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Detente's Determined Defenders

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But the organization's US-Soviet exchanges are at one of the most precarious moments in their history. The US-Soviet government agreement under which it operates was not renewed in December. Although projects planned for 1980 are still set to go, their future is uncertain. And since IREX gets some of its funds from the government, it could face cutbacks.

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"We seem to be recipients of the backlash against the Afghanistan invasion, but for the wrong reasons," Mr. Matuszewski says. "There is a tendency to lash out across the board at the components of detente and to see the exchanges as simply one part in that larger political package, rather than as the serious scientific and scholarly contacts they are designed to be."

Russians involved in the exchanges are no less concerned.

For example, Dmitri Urnov, a specialist in American literature with the Gorki Institute of World Literature in Moscow and visiting researcher at Cornell University, has collaborated with American scholars since 1958. He takes great personal pride in taking part in that process. In the light of what the collaboration has produced, he believes it would be catastrophic if political tensions were now to disrupt it.

Taking time out from his research into the life of James Fenimore Cooper at Cornell, he illustrates avidly what he means:

The scene is Tolstoy's old Moscow on an October day in 1979.

A symposium convenes in the Gorki Institute of World Literature. Russian specialists in American literature greet a team of American scholars who specialize in Russian literature. All are eager to exchange ideas on the historical study of national literatures.

The group moves through huge iron doors into the air-cooled library of manuscripts of Maxim Gorki, the famed Russian author. Professor Urnov ushers his American guests to one of his most prized discoveries -- a letter written to Gorki in 1906 by the American scholar William James.

Jame's words seize the American's attention: "Our world is becoming increasingly complex and turbulent. But there are also enlightened minds. We intellectuals have a special responsibility to humanity for finding ways to bring peoples together."

They were some of the last words to flow from James's pen.

"My American colleagues showed great satisfaction and an awareness that this was a moment of great significance," Mr. Urnov recalls. "We felt we were making history. It was as if that letter were written precisely for all of us in that room."

Since then the Russians and Americans are collaborating on a volume showing the relations between great Soviet and American literary figures, combining collections of still unpublished correspondence between writers like Ivan Turgenev and Henry James, men Professor Urnov calls "the cornerstone of modern fiction."

American scholars at Cornell, Yale, Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton have also assisted Mr. Urnov in producing a new volume of Gorki correspondence, some of which had found its way to their universities.

Exchange planners expect that months will pass before it is known just how much of the US-Soviet exchange process is salvaged or lost. The fate of some exchanges clearly hinges on political developments, especially those sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences.

The NAS has facilitated exchanges of about 1,000 American and Soviet scientists since 1959. But of the 60 scientists to have gone on exchange programs this year, only 13 are involved so far -- 8 Americans now in the USSR and 5 Soviets in the US.High-level scientific exchanges have been cut off altogether.

The Kremlin's internal exiling of Dr. Sakharov has had a further dampening effect. Dr. Philip Handler, president of the NAS, recently told a congressional human-rights panel that he finds it "difficult to imagine that scientific exchanges will continue in the spirit we had created heretofore."