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March 2013

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Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: How the West Won
by Yale Richmond

The following is the text of a talk given by Yale Richmond at the Aleksanteri Institute of Helsinki University in October 2009. The Aleksanteri Institute (in Finnish: Aleksanteri-instituutti, “Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies),” particularly in the social sciences and humanities. The Institute actively promotes cooperation and interaction between the academic world, public administration, business life and civil society, both in Finland and abroad. Founded in 1996, the Institute currently employs scholars and administrative staff. The subject of the 2009 conference was The Cold War.

There are many theories of why Soviet communism collapsed and the Cold War ended. Here are a few of them to consider:

Ronald Reagan and his “evil empire” speech;
Chemistry between Reagan and Gorbachev;
Pope John Paul and his visit to Poland;
US military buildup — we outspent the Soviets;
Threat of Star Wars;
Foreign radio broadcasts;
Mismanagement of the Soviet Union;
Reform movement within the Soviet Communist Party.

There are a few grains of truth in some of those explanations, and more than a few in others, but I will provide here 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. In the Soviet Union information about the West was closely controlled. In those years, there was no free press or internet. Foreign travel for Russians was very limited, and few foreign visitors came to the Soviet Union. Most of Soviet territory was closed to travel by foreigners, except for a few large cities. As a consequence, most Russians thought they were better off than people in the capitalist West.

However, from 1958 to 1988, more than 50,000 Soviet citizens came to the United States under the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement, and tens of thousands more came to Western Europe. They came as scholars and students, scientists and engineers, writers and journalists, government leaders, musicians, and athletes. They were all cleared by the KGB for foreign travel, but nevertheless they came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same. Those exchanges prepared the way for Gorbachev’s glasnost, perestroika, and the end of the Cold War. And although I write here about U.S. exchanges with the Soviet Union, much of what I say here also applies to the exchanges other countries had with the Soviet Union.

U.S. Objectives
The United States had five objectives, as stated in a National Security Council staff study, NSC 5607 of June 29, 1956:

1) broaden and deepen relations with the Soviet Union by expanding contacts between 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 it a broader view of the world and itself;
4) improve U.S. understanding of the Soviet Union through access to its institutions and people;
5) obtain the benefits of long-range cooperation in culture, education, science and technology.

Soviet Objectives
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) 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 a view of the Soviet Union as a peaceful power seeking cooperation with the United States;
5) demonstrate 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) 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.

Three Watchwords
The three watchwords of the exchanges 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 benefits to the two countries should be comparable.

For most Russians an exchange with the West meant not only amazement at the West’s consumer goods but a redefinition of what is “normal,” a word with special meaning for Russians who long to live in a normal society. And for those who came to the United States their visits were an early form of shock therapy. When the first Soviet students to arrive 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.

Graduate Students
The flagship of academic exchanges was the Graduate Student and Young Faculty Exchange. In preparation for the negotiation of the Cultural Agreement, President Eisenhower, a strong supporter of exchanges — we could not have had them without Eisenhower — wanted to bring 10,000 Soviet students to the United States, pay all costs, and not require reciprocity. He even got FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to approve the proposal. But the State Department, which was negotiating with the Soviets at the time, was trying for 100 students, and eventually the Soviets agreed, for starters, to exchange only twenty each year.

For the United States the exchange created a pool of American scholars knowledgeable about the Soviet Union who, having lived there, could 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. 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. But in 1958 Yakovlev was one of four Soviet “graduate students” at Columbia University. In New York, he studied modern American history and politics, but as he told me, in an interview I had with him, he spent most of his time in the library where he read more than 200 books he could not have read in the Soviet Union.1 Yakovlev returned to Moscow still a convinced communist, yet he was deeply influenced by his year at Columbia which he has described as more meaningful than the ten years he later spent as Soviet ambassador to Canada.2 And he was at Gorbachev’s side in five summit meetings with Ronald Reagan.

Oleg Kalugin studied with Yakovlev at Columbia. As a young KGB officer in training, Kalugin’s instructions from KGB intelligence in New York were clear, as Kalugin has written. “Stay out of trouble; act like an ordinary student, and don’t try to recruit anyone.”3 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.4

In a 1997 interview, 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.5

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 five years of study for Soviet history students. And since 1973, every student of American history at MSU has studied with five 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.

