Arab Engagement at the World Festival of Youth and Students in the USSR in 1957 – A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop

Diana Abbani in conversation with Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop

ELIZABETH BISHOP is Associate Professor of History at Texas State University-San Marcos. Her research interests include the modern Arab world, media, and material history. Coeditor of Imperialism on Trial (2006), she is also the author of “Arabs at the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students: U.G.E.M.A. in the U.S.S.R., 1957” Maghreb Review, vol. 48, no. 4 (2023, pp. 424-442), as well as “The Politics of Cinema in Hashemite Iraq,” Oriente Moderno 93 (2013, pp. 101-126), and “The ‘Partisans of Peace’ Between Baku and Moscow: The Soviet Experience of 1958,” The Middle East in 1958 Reimagining a Revolutionary Year, Jeffrey Karam, ed, 2020, pp. 65-76).

Diana Abbani: In your article Arabs at the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students: UGEMA in the USSR, 1957, you address the Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship that took place in Moscow in 1957. Could you please provide an overview of the festival along with the socio-political context of the Soviet Union and the Arab world during that time?

Elizabeth Bishop: More than 30,000 people who were citizens of more than a hundred different countries traveled to Moscow to take part in the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students from 28 July to 5 August 1957. When people who were there talk about it, they describe their experiences as “transformative.” This was an experience the Soviet Union put all possible state and party resources behind– they even released a rom-com Devushka s gitaroy (1958),”Girl with a Guitar” starring Lyudmila Gurchenko about preparations for the festival.

Diana: The festival occurred during the post-World War II period. How did the euphoria of that time contribute to the unique atmosphere and interactions during the event?

Elizabeth: It’s true what you say, about “unique atmosphere;” and it’s also true what you say that this was very much a post-World War II event with its references to peace and a distinct anti-nuclear position. If I can disagree with you in a spirit of friendship, and as a historian for whom “affect” (meaning “touch the feelings of (someone); move emotionally”) is important, it strikes me the “euphoria of that time” was the other way around: the festival’s unique atmosphere helped create post-war euphoria.

Source: Foreign Broadcast Information System (FBIS), Public Domain.

Diana: Fascinating! Could you expand on how the festival’s unique atmosphere contributed to post-war euphoria, particularly in light of your mention in the paper that ‘While friendship may have been the communist party’s slogan, love was a prominent theme in planning and propaganda for the event?’ Can you provide more context and detail on this?

Elizabeth: The dictionary tells me “love” is “an intense feeling of deep affection,” “a great interest and pleasure in something,” “like or enjoy very much;” so I went to black-and-white newsreel films looking for “deep affection,” “great interest and pleasure,” and enjoyment at the festival. I found people wearing their best clothes gathered in fine weather with balloons and flowers, to enjoy spectacle,  for exciting events such as a fire display and entry into otherwise-forbidden spaces like the Kremlin. While not exactly a recipe for speed-dating, it’s close – also, I’m a huge fan of Kristin Roth-Ey, “’Loose Girls’ on the Loose: Sex, Propaganda and the 1957 Youth Festival,” which Melanie Ilič and Susan E. Reid included in their edited volume Women in the Khrushchev Era (2004).

Diana: You mentioned specific instances between Arabs and ‘ordinary Soviets’ in your paper. Could you clarify what you mean by ‘ordinary Soviets’ and provide additional examples of these interactions, along with insights on how they were documented and what they reveal about Arab-Soviet relations at that time? Additionally, how did the event facilitate (or obstruct) connections between ‘ordinary’ Soviets and Arabs?

Elizabeth: You’re right; the term “ordinary citizens” is problematic. Let me dodge this by saying that items such as enamel badges (значки) were mass-produced for the festival, and appear to have been treasured over decades. How do I know? Electronic markets are full of what were once low-budget souvenirs such as matchbox labels, must mention postcards, and many different designs of badges (1, 2, 3). Before we get too far from methodology, I ought to mention the many wonderful colleagues working in this field: Maxim Matusevich, of course, as well as Pia Koivunen; Eleonory Gilburd’s “Revival of Soviet Internationalism” and Kenis Kozlov and Gilburd Eleonory’s book on the Khrushchev thaw (both, 2014), Quinn Slobodian on East and West Germany (2020, 2015, 2012), Tobias Rupprecht’s dissertation (2012), Koivunen’s chapter on the festival in S. Autio-Sarasmo and K. Miklossy’s edited volume (2011), Anne Gorsuch’s books on tourism and youth (2011, 2000), as well as Yale Richmond (2010)–so many more. 

Source: Foreign Broadcast Information System (FBIS), Public Domain.

Diana: Your mention of mass-produced items like enamel badges and their significance over decades raises an intriguing point about the enduring symbols from the festival. Additionally, your chapter highlights informal exchanges such as autograph signings, pin exchanges, and handshakes. How did these items and small gestures contribute to the larger narrative of internationalism during the festival? Could you delve further into how these tangible artifacts reflect the lasting impact of the event on both Soviet and Arab societies? Moreover, do you believe these souvenirs played a role in fostering a sense of connection and solidarity between participants beyond the festival’s duration?

Elizabeth: This is an excellent question, connecting items with gestures as a “larger narrative of internationalism”! I’m of two minds about it: with regard to the “autograph signings, pin exchanges, and handshakes,” the very modesty of the mass-produced items designed for the festival (the most ephemeral class of consumer goods, the matchboxes, are numerous among surviving souvenirs) turns one’s attention from the object’s value, to the gesture that gave it value. 

