The Russians’ big obsession: You! (1958)

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


The Russians’ big obsession: You!

By John Fell Stevenson [Son of Adlai Stevenson II — former Illinois governor, presidential candidate, diplomat and Ambassador to the United Nations]

A sign in a chicken coop, a talk with a Red rock ‘n’ roller, Khrushchev reading a U.S. paper — all over Russia this young traveler found such evidence of the Soviets’ feverish concern: catching up with America

Catching up with America
Nikita Khrushchev & Adlai Stevenson (1958)

When I visited Russia with my father earlier this year, we were invited to take a look at a chicken farm near the remote city of Alma-ata.

On the wall of one of the chicken coops we saw a graph comparing the egg-laying accomplishments of Russian chickens with the production of U.S. chickens. Underneath this graph was a slogan in Russian: “Catch up with the United States!”

The U.S.A. is on every Russian’s mind. You can’t travel anywhere in the Soviet Union without seeing graphs like this, as well as slogans, charts, posters, and other reminders that the Russians are determined to pull ahead of us in production.

Along with a strong sense of economic rivalry is another feeling — the Russians are fascinated by everything American. This fascination makes them extraordinarily friendly, especially the young people.

the-russians-big-obsession-you-1958The American Way

Once, in Leningrad, I was surrounded by a group of Russian teenagers. My father joined me. He asked some of the boys why they wore their hair so long, and they replied, “That’s the way they wear it in America.”

We noticed that many of the boys wore a very poor, flimsy imitation of blue jeans. This, too, was an obvious attempt to copy the American style.

We came to the subject of music, and found that American jazz was extremely popular. However, the current rage in Leningrad was rock ‘n’ roll! They listen to it on U.S. overseas radio broadcasts, make recordings of the programs, pass them around.

Rock and roll!

I made friends with a particularly avid rock-‘n’-roll fan of about 20. Since I had been advised previously that Elvis Presley was popular in Russia, I had a few Presley records with me. I asked this young Russian up to my hotel room to give him a copy of “Jailhouse Rock.”

As I handed him the recording, he grinned, examined the colorful record jacket approvingly, and slipped the recording out and passed his fingers lovingly over the grooves. Then he handed it carefully back to me. He thought I had brought him up there merely to show him this treasure!

When I gave it back, and he finally understood that I meant him to keep it, he literally danced with excitement and hugged me three times. He insisted on finding an interpreter. Then he told me he was sorry he had nothing to give me in return at the moment, but that he would be back the next day with a gift.

Sure enough, he showed up the following morning to present me with a Russian record.

“Are you American?”

Every young Russian I met had a similar intense interest in American ways. One day in Moscow, while I was taking pictures in Red Square, a student of about 19 came up to me and asked the usual first question, “Are you an American’?”

We walked along together and then he rode with me on the subway back to my hotel. We discussed the prices of American cars and cameras and he was surprised at how inexpensive they were. He said he listened to jazz on the Voice of America. I asked him if he ever heard news broadcasts. He replied that they were always jammed.

This particular student was majoring in economics, but he told me that his real interest was music. He also said that most of his friends had gone to Siberia to work in the fields during the summer. I asked him why he hadn’t gone. He answered, rather proudly, that he hadn’t wanted to go and so he didn’t. He said the State “urges” young people to work on farms in the summer, but that it isn’t absolutely compulsory.

In many ways, I found him surprisingly independent. He did not like politics, and he disapproved of jamming foreign broadcasts.

When I told him that I had listened to Radio Moscow and had heard Americans called “capitalistic warmongers,” he seemed embarrassed, and obviously knew it was propaganda.

Timid curiosity

Wherever I went in Russia, I saw evidences of disbelief in official Soviet propaganda. It appears that many Russians are not entirely fooled by the constant diet of anti-American material they are fed.

I’ll never forget my very first evening in Leningrad. As I left the hotel I came upon a crowd, mostly of young people, gathered around an American car. Several youths spotted me and asked me in English if I was an American. When I answered “Yes,” they crowded around and eager questions came flying: How much did a Buick cost? Where had I come from? How? Was I a student? What did I study? What did my father do? Was I a capitalist?

By then they were all smiles and laughs. I tried to answer them all. The capitalist question was tough. I said I was not a capitalist, and I tried to explain that the capitalist class was not what it used to be because of our graduated income tax. I don’t think they understood this very well.


There is one thing I want to emphasize: the Russian people are not aggressive. Their first questions are always timid. But when one responds with obvious friendship, they relax and become extremely friendly.

In Samarkand, for example, people would line the streets, just to see us. Wherever we stopped a crowd would gather. But they wouldn’t speak or even wave until Dad waved to them first. Then they would applaud and wave enthusiastically.

