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How Folk Rock Helped Crack the Iron Curtain

Over fifty years ago, 160 young Americans defied State Department orders and partied on the streets of Moscow. The Cold War would never be the same.


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Peggy Seeger was 22 when she arrived in Moscow, five-string banjo in hand. Photo by Crise11/Getty Images

In 1957, Peggy Seeger took the stage in Moscow to perform for a packed house of the cream of the Soviet intelligentsia.

“Don’t you want to hear all the children singing,” she sang, strumming her banjo, “big ol’ bells a-ringing, come and go with me to that land.”

The crowd responded with stony silence. Worried that the language barrier might be to blame, Seeger tried nursery songs, trying to teach the literati the rhyming choruses so they could sing along. Still nothing. Before the intelligentsia, Seeger was a dud, but she didn’t care. It was the youth of Moscow she had come to perform for, and in the streets of the city, they were going wild.

Seeger was one of 160 Americans invited to Russia for the 1957 World Festival of Youth and Students. It was the first time in the event’s history that the festival was held in Russia, which will host it again this October, sixty years later. In 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, the first cracks were appearing in the Iron Curtain, and these cultural emissaries were among the first Americans to slip inside. Fearful that they might be taken in by Communist propaganda, the State Department had discouraged them from making the trip, but they went anyway – coming without preparation, diplomatic training or any support from their government. The result was an unrehearsed and spontaneous fortnight of cultural exchange – something that would never happen again for the duration of the Cold War.

Peggy Seeger Photo courtesy PeggySeeger.com

Seeger was 22 when she arrived in Moscow, five-string banjo in hand, after a three-day train ride through Europe. She came from a musical family. Her half-brother, Pete was well known in American folk music and had performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. Two years before, at the height of the McCarthy era, he had been subpoenaed to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Peggy Seeger was not particularly political when she arrived in Moscow. She had been drawn by the spirit of adventure, curiosity, and romance.

“I was flighty at that time,” Seeger says, “I was just going wherever and just for fun. I got myself into scrapes because I said yes; because I wanted to do everything.”

On arrival, she was taken to the American dormitory, where all nationalities were billeted separately, like an Olympic village.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalls. “I’d been to Germany, France, Spain Italy… This was the first trip I’d taken further east. I had political instincts, but I had no political talk.”

The American delegation may have been small, but the Youth Festival was not. More than 30,000 international students from 131 countries descended on the streets of Moscow, invited and in some cases subsidized by the festival organizers, the World Federation of Democratic Youth, an NGO composed mostly of representatives from socialist groups. Posters adorned with five flower petals to represent the five inhabited continents and the festival motto – “Peace and Friendship” – were plastered on every wall. A program of balls, exhibitions, lectures, parades, sports games, and concerts ran all day and through the nights for two weeks.

“It wasn’t like Woodstock. It wasn’t like Newport; it wasn’t like Glastonbury; it wasn’t like any music festival,” Seeger says. “I thought it was absolutely stunning. I was bowled over by it.”

Though the group was there unofficially, they still participated in all the events. For the parade to the opening ceremony, other countries had arranged massive floats, puppetry displays, dancing. The Americans drove through the crowd on an open truck, holding up a homemade makeshift banner. Seeger passed badges, autographs, and handshakes back and forth as the truck drove slowly through the surging crowd of Soviet youth delegates and the five million Moscow residents.

For the opening ceremonies, each country had rehearsed performances to showcase their national culture. The American delegation, again, had no program to share. But Seeger had her banjo. She was barefoot when she led a few dozen Americans onstage to perform. The only songs familiar to all were gospel, patriotic, or nursery rhymes, so they sang those while the delegates from Japan, to Poland, to Brazil looked on. They made the wooden boards creak with a replica of a square dance. Later in the week, Seeger reprised the performance, wearing a polka dot dress for her appearance at the Bolshoi Theatre where the audience shook the chandeliers and red drapery with a standing ovation for “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore .

In her memoir, First Time Ever, which will be published this month, Seeger transcribes her diary from that week: “My heart almost burst and our tears certainly did. I am hoarse from my own enthusiasm and shrieking…how many faces and eyes did I look into, how many hands did I touch .

Just as the State Department warned of Communist propaganda, Soviet newspapers like Molodoi kommunist had spent months cautioning Russians not to give in to the temptations of the Americans. But Russian excitement to see and talk with foreigners for the first time since the days of Stalin proved uncontainable.

Since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had isolated itself from the outside world, heightening the tensions of the Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain. President Eisenhower had been searching for opportunities to “bridge the great chasm that separates [Americans] from the people under Communist rule.”

“What we must do,” Eisenhower advised his administration, “is to widen every possible chink in the Iron Curtain and bring the family of Russia … closer into our circle, to show how we do it.” Those rents in the curtain, Eisenhower also hypothesized, could come from face to face interaction, which might mitigate the mutual mistrust of the Cold War. “The hope,” he said, “Is that little by little, mistrust based on falsehoods will give way to international understanding based on truth.”

