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

John R. Beyrle
U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Exhibit Guide, 1976-1980
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography | Video Excerpt

Ambassador Beyrle served as an exhibit guide on the "Photography USA" exhibit and then as general services officer for "Agriculture USA" and for all American Exhibits to the U.S.S.R. from 1977 to 1980. Following is an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Ian Kelly: “Ambassador Beyrle, why don’t you start by telling us how you got into studying Russian?"

Ambassador Beyrle: “Well, I had studied French and German in high school, and when I went to college – Grand Valley State College in Michigan – I was advised by a counselor to take a harder language. I spoke to the professors who were teaching Chinese and Russian and the one in Russian just really captured me, she was very charismatic – great teacher – and she convinced me to start studying the language. I really never stopped.”

Ian Kelly: “So did you major in Russian?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “No, I actually majored in French and German. I had enough credits at the end to declare Russian as a major, but I didn’t. I did go to Middlebury [College] the following summer, after I graduated, to do an intensive immersion program, and then started graduate school the next fall at the University of Michigan in Slavic Linguistics.”

Ian Kelly: “And then did you go from there into the exhibit program?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Well, actually the exhibit program I learned about first when I was at Middlebury. Everyone knew that there was this program out there that actually paid Russian-speaking college students to travel throughout the Soviet Union and to be guides on USIA exhibitions. The problem was: how do you get on that exhibit? And everyone said the best way to get on the exhibit is to do the best job that you can, and learn Russian as best as you can. So while I was at the University of Michigan, I went on a CIEE program to Leningrad, lived in a dormitory for a semester, had Russian speaking roommates – and when I came back, I immediately took the exam for the USIA Exhibits Program, got lucky, was accepted, and went off to work on the ‘Photo USA’ exhibit in 1977.”

Ian Kelly: “And what cities did you go to?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “We went to Ufa, Novosibirsk, and Moscow. Ufa was a city in those days that was still pretty provincial – I visited about three or four years ago, and it has grown quite a bit since then – but in those days it was the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Bashkiria. They hadn’t had a lot of foreigners there, certainly not a lot of Americans, so the exhibit’s arrival in Ufa was quite a curiosity, and as usual, we had quite a crowd.”

Ian Kelly: “So that was the first city you went to – Ufa?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Yeah, Ufa was the first city, and my stand on that particular exhibit was the Polaroid stand. The Polaroid SX70 had just come out. [On the exhibit,] we had several old fashioned Polaroid cameras where you pulled out the bellows and yanked out the actual card after you took the picture. But, the SX70 was something completely new. This was the camera that folded flat like a paperback book and opened up sort of triangularly – you took the picture and the photo card actually shot out through a motorized kind of press and developed in your hand. For most Americans, this was the very latest in technology – for Russian Soviets at the time it was completely unexpected, even a little suspicious. They didn’t quite believe it was working the way you said it was working. The lines around that stand at the exhibit were always the longest, because everyone, of course, wanted their picture taken with the new Polaroid cameras – or the old Polaroid camera – anything to have a souvenir of this exhibit. All of us who worked on that stand learned a phrase, which I still think of from time to time in Russian: [‘We take pictures only of people who do not ask.’] Because if you didn’t say that, the bedlam of people saying, ‘mnye, mnye – me, me’ was deafening and really caused problems for people. The guards – the Russian controllers and monitors who were responsible for keeping order in the hall – would come over and threaten to shut the stand down if order wasn’t restored. And so we learned very quickly that the way to have absolute silence from the crowd was to say, ‘we take pictures of those people who don’t ask.’”

