UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Ilya V. Gaiduk

Ilya V. Gaiduk, PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences.
At present, Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC.

Author of three books:
1. "The Great Confrontation: Europe and Islam through the Centuries," (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2003);
2. "Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963," (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003);
3. "The Soviet Union and the Vietnam War," (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 1996)

The area of scholarly interests for a number of years: Cold War history and Soviet foreign policy during the Cold War. The ongoing project deals with the study of Soviet policy toward the United Nations during the Cold War era. It also involves an analysis of Soviet attitude toward UN specialized agencies, particularly, toward UNESCO and ECOSOC, at various periods of the Cold War.
“The Soviet Union and UNESCO during the Cold War”

In the Soviet leaders’ plans for a post-war world there was little place for such an institution, like UNESCO. Preoccupied with ensuring protection of the Communist regime in their own country as well as the recognition of their acquisitions in Eastern Europe, they approached the idea of an international organization solely from the notion of security and guarantees to the status quo emerged as a result of World War II. They regarded economic, social, and cultural problems before the international community as those of secondary importance and, although they did not oppose to their inclusion on the agenda of the United Nations, they insisted on their being related to separate agencies linked in some fashion with the basic security organization. This negligence of issues other than security presupposed the Soviet Union’s reluctance, in the early post-war period, to get involved in the activities of most of the U.N. specialized agencies, if they did not suit Moscow’s interests.

UNESCO was not an exception. Already during the war, when participating in the meetings of the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME), the organization’s precursor, the Soviets regarded with suspicion some intentions of their Western colleagues in the area of education and cultural cooperation. This suspicion was also a reason why Moscow remained outside UNESCO after 1945. With the onset of the Cold War, in the situation of the ideological bipolarity of the postwar system, when the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, held fundamentally incompatible conceptions of political, economic, and social life, Moscow hardened its policy of non-participation in the organizations which it regarded as instruments of U.S. domination. In the divided world UNESCO’s goals of universal culture and a free flow of ideas became hostages of the ideological confrontation between the two opposing Cold War blocs. Nevertheless, Moscow was not initially opposed to its East European allies’ participation in UNESCO. However, in the early 1950s, when the Cold War had reached its apogee, the Stalin regime became determined in shutting off completely Eastern Europe to Western influence. This resulted in the disengagement in 1952-1953 of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland from their original UNESCO membership. In one scholar’s words, “[f]or the moment, at least, the Unesco line-up looked rather like a cold-war alliance.”

Fortunately, this grim period in the history of UNESCO was soon over. With the death of Stalin in March 1953 came a reappraisal by the new Soviet leadership of USSR’s foreign policy priorities. While preoccupied with the necessity of reducing the danger of nuclear war, Khrushchev and his closest associates undertook efforts to broaden their country’s relations with the outside world. They included the intensification of contacts with other countries, as well as with international organizations in various fields of human activities. This resulted in the development of Soviet cooperation with the international community in the spheres of education, science, culture, which were UNESCO’s principal domains. In 1954 membership formalities were completed for the USSR, the Byelorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR. Soviet entry soon brought the return to UNESCO of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. It led subsequently to membership by other Soviet satellites.
Soviet involvement in UNESCO activities did not mean that Moscow wholeheartedly adhered to universal humanistic values propagated by the organization. The Cold War realities strongly influenced Soviet policy toward the organization. In this policy the Soviet Union generally followed the pattern of its bilateral cultural relations with non-communist countries. Moscow was eagerly involved in those UNESCO scientific and technical projects, participation in which was devoid of obvious political and ideological connotations and which, at the same time, could give the Soviets an access to the most recent developments in science in the West, such as projects on the conservation of nature, the study of natural catastrophes, oceanic explorations, etc. On the other hand, Soviet contribution to such projects was used for advertising the successes of Soviet science and thus enhancing the prestige of the regime. The Soviet Union was an enthusiastic supporter of UNESCO’s participation in U.N. programs of technical assistance to underdeveloped countries that could help winning new allies among newly independent states and strengthening Soviet influence in the Third World. The Soviet leaders were not against various forms of cultural activities, those, for instance, which promoted an acquaintance of general public with different cultures, like UNESCO’s East-West project. In supporting such activities Moscow obviously kept in mind the task of advertising Soviet culture as an example of fruitful collaboration of nationalities that lived in the Soviet Union. At the same time the Soviet leadership resisted any initiatives that could lead to the undermining of the regime’s control over “the hearts and minds” of Soviet citizens, like a free flow of ideas or scrutiny of subject matter introduced in curricula of national schools.

Moscow pursued, with some modifications, this policy toward UNESCO throughout the period of the Cold War. Only after Mikhail Gorbachev had revised the premises of Soviet ideology in the late 1980s in favor of “all-human values” as opposed to the “class approach,” did the Soviet Union abandon its attitude toward UNESCO as a convenient propaganda forum and a useful instrument in its struggle with the West and fully embrace the mission of UNESCO aimed at contributing to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture.

Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific