Sunday, September 4, 2011

Agriculture USA, 1978-1979

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.5
Moscow 1977-1979

Agriculture USA, 1978-1979.
Throughout the period of the Cold War, the U.S. Information Agency engaged in an extremely active program of cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union, perhaps the most successful of which were the exhibits. The first exhibit took place in 1957, although the most famous occurred two years later when the United States organized an exhibit in Sokolniki Park in Moscow. This exhibit was the site of the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” over the relative merits of their two societies, and set the pattern for permitting political discussions at the exhibits from then on.

Every year or so, a new group of U.S. exhibit guides would tour the Soviet Union, and a similar Soviet group would tour the United States. The Soviet exhibits did not attract much attention in the U.S., but the American exhibits in the Soviet Union were extremely popular, and enabled USIA to promote in a very effective manner the best aspects of U.S. society. Average Soviet citizens were often very suspicious of the United States, which, after all, was the “main enemy” (главный противник), but nearly everyone shared an intense curiosity about what life in the United States was really like.

You didn’t have to be a guide to notice this burning desire to learn about the United States. I remember one time when an acquaintance of mine, a relatively worldly young Soviet woman, asked to borrow a book that she noticed I had been reading. It was Michael Medved’s “What Really Happened to the Class of ’65,” a sort of “Beverly Hills 90210” for the time and a sociological study of LA youth rolled into one. I lent it to her, not expecting to get it back. I did, however, a month later. The book had been read so many times it had nearly been destroyed in the process. After that, my unofficial lending library was open for business, and most of my books, over time, suffered a similar fate.

It was this intense curiosity about America that proved to be an irresistible magnet for information-starved Soviets. The exhibits themselves were about relatively noncontroversial subjects such as architecture, photography, plastics or agriculture, but, as nearly everyone realized, they presented an ideal opportunity to address directly some of the misconceptions about America engendered by decades of Soviet propaganda.

Typically, although this was not always the case, an exhibit would tour five or six Soviet cities, ending up in Sokolniki Park in Moscow. Exhibit guides, in addition to being responsible for speaking to the crowds of Russians trooping through the exhibit and answering their questions as best they could, were also in charge of setting up and tearing down the exhibit, and putting up the large domelike circus tent that housed the exhibit itself. The guides were all young and personable, and were recruited for their interest in Russia and their facility in the Russian language. Some of them eventually joined the Foreign Service and moved to its highest levels. Others, like Jill Dougherty, became members of the international press corps and brought their unique experiences as former guides to their jobs as reporters. Many others continued on to the academic world, specializing in Soviet affairs. All in all, they were a most talented bunch, and while in most cases they sympathized strongly with the average Soviet citizen and liked working in the Soviet Union, they also developed a thick skin and a ready reply to even the most ridiculous and outrageous questions presented to them by their attentive Soviet audiences.

The Exhibits.
During my tour in Moscow, there were two USIA exhibits: “Photography USA” (Photo) and “Agriculture USA” (Ag USA). Photo was just ending up when I arrived in Moscow, and in fact, Ambassador Toon was in Ufa on the day of my arrival opening the next to last stop of the exhibit. I visited Photo when it came to Moscow, and met one of the exhibit guides there, Kaara Ettesvold, an extremely talented linguist who later joined the Foreign Service and served with me during many tours in the Soviet Union and after. Listening to Kaara, and her excellent Russian, it struck me that a few months working on an exhibit would be an ideal way to learn the language.

After Photo, the next exhibit was Ag USA, which started up in mid-1978 and ended in early 1979. The exhibit was divided into two halves, with a different team of guides on each, with the first half touring Kiev, Tselinograd and Dushanbe, and the second half touring Kishinev, Moscow and Rostov-na-Donu. All things considered, it was probably one of the most successful USIA exhibits that ever toured the Soviet Union. I wasn’t able to see the exhibit in every city it toured, but I did see the guides in action in Dushanbe, Kishinev and Moscow.

