July 01, 2009

Farm Preserves

Of all the USIA-sponsored exhibits (see page 42), “Agriculture USA” may have been the most overtly political. Presented from 1978 to 1979, it coincided with the zastoy, that Brezhnev-era period of stagnation when the grocery-store shelves were largely bare. I served as a guide for the second half of the AgUSA exhibit, helping to set up colorful stands that touted American abundance. My favorite was the mock county fair, where we displayed actual specimens of blue-ribbon preserves from the Iowa State Fair. As the winter progressed and I grew ever more tired of my stodgy diet of root vegetables and starch, those sparkling Mason jars brimming with preserves became increasingly tempting. I confess that I surreptitiously broke into them a couple of times, rearranging the jars to cover up my crime. But I was desperate for fruit.

In that regard I was typically American. After all, we are used to eating whatever we want year-round, no matter the season. In fact, the exhibit featured a video of an American supermarket that we used to heartbreaking advantage, shamelessly looping images of perfect vegetables and fruits to promote the endless food choices available in our self-service supermarkets. This rubbing of American overabundance into the variety-starved faces of the Russians made me very uncomfortable. It seemed downright mean to use food to demonstrate the superiority of America’s political system, especially at a time when so many goods in Russia had to be obtained (dostat) rather than bought – whether by barter, or on the black market, or through perks, if someone was lucky enough to belong to a factory or an elite organization that provided them.

Today, that video (which can be seen on YouTube*) looks just plain silly, as does the accompanying full-color exhibit catalog, which glibly describes a typical, “efficient American housewife” who, “if she were to rush to her favorite supermarket on a snowy January evening and find that her market did not have tender lettuce and celery shipped 3,000 miles from southern California, would not only be astonished, she would be outraged.” All that we boasted of then – the American highway system, the huge trucks carrying produce across the country, transporting it thousands of miles from its native soil – now seems misguided, perfect examples of what went wrong with American agriculture. But back then, the catalogs offered a tantalizing glimpse of another way of life, an American Land of Cockaigne where food appeared magically without the need to stand in lines for two to three hours a day. It’s no wonder that the Soviet authorities sometimes confiscated the catalogs as soon as visitors had left the exhibit.

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See Also

AgUSA Video on YouTube

AgUSA Video on YouTube

The video Darra Goldstein referred to in this column. Colors rather deteriorated, but great look at US propaganda and a nice language-learning video...

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