Ian Kelly: “What kind of crowd did you get in Ufa? How long was the wait?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “The exhibit, as I remember, opened around nine o’clock and closed around maybe three thirty or four. We were putting through probably upwards of 10,000 people a day – that was kind of an average day for us. I remember other exhibits that I served on later, in the agriculture exhibit, where we had 20,000 people a day go through the exhibit – in Kiev, for example – and that was really the physical limit. The walls actually started to burst out sometimes, just because of the press of people. In Ufa we were in a large pavilion which was actually built in the Park for Economic Achievements, and they had two exhibit halls there which accommodated the exhibit very, very nicely. Ten thousand people a day was not too crowded. You were always surrounded by a crowd of people, of course, but there was at least space for people to move from one stand to another. On the busiest days, in Kiev or sometimes in Moscow, you literally couldn’t move, and at times we had to go to the Soviet controllers, the Militia – Militsiya – and ask them to do a better job of bringing people in pulses, in batches. And it was a bit ironic in a way because on one level the Soviets were not really that interested in seeing 20, 50 thousand people try to get into the American exhibit. They just shouldn’t have been that interested in what was happening in the United States, or a U.S. exhibit, in those days. For us to then to go to them and say, ‘You’re still not doing a good enough job; somebody is going to get hurt.’ People would faint, on weekends in particular, if it was hot. There was never air conditioning in these halls – we had blowers and fans – we’d try to get air moving at least, but it was very common for young women, young men or kids, to faint because the press, the crush of the crowd was so great. Towards the end, in each city, we would develop a modus vivendi with the local authorities. If they were particularly good, they were able to control the flow of people in. That was an interesting aspect of the exhibit that I don’t think was ever really considered by the designers when they put big tractors and displays showing photo technology right in the middle of what should have really been a walkway. And those things very quickly got moved to the, not to the center, but closer to the walls, just so you’d have space for traffic.”

Ian Kelly: “What kinds of questions would you get?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “The questions really ran the gamut. And, of course, they always started out being related to the subject matter of the exhibit. In my case, I would be asked about how much a Polaroid camera cost, who could afford a Polaroid camera. Very quickly, step by step, the questions went from specific to the camera, or whatever other aspect of photography we were demonstrating, into economic questions and then political questions. The jump from ‘who can afford to buy this camera?’ to ‘how much does a kilo of meat cost?’ was usually only one step. And from there, questions about your personal upbringing, your background as an American was fair game, how much you made, how much you were being paid to be on this exhibit.

It was very evident to all of us, all of the guides on the exhibit, that the Soviet people were intensely interested in the real story about America. They realized that they weren’t maybe getting the full story from their own Soviet media in those days, in the 1970’s, and they wanted the chance to ask real live Americans, who spoke Russian, what the deal was. And we were more than happy to tell them the truth. We used to, not conspire, we used to have, I would call, maybe, ‘consulting sessions’ when we were off the stand. We would work two hours on, one hour off, in the course of an eight hour showing day. Those of us who were relaxing in the guide lounge in that one hour between our two hours on the stand would talk about the questions we got and try to make sure that we were giving accurate information. In many cases, we did not know what the unemployment rate in United States was but we wanted to be able to say, ‘yes, we have, (at that time) 10% unemployment in the United States, but every unemployed person gets a [Russian expression] “unemployment compensation.”‘ ‘How much was that?’ That was the next question I didn’t know. I recall actually writing a letter back to my parents and asking them to find out what the rates of unemployment compensation were in Michigan at that time. And then, when I got that, sharing that with the guides, just to be sure. We were very conscious of the fact that many people looked to us as, hopefully, purveyors of true information; a counter to what they knew maybe wasn’t quite the full story from Soviet sources of media. We were determined to get this information as right as we could.

There were other questions. ‘Who killed JFK?’ was a very common one, and harder to answer. One thing that we learned very quickly was that Soviets were extremely well versed in rhetoric and debate techniques. They were very effective debaters, people that didn’t just take the answer and go away – they would come back and probe, schooled in this way maybe through the Marxist dialectic, we were never really sure. But it meant you really had to be on your toes. You weren’t able just to stand there and kind of blather and give half an answer, or a made-up answer, because someone in the crowd, who probably had more education than you did as an undergraduate student, someone with a PhD, in history for example, would call you on it. At one point, I remember, one of the Soviet visitors to the exhibit was asking me about American imperialism. We heard this, a lot: ‘is America an imperial power?’ And he said, ‘Well, according to your history, you went very quickly from being a colonial power to an imperial power.’ I was sort of taken aback by that question. But, before I could even say anything, another Russian in the crowd stepped forward and kind of brushed this guy aside and said, ‘America was never a colonial power, America was a colony’ and proceeded to describe the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 – knowing more about it, I was ashamed to say, than I did at the time. He kind of ‘saved my bacon’ at that time. So it was a fascinating experience with great intellectual stimulation, and a chance to see that, with the Soviet people, there’s a kind of native intelligence that’s something to be reckoned with.”

