Through The Eyes Of A Citizen Diplomat

Perceptions of a seasoned American traveler to the Soviet Union

One of the articles in USSR/USA (IC#15)
Originally published in Winter 1987 on page 38
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Joel Schatz works with the Ark Communications Institute to promote contact between the U.S. and the Soviet Union via computers and slow scan video, and as part of this citizen diplomacy, he has visited the U.S.S.R. on numerous occasions. This article was excerpted, with permission, from Citizen Summitry (see "Resources" in this issue).

Stepping onto Soviet soil for the first time, I was shocked by the diversity of everything. I somehow expected a monolithic visual impression. Color, especially, was fascinating. Not that I would have expected there to be fewer frequencies of the spectrum in the Soviet Union than anywhere else, but most of the pictures I had seen of that country were black and white photographs, especially from World War II. So I was surprised by something as obvious as blue sky, red and purple flowers, and colorful clothing, as well as by the beautiful pastel buildings.

I had heard from many people that Moscow was a dreary, oppressive place, where people walked slowly and wore large, dark garments as they moved ponderously through the totalitarian state. In fact, I found people who looked no different to me than in any city I’d ever visited–folks holding hands, businessmen with briefcases eating ice cream cones, kids in strollers looking wide-eyed at their environment, a man and a dog walking through the park, little girls dancing in the street, people sitting on park benches in animated conversation– people.

Photographing these people was a particular joy for me because I had been warned by the U.S. State Department, in literature sent to me when I first applied for my visa, that there were serious restrictions on the use of cameras. It was in my nature to test those restrictions, to find out how far I could go. I was fully prepared to relinquish my film at any point, so I did take pictures of everything I felt like taking pictures of. I was very conspicuous taking pictures. Carrying several cameras with telephoto lenses, tape recorders, lots of western gear, we were clearly not Russian citizens on vacation. No one ever asked me not to take pictures of anything and consequently, I took about 2500 photographs on several trips there.

On my return to the United States, I shared these slides with hundreds and hundreds of people in lectures and found that nothing I said about the Soviet Union was as meaningful as the impressions people received from looking with their own eyes at these photographs. People would remark, "Gee, I didn’t realize that there were women in stylish clothing there. I had no idea that there was make-up. I didn’t realize that the cars were modern. I didn’t realize there were beautiful fountains."

In a way almost impossible to describe, I have found Russians to be more like Americans in basic ways than people from any other country in which I’ve ever traveled. In both the U.S. and the Soviet Union the national psyche seems to have mostly to do with the scale and robustness of the human spirit. The vision there is as grand in scale as our own. We are the superpowers. The people seem to me so much like Americans in their psychology, their humor, their emotional climate, their dreams, their flair for experimentation, the depth of their theoretical abilities. Their playfulness with reality models seems to occur at a level higher than in any other culture I’ve ever experienced before. Yet we have managed to push our cultures to the point where we either have to exchange the things that are of greatest value that we’ve developed or we annihilate each other.

There’s great strength in the Russian people, great patience and a sense that life, however strange by American values and American standards, is steadily improving. Life is getting better compared to where they’ve been, and it’s reflected in their faces. I’ve also seen a tremendous change since Gorbachev has ascended to power. There’s more lightness in people, more playfulness, more sense of motion, and a relief that some of the boldest dreams may yet be realized. Prominent among these dreams is opening up to the West. In my view the most revolutionary tool for opening up East-West communication is the computer. Until very recently the Soviets have resisted computers; now they are making every effort to catch up. The computer represents a potential for decentralizing information and control. That’s exactly what it’s done in the West. Gorbachev has ordered 50,000 computers within the next year for high schools. There’s talk in Moscow of building a teleport for facilitating all forms of telecommunication between the Soviet Union and the rest of the planet.

