The American Exhibits to the U.S.S.R.: 1959-1993
Mary Chaffin and her husband Lance Murty were exhibit guides on the "Agriculture USA" exhibit that traveled to Kiev, Tselinograd (Astana) and Dushanbe in 1978. Murty was later a specialist on the "Informatika USA Exhibit" in Rostov in 1987. Following is the edited excerpt of an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
I ended up applying for the exhibit program job in 1977-78 and went over on the Agriculture USA exhibit the first half, which went to Kiev, then Salinigrad, which is now Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, but at that point it was a 300,000 person city. And the virgin lands area in Kazakhstan, and the final city was Dushanbe in Tajikistan.We were all assigned two stands and we rotated between them. I was on the pig stand and the farm market stand - like a farmers’ market stand. I had various arrays of produce, things that I could be selling if I was behind the counter at a farmers’ market. At the pig stand I had a farrowing pin, and I had to be up on all of the most popular breeds of pigs in the United States, and, what is it called in English, ubonevez, which is like the slaughter weight for the pigs, which I don’t remember anymore. I also knew the average size of the litters and how the farrowing pins work, and how they would get grain out of the little bins - they had a whole mock up. They also had something that was actually very controversial and we didn’t think it would be; we had some life sized stuffed pigs that they put in the farrowing pin, along with some little piglets. The pigs were life sized, built like pigs, and made of calico. The people who did the design of the exhibit thought it was just kind of a fanciful, entertaining way to do it, but it was actually quite offensive to a lot of people. They were very put off by the fact that our pigs were not realistic and instead were calico.
We had a lot of people come into the exhibit - most of them are just general people who wanted to see what Americans look like, particularly in these places that were outside of Kiev. Certainly in Dushanbe or Saliningrad, we were the first Westerners that had ever been there.
I think it really had a pervasive impact. The fact that it kept on going through the Vietnam war, and through times when excuses could have been made to stop the program. The fact that as a gradual matter, city after city became open - one of the goals of the exhibit program was to open a city on each side since the Russians had closed off most of their cities to Westerners. We, in a tit for tat move also closed off our cities. One of the goals of each exhibit round that went back and forth, because this was an exchange and the Soviets also sent exhibits to the United States, was to open up a city each trip. And in our case, the city was Saliningrad, and we were the first Westerners who went there. And we were like people who had just parachuted out of another world. I mean people in Saliningrad were very cut off from everything, not just the West but even the countries of Eastern Europe. The chance for them to get a subscription to an East German magazine or things like that, was rationed. You couldn’t get that kind of stuff there. They didn’t have butter there for three years before we got there. It was a really, really remote area, so for these people to have the chance to meet Americans and to find out we had common concerns because everybody was interested in trying to make a good life for their families and start their careers, I think it really had a profound impact overall. And another thing I thought was really interesting is that people were sent as obvious provocateurs who would come in and try to ask us hostile questions. If you knew how to work the crowd right, then you would sort of get everybody in a really good mood and if some of those guys showed up and started asking hostile questions, the crowd would silence them. They would say like, ‘oh quit bothering her,’ ‘leave her alone,’ ‘she’s answering the questions,’ and ‘go away.’ So there was really a lot of good feeling that you could evoke just by being a normal sort of human being and smiling and responding to the questions.
I’ve now been at Mercy Corps for 5 years; it’s the most interesting job you could ever imagine as a lawyer. We have just all kinds of issues that could happen on a daily basis. Of course, we don’t just work in the former Eastern bloc, we’re all around the world in Africa and the Balkans as well as South Asia and Latin America. We’re all over and I actually find that the exhibit experience was a segue into so many different things. It was actually a segue into many of my legal jobs that had nothing to do with it but just because it served to distinguish me from other applicants. Otherwise, I might have just been one of the pack, but I had this weird thing to talk about, you know, so it was nice to be able to describe that experience when you’re in an interview because it definitely sticks in people’s minds.
I just think the program itself is a very valuable program, and I hope we can take the lessons we learn from the real lasting effect it has had on the development of at least greater understanding between the United States and countries of the former Soviet Union and transfer that into other places in the world today where we have equally as troubling relationships. Whether it’s the Middle East or the Muslim world in general, it would be a great thing if we could figure out how to, not necessarily replicate that particular program, but create something that would have the same effect, I think it would be a tremendously valuable experience because it completely changed my life and I think it was one of the formative experiences that changed the lives of all of us on this end. I think we touched so many different people, and it’s really interesting talking to émigrés today because many of them will say I remember I saw the such and such exhibit in Leningrad or I was at the one in Ufa or whatever and that’s something that they’ll never forget. It really makes a huge difference and those are all beneficial things and I think we should be, it’s so cheap, I mean the exhibit programs were so incredibly inexpensive for the amount of good that they delivered; I just think it’s something that we should look very hard at.
Since joining Mercy Corps, Ms. Chaffin has worked closely with its micro-finance entities, both as a member of several boards and as a legal advisor. She is a member of Mercy Corps’s senior management team and is responsible for the organization’s global legal, compliance, corporate secretary, and risk management matters.
Ms. Chaffin received her Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude in Russian Studies from Brown University. After studying Russian history at Columbia University, she spent nine months as a temporary Foreign Service staff officer working as a Russian-speaking exhibit guide on a cultural exchange exhibit in the Soviet Union. She then earned her law degree magna cum laude from the University of Georgia, where she was a member of the Georgia Law Review and the academic honor society, Order of the Coif. Ms. Chaffin is a member of the bar of the states of Oregon (1982) and Washington (2001). She has two grown sons with her husband, Lance Murty.
Mercy Corps works amid disasters, conflicts, chronic poverty and instability to unleash the potential of people who can win against nearly impossible odds. Since 1979, Mercy Corps has provided $1.3 billion in assistance to people in 100 nations. Supported by headquarters offices in North America, Europe and Asia, the agency's unified global programs employ 3,400 staff worldwide and reach nearly 14.4 million people in more than 35 countries.