Ian Kelly: “You had mentioned another exhibit you worked on, an agriculture exhibit. When was that?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “The exhibits were divided into two halves, as far as guides were concerned. Three cities were all they really wanted guides to work on, because by the end of three cities you had heard all the questions fifty times, you had gone through all the possible variations of your answers. Remember, you’re standing up there for five to six hours a day, just answering questions, talking. You were literally hoarse for the first few days, until your voice got used to it. By the end of three cities, guides were pretty burned out, and that kind of natural reserve that you had about not rising to the bait when people would ask you deliberately provocative questions, which you had maybe in city one and city two, was totally gone by city three. You were ready for a fight. And that made you a little less effective as a representative of the United States, because all of your kind of diplomatic niceties and niceness had gone away and you were really too feisty probably to be a good guide at that point. So after three cities, the exhibit closed and that troupe of guides left. In fact, that was the end of the exhibit in Moscow. In 1977, we took the exhibition down and shipped it back to the United States. At the same time, a new exhibit that USIA had designed was being packed into containers and being sent to Russia for the next round under the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Exchange. That exhibit, which opened in Kiev in March of 1978, was called ‘Agriculture USA.’ I was hired to work, not as a guide on that exhibit, but as the General Services Officer, known as the GSO. So, my responsibility for that exhibit shifted from standing out and talking to the visitors who would come, to being in charge of the actual setup and take down of the exhibit.

The setup and take down was achieved by the guides themselves who, before the exhibit would open and they put on their suits, would come in work clothes and actually bolt together the structural elements or set the exhibits on the exhibition floor. My job as the General Services Officer was to oversee that work. Also, I was the head of a kind of Soviet labor brigade, because for the real heavy lifting, we had professional Soviet laborers, people who knew how to weld, people who were strong and could actually lift fifty pound metal brackets into place. That was a different experience, but in some ways, more interesting than being a guide. That's because, in dealing with the Soviet labor brigade – four or five guys who had been specially selected to help the Americans put up this exhibit – very quickly gave me a window into how the average Russian, or Soviet in those days, worked and how he talked. I learned a lot about verbs of motion that Middlebury had only scratched the surface on.

I would say that’s really where I learned to speak Russian, to the degree that I can speak it now. It was less from speaking to the visitors to the exhibit, although that certainly helped, because that was very repetitive and tended to be the same ten subjects but always talked about in different ways. As GSO, I was responsible for dealing with customs agents, who would come in and look at what the various pieces of the exhibit were, and we had to check them all off, and their record keeping on this was incredibly meticulous. It was kind of a form of harassment almost. Talking to the Soviet laborers, and explaining to them what they needed to do, giving them their instructions for the day, really broadened my understanding of Russia, and, certainly, Russian. The experience certainly broadened my vocabulary a lot. I did that for a year and a half, for both halves of the exhibit. The first half was in Kiev, Tselinograd (now Astana), and Dushanbe. Then the second half of that exhibit: Kishinyok, Moscow, and Rostov Na Donu. So, for a year and a half, my job was to take these 42 twenty-foot containers, pack them up, ship them to the next city, unpack them, put the exhibit up, and then keep the exhibit maintained. It was a little bit like being in the circus, or being a super-roadie, in a way.”

Ian Kelly: “And you visited five or six different republics with that exhibit?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “We traveled all over the Soviet Union. The only place the exhibits did not go in those days, of course, were the Baltic States, because we had the official non-recognition policy that the Baltics weren’t part of the Soviet Union at that time. But, whenever the exhibit was in Moscow, whenever it was – I was never in an exhibit in Saint Petersburg or in Minsk, but anytime there was an exhibit in either of those two cities – the number of Baltic visitors; Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians who would come to the exhibit were always pretty high.

