The following is the text of a talk given by Yale Richmond at the Aleksanteri Institute of Helsinki University in October 2009. The Aleksanteri Institute (in Finnish: Aleksanteri-instituutti, "Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies)," particularly in the social sciences and humanities. The Institute actively promotes cooperation and interaction between the academic world, public administration, business life and civil society, both in Finland and abroad.. Founded in 1996, the Institute currently employs scholars and administrative staff. The subject of the 2009 conference was The Cold War.
There are many theories of why Soviet communism collapsed and the Cold War ended. Here are a few of them to consider:
Ronald Reagan and his "evil empire" speech; Chemistry between Reagan and Gorbachev; Pope John Paul and his visit to Poland; US military buildup--we outspent the Soviets; Threat of Star Wars; Foreign radio broadcasts; Mismanagement of the Soviet Union; Reform movement within the Soviet Communist Party. There are a few grains of truth in some of those explanations, and more than a few in others, but I will provide here many grains of another explanation--that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism were consequences of Soviet contacts and cultural exchanges with the West, and with the United States in particular, over the years that followed the death of Stalin in 1953.
When cultural exchange with the Soviets is mentioned, most people think of Soviet dancers, symphony orchestras, ice shows, and circuses that came to the West and filled our halls with admiring spectators. But cultural exchange consisted of much more--exhibitions, motion pictures, and most important, exchanges of people.
The Iron Curtain was almost impenetrable. In the Soviet Union information about the West was closely controlled. In those years, there was no free press or internet. Foreign travel for Russians was very limited, and few foreign visitors came to the Soviet Union. Most of Soviet territory was closed to travel by foreigners, except for a few large cities. As a consequence, most Russians thought they were better off than people in the capitalist West.
However, from 1958 to 1988, more than 50,000 Soviet citizens came to the United States under the U.S.-Soviet Cultural Agreement, and tens of thousands more came to Western Europe. They came as scholars and students, scientists and engineers, writers and journalists, government leaders, musicians, and athletes. They were all cleared by the KGB for foreign travel, but nevertheless they came, they saw, they were conquered, and the Soviet Union would never again be the same. Those exchanges prepared the way for Gorbachev's glasnost, perestroika, and the end of the Cold War. And although I write here about U.S. exchanges with the Soviet Union, much of what I say here also applies to the exchanges other countries had with the Soviet Union.
The United States had five objectives, as stated in a National Security Council staff study, NSC 5607 of June 29, 1956:
1) broaden and deepen relations with the Soviet Union by expanding contacts between people and institutions of the two countries;
2) involve the Soviets in joint activities and develop habits of cooperation with the United States;
3) end Soviet isolation and inward orientation by giving it a broader view of the world and itself;
4) improve U.S. understanding of the Soviet Union through access to its institutions and people;
5) obtain the benefits of long-range cooperation in culture, education, science and technology.
Soviet objectives have not been openly stated but after many years of observing how they conducted their exchanges, they can be presumed to have included the following:
1) obtain access to U.S. science and technology;
2) learn more about the United States;
3) support the view that the Soviet Union was the equal of the United States by engaging Americans in bilateral activities;
4) promote a view of the Soviet Union as a peaceful power seeking cooperation with the United States;
5) demonstrate achievements of the Soviet people;
6) give vent to the pent-up demand of Soviet scholars, scientists, performing artists, athletes, and intellectuals for foreign travel and contacts;
7) earn foreign currency through performances abroad of Soviet artists and athletes whose fees and honoraria went, not to the participating individuals, but to the Soviet state.
The three watchwords of the exchanges were equality, reciprocity, and mutual benefit. The two countries were to treat each other as equals, approximate reciprocity was to be sought in the various exchanges, and benefits to the two countries should be comparable.
For most Russians an exchange with the West meant not only amazement at the West's consumer goods but a redefinition of what is "normal," a word with special meaning for Russians who long to live in a normal society. And for those who came to the United States their visits were an early form of shock therapy. When the first Soviet students to arrive were shown a U.S. supermarket, they thought it was a Potemkin Village created to impress them. Even Boris Yeltsin, when he visited the United States in 1989...