The Guides.
I got to know the Ag USA guides quite well for two reasons. First, as Ambassador Toon’s aide, I would sometimes go with him to open the exhibit in each new city. Second, two of my best friends in Moscow, fellow Junior Officers Laura Kennedy and John Feeney, were assigned as exhibit guides as part of their GSO/Political rotation. Laura went on the first half, John on the second. Laura and John both started out with fair Russian language skills, but emerged after their months on the exhibit with truly superlative Russian. This was pretty much the rule for all of the guides I got to know, including Mark Teeter, Jeff Rotering, Susan Lively, Cara Worthington, Robin Seaman, Debbie Henke, Margaret Niles and Darra Goldstein. It seemed that the more experience they gained on the exhibit, the better they got, until within a few weeks their Q&A sessions with curious Soviets were achieving the level of performance art.

John and Laura were the only Foreign Service Officers who worked on Ag USA as exhibit guides, but in the ensuing years quite a few members of the Ag USA team wound up joining the Foreign Service, proving that the exhibit was useful not just as a cultural exchange program, but as a recruiting tool for the State Department, which was in desperate need of Soviet specialists with good Russian. Both John and Laura had very successful careers in the Foreign Service after their Moscow tour, and Laura later served as our Ambassador to Turkmenistan 2001-2003.

In this way, many former members of Ag USA became my lifelong colleagues and friends. For example, Ag USA exhibit guide Desiree Baker married fellow exhibit guide Jeff Millikan, and came into the Foreign Service a few years later, preceding me in Minsk as DCM, and in Vladivostok as Consul General. Another exhibit guide, the perennially absent-minded and roly-poly John Stepanchuk, was perhaps the most talented linguist of the bunch. John spoke at least seven languages. He joined the Foreign Service and preceded me in Kiev and followed me by a few years as Consul General in Yekaterinburg. Another good friend, Tom Robertson, was Deputy Director of the exhibit. He eventually joined the Foreign Service, ending up as Ambassador to Slovenia. We served together through many tours, and remain the best of friends today. The same can be said of Allan Mustard, whom I first met on the exhibit, and who distinguished himself from his other colleagues by actually starting out knowing something about agriculture. After the exhibit, Allan joined the Foreign Agricultural Service and served several tours in Moscow, overlapping with me in Moscow and Leningrad on numerous occasions. Over the years our friendship flourished, not the least because I got him addicted to the first-person shooter “Doom,” among other things. Allan also rose to Ambassadorial rank, serving as Ambassador to Turkmenistan (2014- ). Many other guides whom I knew less well, including Debbie Henke and Jeff Rotering, also had successful careers in the Foreign Service.

I also renewed my acquaintance with Bill and Pam Kiehl, whom I had first met in 1975 when Bill was working as Deputy PAO in Zagreb. Bill was attached to Ag USA as the Protocol Officer, i.e., the person who dealt most directly with the exhibit’s Soviet minders, and Pam worked as the exhibit librarian. After their stint on Ag USA, they returned to Moscow, where Bill was the Assistant Press Attaché. I kept running into Bill and Pam throughout our careers, and we remain good friends today. Since 2009, Bill has been the editor of the online publication American Diplomacy.

The most successful by far of the Ag USA group was John Beyrle, who went on to an extraordinary Foreign Service career. Fresh out of college, he was even then one of the most impressive people I have ever met. Smart, savvy, and strikingly handsome, with red hair, blue eyes, and a manner that reminded one eerily of Hawkeye Pierce, John quickly developed a reputation as one of the exhibit’s most colorful and capable personalities. John, who acted as GSO on the exhibit, married Ag USA exhibit guide Jocelyn Greene, and entered the Foreign Service in 1983. In time, he rose to its top ranks, serving as DCM in Moscow and Ambassador in Sofia. In July of 2008, John succeeded Bill Burns as our Ambassador in Moscow, thus achieving what might be considered the summit of ambition for any former Soviet hand. John’s wife, Jocelyn, joined USIA about the same time as he joined the State Department and served along with him over a career spanning three decades. We all served together on many occasions, both in Moscow and Washington, and became good friends. I also got to know John’s father, Joe Beyrle, who visited Moscow in 1979 and was something of a hero to the Soviets. Joe joined the 101st Airborne in World War II, and was captured by the Germans on D-Day. After several failed escape attempts, he finally managed to make his way to the East, where he wound up fighting on the Eastern Front in a Soviet tank unit. His was a unique story that has been told and retold to successive generations of Americans and Russians.  