Ian Kelly: “In those days, did you see a lot of difference in attitudes among the different regions and republics?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Not really. I think in Moscow, there was a level of intelligentsia that would come to the exhibit. You certainly knew you were in a big city there and people who were very educated and very specialized in the theme of the exhibit would come, photography in particular. I can recall talking to people, when we were showing in Moscow, who knew much more about photography than I did. And this exposed maybe one of the flaws – if there was any flaw – in what was otherwise a very successful program. The concept of exhibit, I think, was sometimes a little misunderstood by the Soviet visitors. They thought they were coming to a trade show, in a lot of cases, and that they were going to talk to company or industry representatives who knew the very latest about the ‘silver halide’ covering the negative on the Polaroid packing to the ‘Newarched’ camera. But, we were college students who spoke Russian. We had been given a little bit of background on the subject, we had read the manuals, and we had them translated into Russian. But when Soviet visitors would come and really bore in and want to get up close and personal on the details of what we were talking about, we were lost. We couldn’t do anything at all. We always had photographic specialists or, in the case of agriculture, agricultural specialists, who traveled with the exhibit. [These were] Americans, who were usually drawn from universities or from industry. In the case of photography, they were in charge of running the darkroom. We had an actual photo studio in the photo exhibit, which was setup with lights very much like in this studio, and a professional photographer who could deflect and handle some of the specialist-type questions. That was probably the biggest disappointment or the biggest criticism that the exhibit got. We had, at the end of the exhibit when people had gone through; they were invited, as it was the Soviet custom in those days, to write something in the kniga (Russian expression) comment book. And the most common critical comment was, ‘no specialists, no one here to really talk to me about beekeeping. I came here to this agricultural exhibit to learn more about beekeeping and I didn’t learn anything about it at all! What an affront!’”

Ian Kelly: “But that wasn’t the point of the exhibits – to have a conversation on a technical level, or wasn’t it more mutual understanding?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “No, it wasn’t. This was very much a social exchange. It was a chance for us to put real live Americans, who spoke the native language, in front of a group of Soviet people and just show them that Americans don’t have horns growing out of their heads, that we have families, that we want peace too. We talked a lot about peace – who wants peace and who wants war – in those days and you really did feel, at the end of the day, you felt tired, you felt frustrated sometimes because there was a certain percentage of people you were never going to reach. You could see it was a little like being a teacher, I think, as I look back on some teaching experience I’ve had. When you see you’ve gotten through to somebody, and made them understand something in a different way than they understood it before they talked to you – that’s a real sense of satisfaction. And doing this over the course of thirty years, from 1959 until 1989, there were hundreds of exhibits, hundreds of exhibit showings. I think we looked at the number of visitors and it totaled well over 4 million, 5 million Soviets. The brochures that we handed out to people who told their friends and ten of their friends about the conversation they had with the American at the exhibit. The multiplier effect of that is impossible to really quantify but I think it had to have made some difference in blunting some of the worst Soviet propaganda about what the United States was really about.”

Ian Kelly: “Yeah, you can still find those badges, those notchki, from the exhibits all over the former Soviet Union.”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Not just the notchki. You can also find the brochures we handed out at the end of each exhibit. And twenty years later, when I visited Ufa, when I went back to Tsenlinograd, now Astana, I met Soviets, Kazakhs, Bashkir, who had been to the exhibit twenty years earlier. In one case, a guy actually showed me a brochure that I had autographed for him, twenty years earlier. And the fact that people kept these and again – they weren’t holy relics, but they also didn’t get tossed out with the trash two days after the exhibit – showed that, again, the multiplier effect that these exhibits had in terms of getting a message to the Russians, to the Soviet people, that America really does not want war, that we don’t have horns growing out of our heads, that we would like to develop a modus vivendi with the Soviet people, that we needed peaceful coexistence. None of this was intuitively obvious to the Russian people, to the Soviets, and anything that we were able to do up close and personal (this is very much retail diplomacy), it helped us. It helped us in ways that probably we will never be able to quantify. We know how many people visited these exhibits, but how many minds were changed will always be a matter of conjecture. But having been, hopefully, somebody who changed a few minds, or at least got people to think about the world in different ways, I have no doubt at all that it had a significant impact.”

