by Yale Richmond
Yale Richmond, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and author of 11 books on intercultural communication, worked on U.S.-Soviet cultural and other exchanges for more than 20 years. He 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 second of two parts and originally appeared at Whirled View. It is published here with the author’s permission. Part I is here.
Exhibitions: Better to See Once. . .
And now to exhibitions. As an old Russian proverb tells us, it is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.
The Cultural Agreement also provided for month-long showings of exhibitions in the two countries to show the latest developments in various fields. Prepared by the U.S. Information Agency, the American exhibitions were on such subjects as medicine, architecture, hand tools, education, outdoor recreation, technology for the home, and agriculture. Each exhibition had some 20 Russian-speaking American guides who responded to questions from the Soviet visitors. For most Russians who saw the exhibitions, it was their first and only opportunity to talk with an American.
Despite harassment by the KGB, the exhibitions drew huge crowds with long lines awaiting admittance, and they were seen, on average, by some 250,000 visitors in each city. All together, more than 20 million Soviet citizens saw the 23 U.S. exhibitions over a 32-year period.
Those exhibits brought a whole generation of Soviets into contact with the West. They were one of the best investments we made. And the Soviet authorities would probably agree with that. In every renegotiation of the Cultural Agreement, the Soviets sought to eliminate the exhibitions, or failing in that, to reduce the number of cities in which the exhibitions were shown. In one renegotiation of the cultural agreement in the early 1970s, when the Soviet negotiators held firm on completely deleting the exhibitions, our Ambassador in Moscow, acting on instructions from Washington, informed Foreign Minister Gromyko that without the exhibitions there would be no Cultural Agreement.
The Soviets understood that, and the exhibitions continued.
The Very Visible Performing Arts
The performing arts were one of the most visible of U.S.-Soviet exchanges. In the United States, few of the cognoscenti (those who know) failed to see the Soviet dance groups, symphony orchestras, operas, ice shows, circuses, as well as the many outstanding individual artists who visited the United States each year, often on extensive coast-to-coast tours. American ensembles and soloists that went to the Soviet Union in exchange invariably played to full houses and were likewise appreciated by both the intelligentsia and the general public. For Duke Ellington’s Moscow performances in 1971, tickets were sold on the black market for as much as 80 rubles, when the usual price for a theater ticket was seldom higher than four.
Pianist Emil Gilels was the first Soviet artist to appear in the United States in decades when he performed to rave reviews on a month-long tour in 1955. Violinist David Oistrakh followed with a similarly successful tour that same year, as did renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1956.
Under the US-Soviet cultural agreement, performing-arts exchanges became a recurring feature in U.S.-Soviet relations. Soviet favorites in the United States included the Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble and the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets whose repeated tours received glowing press reviews as well as handsome fees. Tours across the United States were also an eye opener for Soviet artists. As described by Galina Ulanova, star of the Bolshoi Ballet and one of the greatest Russian ballerinas of modern times, after her first visit to the United States in 1959:
America was for us simply another planet. We knew so little about the outside world, and we were just amazed by the scale of the country. All those huge stores five and six floors high, with all these clothes on sale, and entire apartments on display–we just didn’t have anything like that.
Equally revealing was the remark of choreographer Igor Moiseyev: "I’m amazed,” he said, “that all your workers are fat and all your millionaires are thin." It was quite the opposite of what he had been led to believe from the caricatures of Americans in Soviet political cartoons.
For Soviet performing artists and audiences, isolated from the West since the 1930s, visits by U.S. and other Western performers, brought a breath of fresh air as well as new artistic concepts in music, dance, and theater to a country where orthodoxy and conservatism had long been guiding principles in the arts.
The intense interest of the Soviet public in Western performing artists was amply demonstrated by sold-out halls, lines of ticket seekers hundreds of meters long, and the storming of gates by those without tickets. Among the American ensembles that performed in the Soviet Union were our major symphony orchestras, dance groups, and jazz orchestras. Benny Goodman’s highly successful 32-concert tour in 1962 seemed to signal Soviet official acceptance of jazz but old habits died hard, and only 2 years later the government daily Izvestia suggested that 4 of the band’s musicians were really secret agents.
Truly Great Symphonies from the Decadent West
But did such cultural exchanges really change the Soviet Union? One answer is given by a Russian musician who studied at Moscow’s elite music schools during the 1960s. We were raised, he explained to me, on propaganda that portrayed Soviet society as the wave of the future, while the West was decadent and doomed. And yet, he continued:
From that ‘decadent’ West there came to the Soviet Union truly great symphony orchestras with sounds that were electrifying, and they came year after year, from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and San Francisco. We asked ourselves how could the decadent West produce such great orchestras? Cultural exchanges were another opening to the West, and additional proof that our media were not telling us the truth.
