Essex, Mass. — KSENIYA Kuleshova sits demurely astride a wall of Yankee granite tucking in her first New England clambake. Her fuchsia-colored T-shirt, which is rapidly becoming flecked with melted butter, proclaims, ``You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.'' When asked by of one her dinner companions if she does indeed have a friend in the Keystone State, 16-year-old Kseniya, who lives in Moscow, laughs and gives a sticky thumbs-up sign. ``I like to be with the people here,'' she says in halting English. ``To help people understand how to [live] together.''
Kseniya, along with nine other Soviet children, is in the United States as part of the Soviet-American musical ``Peace Child'' -- a semiprofessional theatrical production featuring Soviet and American youths now on a 12-city North American tour as part of the United Nations International Year of Peace.
An outgrowth of the ``space bridge,'' the Soviet-American satellite hookup broadcast between Moscow and Minneapolis last summer, the current ``Peace Child'' production, which just returned from a three-week tour in the Soviet Union, represents one of the first cultural exchanges to occur between the two superpowers since last November's exchange agreement was reached at the Geneva summit. Accompanied by the Soviet rock band Stas Namin (which recently organized a benefit concert for victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident), ``Peace Child'' will be performed at a special UN Peace Day celebration in New York today.
``Ours is a project that offers a challenge to children that they can have some effectiveness in the world peace process,'' says David Woollcombe, the British writer and director of the show, whose plot centers on the friendship between an American girl and a Soviet boy who set in motion a successful global peace effort.
Although far less culturally significant than the recent North American tour by the Kirov Ballet or the Moscow performances by pianist Vladimir Horowitz, ``Peace Child'' has gained symbolic significance. It comes at a time of chilled relations between the US and the Soviet Union, largely in the wake of the jailing of American reporter Nicholas Daniloff, who has been charged with spying on the Soviets in Moscow.
Recent ``Peace Child'' performances in Boston were picketed by anti-Soviet demonstrators, while two weeks ago a tear-gas bombing in New York disrupted the tour of the Soviet Moiseyev Dance Company. Meanwhile, the Chautauqua Conference, a cultural and diplomatic exchange sponsored by the Chautauqua Institution and the Eisenhower Institute, to be held in the Soviet Union this week, was almost scrapped until until Mr. Daniloff was released into US custody last Friday.
``It has been our policy all along not to sacrifice cultural exchanges to such political crises as the Daniloff affair,'' says Ambassador Stephen H. Rhinesmith, co-ordinator of the US Information Agency's US-Soviet Exchange Initiative and a Chautauqua delegate.
``The US decided to make [the Daniloff case] a major political issue now,'' says Vladimir Litvinov, an official of the Soviet Union's Ministry of Culture and the official Soviet representative on the ``Peace Child'' tour. ``But these youth and cultural exchanges are separate. They go along with [President Reagan's] original initiative.''
The General Exchanges Agreement signed by US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at last fall's Geneva summit conference has resulted in more than a dozen new educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges between the two superpowers, the first of which were announced last month. Collectively, the exchanges represent the revival of US-Soviet cultural initiatives, nearly all of which were canceled by President Carter in 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
While the first of these exchanges won't occur until 1987, the current ``Peace Child'' tour, which has no official US involvement, is already demonstrating the results of the Geneva agreement.
``This is one of the first times in the history of the Soviet Union and America that children from both countries are living and working together,'' says Mr. Litvinov. ``When you trust your own children to another country, this is something.'' ``Certainly the `Peace Child' tour could not have happened without that [summit] accord,'' adds Mr. Woollcombe.
A former film director with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Woollcombe wrote the original ``Peace Child'' script as part of the UN International Year of Disarmament five years ago. It is based on the European best seller ``The Peace Book,'' by French writer Bernard Benson, and features music and lyrics by the group Stas Namin and David Gordon. ``Peace Child'' debuted in London in 1981 and has been performed nearly 500 times.
``The primary purpose is to get `Peace Child' replicated in schools, churches, and youth groups, where children come together, research their own peace issues, and present their findings,'' says Woollcombe. ``In this tour, one can only hint at that larger purpose.''
Indeed, the current ``Peace Child'' production plays as an ennobled version of the spunky ``Up with People,'' an amateurish blend of sentiment and didacticism that invokes the spirit of everyone from George Santayana to Martin Luther King. Much of its emotional power comes from lyrics such as ``Mr. President, won't you hear our small plea ... and announce to the world this will be a Peace Day,'' plaintively sung by children. The US Information Agency's Mr. Rhinesmith suggests that the production ``smacks of'' Soviet propaganda. Director Woollcombe insists that ``this is a cultural and youth exchange exercise, not a political one.''
The Soviet and American children on the tour, however, could not sound more sincere. ``Our hope is that people who don't know much about each other will become united in their desire for peace and not fear each other,'' says Kseniya.
``When I first heard about `Peace Child' I just thought it was another show,'' says Sara Hardin, a 10-year-old cast member from Santa Barbara, Calif. ``But I started to get into the subject and now I know peace is possible. In Russia, we had standing-room-only every night.''
``Since I've done the show, I know I am not going to just go back to school and sit in class and hear them say bad things about the Russians,'' adds Paula Callahan, another cast member, from Boston.
``Peace Child'' will travel next to Minneapolis, then to Seattle; Vancouver, British Columbia; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, ending its tour in Washington Oct 8.