Americans in the USSR: Changing Hearts and Minds in the Midst of the Cold War
Future Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle demonstrates the wonders of Polaroid photography at Photography USA exhibit in Novosibirsk. © Robert Fenton Houser, 1977-2017
This blog is a short version of a Wilson Quarterly article Walking in Each Other’s Shoes.
In my Siberian hometown of Novosibirsk, the chances of walking out onto the street in 1977 and running into a living, breathing American were virtually nil. The Soviet Union, which would start to unravel a short eight years later, seemed as solid as ever. Just over a generation separated the country from the peak of an orgy of mass repressions. While society was starting to open up, fear still hung in the air.
And yet, a group of some thirty Americans came to Novosibirsk that summer 40 years ago. They were guides and professional staff of the Photography USA exhibit, one of many such exhibits put together by the United States Information Agency (USIA). For a full five weeks, they walked the streets of the city in the open, and they could be touched and talked to. It was even possible to invite them over to dinner at your apartment, and if you did, they would likely have accepted the invitation.
The exhibit had much to offer. In the visually austere Soviet environment, the images lining the walls aimed to fascinate and impress. The latest achievements in American photographic technology were on display, as well as a variety of subjects, including underwater fashion photography, time-delayed shots of a flying bullet, and artistic semi-nudes that would have raised the hackles of a Soviet censor.
Still, none of these compared to the most fascinating exhibit of all: the guides who accompanied the show. It was these young, friendly, outgoing Americans, who day in and day out demonstrated the equipment and answered Soviet visitors’ eager questions, who were the primary attraction. No question was off limits, from the most innocently ignorant (“Do American cows have false teeth?” “Is it true that American women can have a child in five months?”) to the hostile (“Why are you bombing our sailors in Vietnam?” “Why do you kill black people?”).
By the time Photography USA arrived in Novosibirsk, USIA had been sending exhibits to the Soviet Union for nearly 20 years. The exhibit program that developed over that time was elaborate, well-organized, and well-funded. Toward the end of the program, one former USIA official estimated, it cost some $20 million to put an exhibit together, ship it overseas, and show it on a typical six-city tour. In all, over 17 million Soviet people are estimated to have seen the exhibits, and the impressions of each lingered and reverberated. Today, there are chat rooms on the Internet where Russians still talk about the impact the exhibit had on them.
Craving Human Contact
As fascinating as the technology and material objects on display at the exhibits was, it is fair to say that it was human contact that people craved the most and that left the deepest impression. Isolated from the rest of the world, Soviet people wanted to know what life was like on the other side of the Iron Curtain. With their questions, they tested every one of the assumptions, shaped by Soviet propaganda, that they held about the United States. But more than anything, they wanted to satisfy the basic human urge to get to know another person, to swap life stories with a stranger, to learn about others’ experiences, and make new friends.
Both the American guides and the Soviet visitors saw each other’s country and the other as exotic and enchanting, though for entirely different reasons. Young Americans were fascinated by the austere environment of Soviet cities, where the only commercial signs on the buildings were the generic “Meat,” “Bread,” and “Fabrics.” Some were charmed by the decaying chic of the Moscow Metropol Hotel and the legendary poor service in Soviet restaurants. The red-lettered “exhortations” on the buildings urging Soviet citizens toward greater socialist achievements left a lasting impression on others.
Many Soviets visitors, on the other hand, were intrigued by the fact that the female guides, most of whom were in their 20s, were not married and did not have children. In a country obsessed with the nationality question since the 1917 revolution, they endlessly probed the guides’ ethnic origins. Some guides recalled that saying they were American was not enough. Their interlocutors wanted to get to the roots of their heritage, to decipher the meaning of a guide’s dark curls or “oriental” facial features.
Most of the guides were young college graduates, largely liberal in their political views. USIA had urged them to represent themselves rather than some generic American point of view. And so they did not hold back from strongly criticizing their government and its foreign policy — especially with respect to the Vietnam War. The fact that employees of the American government could do so and still be back at work the next day was a source of great surprise and confusion for the Soviet visitors. In a country where conformity was a matter of survival, this freedom of expression told vastly more about America than anything else at the exhibit could.
The crowds were not always friendly. Agitators abounded, rehearsing staples of Soviet propaganda regarding high medical costs, unemployment, and racial tensions in the United States and pushing the guides to the wall with hostile and unrelenting questioning. “Why do you have so much crime in America?” “Is it true that people are afraid to go outside at night?” “Why does your president say we don’t have human rights? What rights is he talking about?” “Why does the United States have military bases around the world? We don’t have any outside our own borders.”
Thrown into this experience, and largely left to sink or swim, the guides quickly learned to work the crowds. “When you were on the ropes, when the agitators had the upper hand and were dominating the conversation, you would look around in the crowd for people who could be potential sympathetic voices,” John Beyrle, who began his Foreign Service career with the exhibits program and went on to become U.S. ambassador to Russia, told me.
Change and Transformation
Americans opened the eyes of Soviet visitors to a new world, but the guides, too, found that the encounters forced them to grow up and confront their own preconceived notions. In the Soviet Union, they were surprised to find a society that was less uniform than they had expected. They found that the experience made them more independent thinkers, or forced them to realize they had been living in a bubble. “I’d thought they would all hate us, that we were enemies, but the vast majority of people did not relate to us that way. To realize that they were very warm and welcoming to us was life-changing for me,” one of the guides, Roland Merullo, told me.
Some of the guides, who witnessed social changes in the Soviet Union over the years as U.S. Foreign Service employees of increasing levels of seniority, believe that the information that the exhibits brought to millions of people contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet propagandistic narrative and the change of views among the Soviet people. In the view of Ambassador Tom Robertson, after millions of people in the Soviet Union’s major cities saw the exhibits and heard the guides talk about unemployment benefits, for example, the government simply couldn’t continue saying that Americans were dying in the streets because they were unemployed.
Bridging the Divide
In many ways, the exhibits allowed both sides to try on each other’s lives, to travel through the looking glass and see what life was like on the other side. The former guides have remained keenly interested in Russia, and their interest is genuine and open-minded. They see the negatives, but they also know the positives, because back then they managed to establish human contact with those on the other side of the divide.
By breaking through the veneer of propaganda and political posturing, the exhibits program helped connect everyday Americans and Russians in a way that the Cold War rarely allowed for. Although sprawling and massively expensive, it brought together elements of each country’s society in perhaps one of the most successful hearts-and-minds campaign the United States has ever undertaken.
For the full version of the story, please see Walking in Each Other’s Shoes: Through the Iron Curtain and Back.
For interview excerpts with the guides, please see and “A Tribe of the Exhibit People: American Guides Recall Soviet Journey.”
For photos from the exhibit, please see “Photos from the Détente Era.”
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more