by Yale Richmond, Guest Contributor
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.
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:
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 only17.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 where his broadcasts are believed to have been a major factor in the revival of Soviet jazz after the death of Stalin.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.”
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 provided 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.