Alexander Dolitsky: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity - Must Read Alaska
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Alexander Dolitsky: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

During the Cold War, people of the Soviet Union had little except their secret faith in God and hope for a better life

By ALEXANDER DOLITSKY

The post-war history of Soviet–American relations, seen from an American perspective, can be summarized as a series of Cold War cycles.

The first cycle, 1945–55, might be called the Truman–Stalin duel. This period coincided with the division of Germany and Europe, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, the Warsaw Treaty, and the Korean War. 

The second cycle, 1956–73, featured Khrushchev’s nuclear threat, the expansion of socialist ideology into developing countries, the development of Soviet space technology as demonstrated by Sputnik, and the Soviet–Egyptian arms deal. 

The third cycle, 1974–86, began with the self-destruction of an American president, Richard Nixon, via Watergate, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The United States then imposed a trade embargo and otherwise tried to isolate the USSR.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and his administration challenged the Soviet government by enlarging the U.S. nuclear and conventional military arsenal. Attempts by the Soviets to compete with the military production of the United States eventually devastated the Soviet economy and severely impacted its physical environment and natural resources. 

During the Cold War, people of the Soviet Union had little except their secret faith in God and hope for a better life. Economic, political, military and ideological tensions between the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War affected Soviet people across all socio-economic spheres: shortages of goods and food products; government controlled economy, rigid censorship of social media, science, literature, entertainment and fine art; inability to travel abroad by a majority of Soviet citizens; the Communist Party control of the election process; persistent Marxist-Leninist propaganda at all social and educational levels.

Citizens suffered from unprecedented government corruption in all spheres of life and only one political party—the Communist Party, with its presiding Politburo, in charge of the entire country and its citizens. 

And these are only few of many features of the Socialist socio-economic system, with underlining Marxist-Leninist ideology, established to guard the Soviet Socialist regime from a free world—very much like to today’s North Korean dictatorship.

A warming period during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and United States began with the Duke Ellington orchestra’s 1971 visit to the Soviet Union, as the most important and publicized tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Ellington’s tour of the Soviet Union occurred during the efforts of President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to establish détente at the height of the Cold War. 

Ellington found acceptance by the Soviet people and reluctance of Soviet government to censor American jazz. Although Ellington was an apolitical musician, he wanted his performances to embody the differences between what he viewed as the freedom and democracy in America and the isolation and lack of freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union. Ellington made a strong impact on the Soviet society.

Ellington’s orchestra performed in the major cities in the Soviet Union, including Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine. As a freshman student of the history faculty of the Kiev Pedagogical Institute, I, driven by academic interest in American culture, attended his concert that was held at the Sport Arena.

To my surprise, only half of the Arena was occupied during the concert. Rather than obvious enthusiasm and excitement among attendees, there was  only an atmosphere of uncertainty and intellectual curiosity.

Finally, after a short introduction, the concert began, with some unfamiliar and incoherent musical sounds to my ears. And, indeed, I had been well-versed in classical music. To me, Ellington’s orchestra sounded like a rehearsal by obscure musicians. The American jazz did not appeal to me at all.

At some moment of the concert, a black voluptuous woman appeared on the stage— a vocalist named Ella Fitzgerald. She accompanied Duke Ellington during his tour of the Soviet Union.

I could not connect with her performance either. Soviet indoctrination (or a Marxist-Leninist brainwashing) in Socialist Realism inherently dictated my understanding and preferences in music, literature and other forms of fine art.

Certainly, it was not an imperfection of the performers during the concert that caused my dislike, but my lack of knowledge, familiarity and, subsequently, appreciation for the American jazz. After the intermission, I left the concert early, thinking to myself, “What a waste of time and money.”

Many of my classmates who attended Ellington’s concert shared with me a similar view and experience.

On May 22, 1972, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to visit Moscow to begin a summit meeting with the Soviet Chairman of Politburo Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet officials.

On May 26, Nixon and Brezhnev signed two landmark nuclear arms control agreements. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) was the most significant of the agreements reached during the summit.

Like Duke Ellington, Nixon visited several major cities in the Soviet Union during his trip, including my home town—Kiev, Ukraine. I don’t recall the purpose of Nixon’s visit to my town, but I do recall that all streets were blocked and secured in places where his escort was to pass from one point of the city to another. Numerous secret service agents were guarding these streets, as well as windows of the apartments that were facing those streets.

Soviet citizens sincerely believed that after Nixon’s visit to the Soviet Union their life would improve with plentiful and high-quality goods and services made available to them through the introduction of a free-market economic system. This wishful dream became a reality only 20 years later—in the 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a collapse of the Socialist regimes in East European countries, including the Soviet Union.

In spite of all of the mutual animosity of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union never engaged in direct military action, fighting, at worst, by proxy. In fact, both American and Soviet leaders did a fairly good job of preventing a “hot war” between these two great nations, thereby preserving mankind for subsequent global challenges. 

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1977; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • I would be interested coming back and reading people’s commentary.

    His youthful reaction to the orchestra and Ella Fitzgerald sounds like the reaction I receive from too many parents and individuals about reading higher quality books to their children. They either say books are a waste of time, or they react unmoved. And I get discouraged because there isn’t anyone i can talk to about anything that builds us up and we exchange thoughts and ideas beyond what the family is doing, going to eat, and where they are going.

  • Interesting summary about Mr. Dolitsky’s reaction to the discordant sound that is American Jazz. In my reading I’ve found that some of the bigger monsters of the soviet era loved American Jazz, Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB, being one. Hitler was said to be fond of Gustav Mahler, another composer that some find discordant and weird. Just an observation.
    Thank you Alexander and Suzanne for another good read. One gets very tired of the grim, soulless reporting about politics, thank you for something different!

  • Robert, as you may know, from 1946 to 1985, travels to Alaska were officially closed for the Soviet citizens and likewise Siberia for American citizens, with exception of selective scientists visiting both places for research-related purposes under auspices of the International Research Exchange Board (IREX). I did my field work in Alaska for Brown University in 1981. Then, I was first and only Soviet born person in Alaska since 1945.

    You are correct, Russian high officials had access to many foreign goods at the special “Berezka” stores and others places, etc. They lived a separate life from other Soviet population.

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