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

Laura E. Kennedy
International Affairs Advisor and Deputy Commandant, National War College
Exhibit Guide, 1977-1978
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography | Video Excerpt

Ambassador Kennedy served as an exhibit guide for the "Agriculture USA" exhibit from 1977 to 1978. Following is an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Ian Kelly: “Ambassador Kennedy, tell us how you first got interested in Russia and the Soviet Union?”

Ambassador Kennedy: “I was assigned to Moscow in 1977, but my background had actually been in Asian affairs so I was sent to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) to learn Russian. There had been some concern in the State Department that we weren’t teaching Russian as well as we should. Part of the problem was that diplomats would learn Russian, go to Moscow, and then find that -- in the old days we were penned in and it was a very ghetto-like existence [at the Embassy] there -- in some cases, that their Russian deteriorated. So, they thought that this would be an interesting experiment to send a young officer going off to Moscow for her first tour as a guide in one of these exhibits.

Most of the guides were graduate students; they were not government employees until they were hired for this exhibit. So, it was somewhat unusual, a bit of an experiment, but one that I found absolutely fabulous. Not just because it did indeed strengthen my Russian because that was your job, to talk to Russian citizens everyday on a variety of subjects, not just the usual bilateral political discourse. So, certainly, it strengthened my Russian, but most importantly it gave us the opportunity to meet a whole range of Soviet citizens. In the old days, Soviet citizens, to say the least, weren’t encouraged to meet with American diplomats or in general with foreigners often times. We traveled to a number of cities around the Soviet Union and in the course of this exhibit series they’ve estimated something like 23 million Soviet citizens visited one of these American exhibits. I think it was something like 19 different cities, but again the length and breadth of the old Soviet Union.”

Ian Kelly: “So, this was 1977?”

Ambassador Kennedy: “1977-78. I visited Kiev, Tselinograd, which is now the capital of independent Kazakhstan, Astana, but in those days was just sort of a dusty, small, provincial outpost in the northern part of this part of the Soviet Union. Also, Dushanbe -- the capital of what is today independent Tajikistan. The theme of the exhibit was agriculture so, obviously, we tried to hit [agricultural] areas and focus our exhibit toward particular agriculture. There was, for example, Northern Kazakhstan, big wheat producing area -- the so-called virgin lands. Tajikistan, big cotton growing area. We tried to bring experts there and focus on agricultural themes, but generally the exhibits weren’t technical or commercial exhibits. They had a theme, such as agriculture, but the real intent was to have an exchange. We’d bring a little slice of Americana to the Soviet Union and many of these, I’d say 23 million Soviet citizens, had never met an American citizen in their life, and let alone have the opportunity to actually have a conversation with them.

It was also a great opportunity for Americans to learn more about Soviet society beyond these fairly circumscribed circles in the capital city and our consulate in Leningrad. When I think of the exhibit program, I think of it also in the context of our broader program of exchanges, and I think about the huge impact over time that they had. I think about the fact that, for example, I think it was in 1957 and one of the first times Soviet citizens came to study -- Alexander Yakovlev studied at Columbia University. He's the man who’s often times described as the architect of perestroika or glasnost under Gorbachev.”

Ian Kelly: “He was a Fulbright Scholar.”

Ambassador Kennedy: “I’m just speculating as I’ve certainly never heard him say that the ideas that he was exposed to had a long-term effect, but I think that one can certainly say that it exposed him to a broader arena. I actually do remember him saying that he found himself often times very irritated that year in 1957 because he felt there were so many misconceptions on the part of Americans about the Soviet Union. So again, we thought of it as a two-way street, because certainly there was enormous propaganda in the Soviet Union about America -- extreme censorship. On the other hand, I’d say that Americans, going back to the fifties, had real fears and antipathy toward the Soviet Union that sometimes these sorts of exchanges could get at. I think both societies were certainly the better for having this opportunity.”

