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COMMENT ON: “Getting Inside Their Mind”

Yale Richmond, U.S. Foreign Service (ret.)

I am surprised that Gordon S. Barrass, in his article “Getting Inside Their Mind,” has not a word to say about the exchange of persons between the Soviet Union and the West after the death of Stalin in 1953, when the Soviet Union began to reach out cautiously by signing agreements with Western countries for exchanges in culture, science, technology, and other fields.

During the 30 years (1958-88) of the U.S.-Soviet agreement on exchanges, more than 50,000 Soviets came to the United States on exchanges, and tens of thousands more came to Western European countries. All of them were cleared by the KGB for foreign travel and were presumably loyal Soviet citizens, Yet, they came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same. Those Soviets who came to the West – political leaders, students, writers, scientists, engineers, performing artists, and athletes – realized how far behind the Soviet Union had been falling, that communism had failed them, and that the Soviet media had not been telling them the truth about the West. The changes they brought prepared the way for Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and other reforms, and the end of the Cold War. And it was done at a cost that was minuscule in comparison with the West’s expenditures for military hardware and intelligence over the same period of time.

One example was the experience of Aleksandr Yakovlev, who 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, Gorbachev’s first constituency, and protector of the liberal editors who gave the Soviet Union its first critical and independent press. He also became one of Gorbachev’s principle advisers on foreign policy, and he was at Gorbachev’s side in five summit meetings with Ronald Reagan.

But in 1958, Yakovlev was one of four Soviet graduate students at Columbia University, in the first year of exchanges, for a year of study under the cultural agreement. He has said that his year at Columbia was more important to him than the ten years he later spent as Soviet ambassador to Canada. When I asked him, in an interview in 1998, what he had gotten from his year at Columbia, Yakovlev said that he had spent most of time in the library where he had read more than 200 books that he could not have read in the Soviet Union.

Barrass cites a senior GRU officer who, reflecting on the end of the Cold War, said that “the Americans beat us not because they had more tanks, but because they had more think tanks.” Barrass might have added that many Soviet scholars who came to the United States on exchanges visited those think tanks and learned how the Soviet Union was regarded in the West. And when the American scholars from those think tanks visited the Soviet Union on return visits, they learned that the Soviets were not ten feet tall, and that Soviet power had been greatly overrated in the West.

After the Cold War had ended, I looked up in Moscow a former Soviet official who had been cultural attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Washington when I was Director of the Office of Soviet and East European Exchanges at the State Department. He was, in effect, my counterpart, practicing public diplomacy in the United States while I was practicing it in the Soviet Union. But we had had a good relationship, I helping him to understand the United States, and he giving me tips on how to do things in the Soviet Union. When discussing the end of the Cold War, he said to me simply “You won.”


Yale Richmond, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer, is the author of Cultural Exchange & the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain (College Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), and Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey (Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books, 2008).


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