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

Sarah Carey
Chairman of the Board for the Eurasia Foundation and Partner, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, LLP
Exhibit Guide, 1959
Washington, DC
October 1, 2008

Biography | Video Excerpt

Sarah Carey served as an exhibit guide for "American Home Exhibit" in 1959. Following is an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.

Ian Kelly: “Mrs. Carey, tell us first how you got interested in Russia.”

Sarah Carey: “Sputnik. And I think because of Sputnik, my mother kept writing me letters: ‘Somebody has to know how to speak Russian.’ And I got moved to sign up for a major in college called “History and Literature,” and you got to pick either a comparative period, a period in time with three countries, or one country, and I chose Russia. And that’s the beginning.

Ian Kelly: “And how did you find out about the exhibits?”

Sarah Carey: “It was known. I was at Harvard, and in the Russian language classes the word got out that there was this exhibit and they were looking for guides. This was Sokolniki. And I had had like one year of Russian and I could barely speak, but I went down to Washington and interviewed, and I didn’t make it as a guide. But some of the corporations were looking for young people to help out with their exhibits and I got hired by Pepsi Cola.”

Ian Kelly: “And this was in 1959?”

Sarah Carey: “Right.”

Ian Kelly: “So when did you arrive in Moscow?”

Sarah Carey: “Well, I’d never been overseas, and my visa came in late and I ended up traveling alone to Russia, which was a huge adventure. I was a junior in college. I came in a little late after the exhibit had actually opened, so it must have been mid-July by the time I got there, and we were there until September.”

Ian Kelly: “And this was the famous exhibit, the famous “Kitchen Debate?”

Sarah Carey: “Right.”

Ian Kelly: “When did that take place?”

Sarah Carey: “I can’t remember. Vice President Nixon came through, it must have been near the opening, it would have been in the early part of the exhibit, and he and Khrushchev had this debate. And we all kind of hovered around watching. But that was probably not as extraordinary as the events of the summer. The exhibit was so packed, and with such a huge interest, and people - Russians - were trading in those znachki, you know, the big sign that we…”

Ian Kelly: “The badges?”

Sarah Carey: “Yeah, the badges. And people just dying to get information and to see manifestations of U.S. culture. And it was a blatantly materialistic exhibit with all sorts of glitzy, glitzy stuff, but it was pretty impressive. And the U.S. managed to put together, thanks to Army training, some minority guides, which was new for the Soviets to see minorities up there on the stage.”

Ian Kelly: “You say the exhibit was very popular. How long a wait was it to get into the exhibit?”

Sarah Carey: “I don’t remember. There were waits for all the exhibits, even the less impressive ones. There was not that much entertainment, except for classic ballet and opera and folk presentations and kind of stilted movies, so this was like big entertainment. And it was under the bilateral cultural agreement between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and I think it was one of the more successful aspects of the exchange because it was so contemporary and so open and a lot of give and take, not just presentation.”

Ian Kelly: “And did the exhibit just go to Moscow, or did it go anywhere else?”

Sarah Carey: “That one was just Moscow. It was enormous, and it took a lot to set it up.”

Ian Kelly: “And so you went back home in September and continued your studies?”

Sarah Carey: “Went back to college, yeah, finished up. And then I was working in New York and the first of the mini-exhibits was being put together. And that was a traveling exhibit that became the model for the subsequent exhibits and it went to Moscow, Kiev, and T’bilisi. And the theme was Plastics, which was difficult to work with. There, we had stuff we were showing that was kind of unintelligible. So there was a packaging section and all these Soviets would come in with their string bags and look at this extraordinary plastic wrap around a toothbrush or around a toy or whatever. That was a tough one to sell. And then they had a big home section and some of it was very good, you know various kinds of plastic furniture, kids’ clothes, jackets that were durable because they were made out of some synthetic fiber. But they had these Kroll, I don’t know if you know Kroll, the designer of very modern style pieces of furniture, like a big acrylic chair with a big white fur pillow in the middle that was just too futuristic. That was not appreciated. But they didn’t care about the exhibit. They mostly wanted to ask about life in the USA: What does you father do? What does your mother do? How much does he make? What does your education cost? How much will you make when you get a job? Do you have a car?”

