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

Ambassador Thomas B. Robertson
Dean of the Leadership and Management School, Foreign Service Institute
Exhibit Guide, 1975-1981
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography | Video Excerpt

Ambassador Robertson served as a guide and as an exhibit manager with the U.S. Information Agency, from 1975 to 1981, working on cultural exhibits in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania and Zaire. In the U.S.S.R., he served as a guide on the “Technology of the American Home” exhibit and was the deputy director for the “Photography USA” and “Agriculture USA” exhibits. Following is an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Ian Kelly: “Ambassador Robertson, can you tell us how you first got interested in Russia?”

Ambassador Robertson: “I first went to the Soviet Union, actually, in 1972 with the CIEE Language Program. I had been studying Russian for the last couple of years, and this was an opportunity that very few undergraduate students could take, so I jumped at it. I spent one semester in Leningrad, during the winter of 1972 to June of 1972. I was there when President Nixon came to Moscow for the first time.”

Ian Kelly: “And you stayed in a Soviet dormitory?”

Ambassador Robertson: “Stayed in a Soviet dormitory, number 6 on Mytninskoye embankment. Many other CIEE students know it well. It was where everybody stayed for 20, 25 years during those days, with a beautiful view of the Neva, the Hermitage, and the Peter-Paul fortress. It was really a wonderful program.”

Ian Kelly: “One of the best views anywhere in the world.”

Ambassador Robertson: “Absolutely.”

Ian Kelly: “Fabulous view of the Hermitage. When did you go over as an exhibit guide?”

Ambassador Robertson: “When I came back from Leningrad, I was a senior in college and graduated. I went to the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and they had a program in Bologna, Italy. I was one of only two people studying Russian in Bologna. The other one was John Herbst, who, as you know, was our Ambassador to Uzbekistan and the Ukraine and is now back here in Washington. John, who was only a senior in Bologna at the time we were studying Russian, told me about the USIA exhibits program. We both applied, we both got in, and in the summer of 1975, we came to Washington for orientation for the ‘Technology of the American Home’ exhibit.”

Ian Kelly: “And where did that take you? What cities?”

Ambassador Robertson: “Well they divided these exhibits back in the 1970s usually into six cities, which was about nine months for each half, or three cities. I shouldn’t say nine months, more like seven months. We were in the second half. Our first city was Zaporozh’e, now in Ukraine, where the Soviets had built the first hydroelectric dam on the Dniepr River. It was also the steel capital of Ukraine and much of the Soviet Union. They produced the Zaparozhets car. It was quite an experience, especially in these days of global warming. There was so much pollution that you would wake up in the middle of the night with this stink in your nose. It was really pretty bad. And, at that time, this was 1975-76, the French had sent in some engineers to help the Soviets get on top of the smoke stack problem they had then, but, unfortunately, we were not to feel the benefits of that.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you room in a hotel?”

Ambassador Robertson: “We roomed in a hotel, one of the Intourist hotels. We got there in early September. There were exhibit guides, 20 or 22 of us for each one of the exhibits, with a staff of maybe 10 people. Together with the staff, we would set up the exhibit in two weeks before the exhibit would open, and then, work on the floor of the exhibit as guides. At the end of the exhibit, we'd take it down.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you specialize in some particular stand of the exhibit?”

Ambassador Robertson: “In the set-up and take-down, I was the electricians’ helper, which was particularly dangerous. The first week I was there I think I got a shock everyday I was working. I was working with a wonderful Yugoslav electrician-contractor who worked with USIA for years and years. And, at the end of the exhibit, I would do the actual taking down of all the electrical stuff and packing it up. But, on the exhibit itself, we all started out with two stands. As I said, it was the ‘Technology of the American Home’ exhibit, and the stands reflected that. And, I had one that was a lighting stand, and then I had a special features stand that had a garage door opener and a lot of remote control stuff that we demonstrated. Because this could get old fast, we would do this for two or three weeks, and then we all agreed that we ought to switch and trade. This meant we had to learn the scripts and all the background, and all the costs of the equipment and what have you. It was much more interesting to trade around and work on different stands.”

Ian Kelly: “So, you would make a presentation in the beginning?”

