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Research and Teaching Exhibitions in World History


The Soviet Union at the 20th-Century World's Fairs

Anthony Swift


     Throughout its existence, the Soviet Union used world's fairs to demonstrate to the world the economic and social achievements of the first socialist nation. It was a major presence at most of the twentieth century's great world's fairs and international expositions, from Paris's 1925 International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts to Osaka's Expo 70. Since London's Great Exhibition of 1851, periodic world's fairs, international expositions, universal expositions, and world expos, as they have been variously called over the years, have given nations a chance to define themselves to the world by presenting to an international audience what they do best in industry, science, and the arts.1 In contemporary terms, they are ideal sites for public diplomacy and nation branding.2 The world's fairs were the primary arenas of peaceful international competition until the second half of the twentieth century, when the Olympic Games and the World Cup became equally or more important symbolic contests among nation states. With the appearance after 1917 of the Soviet Union, a new kind of state based on socialist ideology, national competition increasingly took on an ideological coloring. Soviet participation in the world's fairs of the twentieth century focused not simply on raising national prestige, but on publicizing the achievements of its brand of Marxist-Leninist socialism before an international audience. In 1925 the new socialist country made a big splash at the Paris exposition with its constructivist pavilion, designed by Konstantin Melnikov and filled with displays that showcased the Soviet avant-garde's revolutionary experiments in design. By the 1930s, with Stalin firmly established in power, the emphasis on revolutionary experimentation had given way to a more prosaic focus on the economic and social accomplishments of the construction of socialism under the Five-Year Plans, which were presented to the world at international expositions held in Paris in 1937 and New York in 1939. The onset of the Cold War brought the Soviet Union into open rivalry with the United States, and the competition between the socialist and capitalist systems became a key element of the world expos in which the two superpowers both took part: Expo 58 in Brussels, Expo 67 in Montreal, and Expo 70 in Osaka. This article will examine the Soviet Union's participation in the key twentieth-century world's fairs. How did the USSR represent itself at the world's fairs? What did it seek to achieve by participating in these much-publicized international events? How did the press and the public respond to the Soviet pavilions and their exhibits?

Paris 1925

     In the years that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Soviet Russia's relations with the rest of the world were strained at best. During the civil war, the Allies had sent troops to Russia and given support, albeit lukewarm, to the Bolsheviks' opponents. The Bolsheviks not only repudiated the tsarist regime's debts and confiscated the property of foreign nationals, but in 1919 had formed the Communist International, or Comintern, to spread revolution abroad. By 1921, however, it was becoming apparent that although the Bolsheviks had won the civil war, revolution had failed to spread and the new Soviet government would have to find a way to co-exist with the capitalist countries, at least until sometime in the future when conditions were ripe for revolution to be successfully exported. An Anglo-Soviet trade agreement was signed in 1921, followed in 1922 by the Rapallo Treaty with Germany, whereby both countries agreed to renounce all claims and to establish economic and diplomatic links. In December 1922 Soviet Russia joined with other soviet national republics from the old Russian Empire to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The United Kingdom officially recognized the USSR in February 1924, followed by France in October 1924. By the mid-1920s the Soviet Union had established diplomatic relations with most of the major capitalist powers, although the United States withheld recognition until 1933. In the autumn of 1924, having recognized the new socialist state, France invited it to the forthcoming International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, to be held in Paris from April until October 1925.3

     The Soviet Union had previously participated in several international art exhibitions and trade shows, as well as Ghent's International Cooperative Exhibition in 1924, but it saw the Paris exposition as an unprecedented opportunity to represent the new socialist state to a wide audience on the world stage, to prove that the arts were flourishing under the new regime, and to cultivate markets for export.4 The exposition's focus on the arts and design, rather than industry, meant the Soviets would not be handicapped by the devastation of large-scale manufacturing brought about by the revolution and civil war, but could showcase the explosion of creativity that their revolution had unleashed. The centerpiece of the Soviet exhibition in Paris was Konstantin Melnikov's USSR pavilion, a sharp departure from conventional exhibition architecture. An unadorned wooden structure sheathed in glass and bisected by a diagonal open staircase, it exemplified the radically new and innovative architecture being created in the Soviet Union. The ground floor contained exhibits of the Soviet arts industries and artisanal products made by the various nationalities of the USSR, while on the second floor there was a rural reading room, an urban workers' club, and a children's corner with exhibits of children's art and toys. In the Grand Palais, where each participating nation was allotted exhibition space, the Soviet displays included paintings, sculptures, books, textiles, clothing, avant-garde porcelain and ceramics, theatrical models, constructivist and supremacist architectural projects, sketches of street decorations, and the banners of party and professional organizations. Many of the exhibits were brought from the First All-Russian Exhibition of Agriculture, Handicrafts and Industry that had been held in Moscow in 1923.5 Like many other pavilions at the exposition, the Soviet pavilion was not completed in time for the official opening of the exposition. When it did open on 4 June in the presence of Soviet ambassador Leonid Krasin, political tensions were evident, and there was an embarrassing diplomatic incident when the French education minister who had been invited to the ceremony left after bystanders began shouting "Long Live the Soviet" and protesting French military intervention in Morocco.6

Figure 1
  Figure 1: USSR pavilion, Paris 1925.
Postcard, author's collection.

     The Soviet pavilion in Paris stood in stark contrast to the more ornate structures erected by other nations and private companies at the exposition, a contrast that was underlined by Melnikov in his description of his work in the official brochure: "[There was] no elegant furniture or luxury fabrics. Visitors [could] find neither furs nor diamonds, but those able to sense the forward surge of the creative classes [were] able to appreciate the studied simplicity and the austere style of the workers' club and the rural reading room. Here everything is new, everything reflects the burgeoning civilization of the two classes now leading Russia toward the reign of labor and liberty."7 One French critic found it "elegant and extremely simple."8 Not everyone, however, appreciated its strikingly unusual appearance. The French journal L'Intransigeant called it "a house for a staircase," suggesting that the Soviets simply wanted to show that they were unlike anyone else, while The Times described it as a "grey and white factory, cut diagonally by a staircase with red vanes above like those of a harvesting machine."9 Notwithstanding these criticisms, Melnikov's USSR pavilion received a gold medal at the close of the exposition. Overall, Soviet participation in the 1925 Paris exposition served to highlight the creative explosion in the arts, architecture and design that had followed the revolution and to portray the new socialist republic as being firmly in the forefront of modern culture. The Soviet Union presented itself as a revolutionary nation, a challenger to the existing socio-political order that had broken with the culture of the past and started to construct the decisively modern culture of the future. When it returned to the international expo circuit in the late 1930s, the USSR would appear in a very different guise, as a strong and modern nation that could stand alongside the other European great powers, and whose artistic culture looked as much to the past as to the future.10

Paris 1937 and New York 1939

     The world's fairs of the late 1930s were held during a period in which the Soviet Union, worried by Hitler's rise to power in Germany, sought to downplay international evolution in an effort to break out of its isolation and forge anti-fascist alliances with its erstwhile capitalist foes in the interests of collective security. In 1934 the USSR joined the League of Nations, and the following year entered into a mutual assistance pact with France, at which time the Soviets agreed to participate in the forthcoming Paris International Exposition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life, scheduled for 1937. The Soviets were absent from the 1935 Brussels Universal and International Exposition, making this the first time the USSR had agreed to participate in a world expo, the 1925 Paris exposition having been a specialized international exposition. In 1935 Moscow instructed the Comintern to order western communist parties to shift from promoting revolution to seeking unity with other forces on the left to fight fascism, leading to the formation of Popular Front governments in Spain and France in 1936. Civil war between nationalists and supporters of the Spanish republic broke out in 1936. Germany and Italy soon began aiding General Francisco Franco's nationalist forces, and the USSR responded by giving assistance to the Spanish republic. Within the Soviet Union, Stalin had consolidated his power after Lenin's death in 1924, and in 1929 began building "socialism in one country" through the collectivization of agriculture and a crash program of industrialization. The era of revolutionary experimentation in the arts came to an end in the early 1930s. It was replaced by the more conservative culture of socialist realism, which became the only artistic style sanctioned by the state. By 1936 Stalin was the unchallenged leader of both the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet state, and unleashed a campaign of political repression that reached its height in 1937–1938 and came to be known as the Great Terror. Thousands of party and military officials were purged, put on trial, imprisoned, and executed, while peasants, national minorities, and others suspected of subversion were targeted in mass arrests.

