It’s hard to believe, but in 1977, the United States government tapped Nathan Farb, a left-leaning, hippie, Jewish artist to represent America on a public relations trip to the Soviet Union.
Let that sink in for a minute.
During the Carter administration, the U.S. Information Agency organized a traveling photography exhibition, aptly titled “Photography USA,” that toured the Eastern Bloc, including the Soviet Union. It was part of a multi-year effort by the U.S. government to present positive portrayals of the country — behind enemy lines, no less — which makes it that much stranger that someone like Mr. Farb would have been chosen as a cultural ambassador.
“I think your view of how different I was from, say, a jazz musician on the road for U.S.I.A. is a little overstated,” Mr. Farb deadpanned. “The world was clamoring for American music and jazz. And they sent every great musician around the world, multiple times. Does the world want American cars? Not really. The world wants American culture. And it certainly was that way then.”
A selection of images from the resulting project, “The Russians,” is on exhibit at the Wende Museum in Culver City, Calif., as a part of its mission to focus on the Cold War. His project depicts citizens of Novosibirsk, a Siberian city closer to Kazakhstan and Mongolia than it is to Western Europe. (He called it “the rough equivalent of Cleveland.”) He was included on the six-week trip after he had done a similar tour in Romania, and then begged to be included on the Soviet trip. The desire to visit the Soviet Union was personal for Mr. Farb, since he was raised in Lake Placid, N.Y., and was acutely aware of capitalism’s huge differences in wealth and class.
“I became an 11- or 12-year-old Communist, you might say,” he said. “I grew up in a town where there was enormous wealth, and enormous poverty. It was painful, because I went to school…