Boston — As an American, Joseph Birman feels his full share of outrage over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As a physics professor at City College of New York, he is outraged over the exiling of physicist Andrei Sakharov by Soviet authorities to a remote town in the Soviet Union.
But he is part of a select network of American and Soviet citizens who still refuse to concede that the sun is setting on detente. Twenty years of contacts with Russians convince him that there is too much to lose.
It is not just the conferences with Soviet scientists that he has come to relish, for professional reasons. Not just the harvests from his continuing correspondence with dozens of Russian scientists. What he prizes most are the times when dialogue has unexpectedly revealed mutual interests between Americans and Russians that appear to transcend national differences.
Look, he says, at last year's binational physics symposium in Moscow.
"Twenty of us American physicists were to meet with Soviet physicists at a beautiful old building called the Scientists' House. It looked like something out of the film 'War and Peace.'"
As the meeting convened in a high-ceilinged hall with old-fashioned windows and drapes, Dr. Herman Cummins, a colleague of Professor Birman', stood to report on his testing of the theory of another prominent Russian physicist, Academician Vitali Ginsburg. His words instantly sparked excited, heated, but friendly debate that ultimately brought the academician himself to his feet.
"I'll never forget," Mr. Birman says, "how the tall, distinguished, bushy-eyebrowed Professor Ginsburg thrust his finger toward Cummins, a man of rather short stature, and said in great mock anger, 'Professor Cummins, you have knocked down my theory.' The whole crowd broke out in a tremendous laugh together, because this was the culmination of work on both sides. It was all said in great good spirits."
Advances in theory and experimentation were the eventual result.
"You see the vital usefulness of these discussions," says a fervent Mr. Birman. "Professor Ginsburg has become a close friend, both scientifically and personally.I respect him. I think most physicists do. We are able to criticize each other openly. It confirms our common understanding that science has no national boundaries. You see why I am deeply concerned about the threat of political tensions to the benefits of detente."
Dr. Birman is not alone in this view. In fact, hundreds of American and Soviet scholars, artists, scientists, religionists, and artists have quietly been visiting one another's countries on nongovernmental exchange programs for more than two decades. Even now dozens of Soviet scientists and scholars are in the United States, dozens of Americans in the USSR. Colleges like Middlebury in Vermont and Ohio State University continue to send students each semester to study in the Soviet Union. And religionists in both countries have set up channels of communications -- overt and covert.
The result has been hundreds of professional and personal ties that these private citizens are not about to relegate to the casualty list of political tensions.
Planners of the exchanges now worry that their programs may be held hostage to the political climate. Many warn of the danger of cutting ties to score political points.
"These are crucial channels of communication at the best of times, and therefore even more important in the worst of times," argues Daniel Matuszewski of the International Research and Exchange Board in New York (IREX), which has arranged exchanges between Soviets and Americans since 1968.
Some exchanges that depend on government money have already been affected. The Carter administration has halted high-level scientific exchanges scheduled under the technology agreements of detente. Cultural exchanges have also been put on a back burner, if not in a deep freeze.
The State Department, for example, decided "not to facilitate" a showing at the National Gallery of Art this summer of a collection from Leningrad's famed Hermitage Museum. The show will not go on.
Soviet authorities have also been restricting exchanges. For example, they recently denied a visa to Marshall Goldman, a Harvard economist, to travel to Moscow for a United Nations Association scholars' exchange. And they have canceled contracts for artists like the famed Glinka Chorus and Krasnoyarsk dancers, conductor Yuri Temirkanov, and violinists Igor Oistrakh and Vladimir Spivakov, all of whom were scheduled to perform in the United States this year.
"More than just a financial loss, it's a tremendous loss in human and artistic terms," New York impresario Sam Niefeld laments. "American audiences have loved the Russian artists. And the influence of Soviet art on Western music is enormous. We have to hold up a mirror to Soviet art to learn more about ourselves, not to mention the musical revelations that come when someone like Vladimir Spivakov plays with our own artists."
Nevertheless, those involved in nongovernmental exchange programs stress that whole networks of communication and exchange remain very much alive.
