Book Launch -- Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain
At a recent Kennan Institute event, author Yale Richmond discussed his latest book, Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. The book discusses the implications of the extensive academic, scientific, and cultural exchange program between the United States and the USSR that brought some 50,000 Soviets to the U.S. between 1958 and 1988. Richmond suggests that the collapse of Communism was a consequence of Soviet contacts and exchanges with the West over the thirty-five years that followed the death of Stalin. The Soviet citizens involved in U.S. exchanges "came, saw, and were conquered," said Richmond, "and the Soviet Union would never be the same."
The exchanges were based on the U.S.-Soviet Exchange Agreement of 1958, which was renewed every few years. Richmond explained that the agreement covered graduate students, scholars, scientists, engineers, performing artists, science and technology, motion pictures, exhibits, and many other people and fields. According to Richmond, the U.S. had several objectives for the exchange program: to broaden relations with the USSR; to involve Soviets in joint activities; to end Soviet isolation; to improve U.S. understanding of the country; and to obtain benefits of cooperation in culture, education, and technology. Although the Soviet objectives for the program have not been made public, Richmond presumed that the most important was access to U.S. science and technology. In addition, the exchanges helped the Soviets gain legitimacy through bilateral activities, portray themselves as cooperative, demonstrate the achievements of the Soviet people, provide travel opportunities demanded by intellectuals, and earn foreign currency through cultural performances.
Richmond noted that the graduate students and young faculty exchanges, which brought seventeen Soviets to the U.S. in the first year, were the most important. For the United States, these exchanges created a pool of American scholars knowledgeable about the USSR. Richmond pointed to several important Soviets whose time in the United States helped to shape their views. Among these was Aleksandr Yakovlev, the "godfather of Glasnost," who spent the fall of 1958 at Columbia University.
Richmond went on to describe the popularity of cultural events such as those by the Washington Arena Stage and Duke Ellington, which played to sold-out crowds in the early 1970s. Moreover, he explained how films that were showed in the USSR had great influence over the population—not because of their dialogue or stories, but because they showed Soviet audiences that Americans dressed nicely, owned cars, and did not have to wait in line for food or share communal apartments.
In conclusion, Richmond extolled the influence of the U.S.-USSR exchange programs. They allowed the two countries to know considerably more about each other, diminishing the threat of misjudging each others' actions. They opened the door for later talks on cooperation and increased the potential for bilateral cooperation. As more people traveled to the West and saw the situation with their own eyes, the Soviet media found it more difficult to mislead their viewers. Richmond's work shows that exchanges were an inexpensive method to alter the relationship between the countries and ultimately undermine the strength of the Soviet system.