     When the Paris international exposition opened in May 1937, reports on the Spanish civil war and the arrests and purges in the Soviet Union featured daily in the newspapers. By the time the New York World's Fair opened in April 1939, Franco was in power in Spain, Germany had annexed Austria and occupied much of Czechoslovakia, and Stalin had called a halt to the terror and purges in the Soviet Union. When the fair ended, Europe was at war. The Soviet exhibits at the 1937 and 1939 international expositions, or world expos, were part of the Soviet Union's attempt to cultivate allies by downplaying its commitment to international revolution and presenting Soviet socialism as a modernizing force that had transformed the backward tsarist empire into a strong, progressive nation that would make a valuable ally against the threat of German aggression. In both Paris and New York, the Soviets erected monumental pavilions designed by Stalin's favorite architect, Boris Iofan, that projected an aura of power and modernity. The exhibits focused on the material accomplishments of the five-year plans, particularly in heavy industry, but there was little about science, new technologies, or consumer goods.11

Figure 2
  Figure 2: USSR pavilion, Paris 1937.
Courtesy of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE).

     At the 1937 Paris International Exposition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life, the design of the enormous marble-clad Soviet pavilion mixed elements of the corporate Art Deco of New York's Rockefeller Center (not surprising, given many Soviet architects – and Stalin's – admiration of American skyscrapers), with some traces of earlier Soviet avant-garde architecture, such as the suprematist sculptures that flanked the main interior staircase.12 Crowned by Vera Mukhina's iconic sculpture of a worker and peasant holding a hammer and a sickle, the pavilion was an expression of "the impetuous and powerful development of the first socialist state in the world," according to the official description.13 It faced the equally monumental pavilion of Nazi Germany, designed by Hitler's architect Albert Speer, in a symbolic confrontation that echoed the struggle between socialism and fascism then being played out in the Spanish Civil War. As a French journalist described the scene, "from the two sides of the Champs de Mars the gesticulating colossi of the Soviets defy the eagle of Germany that lies in wait for them."14

Figure 3
  Figure 3: The Soviet (left) and German pavilions viewed from the British pavilion, Paris 1937.
Postcard, author's collection.

     The pavilion's interior was divided into a linear succession of five halls, each organized around a theme: the Soviet constitution and the achievements of socialism; science and education; the arts; transport and the Arctic; and urban and industrial development. It was a very didactic style of presentation, in which the exhibits functioned as illustrations of the texts and slogans that accompanied them and told viewers how to interpret what they saw. Visitors were shown what the five-year plans had accomplished in a series of displays of tractors, automobiles, models of dams, industrial complexes and the new Moscow metro, statistics on economic growth and social welfare provision, and numerous examples of socialist realist art, but only a handful of consumer goods such as textiles and shoes were on show, and nothing relating to the pre-revolutionary cultural heritage except examples of folk art and some classic works of Russian literature. Murals and maps were devoted to recent triumphs of engineering such as the Moscow-Volga Canal and the Dnepr hydroelectric dam, while numerous paintings and sculptures depicted Lenin and Stalin. There was also a large model of Iofan's Palace of the Soviets, which was to be the world's tallest building before its construction was halted at the outbreak of war between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1941. Throughout the pavilion, statistics compared the Soviet present with the tsarist past, underlining the economic and technological progress that had been made since the revolution. Exhibits on the 1936 "Stalin Constitution" highlighted the nation's averred democratic credentials, while a huge jeweled map of the Soviet Union impressed the public with its diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. On exiting the pavilion, visitors passed through the "apotheosis" of the exhibition, a small hall dominated by a giant sculpture of Stalin and flanked by allegorical panels depicting workers, students, and children. On the walls was Stalin's recent statement of Soviet foreign policy: "The policy of peace? We are dedicated to pursuing it with all our strength and by all means possible. We do not desire anyone else's territory, but we will not cede an inch of ours to anyone. We are for peace and defend the cause of peace, but we do not fear threats and are ready to respond blow for blow to warmongers." The entire exhibition could be read as an attempt to illustrate the truth of the last statement, for it portrayed a modern industrial nation built by socialism on the ruins of the empire of the tsars that had collapsed in defeat during the First World War. Outside the pavilion were displays of some agricultural machinery, and a nearby cinema showed documentaries, newsreels and feature films. As part of the Soviet cultural program, the Moscow Art Theater and the Red Army Choral and Dance Ensemble visited Paris to give performances during the exposition.15

Figure 4
  Figure 4: Interior of the Soviet pavilion, Paris 1937.
Courtesy of BIE.

     The Soviet pavilion, like that of its neighbor Germany, drew huge crowds in Paris, and each attracted around twenty million of the thirty million visitors to the exposition. While both nations' pavilions won gold medals, Frank Lloyd Wright deemed the Soviet pavilion to have been "the most successful and dramatic exhibition building at the Paris fair."16 The architecture of Iofan's pavilion and Mukhina's statue garnered much attention, although not all critics shared Wright's opinion. Writing in La Revue de Paris, Albert Flament found the gigantic sculpture of the worker and peasant that stood on top of the Soviet pavilion to be "totally out of proportion," while Philippe Diolé condemned both the Soviet and German pavilions for making an architectural show of strength.17 The Times criticized the Soviet pavilion for having too many models and too few actual products and deemed it more of "a monument to statistical claims than anything else," adding that the absence of overt Nazi propaganda could be argued to have made Germany's exhibition more "'convincing.'"18

     The Soviet staff in Paris monitored the French and international press during the exposition, and found that reviews of the contents of the pavilion were quite mixed. The left-wing press praised the exhibits for demonstrating how much the Soviet Union had accomplished since the revolution, but other publications criticized the profusion of models, statistics, and photos and suggested that there should be more about how ordinary people lived. Most French critics were unimpressed with the socialist realist art, finding it conservative and old-fashioned.19 Some visitors stated their opinions in comment books provided within the pavilion, although their remarks suggest that many had already formed their views of the Soviet Union before going to the pavilion. Some expressed their admiration for Soviet economic and social advances, others questioned the veracity of the presentation or complained that there were too many depictions of Stalin, but overall the positive comments outweighed the negative remarks.20 The staff of the Soviet pavilion reported on visitors' reception of the exhibits, and their reports indicate that the Soviet constitution and socialist construction were the focus of much interest, as were the jeweled map and the models of theaters, metro stations, the Moscow-Volga Canal and the Palace of the Soviets. In general, the public was found to be most interested in those displays that offered insights into economic development, educational and cultural policies, and everyday life in the Soviet Union.21

     The New York World's Fair opened less than eighteen months after the close of the 1937 Paris Exposition. In the interval between, Germany had expanded into Austria and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union continued discussing the possibility of coming to an agreement on collective security with Britain and France, but in May 1939 entered into the secret negotiations with Germany that would lead to the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 1939. The United States and the USSR remained on good terms, however, and the Soviets used events connected to the world's fair to emphasize their desire for friendship with the Americans. In an American radio "salute to the fair" broadcast in January 1939, for example, Soviet head of state Mikhail Kalinin praised American democracy and voiced the hope that the USSR's participation in the fair would "contribute to the consolidation of friendly relations with the United States. At the May opening of the Soviet pavilion, newly appointed ambassador Konstantin Umanskii emphasized that in coming to the world's fair the Soviet Union had demonstrated its desire for good relations with the United States, a view that he reiterated to President Roosevelt when presenting his diplomatic credentials at the White House in June.22

Figure 5
  Figure 5: USSR pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
Courtesy of BIE.

     At the 1939 New York World's Fair the Soviets mounted essentially the same show as they had two years before in Paris, again emphasizing the modernizing achievements of socialism with similar displays of heavy industry. The Soviet pavilion in New York was once more designed by Boris Iofan, the architect of the earlier pavilion in Paris, this time in collaboration with another leading architect, Karo Alabian. The stripped-classical structure formed a semi-circular columned courtyard, in the middle of which stood a 180-foot pylon that supported a 79-foot statue of a worker holding aloft a red star. On the base of the pylon an inscription from the Soviet constitution informed visitors that the USSR was a "socialist state of workers and peasants." The courtyard and pylon were meant to symbolize socialist democracy and the constitution, according to Soviet officials. As in Paris, marble was used abundantly to clad the exterior and interior surfaces. The entrance to the pavilion was flanked by relief portraits of Lenin and Stalin, while beneath the leaders were statuary groups of revolutionaries and workers.23

Figure 6
  Figure 6: Relief portraits of Stalin and Lenin flanking the entrance to the Soviet pavilion, New York 1939.
Courtesy of BIE.

