The New York Times says American visitors to the Soviet National Exhibition in New York City are expressing very strong views of Russian society and economics in the “guest books” located throughout the exhibition. The generally negative, and often angry, comments indicated that cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union did not necessarily bring the two nations closer together in understanding.
The Soviet National Exhibition in New York City was the outgrowth of a new emphasis on cultural exchanges by both the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s. In January 1958, the two nations signed an agreement designed to increase cultural contact and specifically cited the “usefulness of exhibits as an effective means of developing mutual understanding.” At the end of 1958, both nations agreed to host national exhibitions from the other nation. The Soviet National Exhibition came to New York City in June 1959, and ran until late July. The focal point of the exhibition was Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that had gone into orbit around the earth in 1957. There were also exhibits on Soviet industry and agriculture, as well as musical and theatrical performances. Unknown to most of the U.S. public, until the Times article of July 5, 1959, was that the Soviets had placed comment books around the exhibition hall. Americans, never shy in expressing their opinions, gladly obliged by filling the books up as quickly as they were placed. To a large degree, the comments reflected the existing Cold War animosities. A typical remark was, “I think the main perspective of this Russian exhibit is to show the average American citizen how lucky he is to be an American.” Another sarcastically noted, “I missed seeing your typical Russian home (dump) and your labor camps (slave camps).” And after a performance of Russian folk music, one “critic” declared, “Russian music is for the birds. If they’ll take it.” Other comments were considered too “coarse” to be reprinted.
A few weeks after the Times article appeared, the American National Exhibition opened in Moscow. Like the Russians, the Americans placed comment books around the displays. And, as in New York City, Russians in Moscow used the opportunity to vent about American imperialism, decadence, and lack of morality. In the following years, more and more cultural exchanges took place. Most U.S. officials came to believe that such exchanges increased mutual understanding and decreased the mutual suspicion upon which the Cold War rested. In 1959, however, the early attempts at familiarity only bred contempt.