Dissonant Notes.
Although the overall exhibit experience was an extremely positive one for Americans and Soviets alike, there was no escaping the fact that the activities of the exhibit itself were taking place in the depths of the Cold War, at a time when détente was withering at the edges. The Soviet Union was in the final stages of Brezhnevian stagnation, and there was still a good deal of paranoia on both sides. One result of that paranoia was that while Ag USA was an American exhibit, it had Soviet minders in each city, and a Soviet Shadow Director, Ilya Ivanovich Nosov, who travelled with the exhibit, and was the counterpart to the U.S. Exhibit Director, Tom Craig. Nosov, who represented the Soviet Chamber of Commerce, was presumed to be KGB, and was there to ensure that the exhibit guides did not engage in any seditious activity. Fortunately, he did not have much to do, since the exhibit was not exactly a hotbed of anti-Soviet activists, but it does say something about the difficulties faced by the guides in threading the ideological needle. In order to be effective, they had to try to show the best of America while at the same time avoiding direct criticism of the Soviet system.

Most of the guides heartily disliked Nosov, who was a typical KGB apparatchik, and they were always hatching plots, mostly practical jokes, in order to discredit him. For example, after the exhibit had ended its run in Rostov, and the guides were back in Moscow wrapping up final administrative activities before returning home, John Beyrle called Allan on the phone while they were both staying in the Hotel Metropol. In hushed tones, John reported, “Allan, you won't believe this, but Nosov wants to emigrate!” “John, that's...incredible,” Allan replied. “Are you sure?” “Yeah,” John affirmed. “He's down at the embassy right now with Bill Kiehl, filling out the application. Nosov wants to emigrate. Носов хочет эмигрировать. But first, he wants to kill Brezhnev. Он хочет убить Брежнева. He says he has - many - guns. У него - много - оружия.” Apparently, the KGB either knew it was a joke or wasn’t listening, because there seemed to be no immediate effect on Nosov’s KGB career. Upon returning to the U.S., Allan was interviewed by Voice of America about the exhibit, and, seized with an inspiration, thanked Ilya Ivanovich over the radio for his deep friendship with America in hopes it would get him in trouble. Once again, however, no dice. Nosov seemed to be bulletproof.

Despite the fact that most guides were very good at what they did, every now and again, someone would slip up and there were ideological fireworks.  Most guides shared a love of Soviet culture and the Russian language, and knew how to temper their message to achieve the most positive effect.  There were one or two on every exhibit, however, who used their time on the stump to attack the Soviet Union and Communist ideology directly, rather than to take the more subtle approach of patiently answering questions with truthful information about the United States.  This would sometimes result in a Soviet decision to expel the guide in question, but fortunately, this was a relatively rare occurrence.  

Kiev was the exhibit’s first stop, and it proved to be a particularly troublesome one, at least as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned.  The exhibit attracted more people during its 24 days in Kiev than at any other time during its tour of the Soviet Union, and the authorities found the rather muffled manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism at the exhibit to be profoundly alarming.  The hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who attended the exhibit were attracted in particular to Walter Lupan, the exhibit’s only Ukrainian-speaking guide.  Walter was scheduled to return to the U.S. after Kiev, but that did not stop the Soviets from expelling him anyway, even though he had done nothing to merit such a drastic step. 

Another exhibit guide, Tony Masciocchi, was a more clear-cut case, at least as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned.  While in Kiev, Tony aggressively promoted Ukrainian nationalist ideas, even mentioning Hitler on the exhibit stand in not particularly unfavorable terms, and doing other things that set the authorities on edge.  I wasn’t surprised when I was told that he, too, had been expelled. 

