The American Exhibits to the U.S.S.R.: 1959-1993

Paul Smith
Minister Counselor for Public Affairs (ret)
Exhibit Guide, 1973-1977
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography | Video Excerpt

Paul Smith served as an exhibit guide on the "Outdoor Recreation," "Agriculture USA," "Technology in the American Home," and "Photography USA" exhibits from 1973 to 1977. Following is an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Ian Kelly: “Tell us how you got interested in Russia.”

Paul Smith: “I got interested in Russia when I was a graduate student in journalism and one day walked down into the student lounge and saw a sign that said there was going to be a reading of Pushkin in Russian that evening. So I went down and I sat in on the reading of Pushkin. Didn’t understand a word but was fascinated by the language and started taking Russian, dropped journalism, and went on to do an ABE in Russian at the University of Illinois. I was getting ready to write a dissertation on the 12 basic sound changes from proto-Slavic to old Russian, that’s right you can wake up now. It’s not something I thought would be a best seller, but one day again I was in that student lounge and saw a poster up on the wall in English that said ‘Go to Russia and get paid for it too.’”

Ian Kelly: “I remember those posters.”

Paul Smith: “Indeed, and it was a USIA reclama for students speaking Russian to come and work on the exhibits. So I applied and I went up to Chicago for an interview. My Russian was good enough I guess and they hired me. I went off in 1973 to an exhibit called Tourism e otdik shesha-a, Outdoor Recreation USA, and fell in love with the work, took the Foreign Service exam and thought wow, I don’t want to go back and finish a dissertation no one will read. So I took the Foreign Service exam during that time, totally failed economics because I never studied economics, didn’t even register on the scores. So I got a textbook of Solomon’s economics basics for dummies and read it for a year, took the test again, stayed on for another exhibit, barely passed economics and that’s how I got into the Foreign Service.”

Ian Kelly: “What was the subject of the second exhibit that you worked on?”

Paul Smith: “I came to Moscow and was sort of the administrative support for the next one which was Outdoor Recreation, followed by Agriculture USA, and then Home Technology, I worked on that, and then I went out, in ‘76 I was still at the embassy and was sort of the roving cultural affairs officer on Photographia Shesha-a. A bunch of us were on that, some are still in the Foreign Service. That whole experience was my motivation, but a lot of future Foreign Service officers came through that too, and not only Foreign Service officers but people who specialized in Russian in journalism, fairly prominent CNN correspondent who spent years there, others who went into academic work.”

Ian Kelly: “And on that first exhibit, getting back to Outdoor Recreation, which cities did you go to?”

Paul Smith: “We went to Moscow, we went to Kiev, we went to Ufa, coined the phrase ‘Ufa is too far.’ Back then we were in Irkutsk, we were in Tbilisi.”

Ian Kelly: “I always wanted to go to Irkutsk; did many Americans get out to Irkutsk?”

Paul Smith: “Back then very few, but it was interesting to be there then. While we couldn’t get outside of Irkutsk, except on the one day off that we had on Tuesdays, they would arrange something and we would go down to see Lake Baikal, but it was fascinating.”

Ian Kelly: “Comparing the kind of visitors you had in Irkutsk with Moscow, did you find a difference in the kinds of questions you’d get?”

Paul Smith: “Well they were all coming with a stereotype image that they had of the United States and of Americans and 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 essentially and so yeah the questions were more sophisticated. I’ll never forget in Moscow we had a Winnebago on the exhibit, we called it a Dacha on 4 wheels, Dacha na kyosa. In Moscow they were convinced that we had just made that for the exhibit, they thought that just a lot of things were made for the exhibit to show them nas lucha. And interestingly in Irkutsk, they took it to be something that was very real and not something that was just made for the exhibit. In that regard, their understanding of some of the details of American life or the depth of questioning was much more superficial, ‘how much do Americans make,’ you know that kind of thing. ‘You can really travel freely in this thing?’ ‘You can get into this and drive it around without having to stop at every guyi [post]’ and things like that.”

Ian Kelly: “And you said that you came to the Soviet Union with certain preconceptions of what life was like, what myths were exploded for you when you went there?”

Paul Smith: “Well I guess for me originally, 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. You know 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, and fortunately I had read it too and I was able to relate some of the things that the book portrayed and of course in the 70’s that book had been banned for many, many years and it was still it had been allowed to be published before the censors caught on to what Ilf and Petroff were doing by portraying yes, Americans are very, very poor and suffering in the depression when they went over to take that trip but 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.”

Ian Kelly: “So they were more interested in you as people than the subject matter of the exhibit.”

Paul Smith: “Oh indeed! 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 we were encouraged to follow that kind of line where we would respond to you know, ‘what’s it like to be in an American family,’ ‘oh you have television,’ those kinds of things, ‘what do you see on television.’ So that kind of spontaneity made it for the Russians, something that they really sought because they knew that we were prepared to stand up there and talk.”

Ian Kelly: “You mentioned that there were a number of guides who went on to become Foreign Service officers, we’ve interviewed three who were either present or former ambassadors and I’m just wondering how this experience prepared you for life as a diplomat.”

Paul Smith: “Well the interesting thing is that many of the people who are now ambassadors have stayed fairly close and spent a lot of their time in Russia. I think what the exhibit experience did was create a, it sealed a commitment to that region, the personal contacts that we had that we really never forgot. So most of my career, I spent 13 years out of 30 in the Foreign Service in Russia, in the Soviet Union and Russia, and I sort of ended it full circle in Moscow where I had begun it. But yeah I had an interesting experience when I was the DCM in Moscow. I was asked to come out to Novosibirsk University and speak at the first graduation of a US-Novosibirsk joint degree program. So I went out, the minister of education was out there, the governor of Novosibirsk and the director of the University and we were up there on the stage. The hall was packed, the graduating class was in the front and so when my turn came, I was out there with Photograph USA so I simply said, you know it’s great to be back in Novosibirsk. I almost feel like this is home because I was here in 1977 with an exhibit that you graduates would have never seen because it was before you were born but it was Photography USA, but at that moment a woman in the back of the room who turns out was the mother of one of these graduating students stood up and said ‘and I remember you!’ And it brought down the house; even the minister of culture and education couldn’t top that, so it was remarkable.”