     The theme of the New York World's Fair was "Building the World of Tomorrow," and the Soviets aimed to prove that they were building that world under socialism. As a planning document stated, the pavilion of the USSR was to demonstrate that "the future belongs only to the Soviet system."24 On entering the pavilion, visitors first encountered a large mural depicting "Outstanding People of the Country of the Soviets," on either side of which stood red marble statues of Lenin and Stalin, together with smaller murals of scenes from the history of the revolution. An enlarged version of the jeweled map of Soviet industrial development that had been a hit in Paris was also on display in the entrance hall. The next six halls were devoted to the economic, social and cultural progress made by the USSR in recent years, and organized around the themes of socialist economy and labor; culture and leisure; city planning; transportation and power; art, science and literature; and the press. A final hall contained a huge mural, 265 feet long and 28 feet high, which depicted a procession of people moving towards the new Moscow to come and its as yet unbuilt Palace of Soviets. Above the mural were Stalin's words: "We have now a fully-fledged multinational socialist state which as stood all the tests and the stability of which might well be envied by any national state in any part of the world."25 Exhibits on Arctic exploration were housed in a separate building. As in Paris, models, dioramas, maps and photomontages comprised most of the exhibits, along with a large exhibition of socialist realist paintings depicting Soviet leaders, soldiers, workers, athletes, power stations, and icebreakers. As had been the case in 1937, references to the pre-revolutionary past were absent, other than to show how dramatically everything had improved since tsarist times, in a pavilion firmly rooted in the present and oriented towards the future. Visitors could learn about the social transformations brought about by the revolution, the growth of literacy, the expansion of railways, the collectivized organization of agriculture, the construction of dams and canals, and the leisure and cultural opportunities available to workers. Exhibits included automobiles, an electric map of the reconstruction of Moscow, a large model of the planned Palace of the Soviets in semiprecious stones, a diorama of the construction of the new city Magnitogorsk, and a life-size model of a section of a Moscow metro station, which used mirrors to create the effect of being on a station platform. A cultural program included films and performances by visiting troupes such as the Red Army Choral and Dance Ensemble.26

     The exhibits and thematic organization of the Soviet pavilion in New York were much like those seen in Paris in 1937, but the Soviets had learned from experience and made some improvements to their exhibition technique. In Paris, for example, a Soviet government inspection commission had found that there were too many small exhibits and the pavilion was crowded and stuffy, while those few examples of consumer goods that were exhibited had not made a good impression on the French public. In New York, it was decided to use those exhibits that had been most popular in Paris and do away with displays of consumer goods, in order "to show less with greater effect." The New York pavilion was twice the size of its Paris predecessor and air-conditioned, giving the crowds ample room to peruse its offerings in comfort, and also featured a restaurant that served Russian, Ukrainian, and Caucasian cuisine.27 In addition to taking account of their Paris experience, the Soviet fair commissioners also monitored reports on plans for other pavilions at the fair and suggested ways to compete with them, although they were confident that the "bizarre and spectacular" displays prepared by some American corporations would be no match for the Soviet exhibition, whose "displays will be all the more impressive in their dignity."28

     The Soviet pavilion at the New York World's Fair was well-received and got a great deal of favorable publicity. At the ceremony that marked the opening of the pavilion, New York mayor LaGuardia praised the Soviet exhibits and reminded his audience that the United States was also the product of a "bloody revolution."29 Time magazine rated it the best of all foreign pavilions, while The New York Times deemed the Moscow metro station one of the outstanding attractions at the fair.30 Wire services and local newspapers across the United States covered the pavilion and its exhibits, and the Soviet fair officials estimated that 85% of the coverage was positive.31 To be sure, there was also criticism. Some reviewers found the pavilion and its sculptures sentimental and propagandistic, while "patriotic societies" were angered by the height of the statue of the worker, leading the fair corporation to place an American flag on a parachute-jump so that the stars-and-stripes would be higher than the star in the worker's hand.32 As far as the American public was concerned, however, the Soviet pavilion was a big hit, attracting more visitors than any other pavilion at the fair – 16,500,000 people. It was even more popular than General Motors' Futurama, the attraction that drew the next largest number of visitors, sixteen million.33 As at the earlier Paris exposition, visitors to the pavilion could write down comments in visitors' books, but in New York there were far less negative remarks. According to Publishers' Weekly, the comments were "often guarded or skeptical, sometimes abusive, but on the whole very favorable." Most visitors were impressed by the beauty of the pavilion and the exhibits showing the modernization accomplished by the Soviet Union in recent years.34 The official in charge of the Soviet pavilion, German Tikhomirnov, reported to Moscow in August that "considering the enormous political significance of our pavilion and the resulting shift in our favor of public opinion regarding the USSR among various sectors of the USA's population, and also the great popularity of our pavilion, there is no doubt that we should remain at the fair" when it opened for a second season in 1940.35

     There seem to be three main reasons why the Soviet pavilion and its display of socialism's achievements got such a favorable reception in New York. First, ordinary Americans were not particularly ill-disposed towards the Soviet Union in 1939. A November 1938 poll indicated that if Germany and the Soviet Union were to fight a war, 80% of Americans would prefer to see the Soviet Union win.36 Second, the Soviet pavilion, although very large, did not dominate the central axis of the New York World's Fair as it had, together with Germany's equally huge pavilion, at the 1937 Paris Exposition. Germany did not participate in the fair, so there was no repeat of 1937's symbolic confrontation between gigantic pavilions and their opposing ideologies. The statue of the worker that towered over the courtyard of the Soviet pavilion, static rather than dynamic as Mukhina's sculptural group had been, was among the tallest at the fair, but it was not out of place at a fair replete with towers, pylons and gigantic statues. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Soviet pavilion and its exhibits presented a story of economic and social progress that was not unlike the stories being told at other pavilions at the fair, including that of the American government, in which a variety of audio-visual exhibits were used "to tell people simply, graphically and dramatically what the American Government is doing to make every human being within its borders happier, healthier, safer, and more useful to the country and the world at large."37 Americans may have been receptive to the Soviet pavilion and its exhibition because they told a story of modernization, progress, and the conquest of nature that was similar to the American national narrative. As the noted journalist Walter Lippmann commented, the Soviet exhibits seem to be trying "to convince the American crowds that Russia is now more American than America itself."38

     The Soviet pavilions at the late 1930s international expositions were a success in that they gained a good deal of favorable publicity for the country. There were limits, however, to what even successful cultural diplomacy could achieve. The Soviet exhibition in Paris did not convince the French that the Soviet Union would make a reliable ally in a collective security agreement, while the favorable publicity the Soviets generated in the United States was overshadowed by the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 and the Soviet attack on Finland only a month after the world's fair's first season ended on 31 October. The Soviet Union did not return to New York for a second year, but dismantled its pavilion and shipped it back to Moscow.39

Brussels 1958

     Almost two decades elapsed between the 1939 New York World's Fair and the next major world expo, the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exposition, or Expo 58.40 The theme of the Belgian expo, "a balance sheet for a more humane world," sought to focus attention on how scientific progress could benefit people in the atomic age. Since 1939, a world war had killed millions and wreaked destruction throughout Europe and Asia, the secrets of nuclear weapons and power had been unlocked, and decolonization had led to the creation of a steadily increasing number of newly independent nations. Europe was now divided into opposing blocs led by rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which were engaged in a Cold War of military, economic, ideological, and cultural competition. Tensions eased somewhat, however, after Stalin's death in March 1953. The new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, not only denounced Stalin's terror and other crimes at the twentieth party congress in 1956, but ushered in a new era of greater openness and more relaxed censorship in the Soviet Union that came to be known as "the Thaw." At the same time, in foreign policy Khrushchev attempted to reduce tensions with the West and advocated a new policy of "peaceful coexistence," in which the socialism would defeat capitalism not by military means but by out-producing it in peaceful competition on the economic, cultural, and scientific fronts. Still, the Soviet Union did not hesitate to use force to retain control of its hard-won sphere of influence in east-central Europe when challenged in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956. Throughout the 1950s the two superpowers had competed at trade fairs throughout the world, but Expo 58 offered both the Soviets and Americans an unparalleled possibility to propagandize their respective ideologies and achievements before an audience of tens of millions in the heart of Europe.41

     The clean lines of the Soviet pavilion at Expo 58 reflected the USSR's abandonment, under Khrushchev, of the monumental style that had characterized the Stalinist architecture of the 1937 and 1939 pavilions.42 The project chosen for Brussels was, in the words of Aleksandr Boretskii, one of the team of architects, "a light and simple construction of glass and steel" clothed in a "corrugated glass wall, which allows visitors outside to look in and see what is inside the pavilion."43 There were no more enormous statues or reliefs on the outside of the pavilion, a modern-looking rectangular glass box that seemed to suggest that the Soviet Union had emerged from its isolation and secrecy under Stalin to embrace a new transparency. The pavilion's modern style was applauded by some western critics, while others found it unsophisticated and likened it to a large refrigerator.44

Figure 7
  Figure 7: Soviet pavilion, Brussels 1958.
Courtesy of BIE.

