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

Mary Chaffin
General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Mercy Corps
Exhibit Guide, 1977-1978
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography | Video Excerpt

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 an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

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

Mary Chaffin: “Well actually I got a present from Santa Claus when I was about 15 or 16 and it was called Great Russian Short Novels and it had a short novella by Dostoevsky called, I’m drawing a blank on the name. No, it’s one you’ve never heard of before, The Husband. I can’t believe I can’t think of it.”

Ian Kelly: “Oh ok, I know which one.”

Mary Chaffin: “I was so absolutely bowled over by this story and there were others like Death of Illyanovich and there were a number of other great Russian short novels in there. And I was just absolutely bowled over by this, and I grew up in Georgia and so there was nobody around that knew anything about Russia or anything like that so when I went away to college I went to Brown. And I kind of stumbled into a very intensive Russian class, and it was the first year they ever had it and it was get two years of Russian in one and it was focused on speaking, so I took that. My instructor was absolutely marvelous - a gifted teacher named Barbara Monahan. I had her the first year, as well as professor Tom Gleason, who recently retired from Brown as the head of the history department. Also from here at the Wilson institute, George Kennan, who headed that up back in the mid-80’s I think it was. I took a class from him as a freshman seminar and it just turned me onto it, and ever since then I’ve been hooked.”

Ian Kelly: “And how did you hear about the exhibit program?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well I heard about the exhibit program when I had an internship here in 1974 at the State Department. I was in the INR (Intelligence and Research) department in the State Department and it was headed up at that time by Martha Motner, and John Parker and Sidney Ploss were also there, and a couple of other people who have since retired or are no longer with us. John actually told me about the exhibit program, and he had served on it and I think he was on the medical one, but I might be wrong about that. He talked about it, talked me up about it, and then I went away to Columbia University for my graduate program. I was going to be a Russian historian until I realized that the demographics were not good at all for people in my age bracket. So, as a way to wean myself out of what I expected to be doing for my career 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.”

Ian Kelly: “What kind of training did you get before you went out there?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well they all expected you to speak Russian obviously, so they interviewed us. They also interviewed us on current events, our ability to field random questions about anything, because you had to have that as a basic skill. And then past that point they took us out for about a month and gave us some basic training on agriculture, which mainly benefited those of us who, like me, who didn’t have any agricultural background. We were taught about berry production and swine herding, just all kinds of random things. We went out to the Midwest and toured a farm. I recall that the agricultural exhibit was based on a family farm that was the feature as you came into the exhibit. It featured black and white photos from their life on the farm. We went out and met that family and toured their farm, as well as well as other pieces of the agricultural production mechanism in the United States at that time. So we went to visit seed plants, agriculture machinery facilities, and all kinds of stuff.”

Ian Kelly: “And so were there various stands in the exhibit, and did you specialize in one of them?”

Mary Chaffin: “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 fairing 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 fairing 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 fairing 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.”

Ian Kelly: “Calico?”

Mary Chaffin: “Yes, it was calico fabric.”

Ian Kelly: “Oh calico fabric.”

Mary Chaffin: “And it was just like, why do you have your pigs in fitochka, why are they flowered? And so it was like, well it’s just a joke. And they’d think well this is just not funny, you think we think pigs look like them, and we’re like, no, of course not. But it was quite offensive to people. People really got on our case about that.”

Ian Kelly: “So what other kinds of questions did you get, aside from offended questions about the calico?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well, we had experts come in, as I’m sure, other people have told you. 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, so they would just have general questions. In fact, I brought our weird question list, have you heard about that?”

Ian Kelly: “No, I haven’t.”

Mary Chaffin: “Oh, you haven’t? Well for every city we were in we made a list of the weird questions we got - totally off the wall questions. They would ask, ‘Do any Americans immigrate to the U.S.S.R.?’ ‘Do they permit capitalism in the USA?’ ‘Do Negroes speak English?’ I mean these questions were just you know…I remember I had somebody come up to me in the morning in Dushanbe of all places and ask me what I thought about Marabel Morgans, author of The Total Woman. I don’t know if you remember it, she was the one who used to recommend that wives dress themselves up in saran wrap and greet their husbands at the door. And this guy came up to me in the morning and said ‘what do you think about Marabel Morgans and The Total Woman,’ and I just about fainted. So you’d get all kinds of completely unexpected, random questions.”

Ian Kelly: “Yeah that would definitely be an unexpected question.”

