Chautauqua, N.Y. — ``Name as many Soviet cities as you can,'' asked Yuri Pilipenko of the Soviet Youth League's Central Committee. Betsy Bechtolt cringed. ``Uh, let's see.... Moscow, Leningrad, ... St. Petersburg,'' the American college student replied sheepishly.
Mr. Pilipenko had illustrated his point: Young Americans know little about the Soviet Union (St. Petersburg is a former name for Leningrad).
This was hardly a revelation to the Americans and Soviets gathered in the living room of Dick and Nancy Bechtolt. More unusual was the fact that the discussion was taking place at all - and that dozens of others like it were going on in living rooms all around this historic summer retreat in western New York. The occasion was last week's Third General Chautauqua Conference on US-Soviet Relations, which brought one of the largest groups of Soviets ever to the United States - a 50-person official delegation plus 200 other citizens (who had the rare opportunity to stay in private homes).
It was a lively week of speeches, debate, and music. American officials and citizens made impassioned statements on human rights and Afghanistan. Soviets countered by castigating the US for allowing unemployment and for its role in Nicaragua. US official Fritz Ermarth was booed for defending US policy in Nicaragua. Col. Gen. Nikolai Chervov got a similar reception on Afghanistan.
The sparring frustrated the Soviets, who had clearly intended to take the high road. ``The purpose of this conference is to promote our common interest - peace - not fight about our differences,'' said Viktor Malkov, a historian and official Soviet delegate.
But participants agreed that the conference was especially valuable for its informal contacts. Behind the scenes, Americans and Soviets huddled on issues such as trade, cultural exchanges, and human rights. For example, the US group Earthwatch, which organizes expeditions all over the world, reportedly made progress toward setting up a program in the USSR. Another discussion brought promise of an amnesty of political prisoners to mark the 70th anniversary of the Russian revolution on Nov. 7.
Olin Robison, president of Middlebury College and a specialist on US-Soviet relations, came to Chautauqua with an agenda including college programs and religious prisoners.
``I've been able to see here in about four days more Soviet friends in comfortable circumstances than one can see in several weeks in Moscow,'' Dr. Robison said. ``Yesterday, three senior Soviet officials said to me, `Olin, we have some vodka; we must have some toasts and then we'll have lunch together.' That would simply never happen in Moscow, because of logistics. We had an excellent conversation and then a walk by the lake. Those are golden moments.''
One of the disappointments of the conference, said US organizers, was that Soviet citizens did not question publicly their own officials. Given that travel to the US is a great privilege for any Soviet, the hand-picked ``average citizens'' were sure to be on their best behavior.
Two conclusions emerged from the conference: the need for each side to learn how to deal with the other more constructively and the need to break down stereotypes. President Reagan's speech in California Wednesday on US-Soviet relations provided a high-profile example of the first need. Soviets here were insulted by the speech, which they said offered little more than the usual rhetoric.
``Now he refers to totalitarianism instead of the evil empire,'' said foreign-policy adviser Yevgeny Primakov.
Soviets also complained that Americans should stop trying to lecture them on democracy. Soviet 'emigr'es here suggested that the best lesson in democracy is simply to bring Soviets to the US. Many of the Soviets, visiting this country for the first time, chuckled over their preconceptions: that Americans are unfriendly to strangers; that their streets are violent; that their food tastes like chemicals.
``I've been struck by the great wealth,'' said Olga Belan, a reporter for Moscow's Communist Youth League newspaper. ``If you work hard, you are rewarded. Our system doesn't work that way. And the clothes! I'm going crazy in the stores!''
Americans and Soviets spoke of their mutual apprehensions. ``When I first greeted my Soviet guest as he stepped off the bus,'' said a Chautauquan, ``I thought to myself, thank goodness, he doesn't have horns after all.''