     In preparing for Expo 58, the Soviet planners were well aware that they would be competing with the capitalist countries, above all the United States, whose pavilion was located almost opposite that of the USSR. Yakov Lomko, deputy head of the news agency Sovinformburo and one of the key exhibition planners, told a planning committee in May 1957 that "the Brussels exposition affords us such opportunities for propaganda as we have never had at our disposal during the postwar period in Europe," arguing that "we should conduct a real Bolshevik battle at the exposition."45 Noting that Soviet propaganda of socialism's achievements was not having much influence on the western public, especially after Khrushchev's revelations of Stalin's crimes at the February 1956 party congress and the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in late 1956, he set out what the key messages at Brussels would be: the USSR's democratic values, its commitment to peace, and how its economic policies benefitted ordinary people. He also stated that the exhibition would have to deal with unspecified problems that the Soviet Union was still solving in order to avoid accusations of glossing over the truth, but nothing in the final exhibition indicated that this suggestion was taken up.46 Throughout the planning stages, the Soviets gathered what information they could about what the Americans were going to exhibit in Brussels and sought to make their exhibits attractive to a western public, even consulting a Belgian public relations firm for suggestions.47 One concern was what impression Soviet exhibits of consumer goods would make on foreign audiences. As the General Commissar of the Soviet Exhibition in Brussels, Dmitrii Ryzhkov, told planners in October 1957,

"We have not yet attained the appropriate level of well-being, not enough consumer goods are as yet produced, we all know that and they know that there, too. Obviously, the world press will make evaluations and all kinds of criticism of what we exhibit. There will be a battle of opinion, and we should prepare to defend as far as possible our ideas, the superiority of which we are called to prove and show to the entire world."48

     Aware that the United States would emphasize its democratic system and material prosperity, as it had in its "People's Capitalism" campaign at international trade fairs, which invariably featured a modern American kitchen, the Soviets developed exhibits that would not only demonstrate their nation's industrial and scientific progress since the revolution, but would also acquaint expo visitors with the lives of individual Soviet citizens and how they had benefitted from the nation's economic progress.49 There were to be more exhibits of consumer goods than had been the case in the 1930s, such as televisions, clothing, furs and automobiles, as well as a model family apartment. After the successful launch of Sputnik on 3 October 1957, the first man-made satellite to circle the earth, followed by a second on 2 November, a decision was taken to capitalize on this new example of the "latest attainments of Soviet science and technology" by making a display of models of satellites and rockets one of the focal points of the Soviet pavilion.50 The enormous international publicity received by their technological triumph in space increased Soviet planners' confidence in their ability to compete with the United States at the Brussels expo. As Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade Ivan Bol'shakov told a planning committee meeting in December 1957, "Now that we have launched a satellite, the Americans have begun to worry that we will beat them," citing an article from The New York Times warning of a possible American defeat at the expo.51 Sputnik also became the title of the pavilion's weekly newspaper, available for sale in French, Flemish, German, English, and Russian, which contained humorous stories and anecdotes in addition to articles about life in the USSR and Soviet accomplishments in science, industry, education, and culture.52

     When Expo 58 opened on 17 April 1958, the Soviet pavilion attracted immense interest; it was estimated that 70% of expo-goers visited it in the first two months.53 The pavilion contained some eighteen thematic exhibits, which included displays on science, transport, construction, industry, agriculture, education, children, and leisure. Models of Sputnik satellites were the first thing visitors saw upon entering the pavilion, remembered Lomko in a 2012 interview. One of the models emitted a beeping sound that reminded visitors all over the pavilion that the Soviet Union was the first nation to put a satellite into space.54 The Sputnik exhibit included a model of the cabin that carried the dog Laika into space and information about the satellites' technical details, the trajectory of their orbits, and the scientific data they could gather. A historical display informed the public about the development of rocket technology in Russia and the Soviet Union from 1903 to 1957. The models of the satellites, an atomic reactor, and a nuclear-powered icebreaker proclaimed socialism's accomplishments in science and technology and the Soviet Union's avowedly peaceful use of atomic power. Televisions, automobiles, food products, clothing, and other consumer goods were also on display, along with exhibits on automated production, aviation, social welfare, science, and education. In keeping with the new emphasis on showing how ordinary Soviet citizens lived, one section was devoted to the lives and achievements of women in the USSR, while two life-sized models of prefabricated furnished apartments offered visitors a view of domestic life and an illustration of Khrushchev's program of housing construction. Paintings and sculptures of workers, collective farmers, athletes and events from the revolution predominated in the arts section, but addition to these staples of Soviet exhibition culture there was also a panorama that depicted the ruins of Stalingrad and the city's postwar rebirth from the ashes, highlighting the devastation suffered by the USSR during the Second World War and the enormous cost of reconstruction. A large statue of Lenin towered before a colorful fresco of the Moscow Kremlin, but there were no representations of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in contrast to the abundant depictions of Stalin in the pavilions at the prewar expositions in Paris and New York. As in the pavilion of the United States, there was a television studio that prepared and disseminated broadcasts about the pavilion, Sputnik, and scientific and cultural topics to western European stations, as well as a cinema, but the latter presented only conventional documentaries and feature films such as Potemkin and The Quiet Don rather than the technologically enhanced audio-visual experience of the Americans' Circarama. Hungry visitors could sample the cuisine of various Soviet republics and Russian vodka at the pavilion's restaurant. Separate exhibits of Soviet advances in scientific research were found at the expo's Hall of Science and Art, while works of western European art from Moscow and Leningrad museums were lent to the expo's exhibition "Fifty Years of Contemporary Art." In addition, a full cultural program of performances by the Red Army Chorus, the Moscow State Circus, the Bolshoi Ballet, and other theater and musical groups was held at the pavilion and Belgian theaters through the expo season.55

Figure 8
  Figure 8: Visitors examining one of the models of Sputnik satellites on display in the Soviet pavilion, with a statue of Lenin in the background.
Courtesy of BIE.

     The Soviet pavilion was inevitably compared to that of the United States, which stood nearby. The American pavilion, a large circular structure designed by Edward Stone, had a plastic roof with an opening at the center that allowed natural light to flood the interior by day. Inside, a large reflecting pool set the tone for a consciously relaxed environment that emphasized mass consumption and popular culture as much as science and technology; there were no models of the Explorer satellite launched by the United States in January 1958. On entering the pavilion, visitors first encountered a large map of the United States, below which were placed some icons of American identity – a gold nugget, a tumbleweed, a pair of cowboy boots, and a Model-T Ford. Ground-floor exhibits included a television studio, color televisions, an IBM computer that played cards or answered simple questions, a polling machine that visitors could use to vote for their favorite Americans, models and dioramas illustrating urban planning, mechanical hands used to handle radioactive materials, displays of applications of nuclear energy in hospitals and the food industry, and contemporary, folk and Native American art. On the second floor were hundreds of objects from daily life, such as furniture, domestic appliances, and sports equipment, arranged in thematic groups. Parents could leave their children at a Children's Creative Center, perhaps while taking in a fashion show in which Vogue models presented ready-to-wear garments, or getting an ice cream at the soda fountain at "Streetscape," a simulated American street environment. A well-equipped theater hosted concerts of popular music by visiting artists such as Benny Goodman and Henry Belafonte. An exhibit on racial relations located outside the main pavilion acknowledged the United States had some "unfinished work," but it was eventually removed after complaints by some congressmen from southern states. The most popular attraction at the American pavilion was "Circarama," a Disney-produced 360-degree film that gave audiences an aerial tour of the United States from New York to California.56

     The Belgian press gave largely favorable reviews to the Soviet pavilion, usually praising the abundance of exhibits of technology and machinery and the insights it afforded into Soviet life, although there was sometimes criticism that there were too many exhibits or too much propaganda. Journalists often drew a contrast between the exhibition styles of the two superpowers, usually commenting on the much greater amount of information, especially about industry and technology, available in the Soviet pavilion, and the interest it held for the public. There was a general consensus that the USSR was trying much harder at the expo than to demonstrate what it had accomplished than was the United States.57 Visitors to Expo 58 rated both the Soviet and American pavilions highly, although the Czechoslovak pavilion was most popular – 66.5% of visitors liked it best, according to surveys of Belgian visitors, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the public at Expo 58. The United States pavilion came in second (58.2%) the French third (55 %), and the Soviet fourth (51%). The main difference in visitors' response to the displays by the adversaries was in how they rated in architecture and content. The United States came out ahead in the architecture of its pavilion, while expo-goers rated the content of the Soviet pavilion much more highly. Both pavilions won gold medals at the expo.58