Ian Kelly: “It kind of was a two way street too, right? I mean, you had a tremendous opportunity too.”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Oh, absolutely, absolutely, because I had started studying Russian literature and linguistics when I was still in grad school. I had sort of put grad school on hold while I went on the exhibit and I had fully intended to go back and finish my PhD in Slavic Linguistics, and, you know, probably get a university professorship somewhere. In those days, you know, you kind of took it two or three years at a time. But, two things happened on the exhibit: first of all, I met plenty of people with PhD’s in Slavic Linguistics for whom the exhibit was the first real solid job they had ever had, so I had begun to question economically whether or not this was going to be a good career choice. But, more importantly, the experience of living in the Soviet Union, in those days, of talking to Russian Soviet people, exposed to me the grand paradox of the Soviet Union, which was a very rich culture, a strong history, and a great people - who were straight-jacketed by this system which was built on hypocrisy and lies. And seeing the Soviet Union, in those days, as the main ideological and potentially a nuclear adversary of the United States, meant that figuring out this paradox [was vital] to understanding how we could go forward with some sort of relationship with the Soviet Union.

Of course, in the mid-to-late 1970s, no one thought that things would fall apart as quickly as they did. Trying to get your mind around how that relationship could work, and thinking that you might be able to play a role in that was tremendously appealing to me. So, I returned to the University of Michigan and was in the process of changing my major to International Relations, when I got hired by the second exhibit, to come back and be the GSO. I did that for a year and a half and immediately at the end of that exhibit, before I could come back to the University of Michigan to continue my studies, I was hired by Voice of America in the English, not the Russian section. I actually applied for Russian, but got turned down, my Russian wasn’t good enough. I really never went back and finished either the MA in Linguistics or the PhD in International Relations at Michigan. I did that much later at the National Defense University. But the ‘School of Experience,’ of living in the Soviet Union for a long time, talking to so many Russians, doing tons of reading on my own, reading all of the works of Pipes, and Bernard Paris and others – all pretty much just out of sheer curiosity – that was really my education in Sovietology: sort of self-taught, and a lot of on-the-ground experience.”

Ian Kelly: “The Agriculture Exhibit – you were the GSO for it. When did it finish up?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “That finished in 1979, in May of 1979. But, I left out one very important exhibit experience, and this kind of completes the circle of this exchange. While we had American Exhibitions traveling around the Soviet Union, under this cultural exchange, we had to have Soviet Exhibits traveling in the United States. In fact, we did have a number of Soviet Exhibits that did the same thing we had done in Russia: they would set up in an American city for thirty days, be open, have visitors, and they had English-speaking Russian guides who answered questions about the theme of the exhibit. One theme was ‘Soviet Women,’ and the exhibit that I worked on was called ‘Soviet Sport.’ After I left the Agriculture Exhibit in 1979, I was offered the opportunity to be the U.S. Government Escort Officer, the USIA Escort Officer, traveling with the Soviet exhibit, ‘Soviet Sport,’ to four American cities, from the summer of 1979 to about Christmas. The cities were: Kansas City; Atlanta; Knoxville, Tennessee; and San Antonio, Texas. The exhibit itself was conceived as something of a pre-Olympic showcase for the Soviets because they were going to have the Summer Olympics in 1980. My job as the Escort Officer was simply to be the U.S. Government liaison with the mayor’s office or the governor’s office in Georgia or Missouri, to sort of run interference, to try to solve problems and have Washington weigh in if there were local political problems that were making it difficult for the Soviets to show their exhibits.

I had to travel around with these thirty Russians, who were in the United States for a specific purpose, and make sure that their experience was as good as it could be because we were very concerned about reciprocity in those days. Any problems that Soviet exhibitions had in the United States we were sure to feel on U.S. exhibits in Russia. My job was very much to identify problems and also, in some cases, to enforce reciprocity. We had a rule that was written into the Cultural Exchange Agreement that when an American exhibit in Russia had a shipment of books come in, we had a library that people could come to in every exhibit and read about photography or agriculture. Those books had to be reviewed by the Soviet censors, for lack of a better word, and it usually took up to ten days for all of those books to be reviewed. Somebody would take them off, we would log them, inventory them, they would disappear for ten days, and then they would come back approved. Or, in some cases, they said you can’t have this book because on page 59 it says something bad about Khrushchev. We didn’t even know that, but okay, those are the rules. So, in reciprocity terms, in a very kind of interesting twist, my job sometimes was to enforce reciprocity just for reciprocity’s sake. And, I recall, very well, once this Soviet exhibit on Sports got a load of English language books on history of Russian sport and great Russian sports figures of the twentieth century. And, my job was, literally, to take all of those books and just keep them in my office for ten days, or a week, and then give them back to the Russians. I mean, we don’t censor things in our country. But, for reciprocity’s sake, it was decided that we had to at least go through the motions of at least holding them for five to ten days, so that we could maybe get the Russians to loosen up a little on their side. We said, ‘Well, we’ll hold this for only five days. Will you agree to do the same thing?’ They would never bite on that, so those books sat in my office for ten days, and then I would turn them back. That was sometimes the kind of ridiculous extremes that reciprocity got to in the days of real U.S.-Soviet confrontation.”