Ian Kelly: “I think that as the exhibits developed, the USIA realized that that was a real value for us too, the contact.”

Sarah Carey: “The exhibit was just a vehicle. I mean, the exhibit was a platform and you’ve got these bright young kids who had broad liberal arts educations who were allowed to talk freely, and the questions ranged from atheism to space to material wealth, that kind of thing right to travel, et cetera.”

Ian Kelly: “So in this second exhibit you were a guide, your Russian had gotten to the point that you could be a guide?”

Sarah Carey: “Right.”

Ian Kelly: “And what year was that?”

Sarah Carey: “‘61”

Ian Kelly: “And how long were you there?”

Sarah Carey: “I think that was about five months, all told.”

Ian Kelly: “You went to three cities?”

Sarah Carey: “Yeah. They had to dismantle the exhibit and move it on to the next city.”

Ian Kelly: “Did you concentrate on one particular part of the exhibit or did they move you around? Were you a specialist in some formal process?”

Sarah Carey: “I think I was mostly in the home/consumer goods area. There was an arts section, but I never did that one. Packaging, I refused. I don’t remember…there was a fiberboard boat, there was some recreational stuff. So it was probably more the home, but, as I said, generally, the Soviets didn’t want to talk that much about the exhibit except they thought the art was crazy, you know, it was too extreme. And the packaging didn’t make sense, but the rest, it was all about people.”

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

Sarah Carey: “We had a ton of contact. I mean, we went all over whatever the city was that we were in. And we met - you know, we were students, or just post students - and we met mostly young people, as you’d expect. And we were invited to homes; we were invited to parties. We went, although there were then some travel restrictions, but I don’t think we paid a lot of attention to them. You know, we’d go out on somebody’s motorcycle to the beach or the dacha.”

Ian Kelly: “Beyond the forty kilometer limit…”

Sarah Carey: “Right. Yeah, we were really impressed again, one of the real pluses was that we were not restricted; we were not given a lot of burdens about ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that.’ We did have a guy who I guess was USIA or State who was part of the exhibit who kind of debriefed the guides, getting information on what we had learned, what we saw, et cetera.”

Ian Kelly: “What were you most surprised by? What really didn’t meet your expectations, something that first trip?”

Sarah Carey: “You mean my surprise about the Soviet Union? I guess, you know, because of my major, in reading all the party propaganda and the current history about the repressiveness of the system, et cetera, I had the usual surprise that I think everybody got in those days: that these people are a whole lot like us. They’re open. They’re generous. They talk pretty freely. I expected a lot of poverty; I expected propaganda and certain amounts of repression, but the human side was a really positive surprise. And also that of the young people we met, which was like 90% of who we met. It was the kids of the party officials who were the most disaffected because they had access to books, and maybe TV, and they had traveled some with their parents, so those kids were just so cynical about the system and what was going on. That was one surprise. The other was that that was still a time when you could see the impact of the war - the guys, the double amputees, on platforms, wheeled platforms. The preponderance of women over men, in certain age groups it was very visible and it was a shock to see that.”

Ian Kelly: “You were only there about, what, fourteen years after the war?”

Sarah Carey: “Yeah.”

Ian Kelly: “I was there in the 70’s, and even then I saw the effects of the war. There were hardly any old men.”

Sarah Carey: “Yeah. Very dramatic. The other thing was that you realize that they don’t take their propaganda seriously. Again, talking about the young, they read between the lines; they blew it off. They figured out scams, like how to avoid going to work in the virgin lands, or that kind of thing. It’s not as you would expect when you come from the outside.”

Ian Kelly: “How informed were they about life in the U.S.?”

Sarah Carey: “They knew the U.S. was the standard to which they aspired, I mean, in terms of living standards. Human contact was most persuasive, because they took a lot of what we handed out as propaganda because that’s what governments do, they paint a rosier picture than is real. But they were really you know, we were the model. And it was a bipolar world; there weren’t any other countries that mattered, not in terms of nuclear power, but in terms of ‘mattering.’ And even though, you know, they had those great language schools, so a lot of the kids were pretty fluent in French or Spanish or German, the interest was English and the U.S.”

Ian Kelly: “What kind of differences - moving to the second exhibit you say you went to T’bilisi as well - did you see differences in the kind of questions you got?”

Sarah Carey: “T’bilisi was rougher.”