     Opinion surveys conducted by the United States Information Agency (USIA) make it clear that the Soviet exhibition was successful in favorably influencing visitors' opinions of the USSR. Whereas only 17% of visitors to the American pavilion in May came away with a more favorable opinion of the United States (15% left with a less favorable opinion), 36% of visitors to the Soviet pavilion reported that it had improved their opinion of the USSR (only 5% left with a less favorable opinion). The gap narrowed in September, but remained significant, even though visitors consistently rated the American exhibition the more credible of the two. The USIA report on the survey suggested that perhaps visitors had anticipated more from the United States than from the Soviet Union, although it also admitted that the American exhibition ranked lower because visitors found it less impressive than that of the Soviet Union. 34% of September visitors were disappointed by what the Americans had to show, compared to 10% who thought it better than they had expected, while only 6% were disappointed by the Soviet exhibition, which 36% found better than they had expected. Major factors in visitors' preference for the Soviet exhibit were "the great variety of articles shown" and the presentation of "many technical/scientific novelties," which suggests that the more traditional display in the Soviet pavilion, with its abundance of material objects of scientific and technological interest, was more satisfying to a significant number of expo-goers than the allegorical and less obviously didactic approach found in the American pavilion.59 In any case, by the end of Expo 58 the contest between the superpower rivals ended in a narrow victory by the Soviets, at least in the USIA survey, with 45% of visitors ranking the Soviet pavilion the better of the two, while 40% considered the American pavilion to be the best.60

     The Soviet display in Brussels was such a successful public relations feat that it caused much anxiety and soul-searching in the United States, already fearful of lagging behind in scientific education and the "space race." The American effort in Brussels had been plagued by funding troubles from the start, and it was suggested that a lack of sufficient funds had limited the range of exhibits.61 Howard Taubman, cultural critic for The New York Times, argued that the Soviet exhibition in Brussels was simply more focused:

"The Russians, in short, behave as if they have a clear idea of what they wish to achieve with their pavilion. They have arrived at Brussels confident and optimistic, fresh from such scientific triumphs as the launching of their sputniks, and a model of one with a space for Laika occupies a place of honor in the center of their main pavilion floor. They are showing their big machines. They are making much ado about their growing industrial power. They have placed on the tall pillars supporting their pavilion slogans proclaiming their devotion to the welfare of their peoples and to peace with the world. Say what you like about the crudity or naïveté of this vociferous assault, it seems to me to be achieving its goal. People go through the Russian pavilion remarking on its impression of size, strength and material well-being."62

In a 2012 interview, the Soviet planner Lomko was keen to point out that the Soviets had a clear idea of what they sought to achieve in Brussels: "We had no more clever goal than to show the world what we were doing in the Soviet Union, to show facts and things," in contrast to the "complacent and comfortable Americans."63

     The competing superpowers each tried to use Expo 58 to create a favorable image of their country and ideology, but they used different languages to get their messages across. The Soviet pavilion mounted a didactic display that aimed to educate and inform visitors by offering them concrete proof of virtually everything that the USSR had accomplished. The Soviets took a denotative approach, using objects, pictures and captions to tell their story – a story of progress since 1913 and obstacles overcome in the march toward socialism. The United States, by contrast, used the symbolic language of Madison Avenue advertising, constructing exhibits that connoted a variety of associations beyond what they actually were.64 The polling machine suggested freedom of choice, for example, a display of license plates (rather than actual cars) – car ownership, the fashion show – sophisticated consumption. Some exhibits were interactive, such as the card-playing computer, the mechanical hands, and the Childrens' Center, entertaining visitors and allowing them to participate in the exhibition. At the Soviet pavilion, the focus was on the display of stationary objects accompanied by explanatory texts, objects that for the most part had little connotative power. The models and exhibits of ice-breakers, autos, drills, apartments, factories and dams were simply material evidence of progress and prosperity. The models of Sputnik were exceptions, of course, for they did suggest other meanings apart from what they were, with their connotations of space travel, liberation from the earth's atmosphere and gravity, and science's potential to enable human beings to overcome nature's constraints. Space technology, with its futuristic aura, would become a key element in both Soviet and American pavilions at the next world expos in Montreal and Osaka, but the fundamental difference in their languages of display, one more concrete and didactic, the other more suggestive and entertaining, would also be evident.

Montreal 1967 and Osaka 1970

     The Soviet Union made plans to hold a world expo in Moscow in 1967 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution, but concerns about the cost and, very likely, the exposure of its citizens to bourgeois ideology and material culture led it to postpone the event indefinitely in 1962. Later that year, the Soviet Union withdrew from the 1964–65 New York World's Fair, probably also due to financial considerations coupled with the realization that the fair would not have the international importance initially anticipated.65 After the Soviet decision not to go through with the Moscow expo, Canada, which had previously made an unsuccessful bid to stage a world expo in 1967 to commemorate the centennial of its Confederation, got approval from the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) to host Expo 67 in Montreal. The Soviet Union accepted the Canadian invitation to participate in the Montreal expo, the second BIE-approved world expo since Brussels nine years earlier, which brought the superpowers back together for "a return match in world's fair competition."66

Figure 9
  Figure 9: USSR pavilion at Expo 67, Montreal.
Courtesy of BIE.

     By 1967 the race to put a man on the moon was in full swing, with the outcome still in doubt, and each of the superpowers mounted large exhibits of space technology. The Soviet pavilion, fronted by a giant sculpture of a hammer and sickle, was again in a contemporary style with glass and aluminum curtain walls, but now topped by a cantilevered curved roof that contemporaries likened to a ski-jump. Designed by a team led by Mikhail Posokhin, it faced off with the acrylic geodesic dome of the United States pavilion, the work of Buckminster Fuller. In the hyperbolic description of a Radio Canada broadcaster, the two superpowers' pavilions stood "like glowering sentries facing each other across the Lemoyne Channel" in the St. Lawrence River, although they were linked by a pedestrian bridge fittingly called the Cosmos Walk.67 As in Brussels, the United States pavilion employed a display technique that was more suggestive than literal, "a highly selective, airy distillation of the American spirit in the arts and sciences" that an American journalist admitted could be deemed "lightweight" when compared to "the 'hit 'em with everything you've got' technique" employed by the Soviets. The American displays included giant pop-art paintings, cowboy gear, clips from old movies, photos of Hollywood stars, and Raggedy Ann dolls as well as the inevitable space technology, and some visitors found this depiction of American life to be frivolous and superficial. The Soviet pavilion, in contrast, was "jam-packed with all of the impressive technological displays that it can hold."68 As a Soviet official remarked in a radio interview, "Everyone knows what the Americans can do; we have to show what we can do," and the Soviets were determined to demonstrate that their scientific and technological achievements were equal to those of the Americans.69 Inside the pavilion, visitors encountered a giant bronze sculpture of Lenin, flanked by replicas of an assortment of Soviet spacecraft and satellites. In addition to the industrial and technical exhibits that crammed the interior, consumer goods such as clothing, televisions, and automobiles were on prominent display. In Montreal the Soviets made some use of contemporary audio-visual technologies – their pavilion contained a spherical flying saucer-shaped theater in which visitors could experience the sensation of a liftoff and journey to the moon.70 They also brought a lavish program of cultural events to Montreal during the Expo that included a series of performances by the Bolshoi Opera in its second-ever visit abroad.71

Figure 10
  Figure 10: Lines in front of the Soviet pavilion, Expo 67. The sculpture of a hammer and sickle celebrates the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution.
Courtesy of BIE.