Ian Kelly: “Were you assigned to one stand on the exhibit, one part of the exhibit?”

Ambassador Kennedy: “Well, we would circulate. For example, one of my stands was the Ford Pick-Up -- incredibly popular because, although probably no American farm would be without a pick-up of some kind, to a Soviet, this was really a sort of an unbelievable thing that a private person would have this. It attracted so much incredible admiration and excitement and also that somebody, an individual, would be so empowered that they could have their own truck. In those days, of course, cars were fairly small in number and difficult to get. I also worked on the big hay bailer. We had stands, not just technical things, but we had stands that showed how Americans canned food, for example, which was always a big hit. When I think back, I think, what a great theme agriculture was for an exhibit because you think of food as being so central to the notion of hospitality. I mean the ancient notion that, once you’ve broken bread with someone, it implies a new and real bond.

I've mentioned [the benefits] on the Russian side. But, on our part, I’d say that it allowed us to develop a real cadre of experts on the Soviet Union. Most of these folks were young college students, maybe graduate students. Many of them later joined the Department of State, Agriculture, a number of agencies and so on, or in the arts and academic world. For example, on my exhibit alone, one of the exhibit guides was a woman named Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian Literature at Williams College and a noted expert on Russian cuisine who has written a number of fascinating cookbooks on that area. Another of my colleagues on the exhibit, an author who’s written in a number of genres, but has written a number of prize winning best sellers about Russian history under the name of Robert Alexander, including “Rasputin’s Daughter" and “The Kitchen Boy.” We had, just again on this one exhibit out of a series that lasted decades, two other ambassadors: Tom Robertson, former ambassador to Slovenia and John Beyrle, currently Ambassador to Russia. I think about Rose Gottemoeller, former Assistant Secretary of Energy, now head of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. So again, [the experience] helped us over the years to develop, in a range of disciplines, a great core of folks who not only knew Russian, but had this unique opportunity to travel around the Soviet Union in times when it was very difficult to do. Ian, you remember the time when whole swaths of the Soviet Union were closed areas, you just couldn’t go. Or, there were certain areas you could travel to, but you had to get permission and file in advance so it was a great opportunity to, as they say, to really, really get to have familiarity for just the way the average Soviet lived.”

Ian Kelly: “You said that most of the Soviet citizens who came weren’t necessarily interested in the technical aspects. I was just wondering what kind of non-technical questions you would get.”

Ambassador Kennedy: “Oh, the range. Well, let me mention here another name because she’s a great repository of knowledge about contemporary Russia/Soviet Union, Jocelyn Greene, who was the reports officer. She would actually tabulate the range of questions and we’d see the areas in which they were most interested. There were some real concerns among Soviet citizens, even among ones who didn’t believe the official propaganda, but they had real concerns about how they perceived American life. For example, it was an opportunity to explain unemployment, social security. They had real concerns about things like drug use, racism, about American Indians. And, then there were just really odd, wacky questions and lots of questions that were indeed sort of programmed by the official propaganda. For example, an hour wouldn’t go by that you’d probably not get at least one question on the neutron bomb, which was a big foreign policy issue then. And, people would come in who probably didn’t think a whole lot about foreign policy, but they sort of felt they had to ask about the neutron bomb.

What was such a powerful thing about this exhibit is that, although it was a government exhibit and we were paid by the US government -- we were never given an official line. We were basically private citizens. Occasionally, you’d see people -- some of whom were probably official provocateurs, as we called them, or sometimes maybe just interested, who knows -- but they’d go around and ask each exhibit guide the same question. I think they were hoping to ferret out what the official line was. Well, I think they came away often times a little bemused or befuddled because they found that they would get, for the same question, 23 different answers from the 23 various guides. Often times, [the answers] were very critical of one or another of the U.S. government’s official policies. To me, there was no more powerful example of American democracy than this sort of illustration to Soviet citizens -- that there is no government line and that we make up our own minds. It’s just a great opportunity to debate the issues. Even though, sadly, you would often times see folks who were there as sort of undercover KGB or whatever. Who’d sort of be watching, trying to eavesdrop and if they saw somebody talking too long they might come up and ask them later: ‘Why are you talking to them?’ ‘What did they say?’ and so on.

