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While Khrushchev And Nixon Debated, A Dialogue Was Born

  • George Feifer

Nikita Khrushchev tasted Pepsi for the first time at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, under Richard Nixon's scrutiny.

Nikita Khrushchev tasted Pepsi for the first time at the American National Exhibition in Moscow, under Richard Nixon's scrutiny.

Despite my conviction that the American National Exhibition in Moscow could not possibly be ready in time, the gates opened as scheduled and in rushed a mighty crowd of Russians hungry for contact with the outside world.

The date was July 24th, 1959. The scene would soon become known to the world for the celebrated “kitchen debate” between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The opening day’s impatient visitors were the first of some 3.2 million who would surge in during the next six weeks, including a large number who dispensed with tickets by going over and under fences.

The exhibition’s purported goal was to improve Soviet-American relations. Its real purpose was to demonstrate the superiority of the American way of life to the Soviet. That accounted for its display of not only books and art but also consumer goods certain to dazzle people much deprived of them: the latest American boats, tractors, fashions, television sets, hi-fi equipment, and other new and experimental home appliances, some installed in the model house where the Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate took place.

Being there to watch the debate required me to ignore the pleas of my grandparents, whose proudest accomplishment had been fleeing Russia for America. They begged me not to go back. Although they’d actually lived in eastern Poland, it was under Russian rule, which had kept them poor and frightened. So why on earth would their grandson want to visit that merciless land? “Please, Georgie, don’t do it.”

But nothing short of hot war would have stopped me, a budding student of Soviet politics, from seeing something of Russia, which was otherwise still all but closed. My hope that it might be a great adventure would turn out to be true, although I wish I’d been less naive.

Illusions Overturned

My naiveté grew largely from a youth in the 1950s protected from want but not from America’s obsessive fear of communism. When we guides arrived in Moscow, we began learning first hand that their Cold War commentary about us was more heavily propagandistic than ours about the USSR.

However, that may have made our images more, not less, effective. In any case, the steady American focus on the abhorrent aspects of Soviet rule now had a kind of reverse effect on me as I discovered that there was more to Soviet life, aspects of which were noticeably less miserable than what I’d expected to find under the country’s relentless totalitarianism.

Yes, virtually all members of the daily throngs that pushed into the exhibition grounds were visibly poor. At the time, I didn’t know what a huge treat our hyped samples of American life were for them, for the young, especially the free cups of Pepsi-Cola.

Although I also didn’t suspect that they, being mostly Muscovites, were distinctly richer and better educated than the great majority of Russians, their clothes seemed more suited to a village than to a superpower’s capital. It was hard to believe that dusty Moscow itself, smelling of cheap tobacco, the low-grade asphalt of the roads that blistered in the sun, and body odor not disguised by so-called cologne, was more than a deeply provincial city.

Many of their faces, whether or not protected from the sun by hats fashioned of that day’s “Pravda,” seemed prematurely aged by too many potatoes or too few of them. Many visitors were also ignorant, but maybe not more so than their American counterparts.

But on the whole, they didn’t behave like the enslaved people described in a favorite American mantra of the time. Despite their isolation by censorship, the jamming of Western radio stations, and their inability to travel abroad, some had very impressive knowledge, thanks to avid reading. It didn’t take me long to realize I was learning at least as much as I was “teaching.”

I was assigned to the Ford exhibition of new cars, the likes of which Soviet citizens couldn’t dream of owning. I passed my microphone to anyone in the surrounding crowd who wanted to ask about anything. What was the cost of a kilogram of bread? Why was my sister named Leila? What were my favorite books, and why did I know Mark Twain less well than they did?

Skilled propagandists stationed among the listeners regularly interrupted to repeat questions intended to discredit me. Why did America tolerate shameful poverty and lynch Negroes? Why did it surround the Soviet Union with military bases?

Despite that, I felt much sympathy, even affection, for the people I met. Shielded by the bodies packed around them, the bravest of them told the propagandists to shut up. “We know what you say,” they’d protest. “We’re here to learn what Americans think.”

Silently joining the applause of some of the crowd, I was even more moved when the women, including many whose loved ones had been killed during World War II, talked about a need for peace. Of the men who survived that war, half seemed to be missing limbs. I too wanted peace with those good people, some of whom embraced me with warm wishes when I put away my microphone and walked toward the room where the guides rested.

Complex Realities

Now, half a century later, I’m convinced that the individuality of many of the exhibition’s visitors helped keep me naive well after 1959. My discovery that Russians were human beings rather than the Communist Enemy lined up in ranks was of course primitive. If not for the stock American portrayal of them as lathe-loving robots zealously producing weapons to use against us evil capitalists, that finding of mine might not have diverted me from less simplistic realities about Russia.

If I were now asked to cite some fundamental ones, I’d start by asserting that the country was never really European, let alone democratic or decently governed, and won’t become so for at least another century.

But that wouldn’t be my last word about the fine summer of 1959, because its air was light with not only a promise of change but also substantial beginnings. They grew from Khrushchev’s thaw that was relaxing restrictions and raising hopes for the humane socialism craved by the educated people who were most eager to talk to the exhibition’s guides.

Together with Khrushchev’s ultimate vision of communism -- more butter, or some butter, on Russians’ bread -- his attachment to “peaceful coexistence” melted the Cold War’s ice more than at any time since it had formed.

The following year, Khrushchev met in Paris with President Dwight Eisenhower, whom he’d praised for his wisdom and love of peace in ways unprecedented for a Soviet leader. The collapse of their summit thanks to the downing of Gary Powers’ spy plane two weeks earlier bitterly disappointed Khrushchev because his plans to increase the production of butter rested on reducing the production of guns.

Despite the U-2 fiasco, however, Khrushchev significantly reduced the size of the Soviet armed forces, prompting scorn from his military-industrial complex.

No one can know what progress toward real detente might have been made if the CIA had heeded Eisenhower’s instinct not to make another U-2 overflight of the USSR on the eve of the Paris summit. Nor does anyone know how much sense lies in the old hypothesis that efforts by the two sides’ hardliners to sabotage the doves’ efforts to temper the great East-West conflict made those hardliners best friends in that respect.

But if that hypothesis ever did make good sense, it was then, during the substantial relaxation under Khrushchev and Eisenhower, both of whom knew war well and profoundly hated it. That was what had made possible the American Exhibition, with its subversive advertisements for capitalism in the heart of the Soviet capital, in the first place. Surely it also fed the good feelings that poured from its eager visitors to us lucky guides.

George Feifer, who was 25 years old when he served as a guide, subsequently wrote many books about Russia, including “Moscow Farewell,” “Justice In Moscow,” “Our Motherland,” and “The Girl From Petrovka.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Nixon And Khrushchev In Moscow

A U.S. television newsreel from 1959 shows Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev touring the American National Exhibition in Moscow, along with excerpts of their lively exchange. Play