Over the last 10 years IREX has arranged exchange programs for some 3,000 American and Soviet natural scientists and social scientists. About 100 Soviets are now in the US and 100 Americans in the USSR on IREX joint research projects in many fields.
Anthropologists from both countries, for example, are doing joint research into American and Soviet communities known for the extremely long life spans of their inhabitants. Areas involved include Kansas and Kentucky in the US and the north Caucasus region of Soviet Georgia.
American-Soviet exchanges first emerged in the mid-1950s. But only after the Vietnam war did exchanges blossom, according to Dr. Olin Robison, a Soviet affairs specialist and president of Middlebury College. Through the '50s Americans had been extremely suspicious that the Soviets were not only expansionistic, but also irrational and likely to press the button of nuclear war.
But Vietnam changed all that, he says. "During those years our attention was turned away from cold war, and it gradually dawned on Americans that the Russians were not irrational in the push-button sense. That didn't mean they were trustworthy. But it did mean that it was possible for us to have decreased anxiety about nuclear war, and a sense that some positive relations might be built."
This change in mood and perceptions made it possible for detente to take root under the leadership of Soviet party chief Leonid Brezhnev and former US President Richard Nixon. SALT I, signed in 1972, was one of the early fruits of this detente process, and helped prepare the groundwork for SALT II, which could be a victim of the current sharp downturn in US-Soviet relationships.
Planners of nongovernmental exchanges have aimed from the outset to keep them free from politics. IREX, for example, bases its exchanges on a strict understanding that they are valuable for their own sake, irrespective of political relations.
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.
"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."
The academy subsequently halted all bilateral symposiums in science policy, physics, and experimental psychology for the next six months, or until there is some change in Dr. Sakharov's situation. But it will not interfere with individual American scientists who want to travel to the Soviet Union on their own.
Ties between religionists in the two countries may be somewhat less affected by intergovernment tensions. Soviet authorities seem to recognize the domestic benefits of allowing members of the Russian Orthodox and Baptist churches to attend international conferences their denominations have held in the West. A delegation of Soviet Baptists, for example, attended a large conference in Brighton, England, last summer.
In addition, a network of unofficial contacts has emerged between churchmen in the West and those Christians and Jews who have had to go underground in the East bloc to practice their religion. These are likely to go on through thick and thin.
Whether detente-related exchanges are restored may also be influenced by heightened concern over criticisms that exchanges benefit Russians more than Americans, especially scientific ones. The charge is partly confirmed by the fact that most Russians sent to the United States are natural scientists, whereas most Americans going the other direction are social scientists.
Nevertheless, planners generally agree that the exchanges are a two-way street. And they are concerned less with unbalanced gains than with the need to keep communication channels open to help minimize disastrous misunderstandings.
"I think in this regard we have gotten as much as the Soviets," says Tobi Gati of the United Nations Association of the USA, which sponsors exchanges between leading American and Soviet citizens.
"I don't deny that there's propaganda peddled by the Soviets," Mrs. Gati says. "But they have very definite views of the world, and we do ourselves a disservice if we don't understand those views."
The NAS, for its part, concedes that the Soviet scientists have indeed gleaned more scientifically from the exchanges. But the academy has strongly supported exchanges as the only way to keep abreast of Soviet science and its cultural effects. Its officials say that Soviet scientists coming to the US are placed in carefully restricted university settings, without access to industrial , military, or government research. And they claim there have been definite scientific benefits for the US in physics, biology, and medicine.
Planners also stress that nongovernmental exchanges provide key platforms by which Soviet policies can be challenged. Often criticisms exchanged privately between colleagues are more effective than formal dialogue between diplomats.
Only time will tell what ultimately survives of nongovernmental US-Soviet contacts. Bilateral exchanges most certainly will not resume soon. But in a few years it may be possible to re-establish many of the ties put in place in the past decade, says Dr. Robison.
"It's crucial that as we signal our anger and disappointment to the Soviets over what they've done, we not do this so comprehensively that we permanently lose the channels of communication we've labored to put in place," he says. "When you think . . . that our two countries control almost all the world's nuclear weapons, and that between this collection of 500 million people there are only a few hundred able to move back and forth, then those channels of communication are extraordinarily important."