The next stop on the exhibit was Tselinograd. Decades later, it would become Astana, the steel and glass capital of the newly oil-rich state of Kazakhstan, but at the time it was simply an underdeveloped provincial ethnic Russian town, a living testament to the failure of Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands project, and therefore an ideal target for an exhibit on American agriculture. I didn’t get to Tselinograd, fortunately, but Laura Kennedy did, and life there was truly a struggle. There was so little food available, that both she and her good friend Robin Seaman lost a considerable amount of weight. When they returned to Moscow a couple of months later, they both looked like runway models, but they achieved that look at quite a price.


Robin Seaman, John Feeney, Laura Kennedy
Another stop on the first half of the exhibit itinerary was Dushanbe, where I had gone the previous winter on a PPO trip. John Feeney and I took the opportunity to go down to the Tajik capital to visit Laura and see how she and the exhibit were doing. Dushanbe was boiling in late summer, and needless to say, the Hotel Tajikistan, where we and the guides stayed, was not blessed with air conditioning. The temperature under the tent was even hotter, and at the apex of the dome, it reached 120 degrees on most days. This didn’t stop the Tajiks and Russians from trooping through the exhibit, however, which they did in droves. Each guide would do their spiel while standing in front of a part of the exhibit, be it a tractor or a harvester, or some other piece of farm equipment, or in one case a weird-looking pink and purple stuffed cow. Afterwards, they would answer questions from the visitors -- questions which usually had nothing at all to do with agriculture. The guides performed magnificently. Up until then, I had not really considered the possibilities of exhibit programs, but on this trip at least, my eyes were opened a little.

The last stop before the exhibit exit was a short film depicting a New England A&P supermarket, with pictures of shelves full of fruits, vegetables and meat. It was a pretty typical supermarket for its time, but for the Soviets, it was a jaw-dropping sight. They had never seen anything even remotely like it. A few tried to bluster their way through, and a couple of hardy old veterans swaggered by the exhibit while one remarked to the other with a snort “Конец обмана!” (The deception is over!). But I could see that most of the onlookers were not convinced that the exhibit was a fraud. Most, in fact, clearly saw that it wasn’t.

I was also able to visit the exhibit at its next stop in Kishinev, then the capital of the Moldavian SSR. The visit was more in line with my official staff aide functions, as I accompanied Ambassador Toon to the exhibit opening. We flew down together in January 1979, taking a dilapidated Aeroflot Tu-134 to what was then one of the Soviet Union’s more provincial capitals. Moldavia was a favorite spot to exile dissidents, and I remember that in later years Ida Nudel and others were sent to some of the local garden spots like Bendery. Moldavia also had a certain relevance for Agriculture USA, as it was renowned throughout the Soviet Union for its wine. Frankly, I found Moldavian wine to be only slightly more than one step up from Ripple, but, other than Georgian wine, it was about the best the Soviets could do at the time.

The trip was an eye-opener for me, as it was the first time I was the member of an official delegation, and not part of the group on the ground that was supporting the visit. The reverse perspective was quite informative, and I realized for the first time just how easy we Foreign Service Officers were making it for official travelers. When Ambassador Toon and I arrived, we were met and greeted at the airport by a smiling Ray Benson. Welcome Folders were pressed into our hands containing the schedule and other relevant information, and we were whisked to our hotel, where the room keys were already in the door and everything was ready for us. The main events, such as they were, were the official opening, at which Toon spoke, and a lunch with local Soviet officials, held in a Party restaurant (столовая) tucked away in a back room of one of Kishinev’s many anonymous white concrete block buildings. The highlight of the visit for me was meeting Senator Mac Mathias (R-Maryland), who was the designated VIP to help open the Kishinev leg of the exhibit, and who stayed at Spaso before and after the opening.

As for Kishinev itself, I was not impressed. Even in the Soviet era, it was one of the poorest parts of the European Soviet Union. There seemed to be nothing to do or to buy there, and the only local attraction seemed to be the exhibit itself. Later on, I was asked many times to take an assignment there, either as Ambassador to Moldova, or as the OSCE representative. My memories of Kishinev in 1979 always stopped me short of accepting.