Ian Kelly: “In what sense?”

Sarah Carey: “The people we met with would be told not to meet with us again. There would be more evident tails you know, guys following you especially if you went to a home. So, it was much less open, at that time.”

Ian Kelly: “That’s interesting, because when I was there in ’76, we went to T’bilisi and we had sort of the opposite impression.”

Sarah Carey: “It was warm and open.”

Ian Kelly: “Yeah, open and warm.”

Sarah Carey: “They are, I mean, they are very warm. I don’t know. I remember people were hassled in lines, sometimes waiting to get in. The general impression was that the authorities were not all together enthused about this exercise.”

Ian Kelly: “In the exhibit, did you have materials you could hand out, brochures? You mentioned the znachki, the badges, but were there brochures?”

Sarah Carey: “I don’t remember a lot.”

Ian Kelly: “I think in the later years there were quite a few handouts.”

Sarah Carey: “Actually, I remember in the ’59 exhibit, having a real argument with one of the senior people. There was a wonderful library there and, you know, the Soviets all wanted the books. And librarians like to retain books, you know, and we were trying to persuade her - ‘hey, the idea is to get these people to have access to material they don’t otherwise get.’ But, no, we didn’t have a lot. There was stuff on the exhibit, but you know, they didn’t care about the exhibit really.”

Ian Kelly: “So, after ’61, did you pursue your study of Russian still? Or did you just go onto…”

Sarah Carey: “I came to Washington because it was the Kennedy era and Washington was really exciting. I worked for USIA for a couple of years.”

Ian Kelly: “What did you do with USIA?”

Sarah Carey: “I was in the Russian branch, doing a disc jockey show.”

Ian Kelly: “VOA, you mean?”

Sarah Carey: “Yeah, and then I was in a general area that supported the exhibits. And then I switched to State (INR) and then I went to law school. I mean, basically, when Khrushchev got deposed and the press knew it first and INR was fairly clueless, I decided I wanted to do something else and went to law school.”

Ian Kelly: “If you don’t mind, you’ve got a fantastic perspective, going from 1959 you worked for the Eurasia Foundation and I wonder if you could just talk a bit about the way you see the value of contacts between the U.S. and Russia, and the importance of them.”

Sarah Carey: “I am sure you can guess my answer: I think they are hugely important. I have three daughters; they didn’t get into Russia, but they’ve all gone and worked right after college somewhere else in the world. And I think it’s very important for Americans. And I think if you look at the number of Foreign Service stars that have come out of this bizarre experience that we all had. And then even, I’ve run into guys who are in business, this one guy who is a lawyer, but you know, it just grabbed us. So, from our side, I think it was extremely important to get people who weren’t, you know, programmed. We didn’t have a world vision that was dictated by U.S. policy. We were kids who were fascinated by the culture. And I think that for all of us that was really important. It certainly you know, my whole career was shaped by it. And on the Russian side, it was the openness and the interchange, you know, not with an official, not with somebody who’s trying to accomplish something, but just a free conversation. And, you know, since I’ve worked a lot with the Russians that have come over here, some of the high school exchanges, like the Bradley Exchange or whatever it’s called, and the Muskie Fellows. I mean, our law office in Moscow basically only hires Russian lawyers who have a Muskie, or its equivalent in Europe. And those kids, those young people, really understand biculturalism; they understand international standards. So, I don’t think we can put enough emphasis on it. And I think if it’s done in a way, I mean, you couldn’t have exhibits today, nobody would come, but if it’s done in a way where the people being exchanged are doing something, they have a constructive assignment; studying does that, but maybe an internship or experience working in a Russian company or bank and the other way around. Those kinds of exchanges, I think, have a real lasting impact.”

Ian Kelly: “If I could ask you just a little about the Eurasia Foundation, I know that it started off basically as an American-managed NGO and now it seems to have been, really, it’s gone native in Russia. How is it working out now that it is managed completely by Russian citizens?”

