Soviet circus propaganda
November 27, 2005 6:19 PM   Subscribe

In the book I'm currently reading about Bobby Fischer and his match with Boris Spassky, the author's write, "the Soviets would construct their propaganda edifice on three main pillars, 'chess, the circus and ballet. In all three the Soviet Union could be shown to be far ahead of the West.'"

1) Is this true (the three main pillars bit)? and if so; 2) I can understand chess and ballet, but circuses? Can anyone explain or point me to sources that tell the story of how this nation would attempt to demonstrate their superiority by showing that their clowns were better than yours?
posted by tellurian to Society & Culture (13 answers total)
You're reading "Bobby Fischer Goes to War" yes? They're not talking about clowns, per se, but the extraordinary acrobatics and discipline that goes into the Russian circus. I think some of this energy was transferred into gymnastics programs for olympic athletes.
posted by aladfar at 6:24 PM on November 27, 2005

There's more to the circus than clowns. Before Cirque du Soleil "reinvented the circus," transforming it into a near-theatrical experience (and adding safety lines to the aerial acts and eliminating the animal acts), circus artists had to be incredibly physically talented performers. I was fortunate enough to catch the Moscow Circus when it toured Seattle and I was blown away. The only acts that come close for sheer physical ability in the Cirque shows are the contortionists. I'm not sure I'd elevate them to the same plane as grandmasters and ballet dancers, but Olympic athletes, sure. (No slam intended against Cirque du Soleil, I love their stuff.)
posted by zanni at 6:35 PM on November 27, 2005

Or what aladfar said. Damn.
posted by zanni at 6:36 PM on November 27, 2005

i saw the moscow state circus 3 years ago with my daughter here in town ... they really are quite extraordinary
posted by pyramid termite at 6:36 PM on November 27, 2005

try reading this as well.
posted by dorian at 6:36 PM on November 27, 2005

I remember watching the Moscow Circus perform in Moscow in 1977 and being completely blown away. The acrobatic performances were incredible... on par with or better than the best Cirque de Soleil acts I've seen in more recent years.

The thing that really blew my mind was that the orchestra's score was almost entirely Pink Floyd! Surreal.
posted by trip and a half at 6:51 PM on November 27, 2005

You might also check out the US's response to these three pillars in Penney von Eschen's Satchmo Blows up the World. We gave the third world jazz stars and the USSR gave them ballet, folk dancing and circuses. It truly was a fun time to be fought over by the superpowers.
posted by jmgorman at 6:58 PM on November 27, 2005

Response by poster: Yes aladfar that's the one. My clown reference was light-hearted and can be replaced with just 'their circus was better than yours.'
Upon further research this page has given me an inkling as to why the circus was championed. "To the founding fathers of the Soviet state, however circus had a special significance which put it on par with, even above, the ballet and opera: it was a truly popular-egalitarian-form of entertainment, enjoyed by all, regardless of race, language, age, education or class. Requiring great skill, benefiting from creativity and originality, circus nevertheless needs no sophistication." [my emphasis] I can see how this would fit with their ideology.
posted by tellurian at 7:44 PM on November 27, 2005

Another entertaining book that illustrates the level of wackiness that pervaded the East vs West in terms of chess during the Cold War is Keene's Karpov-Korchnoi 1978 : the inside story of the match.

The account includes all sorts of lurid details, including:

"The Flavored Yogurt Gambit", in which Korchnoi's camp accused Karpov's camp of communicating strategy advice through the medium of various flavors of yogurt that Karpov ate while playing.

"The Hypnotist Scandal", in which the Korchnoi camp accused the Karpov camp of hiring a hypnotist to sit in the front row of the observer gallery and attempt to hypnotize Korchnoi into being distracted from the game (apparently Korchnoi initially responded by wearing sunglasses to reduce the effect).

"The Ananda Marga Controversy", in which Keene admits that Korchnoi's camp enlisted the assistance of two Ananda Marga sect members to sit on either side of the man they identified as the hypnotist to give him something else to think about instead of attempting to confabulate Korchnoi.

"The Bruised Knees Syndrome", in which it was apparently necessary to install a metal plate underneath the match table between the two players, to stop them from kicking each other in the knees when the other player was reaching to move a piece.

The account has been criticized as being heavily pro-Korchnoi (Keene was part of the Korchnoi camp), but it's an entertaining read, all the same.
posted by planetthoughtful at 9:43 PM on November 27, 2005

You need to remember that the Soviet Bloc was far behind the West in terms of mass media entertainment. Prior to television, the circus was an enormously important form of culture that brought the wonders of the outside world to small towns. Remember that Barnum was one of the quintessential American figures of the 19th century, and couple that with the dramatic delay that Russia experienced joining the world culture. There was still room for the circus to have cultural leverage. Only once you have TV, and rock and roll, does it seem quaint.
posted by dhartung at 9:50 PM on November 27, 2005

I think saying those are the three main pillars unfairly excludes sports. Communist countries have always used the success of their athletes as propaganda.
posted by fred_ashmore at 11:10 PM on November 27, 2005

Russian circus supremacy goes back way before the Revolution. (The Moscow circus isn't as old, but still dates back to the 19th century.)
posted by languagehat at 5:48 AM on November 28, 2005

Response by poster: It looks like I need to get hold of this program 'The Dream of Bear'. Anybody know where it might be available, because it isn't listed in their archives.
posted by tellurian at 3:59 PM on November 28, 2005

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