Yale Richmond is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer, the author of 11 books on intercultural communication, and he worked on U.S.-Soviet cultural and other exchanges for more than 20 years. Yale delivered the following speech at the Aleksanteri Institute’s 9th Annual Conference “Cold War Interactions Reconsidered” 29-31 October 2009, University of Helsinki, Finland. This is the first of two parts and originally appeared at Whirled View. It is published here with the author’s permission.
I want to thank the Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki for this opportunity to speak to you. It is an honor to be asked to address such a well-informed audience.
First a disclaimer. Although I worked for the US Government for more than 35 years, and many of those years on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I do not speak for the State Department today. The views I present here today are my own.
There are many theories of why communism collapsed and the Cold War ended, as you will likely be hearing in this conference.
There are a few grains of truth in some of those explanations, and more than a few in others, but I will provide today many grains of another explanation–that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism were consequences of Soviet contacts and cultural exchanges with the West, and with the United States in particular, over the years that followed the death of Stalin in 1953.
When cultural exchange with the Soviets is mentioned, most people think of Soviet dancers, symphony orchestras, ice shows, and circuses that came to the West and filled our halls with admiring spectators. But cultural exchange consisted of much more–exhibitions, motion pictures, and most important, exchanges of people.
The Iron Curtain was almost impenetrable. Information about the West was closely controlled. There was no free press and no internet. Foreign travel for Russians was very limited, and few visitors came to the Soviet Union. Moreover, most of Soviet territory was closed to travel by foreigners, except for a few large cities. Most Russians thought they were better off than people in the capitalist West.
However, over a 30-year period (1958-1988), more than 50,000 Soviet citizens came to the United States under various exchanges of the US-Soviet Cultural Agreement, and tens of thousands more came to countries in Western Europe. And those are conservative estimates. They came as scholars and students, scientists and engineers, writers and journalists, government and party leaders, musicians and athletes, and they were all cleared by the KGB for foreign travel. But they came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same. Those exchanges changed the Soviet Union and prepared the way for Gorbachev’s glasnost, perestroika, and the end of the Cold War. I will speak here about United States exchanges with the Soviet Union because we had the largest exchanges with the Soviets, but much of what I say can also apply to exchanges other countries had with the Soviet Union.
What were our objectives?
The United States had 5 objectives, as stated in a National Security Council staff study, NSC 5607:
1) to broaden and deepen relations with the Soviet Union by expanding contacts between the people and institutions of the two countries;
2) involve the Soviets in joint activities and develop habits of cooperation with the United States;
3) end Soviet isolation and inward orientation by giving the Soviet Union a broader view of the world and of itself;
4) improve U.S. understanding of the Soviet Union through access to its institutions and people;
5) and obtain the benefits of long-range cooperation in culture, education, and science and technology.
Soviet objectives have not been openly stated but after many years of observing how they conducted their exchanges, they can be presumed to have included the following:
1) to obtain access to U.S. science and technology;
2) learn more about the United States;
3) support the view that the Soviet Union was the equal of the United States by engaging Americans in bilateral activities;
4) promote the view of the Soviet Union as a peaceful power seeking cooperation with the United States;
5) demonstrate the achievements of the Soviet people;
6) give vent to the pent-up demand of Soviet scholars, scientists, performing artists, athletes, and intellectuals for foreign travel and contacts;
7) and earn foreign currency through performances abroad of Soviet artists and athletes whose fees and honoraria went, not to the participating individuals, but to the Soviet state.
Equality, reciprocity, and mutual benefit: the three watchwords
The 3 watchwords of the exchanges, for both sides, were equality, reciprocity, and mutual benefit. The two countries were to treat each other as equals, approximate reciprocity was to be sought in the various exchanges, and the benefits to the two countries should be comparable.
For most Russians who came to the United States –and most were Russians–their visits were an early form of shock therapy. When the first Soviet students were shown a U.S. supermarket, they thought it was a Potemkin Village created to impress them. Even Boris Yeltsin, when he visited the United States in 1989, was amazed at the variety of food products he saw in a Texas supermarket. But the most important impression Soviets brought back from travels in the United States was not amazement at our consumer goods but a redefinition of what is “normal,” a word with special meaning for Russians who long to live in a normal society.
The Flagship of Exchanges
The flagship of the exchanges was the Graduate Student and Young Faculty Exchange. In preparations for the negotiation of the Cultural Agreement, President Eisenhower, a strong supporter of exchanges – we could not have had them without Eisenhower–Eisenhower wanted to bring 10,000 Soviet students to the United States, pay all their costs, and not require reciprocity. He even got FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to approve the proposal. But the State Department, in negotiations with the Soviets at the time, was trying for 100 students, and eventually the Soviets agreed to exchange only 20 each year. During, the first year, however, only 17 students were exchanged after the Soviets withdrew 3 of their nominations, and because the exchange was numerically reciprocal, the United States could also send only 17.
The American students were in their mid- 20s and real graduate students, selected in an open competition, and mostly in Russian studies–language, literature, and history. The Soviet students were in their mid-30s, had their Kandidat degrees, were mostly in science and technology, and came on a kommandirovka (official assignment). Nevertheless, the number of so-called “students” exchanged each year was gradually increased, and over the next 30 years, several thousand graduate students and young scholars were exchanged.
For the United States, the exchange created a pool of scholars knowledgeable about the Soviet Union who, having lived there, were able to distinguish fact from fiction. They enriched our universities, and most American professors in Russian studies today are alumni of those exchanges. The Soviets likewise accumulated a growing number of scholars who had seen the West, had recognized how far behind the Soviet Union was, that communism had failed them, and that the Soviet media were not telling them the truth about the West.