It was interesting that these warm receptions occurred at the height of the Lebanese crisis. The daily papers were calling us “imperialistic warmongers” and loudly proclaiming that the people of Russia were “everywhere protesting America’s imperialistic aggression.” Actually, these people were crowding happily around us, waving and cheering.

It was this way throughout Siberia and Central Asia. In Tashkent, the children crowded around and said, in Russian, “Give our best regards to all your American children.” At Rubtsovsk it was the same thing. This was Siberia, and an American here is about as rare as an Eskimo in the tropics. One needs special permission to travel through Siberia.

In Novosibirsk, an industrial city in Siberia, we went to the theater. After the performance, and after applauding the actors, the entire audience turned around and began applauding us — the “imperialist warmongers!”

Everywhere we went, the people tried to be hospitable. At almost every dinner or luncheon we attended in Russia small American flags were put on the table in our honor.

Probably no Russian is more interested in Americans than Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself. My most intriguing time in the USSR was the day I met him. Dad was scheduled to have a private interview with Khrushchev, and my brother Borden and I went along.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the Kremlin grounds was that the soldiers standing guard here were impressively neat and erect. Most Russian soldiers wear baggy, sloppy uniforms, but these guards were trim and tidy.


Silent nerve center

We entered the Kremlin, and went up in a slow, old-fashioned elevator. Then we were led down a long corridor to Khrushchev’s outside office. I couldn’t help comparing this with a busy American office. And what a difference! We saw absolutely no activity — no secretaries, no typewriters, nothing but empty rooms and silence. It was eerie. There was no feeling that this was the nerve center of the whole country.

While Dad went inside for his interview with Khrushchev, I waited in the outside room with Mr. K’s male secretary, or aide. Again I was struck by the lack of businesslike atmosphere. The aide wandered around in a seemingly aimless fashion.

I waited there and leafed through some propaganda pamphlets and Russian newspapers. Then I noticed a Russian phonograph, and I went over and found an American recording on it, a work by the late British composer Vaughan Williams. I tried to play it but the machine didn’t work. The aide and some other people tried to get it to play but, to their obvious embarrassment, it wouldn’t. They explained it was a new model and not yet in production.

Next I tried the TV set. It would have worked, I think, but there was nothing being broadcast — this was mid-afternoon — so I went back to the propaganda pamphlets. Finally Mr. Khrushchev and Dad were finished with their talk, and I was led into the office. It was a long, narrow room. In the center was a green-covered conference table. At the far end of the room was Khrushchev’s desk. It had no papers on it, but was cluttered with souvenirs, two models of jet airliners, and two phones.

Khrushchev greeted Borden and me jovially, shaking our hands and smiling broadly. He is shorter and more rotund than I expected him to be. He speaks no English, so everything is said through an interpreter.

I had my camera, and Khrushchev gladly consented to being photographed. He said that he had always liked to take pictures when he was young. Dad said that when he was young he didn’t have time to take pictures. Whereupon Khrushchev replied instantly that when he was young he worked in the mines.

The last word – Khrushchev hates to be outdone by Americans

Dad told me later that this was typical of the whole interview. Khrushchev dislikes being outdone, and always tries to have the last word.

It occurred to me that here, in Khrushchev, both Russian attitudes toward Americans were typified — he was friendly, but at the same time he was competitive. Later Dad reminded me that the whole Russian policy of economic rivalry had been started by Khrushchev himself.

Dad mentioned to Mr. K. that I had just finished college and was going to return to America and look for a job. Khrushchev smiled and laughingly suggested that I stay in Russia and marry a Russian girl. Everyone laughed, and we left Khrushchev’s office with handshakes and smiles.

On the way back to the hotel, Dad told me how the interview had been arranged. It was at an official lunch — a six-course, vodka, wine, and brandy affair. At 2:30, as the luncheon was finally ending, they informed Dad that he had an appointment with Khrushchev in a little while. There was no time for checking with our ambassador or preparing in any way. This is typical of the way the Russian leaders like to stay one jump ahead to keep others off balance.

Friendliness or competition?

While most Russians know little about us and have slight chance to learn the truth, the top leaders seem to know a good deal through our newspapers and magazines. In Dad’s interview with Khrushchev, the Russian premier said that he reads the syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann regularly.

One thing is certain: they know much more about us than we know about them. But unfortunately the great mass of the Russian people knows probably less about us than we do about them.

One comes away from Russia wondering whether the Russian people’s genuine friendliness toward, and interest in, Americans will eventually triumph over their fierce competitive spirit and the aggressiveness of their leaders.

I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think anybody does. Let’s all hope and pray that their friendliness will dominate in the end.


PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest, plus see exclusive retro-inspired products in our shop. Thanks for visiting!


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

See some of our books!