Under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, the Iron Curtain was nearly impenetrable. Information about the West was tightly controlled. Foreign travel for Soviet citizens was rare, and few foreigners visited the Soviet Union. Most of Soviet territory was closed to foreigners, except for a few large cities.
Stalin died in March 1953, and three years later Nikita Khrushchev announced a new policy of peaceful coexistence. The Soviets reached out to the West, signing cultural agreements with Norway and Belgium in 1956, the United Kingdom in 1957, and the United States in 1958. Agreements with other countries followed.
The initial U.S.-Soviet agreement, which was valid for two years, later three, and then periodically renewed, provided for exchanges of graduate students, senior scholars, performing artists, motion pictures, exhibitions, and delegations in industry, agriculture, and medicine. Exchanges in the basic sciences began in 1959 with an agreement between the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Exchanges in atomic energy followed with a Memorandum of Cooperation between the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the USSR State Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.
U.S. objectives were to involve the Soviets in joint activities and develop habits of cooperation, broaden contacts with people and institutions, end Soviet isolation and inward orientation by giving it a broader view of the world and itself, improve U.S. understanding of the USSR through access to its institutions and people, and obtain the benefits of cooperation in culture, education, and science and technology.
Soviet objectives were to obtain access to Western science and technology, support a view of the Soviet Union as equal to the United States by engaging Americans in bilateral activities, portray the Soviet Union as a peaceful power seeking cooperation with other countries, demonstrate achievements of the Soviet people, and give vent to the pent-up demand of its scholars, scientists, performing artists, and intellectuals for foreign travel and contacts.
Détente brought a major expansion of exchanges. At the summit meetings of 1972, 1973, and 1974 between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, eleven agreements were signed for cooperation in science and technology, environmental protection, medical science and public health, space, agriculture, world ocean studies, transportation, atomic energy, artificial heart research, energy, and housing and other construction. In these agreements, each government would designate a lead agency, and a joint committee would be established to meet annually to review ongoing work under the agreements and to plan for future activities. Altogether, some 240 working groups were established, and some 750 Americans and an equal number of Soviets were exchanged annually for one or two weeks to consult on work performed in each country under the agreements. Following the lead of the government, many U.S. nongovernmental organizations also initiated Soviet exchanges.
For most Soviet citizens, foreign travel was a form of shock therapy. The early exchange students, when shown their first U.S. supermarket, saw it as a Potemkin village, a façade designed to deceive them. But the most important impression they brought back from travels in the United States was not amazement at consumer goods but a redefinition of what constituted "normal," a word with special meaning for the Soviet citizens who wanted to live in normal society.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a strong advocate of such exchanges in his people-to-people approach. In 1958, he wanted to bring 10,000 Soviet students to the United States and pay all their expenses, with no reciprocity required. But the State Department, then negotiating with the Soviets, was trying for 100 students, and eventually the Soviets agreed to only 20 students a year. Nevertheless, over the next thirty years, several thousand Soviet graduate students and young scholars came to the United States to study, and an equal number of Americans went to the Soviet Union, although the number agreed to for the official exchange was never more than fifty a year. The exchanges created a pool of American and Russian scholars knowledgeable about the other country and able to distinguish fact from fiction.
Aleksandr Yakovlev is best known as the godfather of glasnost, Gorbachev's policy of openness in Soviet society. Yakovlev was Gorbachev's link to Soviet intellectuals and protector of the editors who gave the Soviet Union its first independent press, and he was at Gorbachev's side in five summit meetings with President Ronald Reagan. In 1958 Yakovlev was one of four Soviet graduate students at Columbia University in the first year of the new cultural agreement. He spent most of his time in the library, where he read more than 200 books that he could not read in the Soviet Union. He returned to Moscow, still a convinced communist but deeply influenced by his year at Columbia. He has described it as more meaningful to him than the ten years he later spent as Soviet ambassador to Canada.
Oleg Kalugin, who studied with Yakovlev at Columbia, would later reach the rank of KGB major general before aligning himself with the Democratic Platform of the Communist Party, winning election to the Soviet parliament, and then defecting to the United States. In his memoirs Kalugin writes: "Exchanges played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. They opened 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."
For Soviet performing artists and their audiences, isolated from the West since the 1930s, visits by 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. Among the American ensembles that performed in the Soviet Union under the cultural agreement were symphony orchestras, dance groups, and jazz orchestras. Benny Goodman's highly successful thirty-two-concert tour in 1962 signaled Soviet official acceptance of jazz. For Duke Ellington's Moscow performances in 1971, tickets sold on the black market for eighty rubles, when the usual price for a theater ticket was seldom higher than four.
"Of all the arts," wrote Vladimir Lenin, "the most important for us is the cinema." But the founder of the Soviet state did not foresee 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 and did not live in communal apartments. People in the West dressed fashionably, owned cars, and lived the normal life so sought by Russians. Audiences were not so much listening to sound tracks or reading subtitles as watching the daily lives of people in the films: 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 were very revealing.
Four or five American films were purchased by the Soviets each year. Most were pure entertainment—comedies, adventure stories, musicals, and science fiction—that met the interests of Soviet audiences. Among the more popular were Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Chase, and Tootsie. Although few were purchased, hundreds of copies were made for distribution to cinemas throughout the Soviet Union. And many foreign films, although not purchased, were copied and screened at closed showings for high officials and their spouses. The intelligentsia also viewed foreign films at members-only showings at professional clubs for writers, scientists, architects, journalists, cinematographers, and other privileged people of the Soviet Union.
Another means of reaching the Soviet mass audience was the month-long showings of thematic exhibitions that displayed life in America and recent developments in specialized fields, among them medicine, architecture, hand tools, education, outdoor recreation, technology for the home, photography, and agriculture. Russian-speaking American guides answered questions from the crowds. For most Russians, it was their first and only opportunity to talk with an American. The exhibitions were seen, on average, by 250,000 visitors in each city. All told, more than 20 million Soviet citizens saw twenty-three U.S. exhibitions over a thirty-two-year period.
Exchanges enabled the United States and the Soviet Union to learn more about each other. That knowledge 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. Were it not for the experience of exchanges, there probably would have been no intrusive military inspections under arms control agreements. And as more and more Soviets 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.
Exchanges encouraged pressure for reform. They prepared the way for Gorbachev's reforms and the end of the Cold War. And they cost the United States next to nothing compared with its expenditures for defense and intelligence over the same period of time.
Byrnes, Robert F. Soviet-American Academic Exchanges, 1958–1975. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.; Richmond, Yale. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2003.; Tuch, Hans N. Communicating with the World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.