Ambassador Robertson: “When we got to Washington, we were given the scripts both in English and in Russian for each of the stands we would work. Since there were different degrees of Russian language ability, it made sense to get to know that script pretty well because there were always terms in there you didn’t know. Migayushie lampi, the lamps that would go on and off, was one of the expressions I had to learn.So, we would learn the script. But the nature of the exhibit was that literally thousands of Soviets came through everyday and they would ask you questions -- so you usually didn’t get much of a chance to do your routine script, especially if there was a break in the action, if someone had gone ahead and asked you questions about life in America, the health care system, or education, or what have you. People would finish and move on. Then, people would come up and they would say ‘What is this? What kind of stand is this? Tell us something about it.’ Then, you would do your routine. So, it wasn’t all that arduous because you really had a chance to talk with all the visitors to the exhibit about anything that interested them.”

Ian Kelly: “So, the questions were mostly unrelated, would you say, to the exhibits?”

Ambassador Robertson: “Yes, I think that’s true. The interesting thing about the American Home Exhibit is that, like the original National Exhibit in 1959, it had all the technology of the American home and it really was promoting the well-being and the lifestyle of Americans living in homes all across the United States. The very fact that most Americans lived in their own home was so out of the realm of the possibility for Soviets – it was fascinating. They would tend to ask a lot of questions about the exhibits – and questions that were connected to the exhibit – like: ‘how much do you as a guide on this exhibit make?’ And, ‘what does the average worker make?’ ‘What are your taxes like? What happens if you lose your job, you don’t have any money anymore?’ And, healthcare: ‘we read about people in the streets in the United States who don’t have healthcare,' so ‘how do people get by?’ You would get questions on the whole gamut of issues, but probably more than a lot of exhibits, because of the nature of this exhibit, they were more related to the exhibit. I would say, probably only thirty or twenty percent of the questions were on the theme of the exhibit.”

Ian Kelly: “Was there a lot of skepticism about the exhibit and about the accessibility of this kind of technology that the average American had?”

Ambassador Robertson: “Well, it’s just like Premier Khrushchev when he asked Richard Nixon that question, challenging him on the availability of some of the stuff, back in 1959. There were many people who would challenge us. What surprised me was the readiness of so many Russians and Soviets, who were in Ukraine at the time – and we had people from all over the Soviet Union coming – was their willingness to believe what they heard. There was always credibility about the guides because people were telling their own stories. Obviously, we had our collection of facts about what the average income was for an American family, what the average worker made, what the average American made, what private college costs or public college costs, those kinds of things. I think most of us had the same answers. When you asked about politics, [it was different.] This was right at the end of the Vietnam War. When people would ask about the Vietnam War, there were many of us who had been very much opposed to our role in Vietnam during those years. There were others who supported it and believed we were fighting the good cause in stopping the spread of communism. So, you could ask the same question of different guides and you would get different answers, which made it so much more credible. People would often say: 'Geez, I think at a Soviet exhibit you wouldn’t get this kind of openness about issues like this that you would from Americans.’”

Ian Kelly: “One question that always stumped me was how much living space do you have? How many square meters?”

Ambassador Robertson: “We had a woman from the Department of Labor who collected all of these statistics based on questions during exhibits in the past. On the American home exhibit, we had on panels to the exhibit a lot of answers to those questions. The items, the furniture, the stoves, the refrigerator, what have you that were displayed -- we had panels that had the actual price of the different items there. There were also panels that exactly explained what the average living space was for an American home. So, we had those facts, and after awhile, if you couldn’t remember the first time, boy, after day one, you knew the facts pretty well because you got asked enough about them that they rolled right off your tongue.”

Ian Kelly: “Where else did the exhibit go?”

Ambassador Robertson: “Well, Zaporozh’e was our first city, and after that we went to Leningrad, to Saint Pete. That was, in a way, a homecoming for me because I had been there just three and a half years before. Unfortunately, it was Christmas time in January, so it was very cold and icy. We were out right on the Gulf of Finland, so it was exposed to water. I will never forget that despite the difficult climate conditions, we would have people who would show up at six, seven o’clock in the morning and just stand in line until the exhibit opened at ten. One day, I was standing at one of the first stands and here was this cute young student and her friend. They were probably in their teens or early-twenties and were beautiful young women who had put on all this makeup to go to the exhibit and had been standing in this slush and the makeup was running -- but they had these incredible smiles on their faces. They had finally gotten in and could spend a couple of hours talking with us and going through the exhibit. It was really quite an experience.