Years later, I actually went back and tried to just ask Soviets in various republics what they remembered about the exhibits. And here it was, I don’t know, some 25 years later. Some of the reactions were just exhilaration about actually meeting Americans for the first time. Some of them did remember things like before they’d go, they’d be admonished: ‘don’t show too much enthusiasm.’ They’d laugh about those old times, but, at the time, I think those pressures were pretty real on a lot of Soviets who might try and strike up real acquaintances beyond that five minute conversation on the exhibit floor.”

Ian Kelly: “And, so you went to Kiev, Tselinograd, and Dushanbe.”

Ambassador Kennedy: “The exhibit lasted longer than a year. So, in the second half of the exhibit, we switched out the guides. The second half of the exhibit (which included my future husband) went to Moscow, Rostov-on Don, and Kishinev, now Chisinau, in Moldova.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you see much of a difference in the kind of questions you would get? Say between Tselinograd, Kiev, and Dushanbe?“

Ambassador Kennedy: “Well, yes, although, some I wouldn’t necessarily ascribe to differences in place. Let me back up a minute and say that one of the things I found most interesting about this exhibit that was new for me was it exposed me directly to the different nationalities, ethnic groups, and some of the feelings of national identity that were submerged beneath the official line of the new Soviet man or woman. So, for example, our first city was Kiev. Most of the guides were hired to speak Russian. We had a guide who spoke native Ukrainian and would speak in Ukrainian. And, it was unbelievable. People would come from all over Ukraine to hear this guide speak in Ukrainian, to hear him talk about events of the Ukrainian past. It was just phenomenal to see the resonance this had with Ukrainians back in 1978. But, it was very neuralgic with the Soviet authorities and indeed on this exhibit, this guide and another one, who also would talk about the Ukrainian past and talk about history -- they were both expelled for what was called ‘anti-Soviet slander.’

Our second city, which was then Tselinograd, now Astana, was an area that generally didn’t have a lot of exposure to westerners, a small city. I think that the authorities were also sensitized by the fact that it had been in the national press that these guides had been expelled for ‘anti-Soviet slander.’ So, they treated us with kid gloves and not in a good way in the sense that, for example, they gave us one wing of the hotel. We were told to eat in a separate dining room. They would actually lock the door of the hotel at night. And we found that invitations, offers to meet, became very few and far between. I think there were real fears of the local authorities after these expulsions, having in subsequent years experienced very warm and lavish Kazakh hospitality. I think the authorities really tried to clamp down on us.

But, yes, there certainly were differences among the areas we visited. Something else also struck me when I went to Tajikistan and people would come in from areas outside the capital city. My Russian was not great, serviceable, but not great. But, oddly enough, I found that in some cases, my Russian was better than the people who would come in because they were from the outlying villages still retaining a great deal of the native Tajik culture and language. Another thing I found interesting -- I don't have the statistics, but my sense was that there were more men, slightly more men that visited the exhibits, than Soviet women.”

Ian Kelly: “When you were in Central Asia?”

Ambassador Kennedy: “I think in general. Soviet women were very much absorbed in the labor force but they were doing double duty. They still had all the responsibilities of running the home but they didn’t have the dishwashers and microwaves that we had. So, I guess I became very much aware of the burdens in particular that Soviet women labored under and [developed] a first hand awareness of how good the Soviets were at coping with all the burdens of daily life, of censorship and so on. There was a real sort of ability to somehow muddle through and somehow obtain this or that or so on. There was a real sense of coping despite really pretty primitive conditions in a lot of the areas away from Moscow. I think that most of us suspected that was the real reason they had a lot of these closed areas. It wasn’t necessarily because there was some secret defense installation. I think there was a huge Soviet sensitivity to having foreigners see some of the primitive conditions. In Moscow, you could go just outside the city and there’d be people still using horse and carts for regular transportation. Anyhow, a really fascinating time.”

