Breaking the Ice
Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, breaking the ice between the United States and the Soviet Union was like going at a glacier with a toothpick. During that decades-long public relations contest, literary broadsides, chessmen and Olympic gold were the spoils. In effect, the Cold War was fought with pawns and hockey pucks, soda pop and jazz. And both sides were fighting dirty.
Two of the most memorable Cold War contests were fought not on battlefields but on a chessboard and ice, respectively. Both resulted in American victories. In 1972 Boris Spassky, the Russian grand master, was a titan. It was a time when Russia’s long lineage of chess dominance set Soviet intellectualism on a global throne. But the United States had historically shown little interest in the game. That is, until a slightly insane prodigy arose from New York’s Washington Square Park: Bobby Fischer. Over 21 games Fischer and Spassky traded queens and sacrificed pawns. In the end, Fischer won and became the World Chess Champion. He had dethroned the USSR.
Eight years later the Russians were once again dominant, this time in the hockey rink, with an Olympic team thought to be invincible. The U.S. squad consisted of a bunch of lanky college students coached by a dreamer, Herb Brooks. Believing the Soviets were beatable, he began training his team in the Soviet way: using intense conditioning and a systematic style of play. When the teams battled for the gold, the U.S. players out-Sovieted the Soviets. Television sportscaster Al Michaels immortalized the win, shouting, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The U.S. invented basketball. As such, it’s no surprise that, since 1936 when the sport was introduced at the Olympic Games, the American men’s team took home gold and gold alone—until 1972. The Russians, determined to embarrass their undefeated rival, presented a team that could dribble, pivot and shoot with the best. In dramatic fashion, the Soviets, down by a point at the end of the fourth quarter, won in the three seconds controversially (some say illegally) added to the clock, with a Hail Mary crosscourt pass to Alexander Belov, who laid the ball in the net. The Americans protested, but to no avail. Believing the game had been rigged, they refused to show up at the ceremony to collect their silver medals.
When the Americans upset the Soviets with the “Miracle on Ice” to win gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Soviets’ reaction to their loss in the hockey rink was much fiercer than that of the American basketball players. Their silvers were stinging reminders of an unforgivable moment. Russian Coach Viktor Tikhonov pointed to each key player and shouted, “This is your loss!” Later, defenseman Valery Vasiliev grabbed Tikhonov’s throat and threatened to kill him.
During the 1972 chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, accusations of foul play flew like nuclear missiles. The Russians decried what they perceived as the American chess master’s psychological warfare. To wit: Fischer showed up late. He forfeited the second game because he didn’t like the chess set, the lights and the presence of cameras. He demanded complete silence while playing. He sent for his special chair. Unsurprisingly, Cold War paranoia set in. The Soviets claimed Fischer’s chair housed a contraption that sent out electric waves to sabotage Spassky’s brain. This was never proven.
Cheating was, if anything, typical of the Cold War. Just look to the Olympics: During the 1970s the East German female swim team was suspiciously superhuman. As the gold medals piled up, the swimmers’ voices dropped to decidedly unfeminine pitches. Nobody could prove any malfeasance—until years after the German reunification, when newly released records indicated intense steroid regimens. But the most inventive Cold War mountebank was undoubtedly Soviet fencer Boris Onischenko. At the 1976 games he rigged the hilt of his épée with a device that registered a hit without any contact. He earned a disqualification and the nickname Disonischenko.
In 1972 journalist Dick Beddoes had to eat his words. Literally. He had guaranteed Canada would sweep the Russians in the Summit Series, an eight-game hockey tournament. When the Russians won by four goals in game one, Beddoes shredded his column into a bowl of borscht and dug in. But he was not the only overly confident Canuck. Every major newspaper had predicted a devastating victory for Canada. The Canadian players were so cocky that they showed up after a summer of beer drinking, expecting a quick skirmish with scrawny, underfed commies. Instead they met a nimble, skilled platoon. The Canadians soon began to worry whether their team could beat, forget about sweep, the Russians. The games became increasingly dirty, sticks slapping bodies as often as pucks. Canadian Phil Esposito played like a bull, battering anything in red. But the dirtiest was Esposito’s teammate Bobby Clarke, who in game six laid a double-handed slash, fracturing the ankle of Russia’s best player, Valeri Kharlamov. Canada won in game eight but just barely and not exactly fairly. Provocative Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko called Phil Esposito the “greatest Canadian poet.” Was this salt on Russia’s wound or a slight to Canada’s literary scene?
With his 1961 poem “Babi Yar” (named after a ravine in Kiev where Nazis massacred Jews), Yevgeny Yevtushenko condemned the Soviet Union for anti-Semitism, oppressive violence and censorship. Since the Cold War was fought with propaganda, this poem was more valuable to the U.S. than a double agent. When Time magazine stamped Yevtushenko’s face on a 1962 cover, he became the symbol of a failing Soviet system and a glimmer of freedom behind the Iron Curtain. But the American media may have exaggerated his dissidence. In the following years, Yevtushenko worked with Soviet officials and even shook hands with Fidel Castro. Fellow Russian poet Joseph Brodsky claimed, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”
Meanwhile the Soviets pointed to the American civil rights crisis. How could a racist country, they asked, expect to be the model for the world? In response, the U.S. State Department sent jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington on tours to introduce African American culture to the Soviets. Ironically, Louis Armstrong, jazz’s biggest name, backed out of a 1957 junket, saying, “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.”
In 1961 the U.S. State Department sent Louis Armstrong to Africa to participate in a massive promotional tour for the Pepsi-Cola Company. Pepsi printed posters of Satchmo holding sweating bottles and stamped special caps with his likeness. The campaign, with the slogan “Pepsi-Cola brings out Louis Armstrong,” was part of an ongoing battle between Coke and Pepsi, one as nasty and propagandized as the Cold War: the Cola War.
The Coca-Cola Company had become a symbol for U.S. patriotism during World War II, when it made sure a bottle of Coke was never out of a soldier’s reach. (Of course, it was also selling soda to Nazi Germany.) Coke became so intertwined with American capitalism that countries affiliated with communism refused to allow a single can of soda pop on their soil. In 1959 American vice president Richard Nixon and Soviet Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev opened trade between their countries. Pepsi seized its chance to reach a new market before Coke and tasked Nixon with giving Khrushchev a Pepsi. He did, and the fizzy drink crossed Cold War lines with the ad slogan “Be sociable, have a Pepsi.”
After Pepsi successfully invaded Russia, capitalist trinkets began to creep into the Soviet Bloc. It became easier and easier for rebels to swap the Red Party’s cause for black-market Levi’s and David Bowie bootlegs. When Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, he was not altogether pleased, questioning a foreign policy whose sole mission was to “sell Pepsi-Cola in Siberia.” The Cold War would last another decade, but capitalism had effectively infiltrated communism. And Coca-Cola was flourishing. The Atlanta-based company had assisted Jimmy Carter in his 1977 presidential run, and with the native Georgian in office it became the first Western company to expand into China.
In 1991 the Cold War officially ended. But chess player Bobby Fischer had already gone rogue. Fed up with the antics on both sides, the onetime American hero had slipped deeply into the conflicts of his mind. A year later he spat on a U.S. executive order not to play chess in Yugoslavia and became a fugitive from his country. In the last years of his life, Fischer lived in Iceland preparing for a new war—one against the United States, the Catholic Church, pollution, the Jews and Coca-Cola.