The next to last stop for the exhibit was Moscow, Sokolniki Park, the site of the very first USIA exhibit. By this time the guides were all extremely proficient in Russian, and had a line of patter for nearly any question that Soviet visitors threw at them. I attended the opening and closing ceremonies, but didn’t visit the guides much in Moscow. For once, the shoe was on the other foot, as they trooped over to Spaso periodically, where we would have a good time partying and playing the latest hits, which ranged from the Bee Gees to Night Flight to Moscow (“Rah, Rah, Rasputin, Lover of the Russian Queen”). We also watched DAO-circuit movies like “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” the latter of which became a sort of cultural icon for the guides, for reasons that escape me. We also went out together to Moscow’s restaurants, which, while extremely dreary and of low quality, were still light years ahead of their competitors in the provinces. I remember one time in particular, when I was driving a bunch of guides back from Red Square and we were stopped by a militia man, who was going to cite us for breaking the traffic rules while circling around the Moscow Hotel. This was not hard to do, as the traffic signs and markers there were mutually contradictory, and it was impossible to obey them all. Naturally, we pretended to be stupid Americans who did not understand Russian, and were able to get out of a citation simply because the mili-man got frustrated with our inability to answer even the simplest questions. The fact that we were in a car with diplomatic plates helped too. We all had a good laugh about it later.

I didn’t visit the last stop in Rostov, but, according to Allan Mustard, the exhibit’s appearance had an unintended positive effect on the local food situation. Soviet officials were very conscious of the possible morale effects the exhibit might have on ordinary citizens, and were willing to take extraordinary actions to compensate. Accordingly, as soon the exhibit had arrived, vast quantities of sausage and other meat suddenly appeared in local stores. After three weeks, however, the well ran dry and there was no meat to be had anywhere. We eventually learned that the panicky local authorities, in a typical case of “показуха” (window dressing) had put out all the meat they had to show the guides that “у нас все есть.” The population had responded by cleaning out the stores until all reserves were exhausted. It’s a typical Russian story.

The Exhibit Experience.
A few weeks later, as spring turned to summer, the exhibit was over, and the guides departed. I did not know whether I would see any of them again, but as it turned out, I kept up contact with quite a few of them over the years. Among other things, the exhibit guide system proved to be a remarkable vehicle for recruiting new Foreign Service officers, and several exhibit guides from Ag USA joined and eventually rose to the top levels of the Service. Many of them are my good friends today.

Watching the guides in action, it occurred to me that Agriculture USA and the other exhibits probably did more for U.S.-Soviet relations than a whole flotilla of political officers. I was too young and inexperienced to realize fully just how helpful exchange programs were, but in retrospect, the utility of the exhibits was clear. It is all the more shameful, therefore, that in the 21st Century USIA’s exchanges budget has been cut to the bone, and the exhibits themselves are no more. What money there is seems to go for White Elephant embassies like our monstrosity in Baghdad, or straight to the military to fight our proliferating number of imperial wars. After the fall of the Soviet Union, amid the triumphalism of the time, it might seem that we no longer need exchange programs. This is not correct.  With the rise of Putin and the Siloviki, and the erasure of many of the gains that have been made over the past few years in media freedom, the time is ripe for a reappraisal of our exchanges policies. It seems to me that we need cultural exchanges, and exhibits, now more than ever.

The year 2007 saw the 50th anniversary of American Exhibits in the USSR. Ceremonies were held in Moscow, and the State Department did interviews of a number of exhibit guides, including many from Ag USA. The reminiscences of these guides only make more poignant the fact that the exhibits are no more, and point up the need for a new exchanges policy.


  1. was an exhibit guide years after these exhibits, but i remember many of the same emotions and had similar experiences. it was a highly evocative job, though i later left the field. many, many memories.

  2. was one of the constant visitors... talked to Walter Lupan and his wife... at one ivening a KGB officer visited our family at the students' hostel at the Lomonosov street...I was already expulsed... my wife remained student and finished the studies at the university.