top of page

For a country firmly embedded in the pre-war pacifist camp, the U.S.S.R. pavilion aroused American patriotic sensibilities like no other.

While educated critics took untold jabs at the fair's architecture, no single pavilion created more of a stir among the general public than that of the Soviet Union.

A semi-circular courtyard centered the entrance to the massive Soviet pavilion. In its midst stood an impressive 188-foot column surmounted by the statue "The Spirit of the Working People of the U.S.S.R." or better known by its nickname "Big Joe."

The 79-foot tall, stainless steel young man held an illuminated red star, the symbol of communism, in his outstretched hand. Solid gold trimmed, the star required a special ventilation system to cool the glass of the 5000 watt bulb during the evening. The sight of the statue dominated the fairgrounds. Its red star appeared on aviation charts as a landmark during the fair's 1939 season.

The most often asked question at the pavilion's switchboard was the weight of "Big Joe." Telephone operators politely informed the callers – one and a half tons. One wag suggested a Trotzkyite designed the statue's under- lit foot as the world's niftiest hot foot.

At the dinner following the pavilion's dedication, Soviet officials distributed gold button-hole miniatures of "the worker."

Many Americans, unfamiliar with the international situation, totally misunderstood the statue's significance. One woman informed her friend they were about to visit The Lone Star State pavilion. Another questioned why the Russians were advertising Macy's department store.

However, Big Joe soon found his nemesis in Uncle Sam.

The Queens Evening News warned readers: "Today we are beset on all sides by hatred and policies which are alien to the American way of life." And the Chicago Tribune fumed: "The gargantuan, grim-visage figure of stainless steel representing the Russian 'worker' will undoubtedly be the mecca for the active and articulate communist branch in New York this summer."

Critics abounded with a multitude of plans to counteract Big Joe's presence.

Sumner Sirti, president of the Mid-town Civic League of Brooklyn, urged officials to look into reports the Soviet building stood about fifteen feet higher than the original authorized plans. Mrs. I. McCarthy, worried about "the Soviet star towering above everything Christian," suggested to the Sun's editors the "Star Spangled Banner" arrangement from the patriotic fountain display by played daily.

The Rev. Dr. Edward Lodge Curran, president of the International Catholic Truth Society, warned the "Red Star of Soviet Russia reminds us of the fact that the Russian people have been deprived of every civil right which we possess in the United States of America." He urged all Catholics boycott the fair. Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen of Washington D.C.'s Catholic University went a step further insisting no Americans should attend the fair until the nation's flag flew above that of the communists.

Picking up the tenor of the times, State Senator John McNaboe warned: "There is a war on today, but it is not being fought with rifles and battleships. It is a thought war. Those who have been to the World's Fair no doubt have observed the subtlety that is going on at the Russian exhibit."

Brooklyn's Midtown Civic League urged the fair find a flag pole higher than the Soviet star. Herbert A. O'Brien, chairman of the American Tolerance Committee telegrammed the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington, D.C. urging an investigation of the spread of unlawful communist propaganda.

The Fair's administration had to respond.

Some suggested a flag be placed on the fair's highest structure – the soaring 750-foot Trylon. Many reported seeing the Perisphere's partner over fifty miles away. However officials rejected the idea, reasonably citing esthetic sensibilities.

A final solution soon appeared. The Parachute Jump in the Amusement Zone towered an amazing one foot above the Soviet statue. On Memorial Day, Jordan L. Mott, the operator of the Parachute Jump, unfurled the stars and stripes from a forty-foot flagpole attached to his amusement ride. Columnist C. B. Driscoll eulogized "that doesn't settle any wars or prevent any, but it does make a lot of us feel a little more comfortable."

While patriotic Americans breathed a sigh of relief at the end of May, the advent of World War II eventually sealed Big Joe's fate.

Unable to fight a European war and maintain its pavilion at the 1940 World's Fair, the Soviets withdrew. The New York Times' editors exclaimed: "After the events of the last few weeks the Government of Russia would be an unwanted and unwelcome visitor at an exposition undertaken in a spirit of mutual confidence and good will. They have earned the lasting distrust and contempt of the American people."

The massive pavilion was dismantled and the materials returned to the U.S.S.R. The first to come down – Big Joe. Workers divided the 60-foot statue into ten sections and packed it into 120 crates. The Soviet freighter Turksib carried the controversial art piece back to Russia.