Leningrad was our second city, and then we finished up in Minsk, which was at the end of the winter. We had our exhibit there in a sports hall, right across from the hotel. There was much more of a defensiveness by our hosts there in the city of Minsk. You really couldn’t go anywhere in Minsk without some sort of regular surveillance. There was an organized movement on the floor of the exhibit from folks who had obviously had their meetings before the exhibit to talk about ‘well, where might these guys be vulnerable?' 'What kinds of questions should you ask them to stump them or embarrass them about life in America?’ That said, the people who came through were just as friendly as in other cities. But, the fact that we could tell there were people, the agitators, who were trying to control the discussion – it made it a little more tense. But, all in all, it was really a great experience.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you have much contact with Soviet citizens outside of the exhibits? Did you go to peoples’ homes?”

Ambassador Robertson: “We did. You would meet people on the exhibit, especially if you had had a more private conversation. If you were on the stand, sometimes they would say, ‘well, you know, are you ever free? Come over for dinner.’ We had a six-day workweek and the exhibit was open on Saturdays and Sundays. While we could go out for dinner during the week, very often on Monday night, which was the night before our day off, you might go out. You had to get back, and given Soviet hospitality at the time, which often included a lot of vodka and everything else – I mean people would really put on the spread. You had to be careful because you had to go back to work the next morning.

But, generally, we did have good friends. You had to be careful because – and I think this was an experience we had throughout the exhibits, certainly in the 1960s and the 1970s – that if someone was seen meeting with Americans at the exhibit, or it came to the attention of the authorities, especially the KGB back then, that they were meeting, or God help you, you were having Americans over to your home – they might get called in by the officials and asked why they were spending all this time with Americans. There was a real suspiciousness about meeting with us. Often, the local KGB or the local authorities were much more adamant about it in one city than in another. So it was hard to predict. As I said, Minsk was difficult. I don’t remember going out too much in Minsk to private Soviets’ homes. Although in Zaporozh’e, and certainly in Leningrad, we went out a lot. I spent, when I was a student, a couple of weeks in a poliklinika, in a hospital, in Leningrad. I got to be very good friends with a couple of guys who were in the ward with me, so I looked those folks up. Generally, we did have pretty good contacts. It depended on the town, and the authorities’ toughness about this kind of thing.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you have handouts, such as magazines or anything like that?”

Ambassador Robertson: “Absolutely. The Russians, the Soviets, had always had a tradition of lapel pins, znachki. And USIA, since probably the original exhibit in 1959, had made a special design for each exhibit, and they’d put it on the znachok, and these were handed out to everybody who came in. We also had a very good brochure, in Russian, about the exhibit that everybody could take.

You know, it’s hard to describe this to Americans, who see going to an exhibit as kind of something you might do, but it’s not really that big of an event. The American Exhibit, when it came to the Soviet Union, was a big event. You knew this because when you were out on the exhibit floor, people would come up, say, in Ufa, in what is now Bashkortostan, and they would bring with them the button from the exhibit that had been there four or five years ago, and the brochure, and they would tell you about it. The way I describe it is in the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries – the early 20th century – when the circus came to town. It was a part of your life that you always remember. And people really do. You talk to Russians now, who are my age or older, about the exhibits, and ‘oh yeah, we remember,’ when the T.A.H., the Technology of the American Home Exhibit, was there, or the photography exhibit after that, or any of the earlier ones. It was a special event; it was hard to get in. Sometimes, you’d meet people when you walked around town, or as you got to know somebody, or if you had friends there from before – we would get these, what they called priglasitelnie bileti, the invitation cards – and you would get, I don’t know, twenty or thirty before the time of the exhibit, and you could give them to somebody so that they didn’t have to stand in line. Sometimes, you had to wait hours to get into the exhibit because the lines were a few thousand people long. So, this was a way for them to get through. The authorities might say, ‘ah, he’s got one of these tickets; maybe we should pull him aside and find out how he got it.’ But, there wasn’t that much harassment, generally, for that kind of thing. It was a really special experience.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you get an opportunity to travel anywhere beside the three cities?”

Ambassador Robertson: “After I completed this exhibit, I came back on another two full exhibits. So, I had another two and a half years in the Soviet Union. But, it’s a good question because one of the main features of the exhibits program, for us, was that between the cities, after we had packed up the exhibit, put it in containers and sent it off to the next town, you had a week, ten days, even longer sometimes to explore the country. So, we would buy an Intourist tour and travel around. I went to Tallinn and L’vov, now Lyevif. We went to Central Asia, which was the first time I had gone to Tashkent and Dushanbe. We opened our photography exhibit, in the summer of 1976 in Kiev, and the next town was Alma Ata, as we used to call it, now Almaty, in Kazakhstan. [Between the two] we had a month. We did the entire Black Sea area, up through the Caucasus, and then back to Moscow. It was a great way to get to see the country. Because of that travel, in my three and a half years with exhibits in the Soviet Union, I was in every republic. Unfortunately, because most of the Soviet Union was closed, we never got out to the Pacific Coast. We did take the Trans-Siberian, stopping once in Irkutsk, and, with our photography exhibit, we took it all the way out to Novosibirsk, and got off there. That was in the summer, so it was a more enjoyable trip than getting off in Irkutsk in late-November, when just walking around town you felt like you were in an ice bath because it was already so cold at that time of year in Siberia.”

