Sometimes it’s not enough to quietly enjoy the upper hand – you have to flaunt it. Historical examples of such boasting include the opulence of the Palace of Versailles (the home of French absolutism), and Franco’s Valley of the Fallen monument, a constant reminder to the losing side in the Spanish Civil War of their failure. Then there’s the massive conference room table that Putin uses to keep visiting world leaders at a distance while acting out an illusion of open dialogue. These are all examples of the role of architecture and furniture in projecting an image of power.
Sometimes the message is more subtle. The photograph of Soviet Communist Party first secretary Nikita Khrushchev with US vice president Richard Nixon in what appears to be a typical American kitchen is one of the strangest images of the Cold War. How did a modest, prefabricated, middle-class house become a symbol of the American and Russian struggle for technological and cultural world domination?
The story begins in September 1958 during a temporary thaw in US-USSR relations. The two superpowers agreed to hold two exhibitions in the summer of 1959 – one in New York and the other in Moscow. The Soviet exhibition in New York focused on demonstrating its extraordinary military and scientific achievements – it was a display of technological muscle. The Russian delegation arrived aboard an imposing Tupolev Tu-114 airliner, the world’s largest commercial plane. They packed the New York Coliseum with models of factories and heavy machinery, including the first nuclear-powered icebreaker ship. Amid banners adorned with images of Lenin and sculptures of Soviet workers, a special place was reserved for a replica of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, which was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957.
Overmatched in the space race and with only one-third of the USSR’s budget for the exhibition (the US allocated $3.5 million versus the Soviet Union’s $12 million), the American National Exhibition in Moscow was radically different. Its most prominent exhibit was a geodesic dome with a gold-anodized aluminum roof, designed by architect Buckminster Fuller. His dome was touted as an “information machine” capable of handling 5,000 visitors per hour. Inside the dome, Charles and Ray-Bernice Eames, an American married couple of industrial designers, installed a complex system of seven screens that simultaneously projected Glimpses of the USA, a documentary film depicting “a day in the life of the United States.”
The American National Exhibition included a huge glass pavilion filled with a rich assortment of everyday objects and consumer goods, as well as the Circarama, a circular movie theater created by Walt Disney that projectedAmerica the Beautiful on a 360-degree screen.
Cosmetics demonstrations and fashion shows presented American teenagers walking the runway to the beat of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. Kiosks representing freedom of the press displayed books, newspapers and magazines that visitors could browse freely, in hopes that they would be stolen and circulated throughout the Soviet Union. Convertible cars, farm machinery, sports equipment, televisions and stereos showcased American consumer products. There were even beverage dispensers with free Pepsi-Cola. The photo of Khrushchev drinking Pepsi later helped the company gain a foothold in the USSR. In exchange for Pepsi’s soft drinks, the Soviets offered the company a fleet of warships.
Harold C. McClellan was in charge of the American National Exhibition, and said its main goal was “to present to the Soviets a realistic and credible image of the United States … to reflect how the American people live, work, learn, produce, consume and play… and to show their values and what kind of people they are.”
Splitnik: A Long Island prefab house in Moscow
When McClellan went in search of exhibition sponsors, he received an offer from a Long Island real estate developer who was willing to pay all the costs for erecting a ranch-style house in Moscow. It was a simple and affordable home that sold for $13,000 at the time (about $125,000 today), an example of the typical middle-class house that were replicated ad nauseam in every American suburb. It consisted of a wood frame, prefabricated walls and a gabled roof. The one-story rectangular floor plan measured 1,140 square feet, and had three bedrooms, one full bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen.
Despite the home’s modest dimensions, the real estate developer’s president was confident in its propaganda value: “There is nothing you can say about free markets that will have a greater impact on the average Russian than a look at the average American home.”
To make the model home accessible to visitors, some interior walls were removed and replaced with railings, and a wide corridor split the house down the middle. This transformed a house designed for a family of four into an exhibition, through which thousands of curious Soviet visitors passed every day. A total of 2.5 million people visited the house during the six weeks it was open to the public in the summer of 1959. It was soon dubbed the “Splitnik,” a mashup of split (because of the central corridor) and Sputnik.
The kitchen debate
In contemporary architecture, the kitchen has always been a space for experimentation and technological development. It was also a central theme at the American National Exhibition, and served as a showcase for all sorts of appliances and household items. Live demonstrations showed actresses dressed as housewives preparing a complete dinner in minutes using frozen and processed foods. The Soviets gasped in awe at the “Miracle Kitchen of the Future,” a mobile display kitchen full of automatic appliances, including a self-propelled robot vacuum cleaner and a dishwasher on wheels.
The Kremlin was very conscious of the American ploy to seduce its citizens with scenes of domestic abundance. Despite all the good intentions behind the dual exhibitions, tensions inevitably surfaced. When vice president Richard Nixon officially opened the American National Exhibition on July 24, 1959, Khrushchev bluntly put down the American achievements on display. “Many of the things you have shown us are interesting, but unnecessary,” he sneered. “They are of no use.”
When the dignitaries arrived at the Splitnik home, Nixon stopped in front of the kitchen, leaned on the railing and told Khrushchev, “It’s just like our houses in California.” This was not an exaggeration – this was the typical American kitchen in 1959. It had a dishwasher, combined refrigerator and freezer, washer-dryer, garbage disposal, water heater, four-burner stove and built-in oven – all electric. The display of modern conveniences seemed to baffle Khrushchev, who mocked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts the food in your mouth and pushes it down your throat?” Nixon persisted, saying, “In America, we like to make life easier for women.” Khrushchev retorted, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism.”
That was just the opening salvo in an impromptu debate between the two leaders that took place amid household appliances and boxes of scouring pads and detergent. Surrounded by journalists, top Soviet officials and interpreters, Nixon and Khrushchev engaged in a dialectical skirmish that politicized every topic of conversation.
“Your American houses are built to last only 20 years so builders can sell new houses later,” said Khrushchev. “We build for our children and grandchildren.”
Nixon countered, “American houses last for more than 20 years, but, even so, after 20 years many Americans want a new house or a new kitchen.”
“Some things never get out of date – houses, for instance,” said Khrushchev.
“Diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have 1,000 builders building 1,000 different houses is the most important thing,” replied Nixon. “We don’t have one decision made at the top by one government official. This is the difference.”
The kitchen debate lasted 45 tense minutes and kept going for another 16 minutes in a television studio. The widely publicized tussle turned Nixon into a national hero back home. Breathless press reports exulted at how the Splitnik house had impressed Soviet visitors, who were accustomed to communal apartment blocks that often housed an entire family in one room. But on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Splitnik was dismissed as a capitalist hoax. “Presenting this as the typical home of an American worker is like presenting the Taj Mahal as the typical home of a Bombay textile worker, or Buckingham Palace as the typical home of a British miner,” declared the son of the Soviet ambassador to the United States after visiting the house.
One thing was clear to everyone – the Cold War was no longer confined to puppet governments and wars in distant lands, nuclear warheads and space exploits. The kitchen debate had turned the home – the poster child for the American lifestyle and consumerism – into an issue of international political significance. With veritable soft power, Uncle Sam had struck a blow at the communist bear’s heart.
The Danish shipping giant Maersk held meetings with Denmark’s tax and maritime authorities to advise them on how best to shield the shipping industry from the OECD’s global minimum tax deal, according to a Danish media report.
Published: 8 February 2023 16:21 CET
The revelations, reported by broadcaster DR, come as the company on Wednesday reported record profits of 203 billion kroner, on which it paid just 3 percent in tax.
They are particularly damaging to the company because of the claim last year from Maersk’s then CEO Søren Skou that his company was open to paying more tax, so long as it was through a global agreement via the OECD, precisely the sort of agreement the company was behind the scenes trying to exclude itself from.
“It seems as if Maersk is playing a double game,” Lars Koch from the poverty charity Oxfam, told DR after he was presented with the evidence.
“We can see from the access to documents the number of meetings and close and confidential dialogue”, he added. “Here they agree and inform each other about what Denmark should argue in these international negotiations on a tax agreement and they work actively to safeguard Maersk’s interests by exempting the shipping companies.”
The broadcaster report was based on internal documents obtained from the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority.
The documents show that in June 2020, representatives of the company held a meeting with the Ministry of Taxation in which they they discussed strategies on excluding shipping from the OECD agreement on minimum tax.
Soon afterwards, the industry lobby group Danish Shipping (Danske Rederier), where Maersk plays a leading role, wrote to the Ministry of Taxation and the Danish Maritime Authority warning that the OECD proposal “creates considerable uncertainty in our hinterland”.
Then in June 2021, a representative from the Danish Maritime Authority thanked Danish Shipping for supplying it with arguments it could use to push for shipping to be excluded, saying, “it was extremely well done. A thousand thanks for your efforts.”
Finally, when shipping was exempted from the OECD agreement in July 2021, a representative from Danish Shipping thanked the Danish Maritime Authority for “the orientation and for being aware of the special challenges of shipping”.
Mette Mellemgaard Jakobsen, Maersk’s head of tax, admitted that her company had tried to influence the process.
“We were specifically concerned about how these rules would be implemented, and we had a concrete concern that it would create an increased distortion of competition,” she told DR.
“For us, it is absolutely crucial that we are not put at a disadvantage compared to other shipping companies around the world. That is why global agreements are the most important thing for us.”
Rasmus Corlin Christensen, a researcher in international tax at Copenhagen Business School, said that Maersk’s double game was quite “striking”.
“On the one hand, you support and work for global solutions, the shipping industry included. But at the same time you can see that, at least when it comes to the global reforms that have been discussed in recent years, they did not want the shipping industry to be covered.”
Contemporary TV fiction does not shy away from polarizing topics. From the capitalist nightmare of Severance (2022) to the mental health issues of Euphoria(2019,) shows increasingly incorporate social debates into their plot lines in response to a growing interest. Gone are the years of the 1990s escapism of Friends and The Office’s controversial canned laughter. Now, for a show to succeed, it must actively participate in the cultural conversation.
This trend is particularly reflected in awards like the Golden Globes, which recently recognized socially engaged productions such as Abbott Elementary or The Bear. Despite this progress, most of these shows haven’t yet broken one of the last taboos in fiction: the lack of body diversity and representation of fat characters.
Anti-fatness is an accepted, widespread discrimination – tiny airplane seats, body-related comments – and fat people remain culturally marginalized. Society “doesn’t like talking to fat people, looking at fat people, believing fat people [and] listening to fat people,” says Lyla Byers, a researcher at Virginia Tech. “We would really prefer for fat people not to exist in public.”
As a result, obese people can suffer serious health consequences. “When I was a child, I suffered medical violence; I was very thin but a pediatrician put me on 18,000 diets,” says Spanish actress Laura Galán Montijano, who starred in the award-winning Piggy (2022). “She was obsessed with my weight, she used to weigh me every week.”
Even some medical terms like “obesity” or “overweight” are problematic, based on a non-inclusive metric: the body mass index (BMI). “BMI was never meant to be used to measure individual health,“ says Byers. “It’s way too simple a measurement for way too complex an issue,” adds Jennifer Graves, author of Framing Fat, a book that challenges the dominant weight discourses. “There are still significant civil rights issues that fat people face in terms of lack of protection against discrimination in the medical system.”
Laziness, stupidity, gluttony or having low sexual capital are some of the concepts associated with fat people, according to Jeanine Gailey, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University. “The cultural messaging is that fat is the worst thing one can be,” Gailey says. These stigmas are internalized by producers, who fail to include diverse perspectives. “When [women] are not desirable according to beauty standards, we’re not featured on screen,” says Montijano.
And, when fiction does introduce fat characters, they are often reduced to old-school stereotypes, from the bullied girl of Debby Ryan’s Insatiable (2018) to the idiotic, slothful Homer Simpson. “Many people in society watch these shows or these movies, internalize these portrayals and believe these things about fat people,” says Ariane Prohaska, a researcher at the University of Alabama. “It leads us to treat fat people differently and to treat ourselves differently, in a way that makes us believe that we have to constantly be improving our bodies.”
Reducing obese people to caricatures especially affects traditionally marginalized minority groups, such as women, people of color and the LGBTQI+ community. “Body size intersects with other dimensions of oppression,” says Prohaska. “So, women of color, particularly Black women, face a lot of stigma.” Big Shirley, a recurring character on the television show Martin, is a classic example of a problematic portrayal of fat Black women on TV, as is America Ferrera’s character on Ugly Betty.
Fat white women have managed to diversify their roles in American fiction thanks to the work of actresses like Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham. But “Hollywood Fatness” is not representative of the US a whole. Chrissy Metz, for example, said in 2016 that as part of her This is Us contract, where she played a woman struggling with eating habits, she had to lose weight. Later, however, she retracted her comments. “Gatekeepers, the people who are behind the scenes deciding what stories Americans are going to buy, tend to be white, wealthy and male,” says Virgie Tovar, a writer and expert on body discrimination. “This creates a cycle of the same kinds of stories being told over and over again.”
When it comes to queer men, fiction narrowly focuses on the body cult that characterizes part of the community through masculine, beefy characters such as those in Élite (2018,) Smiley (2022) or in the last season of American Horror Story. “It really is paradoxical that the diversity the LGBTQI+ community demands is not practiced within it,” says Roberto Enríquez, critic and creator of Queer You Are (2021.)
In the show, Enríquez self-fictionalizes his own youth through Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González, who embody the double discrimination the director has suffered because of his sexual orientation and his body. “I was clear that, if I was going to do the show, I was going to do it my own way,” says Enríquez. “They had to be fat characters because that was the story I was telling, how they face life with those bodies, how they face rejection and desire.” In an interview for ICON, Sánchez spoke of the danger of stereotyping fat people. “If you’re fat, they make you do fat things. ‘I fall down and break the chair because I’m fat; I’m fat and I eat four pastries in 10 minutes.’ The fat guy always has scenes where he is binge-eating.”
If LGBTQI+ stories are still disruptive, triggering far-right censure, those that incorporate artists with non-normative bodies, away from the imposed canon and with plots beyond those of physical obsession, have an even greater subversive impact. “Queer bodies and fat bodies are seen as excessive, so when you have queer fat bodies, they are doubly destabilizing,” says Jason Whitesel, a sociologist at Illinois State University and author of Fat Gay Men, which examines fat stigma within gay male communities. “Most of our shows are put together by people who think the queer community is best represented by thin or muscular people.”
Even though fat suits are still employed by the entertainment industry, fiction has progressed from the rather cringeworthy “Fat Monica” episode of Friends. In The Girls at the Back (2022,) Mariona Terés plays Leo, a millennial woman who plans a trip with her friends after one is diagnosed with cancer. Terés, with a leading, cliché-free role, believes that many things have changed in recent years, albeit slowly. “We are seeing different bodies on screen, but we have to keep changing the clichés,” she says. “The next step is a fat woman playing a sexy character, in a romantic relationship with someone, and normalizing that her body is beautiful, that she can eat whatever she wants and fuck whoever she wants.”
Besides expanding the narrative complexity of fat characters, fiction must increase their range of roles away from one-dimensional supporting characters haunted by their physical appearance.
“What I hope is that diversity is broadened in all senses,” says Carlota Pereda, director of Piggy. Without financial support from production companies, projects with leading fat characters will struggle to be developed. “When you’re looking for funding, some people won’t support you because they consider it a personal project just because you’ve put a non-normative character in the leading role.”
Although fiction lags behind a society that is largely critical of negative representations of fat characters in productions like The Whale, the industry will eventually accept that non-Hollywood bodies exist and deserve to be represented, with complex storylines and free from humiliating fat suits. “I do think we’re going to see more and more diverse people on screen,” says Terés. “It’s a slow road, but we’ll get to the other side.”
The brinksmanship has won plaudits from some who argue that by holding out, the German leader managed to get the United States to reverse its stance and send Abrams tanks — bringing about a bigger win for Ukraine.
But other analysts warn the weeks of delay may have left a deeper mark on Scholz’s international reputation, while also hurting Kyiv’s chances against Russian troops on the battlefield.
“The SPD chancellor has achieved one of his biggest aims: delivering battle tanks only in step with the Americans,” wrote Die Zeit weekly.
Rather, he repeatedly underlined that it was and is “right that we did not let ourselves be pushed into this but that we rely on and also continue on close cooperation”.
It was perhaps not a coincidence that Scholz’s announcement came after public opinion shifted slightl in favour of sending tanks, with 46 percent for and 41 percent against on January 19.
Directly addressing fears of Germans, who have favoured treading lightly around conflict zones since World War II, Scholz pointedly said he would ensure that any support for Ukraine would be provided “without the risks for our country growing in the wrong direction”.
Asked later on ZDF public television whether his hesitation had led to a “loss of trust” among allies, Scholz rejected the criticism.
“Everyone knows we are making a big contribution, also compared to other countries, in terms of support for Ukraine — not only financially and with humanitarian aid but also with weapons.”
But some analysts said his concern for domestic politics may have cost Ukraine on the frontlines.
In the meantime, “several months” had been lost in the defence of Ukraine, while Scholz was “more concerned with domestic politics” and an issue he did not see as a “big vote winner”, Chatham House analyst John Lough told AFP.
Fears that moving too rashly would lead to an escalation in the war were exaggerated, too. Even without tank deliveries, “the Russians have escalated anyway”, for example by targeting critical infrastructure in Ukraine, Lough said.
Amid the ruckus, particularly with neighbouring Poland accusing Scholz of dithering, analysts point to the damage done to Germany’s reputation.
Bild daily piled on the pressure at home, accusing Scholz of cowardice. But a day later, a high-profile defence ministers’ meeting of Ukraine allies last Friday still failed to break the deadlock on tanks.
The delay was “embarrassing for the German government”, said Lough.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) comments on the Russian attack on Ukraine during a press conference at the Chancellery on February 24th, 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler
Sudha David-Wilp, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office, said moving in lock-step with the United States gave Scholz the “political cover he needed” to say “yes” to German tank deliveries.
But his short-term win was not “necessarily good for Germany because it has lost a lot of trust” with key partners, David-Wilp said.
The way the tank drama played out “clearly shows that the US needs to play a leadership role in Europe” and its security, while German leadership remained “elusive”, she said.
Yet, for all the apparent damage to Scholz, there might be a winner.
The unexpected US tank commitment means that officials in Ukraine have “all kinds of different kit now”, David-Wilp added.