Mary Chaffin: “Totally random, crazy stuff, and then of course we had to be ready with a lot of statistics. Of course, this would all be in the metric system, so you’d have to know how much a kilogram of ground beef costs, how much living space an average American had in meters, how much a kilowatt of electricity cost. All kinds of questions like that, ‘How do you deal with the medical care?’ They had no idea about systems of medical insurance, or, back in the days when we had more of a comprehensive welfare system, they had no idea about that or how people financed higher education or the difference between public and private education. You had to be prepared to answer those types of questions in addition to the more specialized agricultural questions. And then, if you had somebody that really wanted to know technical things about beekeeping, for example, or the Colorado potato beetle, you’d have a little packet of propuski - little passes for our library - and you’d hand them out and say you know, we have experts who are in our library and you can go and ask them those specific, technical questions that we couldn’t handle. And the guides from time to time had to go and be a translator for the experts who were typically agricultural specialists. One was a cotton expert, somebody else was maybe farm machinery, they had different types of specialties, enagronomy, things like that, and those were always challenging assignments because it required a very specialized vocabulary which, of course, as generalists, we didn’t have, and didn’t really understand what they were talking about in English much less translate it haphazardly into Russian, but we did our best. There was a library and where we could try to piece together answers, and sometimes the experts would have to go back and try to get answers from the states or wherever.”

Ian Kelly: “So people could come back later and get the answers?”

Mary Chaffin: “Yes, I mean the only issue would be you’d have to wait in line sometimes.”

Ian Kelly: “So you’d still have to wait in line?”

Mary Chaffin: “Yes, these lines could be tremendous, but of course we had a lot of repeat customers - visitors to the exhibit - in every city where we were. It was always very, very popular and extremely crowded. In Saliningrad it was less just because the population was smaller and it was a pretty rough place. It was not a friendly place; it was a place where a lot of disfavored nationalities had been exiled by Stalin. So you had Crimean Tartars, Volga Germans, Koreans who had ended up on the wrong side of the border, Weimar’s, Jews, and people who were sort of thrown out there, who were desperately wishing they were someplace else.”

Ian Kelly: “Could you detect a real difference in the questions between the various stops?”

Mary Chaffin: “Oh yeah definitely. I mean Kiev is obviously a European city, as opposed to a place like Dushanbe. Well, in each of these cities, Russian is not the native language. Obviously in Kiev at that time most people spoke Russian pretty well but it was an agricultural exhibit, so you had a lot of rural folks coming in too, and often times it was difficult to really understand what they were saying or trying to ask you because of the accent. If they were Tajik, for example it was sometimes difficult to understand them.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you have a Tajik speaker?”

Mary Chaffin: “No, we didn’t have a Tajik speaker. In Kiev we had a Ukrainian speaker, but we didn’t have any Kazakh or Tajik speakers.”

Ian Kelly: “Were you able to get out and see a little bit of the countryside and travel some?”

Mary Chaffin: “Oh yes, we had one day off a week, and we would usually try to put together some sort of bus ride or shashlik party someplace. We went to Nourek one time; we went to a lot of different sort of sites. I also went back in 1987 because my husband, who was also on the agricultural exhibit in 1978, was brought back for the 1987 exhibit on Informatica zizhna shahsha-a and he turned himself from a Russian sort of person to an IT person and was actually hired as a specialist for the city of Rostov. I went and joined him, and 9 years later it was pretty interesting to compare how it was in ‘78 and then in ‘87. We also took some excursions on that trip to Roshirmash, which is the big farm equipment manufacturing site there in Rostov.”

Ian Kelly: “We’re going to cut here for a second, what did you want to say Debi?”

Deborah Guido: “Be careful of the uh hmms.”

Ian Kelly: “Oh, ok.”

Deborah Guido: “I’m sorry.”

Mary Chaffin: “Am I doing that?”

Ian Kelly: “No, I’m doing it. That cuts into your audio when I’m doing that. Ok (chuckles) I’ve also got a bit of laryngitis going on.”

Deborah Guido: “Oh no, you haven’t done it since the first one and I was curious as to why you were doing it again.”

Ian Kelly: “Who knows? Ok.”

Mary Chaffin: “And I know I talk too fast so I’ll try to …”

Ian Kelly: “No no no, you’re fine; you’re doing great.”

Mary Chaffin: “And it’s The Eternal Husband.

Ian Kelly: “Eternal Husband.”

Mary Chaffin: “Eternal Husband, and I don’t know if anybody’s ever heard of it before. It’s this weird book and it is so strange. I thought who are these people who write these books and have this life that is reflected in this literature that I just could not even conceive of it. It was so bizarre.”

Ian Kelly: “Vechni Muzhe

Mary Chaffin: “Yeah Vechni Muzhe. That was the hook that brought me in, Vechni Muzhe.”

Ian Kelly: “Ok we’ll go back to your return to Rostov. So you say you did see some difference in what did you say, 8 years between the two trips?”

Mary Chaffin: “It was ‘78-‘87, so 9 years.”

Ian Kelly: “Nine years.”