Ian Kelly: “You just mentioned the Cultural Exchange Agreement, it was allowed to lapse wasn’t it, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Were exhibits affected by this?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Yeah, the exhibit that I was on, the ‘Soviet Sport’ Exhibit, closed in San Antonio about December 22nd, 1979 – three or four days before the first Soviet troops went into Afghanistan. That was really kind of a stroke of luck for the exhibit, for all of us, because even before the Soviets went into Afghanistan there were quite often pickets or protesters outside the Soviet exhibits in the States, people holding signs saying, ‘Let Anatoli Sharansky Go,’ ‘Freedom for Soviet Jewry,’ things like that. Part of my job was actually to talk to those NGOs, those American groups, explain to them what the exhibit was, and ask them to be respectful in exercising their rights – because it would have an effect on American exhibits in the U.S.S.R. I would tell them about the American exhibit part of this in Russia, and make them understand that there was definitely a link with their behavior. If, obviously, the exhibit had been open after the Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979 – we would have had massive protests. I suspect the exhibit would have been closed down, perhaps as a kind of signal from the U.S. Government, because as we know, President Carter declared a boycott by American sports teams of the Soviet Olympics. So, I think you’re right, we did allow that exchange agreement to lapse, and there were no exhibits in the Soviet Union from 1979 until about 1985.”

Ian Kelly: “I wonder if you could talk just a little about the value of exchanges. I mean, one reason the U.S. Government did the exhibit program was because we didn’t have access to the media, there was no free media, and also there were travel restrictions. In an era when the media is much more open, we have the internet, we have many more opportunities to have contacts with Russians. Are these kinds of exchange programs still valuable?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “Oh, absolutely. This kind of [question] falls under the category of: do we need Ambassadors when we have CNN? You always need personal human contact to foster a better understanding of what the world’s about. There's a wonderful quote by Senator Fulbright, who said something to the effect of: ‘In the long history of the world, having someone who understands the way you think buys you more security than another nuclear submarine.’ He was really on to something there. Security is trust, at its base. And, trust is built by interaction, by personal interaction. You can do some of this at the wholesale level, through the media, but there’s no substitute for the value of having a young American, like me, go to Russia and actually live in the bosom of the Soviet Union for three or four years, the way I did, to help understand a little better, to get beyond the stereotypes, to get beyond the sort of superficial understanding you get of things from studying them in an academic sense.

And, of course, working the other way: the more Russians, Bulgarians, or French who come to the United States under any circumstances – whether it's tourists, on the Work and Travel Program, as exchange students – the better. I am firmly convinced that what we have to offer in this country has an elemental appeal. There is a level of personal freedom here, of respect for initiative, for entrepreneurship that is appealing. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have such long lines of people trying to get to the United States at our visa offices, at our consulates around the world. But, the more you can do this in an organized way, the more you can open an invitation to people to come that's built around their interest in education and in culture, the better. Because the business side of this will always take care of itself – people will always come to see the Grand Canyon. But, the real value of exchanges – and a lot of this comes from my own experience – is based on the fact that people learn more about another culture when they learn in that culture, or in the language itself. And, that’s very, very true for what we need to do in the Middle East now. It’s very true for our relationship with China, where I think they don’t have nearly enough American scholars studying there. And, I think it’s certainly true about our relationship with Russia, a country which is still hugely important, is a major world power well into this twenty-first century. To the extent that we can make an invitation to the Russian people, to the Russian government, to redress that, the better. And, for our own part, by sending our own scholars, students, exchangees to Russia, we’re helping ourselves. And, the amount of money you spend on that, in the long history of the world, is a lot less, as Fulbright said, than a submarine or a missile.”

