different they are," he says.

Ms Pavitt suggests that in the epic struggle between capitalism and communism, the ultimate winner is consumerism.

"It has become an incredibly powerful force. If consumerism is the winner in all of this, it is a hollow victory. Do we replace ideology with shopping? It's the predominant question for the 21st Century."

Rice criticises 'isolated' Russia
18 Sep 08 |  Americas
Russians losing propaganda war
15 Aug 08 |  Europe
Sign of the times
30 Aug 08 |  From Our Own Correspondent


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific