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Soviets in the Canadian Mirror

Kirk Neirgarth

Humanities Professor Kirk Niergarth specializes in twentieth-century Canadian intellectual and cultural history. Most recently his research has focused on Canadian tourists who visited the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1940.

Niergarth’s SSHRC-funded research examines the effects these visits had on individuals, their communities, and more broadly on Canadian perceptions of the Soviet Union. With the assistance of Mount Royal student researchers, Niergarth has documented dozens of Canadians who visited the new USSR, including widely-known figures such as Ontario Conservative Premier George Drew, Nobel Prize winner Frederick Banting, and Canada’s first female MP, Agnes McPhail.

The way Canadian tourists perceived the Soviet Union, Niergarth explains, depended both on what they actually saw and what they expected to see. The latter was a significant influence on perception, distinguishing tourists who visited the USSR with hope from those who visited with dread. Nevertheless, the experience of the tour could result in surprises for visitors and cause them to reconsider their ideas and ideals. Some were disillusioned by what they saw of the “Soviet Experiment”; others returned questioning what was then “common sense” in Canada (for example, what kinds of jobs were suitable for women). In the coming years, Dr. Niergarth will be sharing his findings through several planned publications.

- Kimberly Getz, March, 2013