Ian Kelly: “So the second time, you were there as ‘staff.’ What exactly did that mean?”

Ambassador Robertson: “The exhibit ended in the end of March 1976, the one I was a guide on – ‘Technology in the American Home.’ I did some traveling, went to Czechoslovakia right afterwards, and then to Italy, spent some time there, and then came back after a couple of weeks to the United States. They were setting up for the next exhibit, which was ‘Photography USA,’ and asked me if I wanted to come along on the staff as what they called the Executive Officer, which is basically the bookkeeper. The Russians say bukhgalter, the guy who kept all the money and paid all the bills and what have you. I did that for the first city, but after our Deputy Director fell ill in Kiev, and had to go back to the States, they asked me to be the Deputy Director. I was responsible for working out the guides’ schedules, also working with the local authorities on getting the exhibits set up. So, it was a great job, and I did that for all of Photography, which was in six cities. I came back in 1978 again as the Deputy Director, and finished that one up in June of 1979 as the Acting Director, because our Director had left by that time. That was the last exhibit before Afghanistan.”

Ian Kelly: “What exhibit was that?”

Ambassador Robertson: “That was Agriculture USA. I think I’m right in saying, as someone who spoke Russian and read the newspapers, that you could see, over the three and a half, four years that I was there, a change in the Soviet propaganda that was written about the United States. The exhibits were only one part of three parts of our public diplomacy policy at the time. We had the Voice of America, which of course was famous throughout the country. We had America magazine, which we sold in kiosks, although the Soviets made a point of making sure they didn’t all get sold. But, they were very popular, and on the black market they went for several times their face price, and then exhibits, which were the only real people-to-people programs we had for reaching out and touching Russians, beyond what of course our folks in the Embassy and Consulate in Leningrad did. Getting back to the whole propaganda [theme], I remember arriving in Zaporozh’e and reading the papers. You would find these sorts of tirades about how bad it was in the United States, and people were unemployed and starving in the streets, and people without medical care dying left and right, and this kind of thing. By the time we left, you would see in many of these articles a reference to pocobiye po bezrabotitse unemployment insurance and unemployment benefits. I had only been unemployed for two or three months, but I had actually gotten unemployment benefits, which in fact were more than the average Soviet wage at the time. This blew people away.

My point is that over time, because of Voice of America and the other things we were doing, people were getting a little bit more sophisticated, and the Soviet propaganda machine, if you will, was trying to get a little more sophisticated, too. They would mention the fact of unemployment benefits, they’d mention health insurance, but of course, it was always that there was a larger percentage that didn’t have health insurance. You would get into these discussions about how people get medical care if they don’t have health insurance. And, as we all know, as bad as the situation may often be in the States, there are ways for people to get health care of some sort here. It was interesting to see how the debate – the Cold War debate about the two systems that Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev had started in 1959 – how it developed.”

Ian Kelly: “Ambassador, you mentioned you had been to all fifteen republics. Could you talk a little bit about the changes you saw in attitudes towards the U.S. and towards the Soviet system?”

Ambassador Robertson: “The Slavic republics – Belarus, Ukraine, Russia – there was much more enthusiasm and friendliness towards America, per se, but a real suspiciousness about our policies. To a certain extent, you found that in Central Asia, too. This was kind of new to them, and while they’re not really political and not very outspoken, they were more curious and interested in America and what it was all about. In the Caucasus, the Georgians – we had the photo exhibit in Georgia in the winter of 1976-1977 –were so nationalistic and so proud of their Georgian heritage and culture, and were often outspokenly defiant about their Soviet masters in Moscow, and much more willing to express that. It didn’t get too political, but they were very friendly towards Americans.