This is all good news for everyone, for the Russians, for the Americans, and for the rest of the world population. It means inevitable application of high technology communication for increased diversity and volume of information exchange. The Soviet Union appears to be opening up. This isn’t to say that they will abandon the Marxist-Leninist philosophy. It only means that there is coming to be tacit approval for experimenting with and utilizing every new channel of communication to link people in both political camps. I think this is the beginning of a revolutionary period of development on the planet.

The way to normalize relations between the two cultures is not to send old men to Geneva or any other part of the world to sign pieces of paper claiming that they will trust each other into the future. The only way to normalize relations is for Americans and Russians to develop normal relations with each other.

I really believe it’s a numbers game at this point. The more people from both cultures who meet each other, the greater the inevitable influence there will be on respective governments that are now operating almost detached from the human compassion that exists in both cultures. I really do believe that the only possibility for averting a catastrophe in a nuclear weapons race is for Americans and Russians by the tens of thousands to form normal working relationships with each other, in every sphere of human activity. It’s possible to do that. The Soviet government is not prohibiting these kinds of people-to-people relationships. I’m talking about mega-patterns of trade, of high technology, of new forms of exchange and collaboration — in fields such as cancer research and earthquake prediction — exchanges of top musicians, direct communication of school children in both cultures via computer, and shortly by television satellite. All of these possibilities are now unfolding, with the promise of introducing large numbers of people to each other.

Both cultures have problems. We have not solved all of the riddles of life any more than the Russians have. We all have a long way to go. Americans are always interested in reminding the rest of the planet that we’re somehow more skilled at everything. We would do well to pay attention to a few things here and there that might be working better in some other cultures. I’m not saying we should ignore the things that are wrong in those cultures, but to focus solely on human rights violations or military policy to the exclusion of so many things that are right and that are working is to pay grave disrespect to tens of millions of people in that culture and in other parts of the world who are slowly attempting to improve the conditions of life on the planet. It’s happening everywhere in spite of all the political problems.

In the Soviet Union I found a real sense of community and warmth amongst strangers, even in the streets, that I do not see often enough in our own culture. You cannot dictate that kind of feeling and empathy. I think it’s a direct function of the severity of the calamity in the Russian experience. The only way they have survived is by taking care of each other. They are a very proud and determined people who are working through some horrible experiences in their past and trying to somehow deal with the ultimate question of how to survive in a world which has now come to the brink of catastrophe.

They’re very concerned about the possibility for accidental war, even more so than deliberate war. This is not what they have struggled for all these centuries, to come to the end of the script. They’ve buried too many millions dead in war and improved their life millimeter by millimeter from the devastation caused by Hitler. In talking with an American, they are haunted by the questions, "Do you think we’re going to kill each other? Do you think there’s any hope? Is it ever possible to persuade the military-industrial complex to make profits selling things that aren’t so destructive?"

There’s almost a transcendent quality to spending time with Russians on their own soil, as there is when we’ve entertained Russians here in the U.S. You look at each other and you almost don’t have to say anything. You know how absurd the situation is and you know that on a one-to-one basis everything is OK. At a distance, Russians and Americans distrust and fear each other, but up close they tend to love each other. It’s no different from the human process everywhere, where strangers operate at a distance either with no knowledge or with misinformation.

The future of this planet is interactive communication, not sitting back in isolation assuming that you know the way things are somewhere else. To me, isolation is a very limited, non-exuberant, and uncreative way to move into the future. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. On a recent trip, I went into the countryside with Russians on a picnic. I could have been in Colorado or in Brazil or any place else on the planet — with good friends, drinking fine wine and eating great food, watching birds, exchanging pleasantries and feeling at home on the planet.

Then you look aside and say,"but there are missiles everywhere." What do you do about that? The missiles are a direct function of lack of contact, of distrust, of isolation. The only solution to this problem is rapid increases in communication among the people of the planet. We’ve been stymied because the channels of communication linking these two populations are practically jammed with politicians, journalists, and bureaucrats. And a few tourists. The point is, if we widen those channels to include more volume and more diversity, then a whole new pattern of understanding and rearrangement will necessarily occur.

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