As Allen Kassof has written–for many years he was the director of our academic exchanges with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe:
Among the thousands of Soviet and East European academics and intellectuals who were exchange participants in the United States and Western Europe . . . many became members of what, in retrospect, turned out to be underground establishments. They were well-placed individuals, members of the political and academic elites, who began as loyalists but whose outside experiences sensitized them to the need for basic change. Together with the more radical political and cultural dissidents, towards whom they were ambivalent or hostile, they turned out to be agents of change who played a key part, sometimes unintentional, in the demise of European Communism.
Here I will mention three of those so-called Soviet “graduate students” who came to the United States in the early years of the exchange.
Aleksandr Yakovlev is best known as the godfather of glasnost, Gorbachev’s policy of promoting openness in Soviet society. He was Gorbachev’s liaison with the intellectuals, and protector of the liberal editors who gave the Soviet Union its first independent press. And he was at Gorbachev’s side in five summit meetings with Ronald Reagan.
But in 1958 Yakovlev was one of 4 Soviet “graduate students” at Columbia University in the first year of the student exchange. In New York, he studied modern American history and politics. But as he told me in an interview, he spent most of his time in the library where he read more than 200 books that he could not have read in the Soviet Union. Yakovlev returned to Moscow still a convinced communist. Yet he was deeply influenced by his year at Columbia which he once described as more meaningful to him than the 10 years he later spent as Soviet ambassador to Canada.
Oleg Kalugin studied with Yakovlev at Columbia, and like other Russians on their first visit to the West, his flight began from
Moscow to Copenhagen, where he had to change planes for New York. Here’s what Kalugin has written about Copenhagen:
As we walked through the airport [in Copenhagen], I was to experience a feeling I would have countless times on future trips abroad: the shock of leaving the gray, monochrome world of the Soviet Union and landing in a place virtually exploding with colors and sights. We spent a few hours in the Danish capital, overwhelmed by the almost clinical cleanliness, the beautiful shop windows, the sea of lights.
As a young KGB officer in training, Kalugin’s instructions from KGB intelligence in New York City were clear, as Kalugin has written. “Stay out of trouble; act like an ordinary student, and don’t try to recruit anyone.” It was not a difficult assignment, writes Kalugin, and he dove into it with enthusiasm. As he has described New York:
For the first few weeks, I walked ceaselessly around Manhattan, overwhelmed by its power and beauty and bustle. I visited scores of neighborhoods and all the major museums. I saw baseball games and went to the Metropolitan Opera. I rode buses and subways for hours, and saw more than one hundred films. I went to a strip club in Greenwich Village, shelling out $40 for a drink with one of the dancers. I even won election to the Columbia University Student Council, undoubtedly the first KGB officer-and, I suppose, the last-to serve on that body.
In an interview with me in 1997, Kalugin spoke of the importance of exchanges:
Exchanges were a Trojan Horse in the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. They opened up a closed society. They greatly influenced younger people who saw the world with more open eyes, and they kept infecting more and more people over the years.
After his year at Columbia, Kalugin made a career in Soviet intelligence, reaching the rank of major general in the KGB before joining the Democratic Platform of the Communist Party and being elected to the Soviet parliament. Since 1995, he has been living in the United States where he says he will live longer.
Nikolai Sivachev was a young lecturer in American History at Moscow State University (MSU) when he came to Columbia University in 1961 to do research on President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His mission, he later told his American friends, was to learn why the United States in the 1930s had a New Deal and not a communist revolution.
Twelve years later, by then a full professor, founder of an American studies center at MSU, and head of the Communist Party cell at his university, he proposed a “Five-Year Plan”–to invite U.S. professors of American history to lecture in Moscow during each of the 5 years of study for Soviet history students. Since 1973, every student of American history at MSU has studied with 5 different American professors, several of whom have told me that they delivered the same lectures in Moscow that they give to students in the United States, and without any self-censorship. Today almost every Russian professor of American history has had that experience. Their best student, say the early American lecturers, was Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Foreign Minister.
Cinema: Lenin’s Most Important Art Form
Next I discuss motion pictures, and I will open with the customary quote from Lenin–Kak skazal nasz veliki Lenin: “Of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema.” Lenin was correct in predicting that the cinema would be an important medium for indoctrinating Russians. But the founder of the Soviet state could not have foreseen the influence that foreign films would have on the Soviet Union.
From foreign films Soviet audiences learned that people in the West did not have to stand in long lines to purchase food, they did not live in communal apartments, they dressed fashionably, owned cars, and lived the normal life so sought by Russians.
Soviet audiences were not so much listening to the sound tracks or reading subtitles as watching people in the films–how they lived in their homes, the clothes they wore, and the cars they drove. And when refrigerators were opened in Western films, they were always full of food. Such details of how people lived in West were very revealing.
During the years of cultural agreement, 4 or 5 American films were purchased by the Soviets each year. Most were pure entertainment–comedies, adventure stories, musicals, and science fiction–which met the interests of Soviet audiences. Among the more popular were “Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment,” and “Tootsie.”
Although the number of purchased films was small, hundreds of copies were made for distribution to cinemas throughout the Soviet Union. Other American films, although not purchased by the Soviets, were clandestinely copied and screened at closed showings for members of the Politburo and other high officials and their spouses. The Soviet intelligentsia also saw unapproved foreign and Soviet films at members-only showings at professional clubs of writers, scientists, architects, journalists, cinematographers, and other privileged people of the Soviet Union.
(Continue to Part II here)
Yale Richmond, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and author of 11 books on intercultural communication, including Practicing Public Diplomacy and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia, worked on U.S.-Soviet cultural and other exchanges for more than 20 years.
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