An old Russian proverb tells us it is better to see once than hear a hundred times. Accordingly, the Cultural Agreement 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, education, outdoor recreation, technology for the home, and agriculture. Each exhibition had some twenty Russian-speaking American guides who responded to questions from 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 were seen by some 250,000 visitors in each city. Altogether, more than 20 million Soviet citizens saw the twenty-three U.S. exhibitions over a 32-year period.

Those exhibitions 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 agree with that. In every Cultural Agreement renegotiation, the Soviets sought to eliminate the exhibitions, or failing that, to reduce the number of cities in which the exhibitions were shown. In one renegotiation of the Agreement in the early 1970s, when the Soviet negotiators held firm on deleting the exhibitions, our Ambassador in Moscow, acting on instructions from Washington, informed Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko that without the exhibitions there would be no Cultural Agreement. The Soviets understood that, and the exhibitions continued.

Performing Arts
The performing arts were one of the most visible of U.S.-Soviet exchanges. In the U.S. few of the cognoscenti failed to see the Soviet dance groups, symphony orchestras, operas, ice shows, and circuses, as well as the many outstanding individual artists, who visited the United States each year, often on coast-to-coast tours. American ensembles and soloists that went to the Soviet Union in exchange played to full houses and were likewise appreciated by both the intelligentsia and general public. For Duke Ellington’s Moscow performances in 1971, tickets were sold on the black market for as much as eighty rubles, when the usual price for a theater ticket was seldom more than four.

Under the U.S-Soviet Cultural Agreement, performing-arts exchanges became a recurring feature. Soviet favorites in the United States included the Moiseyev Folk Dance Ensemble and 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, a Bolshoi Ballet star, and one of the great Russian ballerinas, 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.6

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 demonstrated by sold-out halls, lines of ticket seekers hundreds of meters long, and 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.

Truly Great Symphonies from the “Decadent” West
But did such cultural exchanges really change the Soviet Union? One answer is given by Miron Yampolsky, 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.7

Motion Pictures
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 the cultural agreement, four or five 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.

“Western Voices”
Zapadniye golosa as they were called in Russian, were the forbidden foreign broadcasts Soviet citizens listened to secretly on their short-wave radios, straining above the noise of Soviet jammers to hear 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 allowed 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,” as they were called, received moral support by learning that there were other protesters in the Soviet Union. At times of international tension or some interesting event that was not covered by the Soviet media, everyone seemed to be listening to foreign radios.

To counter foreign broadcasts deemed unacceptable, the Soviets built a network of jammers which emitted noise, music, or voice on frequencies used by Western broadcasters, and which made listening difficult. 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 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.8

Aksyonov believed that jazz was “America’s secret weapon number one.”9

“Music USA”
Willis Conover hosted a radio program, “Music USA,” for the Voice of America for forty-one 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 were a major factor in the revival of Soviet jazz after Stalin’s death.

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 completely in English. His slow-paced baritone voice and 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. 10


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. 11

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 Soviet 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 in Cleveland, 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.” 12

In Conclusion
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 provided some assurance that the two governments would not misjudge each other’s actions and intentions as they had so often in the past.

Through exchanges, each country also 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 Soviet citizens traveled to the West and made the inevitable comparisons, the Soviet media had to become more honest with its readers and viewers at home. Cultural exchange 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.bluestar


1 Yakovlev interview with author, September 14, 1998.

2 Yakovlev, in conversation with Nina Bouis, reported by Bouis in personal conversation with author.

3 Oleg Kalugin and Fen Montaigne, The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), 27-28.

4 Ibid..

5 Ibid, author’s interview, May 29, 1997.

6 Galina Ulanova, in Harlow Robinson, The Last Impresario: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Sol Hurok (New York: Viking, 1994) ,376.

7 Miron Yampolsky, in interview with author, Reston, VA, August 4, 1999.

8 Vasily Aksyonov, In Search of Melancholy Baby, trans. Michael Henry Heim and Antonina Bouis (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1989), 203.

9 Ibid, 18.

10 Willis Conover, quoted by John S. Wilson in “Who is Conover? Only We Ask,” New York Times Magazine, September 13, 1959.

11 Pavel Palazchenko, My Years With Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 3.

12 Andras Simonyi, in Bill Nichols, “How Rock ‘n’ Roll Freed the World,” USA Today, November 6, 2003.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

Author Yale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009). He served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.

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