Zapadniya golosa (Western Voices)
Zapadniye golosa as they were called, were the forbidden foreign broadcasts that Soviet citizens listened to secretly on their short-wave radios, straining above the noise of the Soviet jammers to hear the news and commentary from the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, BBC, and other international broadcasters. Although not under the Cultural Agreement, for those who could not travel beyond the Soviet bloc, foreign radio was their link to the outside world. It broke the Soviet information monopoly and allowing listeners to hear news and views that differed from those of the communist media.
For Soviet dissidents and human-rights activists, foreign radio broadcasts provided a flow of information and encouragement from the West. The human-rightniks received moral support by learning through their radios that there were other protesters in the Soviet Union. And it was not only the dissidents and human rights activists who listened. At times of international tension or some interesting event that was not covered by the Soviet media, everyone seemed to be listening to the foreign radios. I recall being in the Moscow office of a high Soviet official who had on his desk a radio with the antenna pulled out to receive short-wave broadcasts.
To counter foreign broadcasts deemed unacceptable, the Soviet Union built a vast network of jammers which emitted noise, music, or voice on frequencies used by Western broadcasters and which made listening difficult if not impossible. The jamming was massive, and its total power was estimated at three times that of all the Western radios combined. Jammers were more effective in large cities, where they were concentrated, but less so in smaller cities and rural areas. Nevertheless, it was still possible to hear Western broadcasts in the heart of Moscow, as I confirmed many times during a tour of duty there.
Dzhaz: A Beloved Western Import
Dzhaz was a Western import which Soviet conservatives tried to outlaw but eventually came to accept. “Why did we love it so?” asked Russian writer Vasily Aksyonov of jazz:
Perhaps for the same reason the Communists (and the Nazis before them) hated it. For its refusal to be pinned down, its improvisatory nature. Living as we did in a totalitarian society, we needed relief from the strictures of our minutely controlled everyday lives, of the five-year plans, of historical materialism. In Eastern Europe, jazz became more than music; it took on an ideology or, rather an anti-ideology. Jazz was a rendezvous with freedom.
Aksyonov believed that jazz was “America’s secret weapon number one.”
"Music USA" and the voice of America
Willis Conover, a name some of you may not know, hosted a program, “Music USA,” for the Voice of America for 41 years until his death in 1996. For much of the world, and especially for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, he was the voice of America, and to his listeners he epitomized jazz. Conover was estimated to have 30 million listeners worldwide, and many millions of them were in the Soviet Union wher
e his broadcasts are believed to have been a major factor in the revival of Soviet jazz after the death of Stalin.
For two hours each night, six days a week, Conover’s program–45 minutes of pop music and 45 of jazz, each preceded by a 15-minute newscast–was said to have the largest audience of any international broadcast although it was done completely in English. His slow-paced baritone voice and his theme song, Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” were known to listeners from Leningrad to Vladivostok. One reason they listened, Conover believed, is that there is a sense of freedom they could detect in jazz. As he explained:
Jazz is a cross between total discipline and anarchy. The musicians agree on tempo, key, and chord structure but beyond this everyone is free to express himself. This is jazz. And this is America. That’s what gives this music validity. It’s a musical reflection of the way things happen in America. We’re not apt to recognize this over here but people in other countries can feel this element of freedom.
Surprise–the Beatles Did It.
Many Russians tell us that Rock music and the Beatles helped to bring down the Soviet Union. As Pavel Palazchenko, Gorbachev’s English-language interpreter puts it:
We knew their songs by heart….In the dusky years of the Brezhnev regime they were not only a source of musical relief. They helped us create a world of our own, a world different from the dull and senseless ideological liturgy that increasingly reminded one of Stalinism . . . . the Beatles were our quiet way of rejecting ‘the system’ while conforming to most of its demands.
During the Cold War, Soviet-bloc governments condemned Western youth culture, first Jazz, then Rock. But Gorbachev’s endorsement of Rock ended three decades of official anti-rock policy in the Soviet Union.
Rock taught Russians to speak more freely, as singers Vysotsky and Okudzhava, and poets Voznesensky and Yevtushenko, had done a generation earlier. And rock therefore, should be seen as another reason for the collapse of communism.
That is a claim also made by a former Hungarian ambassador to Washington, Andras Simonyi, who led a rock band in Budapest during the Cold War. In a talk titled “How Rock Music Helped Bring Down the Iron Curtain,” delivered at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, Simonyi said, ”Rock ‘n roll, culturally speaking, was a decisive element in loosening up communist societies and bring them closer to the world of freedom.”