Mary Chaffin:: “Yes, it was very interesting because when you went back there, many things were the same - the appearance of the cars were the same, people were pretty much dressed the same, there was a lot that was very similar, but then when you went back in ‘87 you already had the beginnings of glasnost and perestroika. And so you had things on the TV like a Soviet version of 60 Minutes. I guess in the early days of 60 Minutes when they used to show up at people’s doors and shove the microphone in their face. It was called projector perestroika and they would do that kind of thing and to watch that on Soviet TV it was just kind of stunning you know this was still in the Soviet period. And then of course that would be followed by Vremiya, and you would have that music, doo doo doo da doo doo doo and it was just look oh god here I am back again, but nothing’s changed at all, but it was a very kind of weird mix of so many things being the same and sort of these weird twists of things being quite different.”

Ian Kelly: “So when you went back, you were not actually employed by the exhibit so you had free time?”

Mary Chaffin: “No, I went back for two weeks as a spouse. But it was kind of fun because I got up on the exhibit stand and just did it anyway with one of the guys there with me. It was the same questions, and what was really funny was that you develop these spiels when you’re on the exhibit because the reality that you are dealing with, the people that you are talking to, their frame of reference was so completely different that you couldn’t really launch into an explanation of you know higher education because it’s completely like Mars. So you had to kind of adopt a Reaganist strategy of distilling the concept that you’re trying to communicate into some sort of anecdote that kind of communicated the essence of what you were trying to say. And it was so funny because these same questions would come up and it would be like pa-ching, a little nickel drops and suddenly my spiel from 9 years earlier comes flowing right back out with the same examples, it was quite stunning to witness that in myself and the interaction with the crowds was very, very similar.”

Ian Kelly: “So you came back in the late 70’s and what did you do?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well I was on the exhibit in ‘78 and I came back in ‘87.”

Ian Kelly: “No, I mean you came back to the states after.”

Mary Chaffin: “Oh when I came back to the States, sorry, I always orient myself to the former Soviet Union. Well I came back, and it was late, very late in the year so I ended up applying to law school and getting a law degree and kind of kept the Russia stuff on the back burner for many years and did volunteer work - things with newly arrived émigrés - and had a litigation practice. Nothing connected with Russia. I moved out to Portland Oregon, where they actually started having more of an influx of Russian Jewish émigrés coming in the early 80’s followed by a whole lot of Pentecostals. There’s actually a fairly sizeable Russian speaking community there now, but there really wasn’t back in those days and there really wasn’t any trade to speak of, so it was pretty much on the back burner. Then this opportunity came up when my husband went back to Rostov. That was in the late 80’s actually, and we were sitting on the living room floor reading the Oregonian, the local newspaper, and there it was - a little bitty article saying USIA restarts exhibit program, because it had been cut off after our exhibit, because I guess it was 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and that completely ended the program; there was a total rift in it. So my husband said, well my goodness, and it turned out that he knew Kathy Guroff, was heading up the program.”

Ian Kelly: “I know Kathy yeah.”

Mary Chaffin: “And Greg Guroff had been his professor, my husband’s professor at Dugrenel. He had already retrained himself as an IT person, so he was a perfect person to be a specialist because he spoke Russian and he didn’t even need to have a translator in the library for that exhibit. And then I couldn’t of course resist so I came over for 2 weeks as part of it in Rostov.”

Ian Kelly: “What sort of an impact do you think the exhibit program had?”

Mary Chaffin: “I think it really had a pervasive impact and one of the things that was interesting about going to the 50th reunion at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow last summer was the chance to gain an historical perspective on the exhibits. There were people ranging back not to 1957, but from the kitchen exhibit that they had there at the first U.S. exhibit. You really got a sense of the fact that it was such a long-standing program. 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 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 endlessly because often times what would happen is you would just finish giving a big long answer, somebody in that group would move off and you’d get a new group moving in and they’d ask you the same question all over again, so they were like pretend you never heard that question and just start over from scratch and take it from there.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you have the opportunity to visit Soviets in their homes?”