Sarah Carey: “Well, we were created about 15 years ago under the Freedom Support Act, here in Washington, and we opened offices in each of the former Soviet countries. And we gave those offices an increasing amount of decision-making authority regarding grants and programs and that kind of thing. And we decided, I guess it was four years ago now, that we wanted to indigenize. The legacy we wanted to leave was to have foundations with a similar mission that would carry on into the future. And in Russian, it’s called the Foundation for New Eurasia, and it’s like four years old. It weathered some really rough bumps because of the discomfort of the Russian government with foreign-funded NGOs. And also, we receive federal and commercial money. The U.S. Government is primarily it for them now, and the European governments, some Russian local government, some corporations, et cetera. But the U.S. chunk is still the biggest. But in relation to a grant, a small grant, from the British aid program, the gentleman who signed off on that grant in the British Embassy was the guy who was picking up material you know, spying on the Russians, getting tapes out of a rock! So we almost disappeared after that, but now it’s really thriving. We have two people from our board on that board of directors. We exercise a fair amount of oversight through the grant mechanism because USAID gives us funding that we grant to organizations under a contract. So, our goal is to keep the mission, ensure financial accountability, and program rigor, but as the money from USAID fades out, that will disappear. But we’ve got some really talented people working there, and, I think, peace has been reached, at least for now, with the Russian government, and they do great work. I mean, they’re really impressive in education and in independent media. A big part is working with local government, particularly at the mayoral level, where they have elections, in economic development, in strengthening the government’s mechanism. But even in press it’s been really, what we hear is how bad the state-controlled TV is, but they’re working with local printing presses, and you know, with internet news, and with radio, and, you know, the picture’s much more positive.”

Ian Kelly: “Do you want to say anything else?”

Sarah Carey: “I’ve got to find my quote; do I have a half-second?”

Ian Kelly: “Sure, I forgot about the letter.”

Sarah Carey: “In 1961, let me see if, this is so useful it’s amazing.”

Deborah Guido: “Tell us what you’re reading.”

Sarah Carey: “It’s a letter that I wrote to the woman at USIA who had coordinated the guides.”

Deborah Guido: “Could you start again and tell Ian?”

Ian Kelly: “Mrs. Carey, you brought a letter with you that you wrote in 1959 or in 1961?”

Sarah Carey: “‘61.”

Ian Kelly: “Tell us about it.”

Sarah Carey: “Okay, I just want to do a short quote, or a couple of quotes, that kind of convey what the experience was. ‘I’d like to thank, with great enthusiasm, whoever made it possible for me to come on this trip. This has, without exception, been the most fascinating summer of my life; at times extremely depressing, at other times almost ecstatically joyful, but always stimulating. It has been a wonderful opportunity for seeing the Soviet system in action, and for thinking out more definitively the advantages of our system, and its best selling points.’ And then various comments on what we saw and how the young people looked at the world. And the interesting thing, taking Voice of America into account, is a comment on the Jazz program: ‘Willis Conover would be considered one of the big names of the decade by the majority of Soviet youth. His programs have an enormous following. Jazz has become a focal point of the desires of the younger generation of Soviets for experimentation and contact with the modern culture of the West.’ ‘Today’s Soviet youth is strikingly apolitical;’ I’ve touched on that before. But I found this after Debbie called me, which really means I need to clean my study out, but...”

Ian Kelly: “Yeah, I was going to say, I was there in 1976 and I kept hearing about Willis Conover and I thought, ‘who is Willis Conover?’”

Sarah Carey: “And you know when I worked at VOA, Willis was kind of a fragile-looking guy and, you know, not that impressive to me and over there, he was like bigger than bigger than the Secretary of State, whoever that was.”

Ian Kelly: “Well thank you very much.”

Sarah Carey: “Okay!”


Ms. Carey is a partner in the law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP, where she chairs the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Practice Group. Her practice has involved investment and privatization projects in emerging markets, including the People's Republic of China, South and Central America, and South Africa. She currently focuses on international transactions in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Ms. Carey has participated in U.S. government delegations to the CIS, and in bilateral conferences on legal and trade policy issues. President Clinton appointed her to serve on the first board of directors of the Russian-American Enterprise Fund, and the U.S. Secretary of Defense appointed her to the board of the Defense Enterprise Fund. Ms. Carey also chairs the Board of the Eurasia Foundation, created by the U.S. government to support economic and democratic reform throughout the former Soviet Union. In 1959 and 1961, she traveled to the Soviet Union with USIA exhibits. She received her bachelor's degree from Harvard University and her law degree from Georgetown University.