Exchanges in science and technology (S&T) were initially not large in numbers, but they rose dramatically in the 1970s, the detente years, to more than 1,000 each year when a series of eleven cooperative agreements between agencies of the two countries were signed at the Nixon-Brezhnev summit meetings. The agreements, in the order signed, were in Science and Technology, Environmental Protection, Medical Science and Public Health, Space, Agriculture, World Ocean Studies, Transportation, Atomic Energy, Artificial Heart Research and Development, Energy, and Housing and Other Construction.
The U.S. motivation was primarily political–to encourage cooperation and interdependence that would hopefully lead to shared interests and more moderate behavior on the part of the Soviet Union. But there was also U.S. interest in using the exchanges to solve practical problems in S&T and to learn what the Soviets were doing in fields of interest to the United States. The Soviet motivation, as in the past, was primarily to gain access to U.S. S&T, but there were also other factors–to have the Soviet Union seen as equal to the United States, and to give vent to the demand of Soviet scientists and engineers for foreign travel and joint research.
Nevertheless, the cooperative agreements represented a new phase in U.S.-Soviet exchanges. Rather than scientists pursuing their own interests in the other country, Americans and Soviets would be working together on problems of common interest.
Finally, an exchange that may not be known to you, the Exchange of Young Political Leaders.
The American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL), which represented young Democrats and young Republicans, began an exchange in 1971 with the Committee of Youth Organizations (CYO) which represented the Komsomol. As you know, the Komsomol was the youth organization of the Communist Party and the stepping stone to Party and government positions.
Each exchange consisted of a 5-day seminar with young (under 41) political leaders of the two countries debating domestic and foreign policy issues, followed by a tour of 1– 2 weeks in the host country including, for the Soviets, stays in American homes. The CYO, as host, emphasized showing the visiting Americans how young people lived, were educated, and grew up in the Soviet Union; ACYPL, as host, concentrated on U.S. politics and the American way of life. Through those visits, a generation of future political leaders gained a first-hand experience in the other country that served most of them well in their future careers.
On the U.S. side, participants included federal legislators; officials at the national, state, and local levels; state legislators, and politically-oriented journalists.
Soviet participants were mostly from the Komsomol, the media, scholarly institutes, and industrial and agricultural enterprises, with an occasional representative of the arts and letters. What did the young Komsomols learn from their visits to the United States?
As described by Hodding Carter, the former State Department spokesman and participant in several of the young political leaders exchanges:
The main contribution of the exchanges to the Soviet participants was to hasten the deterioration of their faith in the regime they served. We showed them everything, from slums to palaces. They saw a large number of places and interacted, if only superficially, with a mixed bag of Americans. They witnessed firsthand our inability to present a united front; they heard our disagreements, often as vehement as those we had with them. And products though they were of the system that had rewarded them with those coveted slots on the exchange delegations, they had to come away privately shaken by the disconnect between the reality of life in the Soviet Union and the reality of life in the United States.
The Komsomol was the first official Soviet organization to be infected with the spirit of economic change. In the late 1980s, an alternative economy, or “Komsomol economy,” as it was called, began to develop. Under the Coordinating Council of Centers of Scientific and Technical Creativity of Youth, created in 1987 and staffed by Komsomol officials, the first commercial structures were established in the Soviet Union giving birth to the first generation of new Russian businessmen in such fields as banking, construction, and real estate. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the richest men in Russia before he landed in prison, began his business career in 1987 when, as a Komsomol officer, he established a collective called the Young Entrepreneurs Foundation which started trading things such as computers. It is likely that those new commercial enterprises had their origin in the earlier visits of so many Komsomol officials to the United States under the ACYPL exchange.
Thanks to exchanges, the United States and the Soviet Union came to know more about each other. In universities, scholarly and scientific institutions, business, and government, there are people who have the experience that comes only with having spent some time in another country, mastering its language, and becoming familiar with its culture. They can distinguish fact from fiction and understand what is really going on. Their expertise has provide
d some assurance that the two governments would not misjudge each other’s actions and intentions, as they had so often in the past.
Exchanges also provided a framework for increased bilateral cooperation. Each country learned that it could accept large numbers of foreign visitors without threat to its national security. Indeed, were it not for the experience of cultural and scientific exchanges, there would have been no intrusive military inspections under the U.S.-Soviet arms control agreements.
As more and more Soviet citizens traveled to the West and made the inevitable comparisons with their own country, the Soviet media had to become more honest with their readers and viewers at home. Cultural exchange encouraged pressure for reform. It prepared the way for Gorbachev’s reforms and the end of Cold War. And it cost the United States next to nothing compared with our expenditures for defense and intelligence over the same period of time.
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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