Mary Chaffin: “Oh yes we had many opportunities to and we did that a lot. And actually, it got kind of tiring because when you went to peoples’ homes it was almost like being at work because they’d ask you the same types of questions that you had all day, and there was only so much of it you could take, because it’s a very exhausting job to be up there and answering questions in Russian for 5 hours a day. Then you come back and you’re pretty wiped out, so you had to rationalize that, but we did, all of us had those experiences where we went out. The other thing that was distinct about our exhibit and I don’t know if you heard, but we had a lot of trouble; ours was a very troubled exhibit, and we had a lot of security problems. It was during a very low point in relations between the US and the Soviet Union. There were 3 Russians who were given Persona Non Grata status who were attached to the UN right about the same time that our exhibit was going over, and we were all targets as a tit-for-tat type thing. This was also at the beginning of some of the growth of American business ties with the Soviet Union, and there were people from Singer, and people from International Harvester who were put under a lot of pressure. There was a guy dragged out of his car on the streets in Moscow at a stoplight. He was an executive at International Harvester and it was very shocking. And we were in these very remote places where nobody would have heard if something had happened to one of us. Nobody would have heard at the US embassy for probably 36 hours. To get a phone call, you had to order a long distance phone call a day in advance; you couldn’t just do it. So, it was a very tense, tense time. We had a lot of people come out from embassy security, and we had a person given PNG status, actually two people were PNG’d from our exhibit, and we were all instructed that we had to go in pairs when we met with Soviets outside the exhibit, and some of us did, some of us didn’t.”

Ian Kelly: “The two who were declared Persona Non Grata, was that in reciprocity for something that happened in the US?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well one of them, the Ukrainian speaker, was hired only for the Kiev section of the exhibit, and he was basically PNG’d because he was great and he spoke Ukrainian. He was just fabulous and I think the Soviets were really nervous about the fact that he was so popular and he spoke Ukrainian fluently and he totally dispelled so many misunderstandings and misimpressions that the Soviets had created that they PNG’d him, but he was going to be leaving anyway so it was just a gesture. I thought the other guy truly was a problem. Of all the Americans, I thought he was a little off and he was very inflammatory and I know my husband had to follow him. We had like a rotation and then he had to follow him onto the stand, and he would have to spend the first 15, 20 minutes cooling everybody down after they’d been so broiled up and inflamed by him. So he was PNG’d and frankly I’m not surprised by that. But we had a lot of issues; we had some of our people yanked out by the US government for violating the one person…”

Ian Kelly: “Being a little too loose?’

Mary Chaffin: “Being a little too loose, yes. We had a lot of pressure on us and when we were in Saliningrad we were followed constantly. I mean we would sit in our windows and somebody would leave the hotel where we were and we could see the people coming after them. And sometimes we would just kind of wait for them to catch up because we wanted to make sure they were going get their reports in so we would let them have their reports and say whatever we’re just going to the store to get milk or something, nothing exciting. We were the biggest thing to hit the KGB office there. We fulfilled, over-fulfilled their five-year plans pereveel fo neele, see ploneyh.”

Ian Kelly: “Now you now work for one of the biggest NGO assistance providers, Mercy Corps, I wonder if you could tell us how you got involved with that and what you do?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well, I’m the general council and my first day on the job I went to Istanbul. I went from there to Central Asia, where we have a number of programs. We have a number of very successful micro-finance programs and general assistance. We’ve gotten a lot of support from USAID as well as USDA and other funders. But we’ve been there for quite some time and when I first started, we had some legal issues in Central Asia, which came in very handy for me to parachute out there and help to deal with some of those. 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 as well. 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. It was helpful when I was applying for the job at Mercy Corps, that and the fact that I’d done a fair amount of volunteer work for ABA Sealy. Are you familiar with that program?”

Ian Kelly: “I sure am.”

Mary Chaffin: “Yeah I did probably 12-15 of the legal assessments over the years and I went over first to Moscow, and then Kaliningrad province and gave lectures on financing transactions, letters of credit, documentary drafts - basically international trade types of things and described how it’s done in the international banking world, because at that point I was a banking lawyer for a bank in the United States. And then I went back to Minsk in 1997 I think it was, and gave some lectures on real estate law in the United States. So I did a fair amount of work with them, so having a background both with USIA and ABA Sealy was what probably allowed me to get the job at Mercy Corps and then develop it into the general counsel job that it is now.”

Ian Kelly: “Well good, well thank you very much. Is there anything you want to add at the end?”

Mary Chaffin: “Well 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.”

Ian Kelly: “Good, thank you."


Mary Chaffin joined Mercy Corps in 2003, where she is now General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Risk Manager. Prior to that, she was the Managing Director – Fiduciary Oversight and the Regional Trust Manager (2002-2003) and was in-house counsel (1988-1999), rising to Senior Corporate Counsel at U.S. Bancorp. Ms Chaffin was also in private practice for nine years, employed as an associate attorney at the firm that is now Davis Wright Tremaine (1982-1988), and as a solo practitioner (1999-2001). At U.S. Bancorp, Ms. Chaffin handled a wide variety of legal and management issues, ranging from syndicated loan transactions to compliance, commercial, and correspondent banking services. She also served on the Management Committee of U.S. Bancorp’s largest subsidiary bank.

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.

MercyCorps works amid disasters, conflicts, chronic poverty and instability to unleash the potential of people who can win against nearly impossible odds. Since1979, 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.