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Prof Emeritus Norman Saul chronicles forgotten educational exchange with Soviets

Monday, October 05, 2015

LAWRENCE — American and Russian leaders have clashed frequently in past years on several issues, including the civil war in Syria and Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

The developments and chilling of diplomatic ties have brought back media narratives of the Cold War. A University of Kansas researcher said that while Russian and American disagreements at the highest levels often receive the most attention, it's important to chronicle many instances of cooperation between the two sides, such as art, education, music and religion.

Norman Saul, professor emeritus of history, recently co-edited the book "New Perspectives on Russian-American Relations" with William Benton Whisenhunt. The book includes 18 essays that detail how the two nations have interacted in ways beyond the Cold War and other often adversarial means.

"The main idea is to keep the study of Russian-American relations alive during a period of strained relations and to demonstrate what can be done and should be done in the future," Saul said.

The book includes an article Saul wrote, "The Program that Shattered the Iron Curtain: The Lacy-Zarubin (Eisenhower-Khrushchev) Agreement of January 1958," on the cultural exchange program based on research in the Eisenhower Presidential Library and his personal experience.

Even though it was a tense time, just months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev claimed missile superiority over the United States late in 1957, U.S. special ambassador William Lacy and Georgy Zarubin, the outgoing Soviet ambassador to the United States, were able to negotiate an exchange of graduate students.

Pursuing cultural relations came on the heels of a very successful tours of a Harlem company performing the Gershwin-composed opera "Porgy and Bess" in Russia and the Bolshoi Ballet's first visit to America.

"Eisenhower long believed in and pushed for people-to-people exchanges, and Khrushchev was solidifying his program of peaceful coexistence and hoping to pave the way for a visit to the U.S. that took place in 1959," Saul said.

Initially, the Americans wanted 500 students to exchange from each side, while the Soviets preferred only one or two. Both the leaders of the Soviet KBG and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, were concerned with security issues, so the negotiators initially settled on each side sending 20 graduate students.

Saul said the Soviet students were generally much older than the American travelers because the U.S. agreed to the Soviet and European definition of anyone who had not yet finished a formal doctorate, or "kandidat," which usually takes up to 20 years to complete after the publication of a major book in the field. Other countries could not be left out, so many others developed similar exchanges.

The exchange allowed for more civilians based in educational institutions to interact with graduate students from the other side in the Cold War instead of only thinking of the Soviets or Americans as enemies, he said.

As a Columbia University graduate student in 1959, Saul attended a reception for the first contingent of Soviet exchanges. He met Alexander Yakovlev, who later became a key adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev and is credited as the intellectual force behind the reform programs of glasnost and perestroika.

In 1960, Saul participated in the third year of the exchange.

"I was impressed by the impact of the American and other Western and Eastern European as well as Asian and Middle Eastern students," he said. "For example, most American men had beards — considered a relic of the past in Russia. Soon, Soviet students began growing beards."

He also bought many Russian books at secondhand bookstores by exchanging American classics by Hemingway and Faulkner.

The exchange expanded over coming decades to include summer language programs, a separate senior exchange and separate invitations by American universities to Soviet scholars. KU had a unique Soviet writer-in-residence program for several years that brought a well-known Soviet to the United State for a month.

In addition to exposing people from both sides to a variety of styles, books, clothes and outlooks, the exchange included popular films, exhibitions and performances such as jazz musician Duke Ellington and the American Ballet Theatre. Saul was able to see the film "Oklahoma" dubbed in Russian except for the musical parts were left in English.

The exchange helped expand the minds of Americans and Soviets toward each other and allowed them to look for commonalities.

"This program is often overlooked in the history of the Cold War," Saul said.

The book examines various other topics of Russian-American relations that don't receive as much attention, including the influence of the Federalist Papers in Russia.

Whisenhunt is a professor of history at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and he will speak at KU in November as part of programming by KU's Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

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