Ian Kelly: “I’m wondering how your experience on this public diplomacy exhibit helped you as an Ambassador later on?”

Ambassador Kennedy: “Well, I’d say that that experience left me with a career- long, very intense awareness of the central importance of public diplomacy, and it also gave me a particular interest in central Asia. From 1995 to ’97, when I went back to the area, it was extraordinary. I found people all these years later still had kept their buttons and brochures from these exhibits. I met ministers who recalled and could tell me about how they visited these exhibits in the old times. I remember being in Tajikistan in '95, not that long after they’d come out of a devastating civil war, but yet the exchange networks were thriving. The government gave us space in the national library to have what we would probably now call an American Corner. There were thriving networks of people who had participated in exchanges.

Later, when I was Ambassador in Turkmenistan, exchange networks were the one area that I spent as much time on as any other in and certainly enjoyed more. I thought it was so important in this country, routinely rated as one of the most censored, journalist-unfriendly in the world, to have this opportunity. The broader programs of the U.S. government were a way for us to engage directly with Turkmen citizens. Our educational exchange programs were vital. And, there was no topic on which I think I argued with the ex-dictator Niyazov more than on education and the fact that this is the most important investment you can ever make. This was a cadre of enormously talented people that were getting an opportunity to experience great American education at a time when their own education system was being systematically destroyed.

Our educational exchange programs, I think, have been one of the best programs we’ve done throughout the former Soviet Union. I was just back in Moscow last June and when I flew in there was a group of young kids chattering away. I thought, ‘Oh, this must be a group of American high school students coming to visit Russia.’ They were returning Russian citizens, kids who had just spent a year in America. I find it exciting that these exchanges are catching on. For example, in Kazakhstan, they have established a presidential scholarship fund, known as the ‘Boloshak Fund.’ [Under the fund,] Kazakh citizens now can go study in leading universities and institutions around the world. Boloshak, in Kazakh, means ‘future.’ I think there’s no better way to prepare for the future than investing in these exchanges.”

Ian Kelly: “Alright, well, great. Thank you very much.”

Ambassador Kennedy: “Thank you.”


Ambassador Kennedy, a Minister-Counselor in the Foreign Service, graduated from Vassar College, received an M.A. from American University and also studied at Cornell and Stanford Universities. Her first assignment with the State Department was in the Office of People's Republic of China Affairs. She then served at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and was detailed to the American Exhibitions that traveled to Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Tajikistan. After serving as staff assistant to the Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, she returned to Moscow in 1983. Ambassador Kennedy was assigned in 1985 to the U.S. Delegation to the negotiations on conventional armed forces in Vienna, serving with the MBFR (Mutual Balanced Force Reduction) delegation and then helping to negotiate the mandate for the new CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) talks which were launched in 1989. Ambassador Kennedy began her assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Turkey at the outbreak of the Gulf War. During the subsequent Kurdish refugee crisis, she was detailed to Operation Provide Comfort. She served as Chargé d'Affaires at the newly established U.S. Embassy in Armenia in 1992. She returned to Washington in 1993 as the Deputy Director for Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian Affairs. Ambassador Kennedy was Director for Central Eurasia and Caspian energy issues from 1995-1997. She was next assigned as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Vienna. She was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan in 2001 where she focused on promoting civil society and enlisting the government in the war against terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan. From 2003-2004, she directed the 46th Class of the Senior Seminar. Ambassador Kennedy's languages are Russian and Turkish. She is a graduate of the Senior Seminar and a member of the American Foreign Service Association. She has received the Distinguished Honor Award, as well as a number of Superior and Meritorious Honor awards from the Department of State. Ambassador Kennedy and her husband, fellow diplomat and exhibit guide John Feeney, have two sons.