The Moscow Festival’s official aim, like Eisenhower’s People to People foreign policy objectives, was to increase friendship and understanding through cultural exchange. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev intended the Moscow Festival as a way to impress incoming foreigners with vast Socialist, state-controlled industry and organization, and present the Soviet Union as an international convener under the banner of peace. The State Department attempted to undermine this Soviet self-promotion by discouraging American attendance, but did not go so far as to ban American travel altogether, since that would be giving into the same isolationism for which American politicians criticized the Soviets. When Seeger and the other American delegates elected to attend unofficially, the State Department couldn’t stop them. Seeger loved the freedom.

“Everyone acted as an individual,” she explains. “We didn’t represent America. We didn’t act as a body.”

While Seeger held court on street corners with her longneck banjo and oversaw an East-West drinking contest where the Americans failed miserably, her fellow U.S. delegates delivered what New York Times reporter Max Frankel called “sidewalk seminars.”

Peggy Seeger with her banjo in Moscow, 1957. Photo courtesy PeggySeeger.com 

“Every night,” Frankel reported, “Hundreds of Russians have gathered in knots on the sidewalks of Moscow to listen to a handful of young Americans expound the United States concept of freedom… For the living voices of America they expressed gratitude and repeated pleas that the visitors come back the next night to talk some more.”

In their enthusiasm, Life Magazine reported, some of the Americans may have committed diplomatic faux pas. The magazine was particularly critical of an unnamed singer – quite possibly Seeger – for playing “Down By the Riverside,” with its famous refrain of “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” But overall, the American reporters on the ground were pleasantly surprised by the energy and ingenuity of American students like George Abrams, of Newton, Massachusetts, who went around reading the United Nations report on the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolution to anyone who would listen.

“Wherever [American] delegates appeared, Russians thronged,” the Times went on “to see … how they chattered and laughed, how they sang, how they danced, how they flirted.”

The American press coverage was clear: though unprepared, the intelligence, candor, and patriotism of the American students and the overwhelming Russian excitement to discourse with them was a diplomatic coup for the United States. Bypassing the State Department’s tentative approach, the American students unintentionally embodied the very individualism the Soviets were hungry to see. For the first time, it became apparent how enthusiastic the Soviets were for American youth culture – and the State Department took notice.

The U.S. government learned its lesson quickly. Within three months, the State Department’s Special Committee on Soviet and Related Problems circulated a secret memo for a proposed program of student exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States.

“It is clear that student exchange is one of the few steps which the U.S. can take,” it reported, “to further direct its program of promoting peaceful change in the Soviet Union… A good example of this process at work was seen in the impact of foreign visitors on Soviet young people at the recent Moscow youth festival.”

Impressed by its own youth, surprised and spurred on by the curiosity and political restlessness of Soviet youth, the American government entered the cultural diplomacy arena of the Cold War with new fortitude and strategy. In its international campaigns, the government emphasized American individualism and lifestyle, instead of its military might and industrial capability. It promoted student and artistic exchanges.

In the next Administration, President John F. Kennedy formalized programs around sending American youth to do unofficial foreign diplomacy, launching the Peace Corps. In a war where neither side could use its powerful weapons without mutually assured destruction, the Moscow Festival revealed a diplomatic stage where the Soviets and Americans could compete, negotiate and compromise.

While Peggy Seeger’s experience at the festival appeared to be a roaring success, and did in fact become a model for U.S. international diplomacy for years to come, Seeger and the rest of the students were not lauded at home. Before returning to America, she and 50 other of the Americans accepted an invitation to visit Communist China. It was too much for the State Department. Seeger’s American passport was revoked. She adopted England as her country and eventually married a fellow Moscow Festival attendee there. She shifted her specialty from American to Anglo-folk music. Her passport form was not reinstated until 1992, the year after the Cold War ended. During her three expatriate decades, the State Department’s programs on cultural exchange were renewed every year until the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Though the festival recurred for decades, 1957 attendees argue there never was another like it. Delegates to all future festivals were selected and rehearsed by the government. Natalia Valentinovna Altukhova, who had attended the 1957 festival and brought her son to see one in 1980 is recorded in Russia’s Sputnik Generation remembering that the two festivals were very different.

“People danced in the streets,” she said of 1957. “We’d join hands and dance. It was spontaneous. People wanted to do it, their hearts were in it.”

By the 1980s, the youths at the festival had chaperones.

“Two men in civilian clothes followed each foreigner,” Natalia Valentinovna Altukhova recalled. “It was impossible to make contact, let alone sing together and talk with each other.”

While new international friendships may be harder to build in the recent and more heavily supervised festivals, Seeger’s Russian friendships from 1957 still exist today; the very lasting peace and friendship among young peoples of all nations that the 1957 festival had promised to cultivate.

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history and culture. She has published in Quartz , TED Online , Designer Observer , and 99U , where she is also a contributing editor. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published October 4, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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