Generally, I have to say that back then in the 1960s and the 1970s – it was in the 1970s when I worked there – there was real warmth, really across the board, amongst the Soviet people about the United States, despite the propaganda, despite what people heard. It was on two levels. One was the historical: everybody knew that the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies. But even more importantly, Soviets knew that the United States had given billions of dollars of Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union, which made it possible for them to, along with us, win the war, and of course finally bring down Berlin in 1945. So, that was one aspect of it. The other thing was this identity that I think Russians in particular and Soviets more generally had with Americans. We were the two big bears in the Cold War, facing each other off. We were two continental powers, pioneer countries – we had the Wild West and they had Siberia – and multinational countries. And, there was a sense that the Russians had, the Soviets had really, that 'we Russians and you Americans really have much in common.' They would say, ‘those Europeans are more elitist and class-bound,’ but ‘there is great opportunity in the Soviet Union, all you have to do is join the party (chuckle).’ These were generally felt sentiments that you would come across.

It’s interesting. I don’t know if, today, those same feelings exist. There’s a new generation that’s come in. [There’s] national memory, or actually personal memory, about what WWII meant, but I think it probably has changed a little bit.”

Ian Kelly: “You and I had first met when I came into the Foreign Service in 1985. I first worked for USIA as a Foreign Service Officer and you were here at the State Department in the Office of Exchanges. You’ve talked about the tremendous public diplomacy value of exhibits – but I wonder if you could talk a bit about exchanges, and how you’ve seen exchanges develop over the years.”

Ambassador Robertson: “Well, that was a very interesting time. I came back in 1986, right after the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit, after that late spring in Geneva. The relationship that had been so cold after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and then martial law in Poland, the shoot-down of the KAL in 1983, the late 1982 stationing of the Pershings in Western Europe to counteract the SS-20s that the Soviets had placed throughout the western Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It was like the beginning of a new age when Reagan and Gorbachev had their first meeting – the beginning of the warming-up.

What had happened over those six years, as you know very well, is that one of the things that we did after 1979, after the invasion of Afghanistan, is we ended our Cultural Exchange Agreement. I think that was really unfortunate because the Cultural Exchange Agreement was really very much in the U.S. interest. It gave us access to the Soviet people. It helped us interact. It helped us inform them about what the United States was about. The United States was an open society. Soviets could come here and read anything they wanted – the United States was open – so it was not as valuable to the Russians as it was to us. I think it was unfortunate.

In 1986, the exchanges section of the Soviet Desk at State was down from five officers to two officers. Ed Salazar and I, and Gladys Boluda, who is now the Deputy Chief of Protocol here at the State Department, were working together at a time when we were trying to revamp not only the Cultural Exchange Agreement we had with the Soviets, but also these myriad science and technology exhibits we had. We had several of them that had gone by the wayside. When I came in August of 1986, our first project was a multilateral fusion initiative – today known as ITER – to develop a fusion experimental reactor, which is now, twenty years later, being worked on by the Russians, Japanese, the Chinese, and the Europeans. A very successful project. The other thing we did was revamp the Space Agreement.

It was interesting that in those Reagan years, while the President had given the green light for us to reengage with the Soviets, there were a lot of people in the administration who didn’t want to do anything with the Soviets or Soviet Union because they basically saw exchanges as an opportunity for the KGB and their cohorts to try to steal whatever national security secrets we had. In fact, I think history has shown that the exchanges were a great opportunity for us to get our message out. I have to say, in my almost 33 years with the government, I am most proud of the time I had on the exhibits and exchanges because I really think we made a difference.

The other thing I have to mention about that year was that we had the first people-to-people exchange, built on the model of the Chautauqua conference. Susan Eisenhower and her Eisenhower Institute and the Chautauqua Institution put together, with the Soviets, a people-to-people exchange for a week. They did the first one in 1985 up in Chautauqua, New York, where Chautauqua has these summer-long confabs. And, the second one the Soviets – Oleg I think it was Sokolov), who was the DCM at the Soviet Embassy at the time – said, ‘[we will invite you to the Soviet Union, you’ll have to come!’ And, of course, the next thing you know, they’re inviting us to come to Riga, in Latvia, and to Yurmala. For most Americans, this might not mean very much. But, it was so clever of the Soviets; they did this because they knew very well that the United States did not recognize the incorporation of the three Baltic States into the Soviet Union. Our going to Latvia would in a sense be acknowledgement that Latvia is part of the Soviet Union. Mark Palmer, who was our Deputy Assistant Secretary at the time, said, ‘well, let’s not just say ‘no’; let’s see if there’s a way that we can do this.’ He called in the Latvian-American organization that was headed by Ojars Kalnins, who later became the Latvian Ambassador to the United States. Ojars gave a couple conditions. He said, ‘if you send a group of Latvian-Americans with you as part of the delegation and if every time you stand up and make an official speech you repeat that the United States does not recognize the incorporation of the Balts into the Soviet Union: we’ll back you all the way.’ It went forward.

It was complicated by the fact that Nic Daniloff, a journalist for U.S. News and World Report, and a good friend of many of us, was arrested by the KGB shortly before we were supposed to leave. [Secretary of State] George Shultz, who had blessed this whole endeavor, said ‘so long as Nic Daniloff is in Soviet captivity, the official delegation will not go.’ We had something like 200 citizen-ambassadors with us from all over the United States as part of the Chautauqua group. And, low and behold, the day we were supposed to leave, the Soviets let Daniloff finally leave the country. So, we got on the plane a couple of days later.

This was at the beginning of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika period. We all went to Latvia expecting a lot of the same Soviet propaganda. The Deputy Foreign Minister stood up and, of course, said, ‘you Americans look in your passports; you will see your visa is a Soviet visa to come to Latvia.’ But, Jack Matlock, who was later our Ambassador, Mark Palmer, and a number of other people who participated, such as Chuck Robb, who was then either Governor or Senator at the time, were over there. And, everyone made the point that we did not recognize the incorporation. And, since Daniloff was still in the Soviet Union, we also raised that issue. The reason I mention it, what was fascinating about it, was that Soviet TV recorded all of this. If you watched Vremya, the nightly news at 9 o’clock, with Vlad Posner (one of their great TV commentators who was part of the Soviet delegation) would do this summary of the day’s events, fifteen or twenty minutes worth. And, they had quotes from us, stating our position. They even showed the lapels of the Latvian-Americans, who had the old Latvian flag pin – I mean, for me this was a quite a shock. The Soviets were really testing the waters and allowing some free speech to get out to the body politic. In Latvia, the entire proceedings were broadcast on TV, for the most part. So, you could really see that change was coming. If you were there in Moscow during those years, it was quite an exciting time.”

Ian Kelly: “Any final comments you want to make?”

Ambassador Robertson: “As I said, this was one of the most important things I think any of us who worked on the exhibits has done in our careers. I really think we made a serious contribution to the improvement in relations between our countries, and especially between the peoples of our countries. And, that’s why it’s important that we continue doing exchanges. Over the last twenty years we’ve had so many of these exchanges that bring high school and college Russian students to the United States to let them see what we’re all about, including all of our strengths – like the openness of U.S. society – and all of our faults. The exchange students don’t have to agree with us on policy all the time, but they have a better understanding. I think that this ultimately leads to much greater understanding between our peoples. I have always supported this in my career, whether serving in Moscow or elsewhere, that we expand our exchanges. In some ways it’s too bad – this transition we had from USIA coming over to State – because neither those of us who worked for State, nor those of you who were USIA, we didn’t really link up as well as we should have at the beginning. Also, I don’t think the leadership we had was as strong as we needed to keep the exchanges alive and effective. I think that today that the relationship between our two countries is a little bit different. We’ve got a very strong relationship with the Russians. I spent a year at the NSC doing Russia during the year after 9/11. In an ironic kind of way, that was one of the best years in the U.S.-Russian relationship, much because of what President Putin and the Russians did to not get in our way and to work with us in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in that initial year.”

Ian Kelly: “I think Putin was the first leader to call the President.”

Ambassador Robertson: “That’s right. I remember because when I got home to Washington on 9/11 from this long, difficult trip, I got a call from the White House Situation Room as they were trying to put his call through. I also knew about it because the Russian Embassy had called me before to say that this was going to happen. It was quite an interesting time.”

Ian Kelly: “Thank you very much.”

Ambassador Robertson: “Well, thank you.”


Thomas B. Robertson is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia from 2004 to 2007. He is currently Dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State.

Ambassador Robertson began his career in the Foreign Service in 1981. He served in Moscow as an aide to the ambassador from 1982 to 1984, and in Bonn, Germany, as a political officer from 1984 to 1986. From 1986 to 1989, Robertson was the deputy director for exchanges in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at the State Department.

Before entering the Foreign Service, Robertson was a guide and then an exhibit manager with the U.S. Information Agency, from 1975 to 1981, working on cultural exhibits in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania, and Zaire. In the U.S.S.R., he served as a guide on the “Technology of the American Home” exhibit and was the deputy director for the “Photography USA” and “Agriculture USA” exhibits.

He has a bachelor's degree from Princeton University and a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs. Robertson speaks Russian, German, Hungarian, Slovene, French and Italian.