In the Cold War context, the United States and the Soviet Union put an enormous effort into showing the world the superiority of their respective systems. A vast array of cultural initiatives and projects were implemented throughout the ideological conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, both super powers limited their attention to friendly or occupied countries. The turning point in cultural connections across the Iron Curtain came with Stalin’s death in 1953. The new Soviet leaders inaugurated an extensive program of cultural exchanges that resulted in a flood of Soviet artists to Western concert venues. Members of the Soviet cultural elite were believed to be perfect cultural ambassadors, people who could convey the Soviet messages of peaceful coexistence and the good will of the Soviet Union better than Soviet politicians ever could. The exchange of individuals also quickly developed from leading artists and a few privileged Soviet apparatchiks to broader sectors of Soviet society.
For the West, this Soviet initiative was initially baffling. Under Stalin, the Soviet Union had been a closed society, but under the new leadership it started to establish contacts all over the world; even with countries it considered its arch enemies. An agreement on cultural exchanges with the United States was reached in December 1957. In the long run, the grand strategy of the West was to encourage as many open exchange projects as possible with the aim of transforming the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc from within. Apparently, it was believed that consumerist culture would play an important role in the collapse of the Eastern bloc.
Although the arts were often the first area of exchange, they were quickly followed by student and teacher exchanges and exchanges of all kinds of exhibitions, movies, radio and television programs, These exchange activities were combined with friendship activities, primarily through friendship societies and twin city activities, creating what can be called “soft power”, or cultural diplomacy. However, cultural exchanges partly escape traditional definitions of the Cold War. Nevertheless, for the Soviet Union, cultural exchanges were an integral part of its strategy in the Cold War, while in the West cultural contacts were typically taken care by civic society and non-state actors. These actors often aimed at bypassing Cold War settings.
Even if cultural exchanges were from the Soviet leaders’ point of view an important tool for influencing people in foreign countries and making them more sympathetic to Soviet aims, those who participated in the exchanges were not always aware of these aims. Furthermore, it was not only the Soviet Union that launched such ambitious cultural exchange programs; its Eastern European allies were permitted to do the same. For many of these countries, the exchanges brought long-awaited opportunities to visit the West and even work in the West.