     As at Expo 58, the Soviet pavilion at the Montreal expo was a cornucopia of industrial and technological products, which were packed into 140,000 square feet of exhibition space. There were some innovations, such as the simulated moon landing, a twice-daily fashion show (perhaps inspired by those the Americans had staged in Brussels nine years earlier) in which Soviet models introduced visitors to Moscow fashions, and the inclusion of photographs of Russian churches. Numerous consumer goods were in evidence, leading a Life magazine journalist to sarcastically comment, "The U.S.S.R. boasts that the Soviet consumer never had it so good and that it may soon put him in the driver's seat of a real car."72 In general, the Soviet approach was to show as much as possible and accompany the exhibits with detailed explanations. In the description of Robert Alden, writing in The New York Times:

"There are models of giant hydroelectric plants, electronic microscopes, computers used in the teaching of theoretical physics, mock-ups of supersonic aircraft, space capsules, pictures of churches in the Soviet Union, huge paintings of women running up a mountain road, models of Soviet automobiles, a Soviet sable coat, a simulated trip to the moon (at the climax of which, amid a lot of thunder and lightning, the capsule, lowered by a string from the ceiling, comes to rest on the moon's surface)."

The American journalist contrasted the display techniques of the Soviet Union, which "still employs an approach meant to overwhelm the visitor," with that of Czechoslovak pavilion, which it called "a jewel of imaginative, contemporary display techniques" that combined advanced electronic presentations with objects that were more suggestive than literal.73

     Both the Soviet and American pavilions were first on the list of 'must-see' attractions for most visitors to the fair. As Bill Bantley, a Canadian journalist who covered Expo 67 for the Montreal Gazette, later remembered: "In claiming their respective parts of Man and His World, the United States and the Soviet Union pulled out all the stops.... The United States was so playful in its eye-catching geodesic dome that some Americans felt their drive and know-how had been downplayed. The U.S.S.R. pavilion was the exact opposite with exhibits boasting rippling Soviet muscle."74 In the end, the Soviets beat the United States in the popularity contest in Montreal: surveys indicated that 13% of expo visitors liked the Soviet Union's pavilion best, compared to 8% who favored the United States' pavilion (the most popular pavilion of all was the Telephone Pavilion, rated as their favorite by 18%, where expo-goers could make videophone calls and see the Disney-made film "Canada '67" in Circle-Vision 360°).75 After the expo closed, the Soviet pavilion was shipped back to Moscow, where it was re-erected at the All-Union Exhibition of the National Economy.

Figure 11
  Figure 11: Soviet pavilion at Expo 70, Osaka.
Courtesy of BIE.

     When the next world expo opened in Osaka in 1970, the United States had already won the space race and gotten to the moon first. The Soviet pavilion's abundant display of technology was once more contrasted to the more low-key approach taken by the American exhibit planners. The flag-shaped Soviet pavilion, again designed by Posokhin and his team, was a sweeping red and white building topped with a hammer and sickle that was by far the tallest at the fair. It contained the usual industrial and technical displays, models of spacecraft, consumer goods such as televisions, and an enormous screen that showed ten films simultaneously, but had nothing to equal the moon rock on display in the United States pavilion, which was partly underground, its translucent roof supported by air pressure. The Americans also exhibited a scale model of the Apollo 11 lunar landing module. The moon rock was a key attraction for expo visitors, but there were long lines to enter the pavilions of both the United States and the Soviet Union, which international news agency UPI reported were the "Expo's star drawing cards."76 Many American visitors felt that "the soaring Soviet pavilion scored a psychological victory over the underground U.S. exhibit, even if the American displays of "a lunar module like that which actually went to the moon and a moon rock brought back by the Apollo 11 mission were clearly of greater interest than the Soviet mockups of space capsules."77 As at Brussels and Montreal, the Soviet exhibition technique of showing as many material objects as possible and emphasizing technological and scientific achievements was a success in the eyes of many expo visitors, even if the Americans had the moon rock. The editor of a Pittsburgh newspaper deemed the Soviet exhibition, to be "a knockout, embracing more than any of the other pavilions I visited and doing it all tastefully and effectively."78

Figure 12
  Figure 12: Spacecraft on display at the Soviet pavilion, Expo 70.
Courtesy of BIE.

     Expo 70 was the last world expo in which the Soviet Union participated. By the time the next one opened, Seville's Expo 92, the Soviet Union had vanished from the map, and its successor state, the Russian Federation, occupied its large pavilion, although Russia shared the space with other former Soviet republics. To be sure, the USSR exhibited at several smaller, specialized expos held in Spokane in 1974, Okinawa in 1975, Vancouver in 1986, and Brisbane in 1988, and what proved to be its last expo pavilions continued to draw crowds. At the Vancouver expo, for example, a Canadian newspaper reported that "in the superpower competition for prestige through Expo 86, the Soviet Union has won hands down," due at least in part to a modest American exhibit that was devoted to space travel and relied heavily on film and audio-visual effects. The Soviets showed some films, too, in a cinema attached to their pavilion, but the focus was on material displays such as an actual-size model of the Soyuz space station that visitors could enter and walk through or a giant electronic map of the USSR's transportation and communications systems. The expo commissioner-general in Vancouver, Patrick Reid, believed that the explanation for the Soviets' success lay in their "somewhat traditional view. They want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to see exhibits from their country."79 In contrast, many other countries used films rather than material exhibits to get their message across, in keeping with the trend that began in the 1960s and continues today.


     The Soviet Union used world's fairs to demonstrate the achievements of its socialist system to international audiences. Its first pavilion at a major international exposition, the 1925 Paris International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, emphasized the revolution in the arts that had followed the October Revolution, in keeping with the theme of this specialized exposition. At the Paris 1937 International Exposition and the 1939 New York World's Fair the Soviets changed their strategy of self-representation to highlight the economic modernization accomplished under the five-year plans, while the more conventional representational style of socialist realism replaced avant-garde art and design. The focus on industrial production and economic power continued to be prominent at postwar expos, yet the Soviet approach to international expositions evolved in the years following Stalin's death in 1953. At Brussels's Expo 58, held against the backdrop of the Cold War's intense rivalry between the superpowers, the Soviets introduced displays of cutting-edge scientific technology such as Sputnik together with exhibits of housing and consumer goods. Soviet exhibitions at Montreal's Expo 68 and Osaka's Expo 70 were qualitatively similar to that in Brussels, although there was an increased use of newer audio-visual technologies, together with the introduction of few references to the cultural legacy of the pre-revolutionary past. The Soviet representational style at the world expos remained didactic and denotative, with pride of place in its pavilions given to objects representing industrial, technological, and scientific achievements. It could be suggested that the old-fashioned quality of many Soviet exhibits, which continued an older expo tradition of showing material objects rather than relying heavily on audio-visual presentations, may have been one of the reasons for the continued popularity of their expo pavilions.

     The Soviet pavilions were invariably among the most well-attended at the expos and largely got good reviews in the press, especially at the 1939 New York World's Fair and Belgium's Expo 58, although they were also faulted for being too propagandistic, overwhelming in the quantity of objects displayed, and having too many slogans and explanations. Although it is impossible to ascertain to what extent Soviet exhibitions at world expos positively influenced foreign opinion and improved its image abroad, both the favorable press coverage at the New York World's Fair and the USIA survey of visitors to Expo 58 suggest that they did. Of course, world's fairs and expos are not sealed from the outside world and the events that take place there, events that can shape a nation's image far more than can a successful showing at a world expo. Stalin's purges were at their height during the 1937 Paris exposition, while during the 1939 New York World's Fair Stalin signed a pact with Hitler and invaded Poland. The New York World's Fair was followed by the Soviet invasion of Finland, Expo 67 by the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Expo 70 by the beginnings of détente and arms reduction talks. These events and others did much to shape the world's view of the USSR, for better or worse, just as the Vietnam War shaped the international image of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s more than any exhibition at a world expo could. Still, judging from the available evidence, the Soviet Union by and large achieved its aim of demonstrating the achievements of its socialist system and portraying itself as an advanced and modern nation to millions of visitors to world's fairs.

Anthony Swift is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Essex, UK, where he taught Russian and Soviet history from 1995 to 2015. He is the author of Popular Theater and Society in Tsarist Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), and has published various articles on Russian and Soviet social and cultural history as well as on world's fairs.


1 International expositions that do not primarily aim to sell goods or exhibit art, and are therefore unlike trade shows or art shows, are usually called "world's fairs" in American English and "international exhibitions" in British English, although "exposition" is sometimes also used. In French they are called "expositions universelles" and "expositions internationals." In 1931 the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) began regulating world's fairs and created two categories of international exposition: general and specialized. The terminology used by the BIE to describe expositions has evolved over the years. Since the 1960s the term "expo," which first appeared in 1937, has become the usual term to denote large-scale international expositions devoted to universal themes ("World Expos") or smaller expositions devoted to more specific topics ("International Specialized Expos"). In this article I use "world's fair" and "expo" to refer to the historical expositions which claimed to be universal in scope and are now called "world expos." On the BIE's history, work, and categorization of various types of international expositions see their website: (accessed 8 December 2015)

2 The term "nation branding" was coined by Simon Anholt. See his "Nation-Brands of the Twenty-first Century," The Journal of Brand Management 5 no. 6 (July 1998), 395–406.

