For those of us who came of age in the shadow of the Cold War, popular culture as much as actual events affected perceptions of the frayed relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the 1980s, judging from the music, film, and art of the time, nuclear Armageddon was the only possible outcome of the political tensions between the two superpowers. And the specter of this ignominious end hovered over the nation’s capital, which was where I watched the end of the Cold War unfold.
Around 1980, a Washington, DC, gallery in Dupont Circle exhibited a painting titled The Last Washington Painting, which presented a photorealistic image of a mushroom-shaped cloud rising from the Washington cityscape as cars cross the Potomac River. The painting even appeared on the front page of the Washington Post Style section with the headline “This Is the Way the World Ends.” On the other side of town, the music playing between sets from punk and new-wave bands inside the black-painted walls of the 9:30 Club on F Street NW echoed fear of a nuclear war and its aftermath. The songs ranged from Fishbone’s “Party at Ground Zero” to Made for TV’s “So Afraid of the Russians,” which had a chorus—if you could call it that—touting a prevailing fear about the USSR: “They’ve got missiles in the air, tanks on the border of Europe, and spies everywhere.” Fear of a US–Soviet nuclear standoff also manifested itself in the television movie The Day After and movies such as Testament—both with graphically imagined scenes of nuclear holocaust—and contrasted with James Bond’s continuing on-screen evolution as a Cold War hero.
By the end of the decade, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the focus of American politics and culture underwent what seemed like a seismic shift. The idea of Soviet domination and destruction dissipated, and Americans shifted their gaze away from Moscow and toward Beijing. Russia occasionally came into view, but with few of the world-destroying qualities it projected throughout the 1980s. Last year, as the spectacle of the Sochi Olympics ended and Russia invaded Crimea, Americans again turned their attention to Moscow.
It was impossible for me to read several of the pieces in the winter issue of VQR and not be reminded of my own memories of the Cold War and its cultural impact. Literary critic Liesl Schillinger and VQR contributing editor Dimiter Kenarov provide two very different perspectives on tensions with and inside contemporary Russia, with their own distinct links to the Cold War era. Both writers examine this world through a lens of history free of apocalyptic visions. Schillinger, the daughter of two professors enamored of Russian history and literature, looks at how the current refreezing of US and Russian political relationships awakened nostalgia for her all-American, yet improbably Soviet-tinged, 1970s and 1980s childhood. Schillinger’s essay, “My Midwestern Soviet Childhood,” also reveals how her unique upbringing affects the way she analyzes the current state of politics in Russia, in light of events in Crimea and Ukraine.
In “The Theater Tsar,” Kenarov gives readers a glimpse into the world of art and politics in occupied Crimea. As Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is performed inside the theater—just a few weeks after soldiers hidden behind balaclavas outside the theater invaded the Crimean capital of Simferopol—the head of the theater company, Anatoly Novikov, reminds Kenarov that “Leaders, luminaries, emperors, states—they all come and go, but the theater survives.” The accompanying photographs from Boryana Katsarova make clear that Novikov is such a force of nature that the show indeed went on. Katsarova also captures performances of a different kind taking place on the streets of Simferopol, each one every bit as fascinating as the glimpses she provides of the Crimean Academic Russian Drama Theater at work.
Just as the Cold War was coming to a close in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS became an American social issue, accompanied by open and blatant homophobia as well as fear. In his essay “The Guardy and the Shame” and the accompanying suite of poems, Kwame Dawes explores how the issue of homophobia is still at play in Jamaica as that country continues to confront HIV/AIDS. Shame and homophobia are both ingrained in the culture—Jamaica still has so-called “buggery laws,” outlawing same-sex activity—particularly in the religious institutions that help those who are seeking treatment. As Dawes notes, although Jamaicans “are aware of the developments that make the disease no longer an automatic death sentence,” the memory and the history of HIV/AIDS still holds an “association with something shameful and worthy of being hidden.”
But the Cold War, the 1980s, and the continuing fight against HIV/AIDS are not the only ways the writing in the winter issue is connected. In one way or another, all literature touches on elements of performance, and this issue includes a couple of compelling dramatic vignettes. Witness the story of Jackson C. Frank, a little-known singer-songwriter who was part of the mid-1960s folk-music revival and who made only one record, produced by another singer-songwriter by the name of Paul Simon. Frank struggled to keep his music alive his entire life, like an actor returning to a signature role. Alison Stine’s engaging portrait of Frank’s life, work, and music, “Snowfall Blues,” is like a play with several on- and off-stage twists and turns. It’s hard-hitting yet never melodramatic, in spite of the tragic and elusive life that Stine documents in her story.
As friends in the medical profession have recounted to me, doctors, like actors, often take cues from patients in how to execute their role as caregivers. Writer and doctor Ricardo Nuila’s story of providing medical care to undocumented immigrants in Houston, Texas, “The State I Am In,” examines how doctors and patients at Ben Taub Hospital improvise their way around the demands of the federal government that public hospitals not use federal health-program dollars for chronic care as well as the federal Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act, which mandates that hospitals treat patients regardless of citizenship. Nuila takes us inside the chaos and drama behind obtaining the best care for patients with serious illnesses, such as end-stage renal disease.
These are merely a few threads that connect stories in the winter 2015 VQR. As in every issue, my editorial team and I try to make links between and among the stories we publish, yet we’re always wary of trying to tie things together too neatly for readers. We like to leave some of that work to you. As the Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov once said, “Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.”