Ian Kelly: “Now like you, I spent a lot of time in the former Soviet Union, I had one job that took me all over Central Asia and the Caucasus and it seemed like wherever I went I was being sold little buttons of the exhibit, so the reach of these exhibits was just extraordinary.”

Paul Smith: “Usually ambassadors, even today, will call back to those times or refer to an exhibit that was part of an exchange in some of their comments that they would make and it finds resonance because they are both pointing to the depth of our relationships with those former republics and also noting, and endorsing, the importance of what that program was all about. 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.”

Ian Kelly: “It sounds like the exhibit program was very much at the core of the whole principle of exchanges, mutual understanding.”

Paul Smith: “Well you know back then there were very few academic exchanges and the exhibit programs was just kind of the centerpiece of our cultural exchanges agreement that had to be renegotiated every two years. We had to, we would have to sit down and negotiate every city and we would have a list of cities that we wanted to go to and they would have a list of cities that they wanted us to go to and they were pretty much the tourist traps or the big cities and we would constantly be trying to get into places like Ufa, we had to negotiate hard for to be able to go into, but it was worth the effort.”

Ian Kelly: “Were you involved in some of those negotiations?”

Paul Smith: “I was not in the direct negotiations but I sat in on several in my role as the support person in Moscow for a couple of the exhibits. And the exhibits people would come out, and it wasn’t done at a very high level, it was done with the U.S.S.R. Chamber of Commerce, and of course they had their marching orders about what cities they could allow us to go into and what cities not. The big priority, the number one priority was to get in a 6 city spread which would be about 18 months for one exhibit to get as a broad of an exposure as possible over the Soviet Union, to get in as many non-Russian Republics as possible, Moldova, and cities in those republics, such as Chisinau when we went to Moldova, or Georgia, or Armenia. We would also recruit, even though we spoke Russian and were required to speak Russian, the official language, we would always bring in a local speaking guide, someone who spoke that language, quite often from Voice of America, quite often from other areas within the State Department or USIA or hired, who would be there and be ready to speak that local language when the people would come up and the word would get out of course and the Voice of America always promoted these exhibits so people would quite often hear first about them from VOA broadcasts that they would hear and they would also learn that oh there’s somebody here that speaks Tartar. Wow can we talk to that person? Or there’s someone here who speaks Moldovan, or Georgian. And I’ll never forget at the opening of the exhibit in Tbilisi Photographia shesha-a, we had then later Ambassador Matt Lark but then he was a DCM, and he came and he always studied languages, every day he would take time out to study language, and he came down to Georgia to open the exhibit in Tbilisi. We all knew he was going to do part of it in Georgian, and I was there as sort of his control officer for that event. He got up and started in Russian, and we had a VOA person there recording it and then he said, in respect to the people of this republic, I would give the rest of my remarks in your native language and he went into Georgian and everybody stopped. It was just a remarkable experience because he was able to do that in very good Georgian.”

Ian Kelly: “Yeah he was my ambassador when I was in Moscow and in the late 80’s he would always try and at least say a few lines in the local language.”

Paul Smith: “Well and after the exhibit he would go out and talk about Rusdaveli at meetings and he really studied the language and culture too. And that I think for those of us who stayed in Russia, or stayed in the area, that gave us because we had some background in the culture, which gave us a little bit of an advantage in our ability to relate to the local people.”

Ian Kelly: “And you were there in the 70’s and 80’s?”

Paul Smith: “No I missed the 80’s. I left and went to East Germany for a tour and Poland during Martial Law. I was in Bohn when the wall fell and then in ‘93 I came back so I was there for the 70’s, missed the 80’s and was back for a good chunk of the 90’s.”

Ian Kelly: “What I wanted to ask you, was that there were ups and downs of course in the 70’s, there were a number of external factors affecting our relationship and I wonder if you saw that reflected in some of the questions you would get.”

Paul Smith: “Well, no, there was always, you could always tell who the Komsomol people were who would come in with questions and say, ‘what in the world are you, you’re still messing around in Vietnam’ or ‘you’re now arming Western Europe with these new missiles.’ ‘What are you doing in South American and Central America?’ ‘When do you plan to attack us?’ ‘You have a submarine that the Koreans captured because it was a spy submarine and it was going to attack Korea.’ And these things were always interesting because they were always from the Komsomol people who came in to punch their tickets, came in to try to spice up and disrupt the conversations that other people were having. But it was interesting, I think in most cases we never took the bait, the bite. And in these cases it was always good for us to know what the official policy was. You know graduate students coming for a 6 month stay aren’t always as prepared as you or I would be and I will say that the USIA and the State Department kept us, at least had the stuff there that we could study and be up-to-date on what was going on but it was interesting to watch the eyes glaze over most of the other visitors when these questions came up because they knew exactly what was going on.”

Ian Kelly: “Debi do you have any question you think I should ask?”

Deborah Guido: “No, just if you could comment on the concept of sending college students out to be the centerpiece of our cultural affairs with the Soviet Union and did it work overall from this viewpoint.”

Paul Smith: “No no no, it was interesting and 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 or 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.”

Ian Kelly: “Thank you for your time.”

Paul Smith: “My pleasure.”


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 Smith has served as a WAE Senior Inspector and Deputy Team Leader on OIG inspections of 18 overseas posts. He 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.