3 Although the Paris 1925 exposition was limited in scope and would be considered a specialized exhibition under the classification framework adopted by the BIE in 1931, it was the most important international exhibition since the end of the First World War.

4 SSSR i Parizhskaia vystavka 1925 g. Mneniia otvetstvennykh politichskikh deiatelei. The USSR and the Paris Exposition of 1925. [The Opinions of Leading Political Figures] (Moscow: Sviaz, 1925).

5 RGALI {Russian State Archive of Literature and Art], fond [collection] 941, op. [inventory] 15, d. [storage unit] 16, ll. [pages] 1–5. Archival citations are hereafter referred to without explanatory brackets; L'Art décoratif URSS (Moscow-Paris, 1925), 5–21; S. Frederick Starr, Melnikov: Solo Architect in a Mass Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 88–99.

6 "France and the Soviet. Paris Exhibition Incident," Times (London), 5 June 1925, 13. The Soviets had earlier recalled a diplomat, Boris Volin, after the French Foreign Office protested that he had allegedly addressed a French Communist meeting in Paris ("Red Agent in Paris Sent Back to Moscow," New York Times, 10 May 1925, 1).

7 Cited in Danilo Udovički-Selb, "The Paris International Exposition and the Soviet and German Pavilions," in Vladimir Paperny, Rika Devos, Alexander Ortenberg, eds., Architecture of Great Expositions 19371959: Messages of Peace, Images of War (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015), 39.

8 André Bloc, "La Science et la vie," no. 95 (1925), cited in Anna Petrova, Nelli Podgorskaia, Ekaterina Usova, eds., Pavil'ony SSSR na mezhdunarodnykh vystavkakh [The Pavilions of the USSR at international expositions] (Moscow: N.O. Podgorskaia, 2013), 16.

9 André Laphin, "Une maison pour un escalier," L'Intransigeant, 9 May 1925, 1–2; "Paris Exhibition," Times (London), 11 June 1925, 15.

10 The Soviet Union did continue to emphasize its avant-garde credentials at international trade shows and art exhibitions during the 1920s, but by the early 1930s radical modernism had been supplanted by the more traditional socialist realism in the arts and architecture. On Soviet expositions in the late 1920s, see Maria Gough, "Constructivism Disoriented: El Lissitzky's Dresden and Hannover Demonstrationsräume, in Nancy Perloff and Brian Reed, eds., Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003), 77–128. The turn away from the modernism in architecture is discussed in Hugh D. Hudson, Jr., Blueprints in Blood: The Stalinization of Soviet Architecture, 19171937 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

11 On the Soviet exhibitions at the 1937 Paris exposition and the 1939 New York World's Fair, see Sarah Wilson, "The Soviet Pavilion in Paris," in Matthew Cullerne-Brown and Brandon Taylor, eds., Art of the Soviets: Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in a One-Party State, 19171992, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 106–120; Anthony Swift, "The Soviet World of Tomorrow at the New York World's Fair, 1939," The Russian Review 57 no. 3 (1998), 364–379; Swift, "Soviet Socialism on Display at the Paris and New York World's Fairs, 1937 and 1939," in Hans Czech and Nikola Doll, eds., Kunst und Propaganda: Im Streit der Nationen 19301945 (Berlin: Deutsches Historisches Museum, 2007), 182–191.

12 Danilo Udovički-Selb, "Between Modernism and Socialist Realism: Soviet Architectural Culture under Stalin's Revolution from Above, 1928–1938," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68 no. 4 (December 2009): 483–486.

13 "L'U.R.S.S. à l'exposition internationale de Paris 1937," in Livre d'or official de l'Exposition Internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie moderne, Paris, 1937 (Paris: Éditions SPEC, 1937), 495.

14 Pierre d'Espezel, "L'exposition international des arts et techniques dans la vie modern," Revue de Paris 44 (15 June 1937), 948.

15 "L'U.R.S.S. à l'exposition," 491–514 (quotation on 514); Pavillon de l'U.R.S.S. à l'exposition internationale des arts et techniques dans la vie modern. Paris 1937 (Paris, 1937); "Pavil'on SSSR na Mezhdunarodnoi vystavke 1937 g. v Parizhe" [The Pavilion of the USSR at the International Exposition of 1937 in Paris], Arkhitektura SSSR [The Architecture of the USSR] 7 (1937), 12–18.

16 Frank Lloyd Wright, "Architecture and Life in the USSR," Architectural Record, no. 82 (October 1937), 61.

17 Albert Flament, "Tableaux de l'exposition," La Revue de Paris 44 (15 June 1937): 948; Philippe Diolé, "Les pavillons allemand et russe à l'exposition marquent la même 'volonté de puissance'," Les nouvelles littéraires, 30 October 1937, cited in James D. Herbert, Paris 1937: Worlds on Exhibition (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998), 177, fn. 49.

18 "Expo' 1937," The Times (London), 13 September 1937, 13.

19 GARF [State Archive of the Russian Federation], f. 9499, "Sovetskaia sektsiia mezhdunarodnoi vystavki v Parizhe v 1937 g." [The Soviet Section of the International Exposition in Paris in 1937], op. 1, d. 10.

20 Ibid., d. 31, "Perevody otzyvov posetitelei sovetskoi chasti Mezhdunarodnoi vystavki v Parizhe" [Translations of the opinions of visitors to the Soviet section of the international exhibition in Paris].

21 Ibid., d. 4, ll. 1–44; Ibid., d. 5, ll. 1–16.

22 "Soviet Greets U.S. in Salute to Fair," New York Times, 30 January 1939, 15; "Russian Envoy Opens Nation's Pavilion at Fair as a 'Good Neighbor' of U.S.," Ibid., 18 May 1939, 22; "President Greets Two New Envoys," Ibid., 7 June 1939, 5.

23 GARF, f. 5673, "Sovetskaia sektsiia mezhdunarodnoi vystavki v N'iu-Iorke v 1939 g." [The Soviet Section of the International Exposition in New York in 1939], op. 1, d. 6, l. 50; Russell B. Porter, "Russia Takes the Spotlight at the Fair as Her Towering Pavilion Opens Today," New York Times, 17 May 1939, 20. For a detailed discussion of the Soviet pavilion and exhibits at the New York World's Fair, see Swift, "The Soviet World of Tomorrow."

24 RGASPI [Russian State Archive of Social and Political History], f. 82 [Viacheslav Molotov], op. 2, d. 763, l. 25.

25 GARF, f. 5673, op. 1, d. 430, ll. 2–5; Ibid., op. 3, d. 55, ll. 5–6.

26 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. New York World's Fair, n.d., GARF, f. 5673, op. 3, d. 55, ll. 1–6; Official Guide Book of the New York World's Fair (New York: Exposition Publications, 1939), 148.

27 GARF, f. 5673, op. 3, ll. 1–3; Ibid., op. 1, d. 6, l. 17.

28 Ibid., op. 1, d. 6, ll. 50, 174; Ibid., d. 156, l. 171.

29 "Russian Envoy Opens Nation's Pavilion at Fair as a 'Good Neighbor' of U.S.," New York Times, 18 May 1939, 22.

30 "World's Fairs," Time (12 June 1939), 2; John Markland, "Abroad at the Fair," New York Times, 4 June 1939, sect. 10, 1.

31 RGASPI, f. 82, op. 2, d. 765, l. 73. The clippings from the American press fill seventeen bound volumes (GARF, f. 5673, op. 1, dd. 368–384).

32 Inslee A. Hopper, "Fair Sculpture," Magazine of Art 32 no. 5 (May 1939), 27; "U.S. Flag Will Fly 1 Foot Above Soviet Star," New York Times, 30 May 1939, 20.

33 "Attendance at the New York World's Fair 1964–1965," 29 April 1962, 2, New York Public Library, New York World's Fair 1964–65 collection, Box 88, file A4.8 "Attendance." This is an estimate of attendance at the 1964–1965 fair that contains statistics on the 1939–1940 fair. It should be noted that there was a charge to enter the Futurama, while admission was free at the Soviet and most other pavilions.

34 "Books in the Soviet Pavilion," Publishers' Weekly, 19 August 1939, 522. There are fifteen volumes of visitors' comments. Out of a sample of 5000 entries, about 5% of the comments were negative (GARF, f. 5673, op. 1, dd. 242–256).