Ian Kelly: “Ambassador Beyrle I wanted to ask you very quickly about your father, who had just an extraordinary experience in World War II.”

Ambassador Beyrle: “My father is considered to be one of the few American Veterans of World War II who actually fought both with the Americans and with the Soviets against the Germans. He was a paratrooper. He joined the 101st Airborne, trained in England in 1943, and then jumped into Normandy on D-Day, or the night before D-Day, 1944. But he was very quickly captured by the Germans. The drop sites were scattered and he couldn’t re-link with his units before he was picked up by the Germans. He spent the next four or five months in a succession of German prison camps, starting in France, then German territory itself. By December of 1944, he was in a camp on the Oder River, which is now the border between Germany and Poland, but then it was all German territory. And, he made several escapes from these camps, during the summer and fall of 1944, was recaptured both times and put in this final camp, on the Oder River, from which he also attempted and succeeded in escaping in January of 1945. This time the Russians, the second Belorussian front, had pulled very, very close to the Oder River. And through the grapevine, he knew about the Russians, and he could hear the Russian guns, about maybe ten, fifteen miles east of his position, so when he escaped, and eluded the guards and dogs, he just struck out straight east to the sound of the guns. He hid out in a German farmhouse, in a hayloft, until the Soviet tank unit rolled in and then, very, very carefully, after watching – this was a shrewd guy – choosing his moment, he went up to the Soviet soldiers with a pack of Lucky Strikes in his hand, looking like a bedraggled escaped prisoner or something, and said, in Russian, ‘ya Amerikanski tovarish’ He knew those words, and had a pack of Lucky Strikes. The Russians looked at him with disbelief. They found someone who spoke a little English, and he explained that he was an escaped prisoner from [inaudible prison name] 12-C, or 3-C, that he had just escaped from three or four days earlier, and that he had wanted to link-up with the Russians and fight with them towards Berlin.

He felt that he had been cheated out of the war. He joined the Army to defeat Hitler. Hitler had captured him very soon afterwards, and hadn’t treated him very nicely, and so he wanted to get back and be what he had been trained to be: a soldier. The Russians were a little doubtful at first, but somehow my dad was a very persuasive guy. He managed to convince them at least to let him ride along to Berlin. And, at that time, in February of 1945, everyone thought the road to Berlin was going to be very quick. It turned out it wasn’t quite that easy. So, he actually fought as a gunner. They gave him a Soviet, Russian, machine gun and put him on the back of a tank that he rode as that tank column advanced towards Berlin. But, it really didn’t get very far. It maybe went three or four miles from where he joined it and then they were holed up for two or three days and he was wounded. The Germans attacked the position with dive-bombers and he was severely wounded with shrapnel in his leg. The Russian medics patched him up, stopped the bleeding, put a tourniquet on him, and sent him back to a Russian field hospital, where he recuperated for about a week, maybe ten days.

While he was in that Soviet field hospital, Marshal Zhukov, who was the Commander of all Soviet Forces, was in the area, while the offensive was stalled. He visited the hospital on an inspection tour, and heard that there was an American escaped POW who’d been fighting with the Russians, and came up to see him, and through an interpreter asked, ‘how you doing, son? Is there anything I can do for you?’ And my dad said, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty banged up now and I’m not going to make it to Berlin with you guys. I’d like to go, but I think I probably should go back home. Can you give me some sort of identification that will help me get to the American Embassy in Warsaw?’ The Germans had taken his dog tags when he was taken prisoner. So Zhukov, as my dad said, made some sort of gesture to somebody, the way generals do, and the next day a colonel showed up with a letter, which my dad could not read as it was all in Russian. He described it as a magic piece of paper, with which he was discharged from the hospital and put on a troop convoy going to Warsaw. He always got the best seat; he always got a hot meal. Whatever was written on that letter, signed by Zhukov, presumably, did the trick. But, of course, when he got to Warsaw, there was no American Embassy there – nothing but just a pile of smoking rubble, as he used to say. And so he got on a train, and other conveyances, made his way to Moscow, and in February of 1945, was picked up on the outskirts of Moscow by the NKVD, who obviously had heard that this guy was coming with the Zhukov letter. They delivered him to the American Embassy in Moscow, which at that time was located next to the National Hotel across from the Kremlin. They unfortunately took the Zhukov letter from him when they delivered him. (We’ve looked for that letter through the archives for many years, but have never found it.) He turned himself into the Embassy, it was really the military mission in those days, guarded by Marines, and gave them his name, rank, and serial number. They took him in, gave him a bed and a hot meal, and patched him up as he was still wounded and his wounds were still giving him trouble.

