The American Exhibits to the U.S.S.R.: 1959-1993
Paul Smith served as an exhibit guide on the "Outdoor Recreation USA," "Agriculture USA," "Technology in the American Home," and "Photography USA" exhibits from 1973 to 1977. Following is an excerpt from an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
They all came with a stereotype image that they had of the United States and of Americans. I think that’s the key to why these exhibits were so powerful. That virtually every visitor had never been to the United States and came with a stereotype of us and what our country was all about, just as we, I might say, had of them in that period - a product of controlled information.The idea that younger Russians in particular were really interested in getting beneath and digging down and finding out about what we were all about and they would love to stand there and just talk. That struck me, and the fact that, of course this is pre-internet times, but some of them had read books that were banned. I remember having a young Russian come up to me and saying ‘you know Ilf and Petroff were in your country and wrote a book called One Story America?’ Fortunately I had read it too and I was able to relate some of the things that the book portrayed. In the 70’s, that book had been banned for many, many years. It had been published before the censors caught on to what Ilf and Petroff were doing by portraying Americans as very, very poor and suffering in the depression and that Americans are feeling people, they have feelings. That wasn’t caught originally when it came out, but literally because of its popularity, the censors said, why is everybody buying this book and then they caught it and banned it. To have people knowing that they were being monitored because there were people on the floors who were sent in with the crowds, we would get 17,000 a day, so we had facilitators around that the hosts insisted that we have, essentially to keep the crowds flowing, but they would come up and kind of listen to what the conversations were about and they knew that. So to get that kind of sense that kind of yeah they really are interested in what we’re all about. They’re not buying the line that we’re out there to conquer the Soviet Union.
And I think that’s why the program was so effective because we as guides were never told what to say. We as guides not being formal employees of the US government or the executive branch didn’t have to follow a particular policy line. We were told we should know what the policy is, we should know the subject matter and we had to master the subject matter of our stand that we were assigned to, but we were also told don’t expect them to get down into the details of how you tie a fly or how you pitch a tent, we had that on there as well, but rather, ‘what do you do in your free time,’ ‘how much money does it take to live in the United States,’ ‘oh, you can really travel,’ those kinds of things and you can just let it flow.
And you know, I don’t think someone should underestimate the value of some of the Soviet exhibits that traveled in the United States. I had the opportunity to visit one in Chicago, and though it was much more controlled, the environment and the guides on the stands were not allowed to get beyond certain areas, nevertheless, the Americans that visited those exhibits and it certainly wasn’t on an order of 17,000 a day but nevertheless it gave you a sense in talking to them that you were still talking to, you know it gave depth to all the things that you had seen on television and a personal dimension that was lacking otherwise.
I should have mentioned this earlier that they were always astounded that here were Americans that spoke their language, and then you would say I’ve been studying it in college and I’m taking a break. And that opened a door to conversation that would really keep them a total captive for as long as you wanted to talk about your life studying Russian. ‘Why did you want to study Russian?’ ‘Are we different from what you’ve been studying?’ ‘How do you see what we’re doing here now?’ ‘Do you see the Soviet Union as being successful?’ And that was always the springboard. Now what that did with young Russian students coming there, what we’ve been talking about, it created a generation of Soviet specialists for the diplomatic corps. And for a lot of other areas. It gave them that on-the-ground contact that even a semester at Leningrad University or Moscow State couldn’t give. And I think now that the exhibits, you know we’ve passed into a new era and I think that new generation of diplomats is coming out of the NGO sector. Young college students who go over to do an internship or work for an NGO in the Soviet Union, Russia, or any of that area, and they come out committed, this is really what I want to do with the rest of my life. And you find a lot of them are now the younger generation diplomats here.
Paul Smith served as a Foreign Service public diplomacy officer for 30 years specializing in Eurasian affairs before retiring in 2003 with the rank of Minister Counselor. His last two assignments were as Consul General St. Petersburg, Russia (1998-2000) and DCM Moscow (2000-2002). He also completed public diplomacy assignments in Moscow, Kyiv, East Berlin, Warsaw, and Bonn. Since retiring, Paul has served as a Senior Inspector and Deputy Team Leader on Office of the Inspector General inspections of 18 overseas posts. Paul began his Foreign Service career in 1973 with the U.S. Information Agency traveling exhibits program in the Soviet Union. Between mid 1973 and late 1977 he served with the Outdoor Recreation USA, Agriculture USA, Technology in the American Home, and Photography USA exhibits. Smith holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri and a M.A. in Russian Studies from the University of Illinois.