35 Tikhomirnov to Molotov, 22 August 1939, RGASPI, f. 82, op. 2, d. 765, l. 31.

36 Cited in Ralph B. Levering, American Opinion and the Russian Alliance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 16.

37 Official Guide Book, 151; "United States of America," in William Bernbach and Herman Jaffe, eds., Book of Nations (New York: Winkler and Kelmans, 1939), 11–13.

38 Walter Lippmann, "A Day at the World's Fair," Current History, 1 July 1939, 5. The article was originally published in Lippmann's column "Today and Tomorrow" in the New York Herald-Tribune.

39 There were discussions of re-erecting the pavilion in a Moscow park, but its fate is unknown.

40 There was a small world expo in Haiti in 1949, the International Exposition of the Bicentennial of Port-au-Prince, but only a handful of countries participated and the Soviet Union was not among them.

41 On Soviet-American rivalry at international trade shows and exhibitions during the Cold War, see Robert H. Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty: Exhibiting American Culture Abroad in the 1950s (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997); Jack Massey and Conway Lloyd Morgan, Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and their Role in the Cultural Cold War (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Müller, 2008).

42 The shifts in Soviet architecture following Stalin's death in 1953 are discussed in Catherine Cooke (with Susan E. Reid), "Modernity and Realism: Architectural Relations in the Cold War," in Rosalind P. Blakesley and Susan E. Reid, eds, Russian Art and the West: A Century of Dialogue in Painting, Architecture, and the Decorative Arts (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois Press, 2006), 172‐94.

43 GARF, f. 9470, op. 1, d. 22, ll. 39–40. The other architects were Iurii Abramov, Viktor Dubov, and Anatolii Polianskii.

44 Rika Devos, "A Cold War Sketch: The Visual Antagonism of the USA vs. the USSR at Expo 58," Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire 87 nos. 3–4 (2005), 87.

45 GARF, f. 9470, "Materialy sovetskoi sektsii Vsemirnoi vystavki 1958 g. v Briussele" [Materials of the Soviet section of the international exposition of 1958 in Brussels], op.1, d. 21, ll. 159, 163.

46 Ibid., ll. 159–167.

47 Ibid., ll. 116–117, 121–122; 159, 199–209; Ibid., d. 22, ll.. 87–89; f. 9518 "Gosudarstvennyi komitet kul'turnoi sviazei s zarubezhnymi stranami" [State Committee for Cultural Links with Foreign Countries], op. 1, d. 9, l. 154; Ibid., d. 588, ll. 205–206. The Soviet planners' preparations for Expo 58 and their concerns with competing with the United States and appealing to western audiences are extensively discussed in Susan E. Reid, "The Soviet Pavilion at Brussels '58: Convergence, Conversion, Critical Assimilation, or Transculturation?," Cold War International History Project Working Paper 62 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, December 2010), 16–28, 57–65.

48 GARF, f. 9470, op. 1, d. 21, ll. 208–209.

49 GARF, f. 9518, op. 1, d. 588, ll. 204–205. Ultimately the Americans decided not to bring their model kitchen to Brussels, instead having "islands of living" that suggested the style and comfort of American domestic life (Hadddow, Pavilions of Plenty, 153–159).

50 GARF, f. 9470, op. 1, d. 11, l. 180; ibid., d. 21, l. 241.

51 GARF, f. 9470, op. 1, d. 11, l. 245. On the international reaction to Sputnik and the anxieties it generated in the United States, see Von Hardesty and Gene Eisman, Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2007), 76–85.

52 On the role of Sputnik at the Soviet exhibition, see Lewis Siegelbaum, "Sputnik Goes to Brussels: The Exhibition of a Soviet Technological Wonder," Journal of Contemporary History 47 no. 1 (2012), 120–136

53 GARF, f. 9518, op. 1, d. 590, l. 95.

54 Iakov Lomko, interview with the author in Moscow, 26 June 2012. Alternatively, one might have seen first the statues, standing just inside the entrance and flanking the stairs, of a giant worker and collective farm woman, or the enormous statue of Lenin at the far end of the pavilion.

55 USSR: World's Exhibition in Brussels (Moscow, 1958); Pavil'ony SSSR, 186–187; Howard Taubman, "Cold War on the Cultural Front," New York Times Magazine, 13 April 1958, 12, 107–108.

56 A good description of the interior of the United States pavilion can be found in Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty, 106–111.

57 Belgian press transcripts, GARF, f. 9518, op. 1, d. 5, ll. 151–233.

58 Institut universitaire d'information sociale et économique. Centre belge pour l'étude de l'opinion publique et des marches "INSOC," L'Exposition de 1958: Son succès auprès des Belges. Opinions et vœux des visiteurs (Brussels: INSOC, 1959), 63–69.

59 National Archives Record Administration, College Park, MD (NARA), Register Group 306 (USIA), entry A1 1011, container 1, file PMS-29, "Visitor Reaction to the U.S. Versus Major Competing Exhibits at the Brussels International Fair" (July 1958); ibid., file PMS-38, "Follow-up Study of Visitor Reaction to the U.S. Versus Major Competing Exhibits at the Brussels International Fair," (June 1959). In May, 72% of the expo-goers surveyed were Belgian.

60 NARA Register Group 306 (USIA), entry A1 1011, container 1, file PMS-38, "Visitor Reaction" (July 1958).

61 Robert Rydell, World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Exhibitions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993), 209–210; Frederick Barghoorn, The Soviet Cultural Offensive: The Role of Cultural Diplomacy in Soviet Foreign Policy (Princeton, N.J., 1960), 87–90.

62 Howard Taubman, "Brussels: American Mistakes and Lessons," New York Times, 1 June 1958, 11, 14.

63 Iakov Lomko, interview with the author in Moscow, 26 June 2012.

64 On connotative and denotative approaches to exhibitions, see Umberto Eco, "A Theory of Expositions," in Travels in Hyperreality (London, 1986), 299–300, passim.

65 Nigel Gould-Davies, "The Logic of Soviet Cultural Diplomacy," Diplomatic History 27 no.2 (2003), 209–211; Max Frankel, "Soviet pulls out of World's Fair," New York Times, 3 October 1962, 1, 15. The Soviets claimed that they pulled out of the New York World's Fair in response to American pressure to host a reciprocal United States exhibition, but the State Department denied that there had been any conditions attached to Soviet participation in the New York fair. The New York fair was not sanctioned by the BIE, due to its refusal to adhere to the Bureau's regulations, and many nations elected not to participate officially.

66 John M. Lee, "Expo 67: Again the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are Rivals," New York Times, 23 April 1967, section 4, E5.

67 "Two of Expo 67's Biggest Pavilions," Radio Canada broadcast, 27 April 1967, CBC Digital Archives,, accessed 8 December 2015.

68 Ada Louise Huxtable, "A Fair with Flair," New York Times, 27 April 1967, 18. See also "U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67 Opens with Space and Art Displays," New York Times, 24 April 1967, 18.

69 "Expo 67: Pavilions of the Superpowers. A Tour of the Pavilions of the United States and the Soviet Union," CBC television broadcast 8 May 1967, CBC Digital Archives,, accessed 8 December 2015.

70 Bosley Crowther, "Expo 67 and the Exploding Syntax of Cinema," New York Times, 20 August 1967, D1.

71 "The Bolshoi Opera in Montreal," Times (London), 5 September 1967, 6.

72 Frank Kappler, "Heigh Ho! Soft Sell at the Fair. U.S. Pavilion at Expo 67," Life 62 no. 24 (16 June 1967), 13.

73 Robert Alden, "Soviet Pavilion at Expo 67 is Overwhelming, Czechoslovakia is Imaginative," New York Times, 5 May 1967, 12.

74 Bill Bantey, "Around the World in a Day," The Gazette (Montreal), 28 April 2007,,, accessed 1 December 2015.

75 General Report on the 1967 World Exhibition (Montreal: Queen's Printer for Canada, 1969), vol. 5, 2831.

76 UPI, "Expo '70 is Proved Successful," Reading Eagle, 26 July 1970, 7, Google Newspapers.

77 Don Shannon, "Japan's Expo 70: Critics Didn't Like It, People Did," The Tuscaloosa News, 20 August 1970, 19, Google Newspapers.

78 Frank Hawkins, "Japan Hosting World with Expo 70," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7 April 1970, sec. 2, 29, Google Newspapers.

79 Duart Farquharson, "Soviet pavilion top draw at Expo 86," Ottawa Citizen, 12 July 1986, G6, Google Newspapers.

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