As you say, “the gift” fostered a sense of connection and solidarity between participants. Alternately, recalling the lawfare of the cold war, recalling the Iraqi delegate whose passport was revoked; recalling, too, alienation which accompanied physical intimacy in Margaret Litvin’s translation of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Ice (2011), internationalism’s stakes were high. It all recalls to mind your excellent work on Arab immigrants in Berlin. You mention Etel Adnan, her essay “voyage, war, and exile,” with its rich: “she was not the one leaving Beirut, she asserted, it was Beirut leaving her: ‘What is exile, she wrote, if not the violent and involuntary loss of all the living symbols of one’s identity?’” All the connections and solidarity between participants in Moscow, for all the references to “peace and friendship,” forms of “new alienation” were evident as well.

The article concludes with sports diplomacy in the service of a national liberation movement, with dialogue between people who self-identified as “Algerian” and those who self-identified as “French.”  Certainly, this issue of dialogue remains: it sustains Benjamin Stora’s investigation; access to government records plays a huge role in it; after all, “the Algerian Revolution is at the center of a battle over Algerians’ agency, ownership of their history, and freedom to define themselves independently of the colonial knowledge system.” I understand that the journal Postcolonial Studies plans an issue on such dialogue. 

Finally, about “lasting impact:” I have to mention that most of Arab delegates at the VI Festival were Egyptian. A soft drink advertisement ran on Egyptian television shortly before the 2011 revolution. Of “possible futures” which pass before the protagonist of this mini-film, a grandfather holds up a printed item (red with a hammer and sickle, covered handwritten Moscow telephone numbers, like the blat-book of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism) “I’ll give you [phone] numbers for all my friends,” threatening the protagonist with the weight of the past. 

Diana: This is all so interesting! Drawing from this discussion on items and gadgets associated with Festival, it’s evident how material artifacts hold significance in understanding historical events. In this context, how did you navigate and utilize archival materials related to the festival? Could you share any insights or challenges you encountered while accessing and interpreting these archives, and how did they shape your understanding of the event and its broader historical context?

Elizabeth: Even as I self-identify as “an archive rat” (preens whiskers), specific challenges encountered in accessing and interpreting the records group of the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Contacts (SSOD) cited in the article are part of broader contexts. Reference to “equal access to functions.. in the State” in article 51 of Algeria’s constitution of 1989/1996/2008 granted citizens access to government records (the ultimate “freedom of information act”). With that said, the “Impossible Archives? Rewriting the Contemporary in Egypt” of Pascale Ghazaleh (AUC) & Malak Labib (Ifao) turns a researchers’ attention to ephemeral publications. Consequently, I owe a huge shout-out to Michelle Williams of Texas State University’s Alkek Library’s InterLibrary Loan department as well as Joe Lenkart of the University of Illinois Library’s Slavic Reference Service.

Source: Foreign Broadcast Information System (FBIS), Public Domain.


Diana: Drawing parallels to the VIème Festival Mondial de la jeunesse et des étudiants in 1957, how do you see the historical experiences of international solidarity among youth and students influencing or resonating with contemporary movements in the Global South? What lessons or inspirations can be drawn for present-day efforts in fostering solidarity among diverse nations and cultures?

Elizabeth: Wow, that’s a good question. It’s a fine note on which to close, as well. For one thing, practices of statecraft in postcolonial Algeria seem connected to that specific jurisdiction which doesn’t exist anymore. As one example: while regulation 07-01 of Muharram 1428 relating to the rules applicable to external current transactions and foreign currency accounts seems similar to A.M. Sirnov’s “International Currency and Credit Relations (1960, p. 3; noting A. A. Moiseev, Mezhdunarodnaya finansovye organizatsii, 2003, chapter 1) any meaningful comparison requires a technician’s knowledge.

Beyond statecraft, each experience of solidarity has its own story, right?  Samia Mahrez’s Translating Egypt’s Revolution fixes collective action firmly in the cultural heritage of mulid celebrations (2012, pp. 25ff): fans of rival football clubs Ahly and Zamalek act collectively. The tend towards the local obscures the transnational; while solidarity does not replace justice, the two extend and reinforce one another. Lennard J. Davis and ‎ M. Bella Mirabella’s Left Politics and the Literary Profession (1990, p. 201) remind us international solidarity has always been anti-essentialist, and that until 1982 Beirut was a key node for political exchanges of different jurisdictions.

After 45 years of relentless cold war, can we consider #25Jan one possible “historical experience of international solidarity among youth in the Global South”? The local socialist party assumed a public role in transformative politics; there’s always Ramy Essay and “bread, freedom, and social justice;” and organic political iteration appropriated the commercial form “a music video.”  

Contrary to advertisers’ assumption that multiple generations give rise to alienation, Mona Anis in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary film “The Square” (2013) highlighted cross-generational conversations about political values. As complicated as “internationalism” always is, we note cross-border solidarity during 2024, during 2021, and during 2014.


Dr. Diana Abbani is the science communication coordinator for the Merian Center for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) at the Forum Transregionale Studien. She is responsible for MECAM’s transregional science communication, collaborative meetings (academies and transregional workshops), and research data management. Diana Abbani is part of the TRAFO-Blog editorial team.


Arab Engagement at the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students in URSS in 1957 – A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.04.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/w841



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 16. April). Arab Engagement at the World Festival of Youth and Students in the USSR in 1957 – A Conversation with Elizabeth Bishop. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/w841

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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