But, they woke him up the next morning and said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.’ Because the telegram they had sent back to the War Department came back with a flag, saying Joseph Beyrle was reported killed in action, in July of 1944, a month after D-Day. We don’t know who this guy is. Who delivered him? Well, the NKVD delivered him. Did he have any documents? No, they took his documents away. All that we have is his face. So, they said, until we get this cleared up, he can’t stay in the mission. So they put him under house arrest in the Metropole Hotel. They actually had a Marine Guard go and sort of stay with him until they could establish his bona fides. They sent more information back and he gave fingerprints, which were somehow sent back (however they sent things back in those days) and after two or three days, coming back to the Embassy for interrogation and for questioning. A cable came back from the War Department saying what everyone in Moscow already knew: this guy clearly was an American. He was repatriated back through Odessa, got on a ship that went to Naples and Cairo, and eventually ended up in New York. He actually celebrated VE Day, 1945, in Chicago.”

Ian Kelly: “Extraordinary story.”

Ambassador Beyrle: “That story has opened a lot of doors for me in Russia. My dad visited me three or four times on my many times in Russia, as an exhibit guide, with the Embassy, and every time, he was received as something of a hero by the Russians. They were so delighted to meet an American who had joined with them at the end of the war voluntarily to defeat Hitler. It means a lot.”

Ian Kelly: “I have one last question. What happened to all the exhibit guides? What did they turn out to be? Are they all diplomats, businessmen, what happened?”

Ambassador Beyrle: “I’m still in touch with a lot of the exhibit guides. Because when you have gone through that experience – we used to call it a foxhole experience being out there for an hour, being pummeled by sometimes very provocative questions – binds you to people in a way because we’ve had similar, intense, unique experiences. So, we have all kept in touch. Some of us stayed in Soviet Affairs, in the government like myself, like Tom Robertson, like Mike Hurley; some are in academia; some people completely left the Russia/Soviet field after the exhibit. But, with the passage of time, even some of those people are kind of drifting back and wanting to reminisce a bit about this experience. It was a really unique way to get to know other Americans who were going through an experience that if you haven’t really had to stand up and answer questions like that, day after day, you don’t really know what it’s like. It was a lot of fun, sometimes it was very discouraging and unpleasant, but extremely rewarding for all of us.”

Ian Kelly: “Thank you very much, Ambassador Beyrle.”

Ambassador Beyrle: “You’re welcome. Thanks, it was a pleasure.”


A career officer in the senior Foreign Service at the rank of Minister-Counselor, Ambassador Beyrle has held assignments with an emphasis on U.S. relations with Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the U.S.S.R. since joining the State Department in 1983. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria from 2005 to 2008. His overseas service has included two tours at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, most recently as Deputy Chief of Mission. He was Counselor for Political and Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, and a member of the U.S. Delegation to the CFE Negotiations in Vienna. He served an earlier tour at the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria, 1985-87. His Washington assignments include Acting Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States, and Director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.

A native of Muskegon, Michigan, Ambassador Beyrle received a B.A. degree with honors from Grand Valley State University, and an M.S. degree as a Distinguished Graduate of the National War College, where he later taught as a Visiting Professor of National Security Studies. He speaks Bulgarian, Czech, French, German and Russian. Ambassador Beyrle is the recipient of the Presidential Meritorious Service Award, the Sinclaire Award for excellence in hard language study and has been awarded the State Department’s Superior Honor Award for outstanding performance four times. He is married to Jocelyn Greene, a fellow Foreign Service Officer whom he met on the USIA exhibits. They have two daughters.