''Who wins, we or the Russians?'' I was often asked when I worked on Soviet-American cultural exchanges at the State Department in the 1970s, the detente years when these exchanges greatly expanded. Some Americans regard cultural exchanges with the Soviets as a competition in which points are scored, tallied, and one side or the other wins. And the communists, they argue, must have ulterior motives or why would they participate so eagerly.
Some Russians, I am sure, have similar views. Those clever capitalists, they might argue, must have ulterior motives for wanting cultural exchanges and will use them for their own purposes. So in Moscow the question is probably asked, ''Who wins, we or the Americans?''
Both sides win. This should be the response in assessing nearly 25 years of face-to-face encounters between thousands of American and Soviet citizens who have participated in cultural exchanges. But while these exchanges have provided one of the few opportunities for two vastly different societies to become better informed about each other, they unfortunately have been curtailed as a consequence of deteriorating relations between the two superpowers.
The term ''cultural exchanges'' encompasses a broad range of bilateral contacts, some conducted by the United States government and others by the private sector. It includes such diverse activities as exchanges of students and professors, performing artists, exhibits, journalists, writers, and political leaders. These exchanges and many others were conducted under the US-USSR Cultural Agreement, first signed in 1958 and renewed periodically, which designated the exchanges to be carried out and the conditions under which they were to be conducted.
Over the years certain exchanges were favored by each side. The Soviets, for example, favored performing arts tours which earn hard currency. The Americans liked to send large thematic exhibits which portray various aspects of American life to the Soviet mass audience and permit Russian-speaking American guides to converse directly with Soviet visitors to the exhibits. Both sides gave high priority to exchanges of young scholars and professors. All exchanges conducted under the agreement were reciprocal, and each side believed that the ''gains'' and ''losses'' balanced out and that continuation of the program was in their interest.
In addition to the official exchanges there were added, during the detente years, many nonofficial exchanges when private US organizations and their Soviet counterparts began to deal directly with each other. One example is the exchange of young political leaders, in which young American politicians of both parties and representatives of the Soviet Komsomol engage in week-long debates on issues affecting the two countries. Thus, public participation in cultural exchanges broadened in both countries, although it was, of course, strictly controlled on the Soviet side.
The cultural agreement lapsed at the end of 1979 when US and Soviet negotiators were unable to agree on terms for its renewal. A major point of difference in the negotiations was the ''guarantees of security'' sought by the Soviets, allegedly to protect participants in the exchanges. ''Guarantees of security,'' however, is understood to be a Soviet euphemism for guarantees against defection, and should be seen as a Soviet reaction to the wave of defections abroad by their performing artists in 1979.
As one of the US responses to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter administration chose not to reopen negotiations for a new cultural agreement, and it put a freeze on most US government-sponsored cultural exchanges with the Soviets. This policy was continued by the Reagan administration.
With no cultural agreement, the Soviets suspended the exchange of performing artists, cultural specialists, and graduate students in the arts. The Carter administration took action to halt the ehhibit exchange, and the Reagan administration withdrew support for several other programs conducted by the US government and private organizations. Scholarly exchanges - students, research scholars, and university lecturers - have continued, reflecting the importance both governments attach to them.
Where do we go from here? The high visibility exchanges - performing arts and exhibits - would best remain suspended, at least until relations improve. They would only serve as lightning rods in this country for anti-Soviet public sentiment, and the ''guarantees of security'' sought by the Soviets would be impossible to provide.
The less visible but more important exchanges, through which Americans and Soviets meet and exchange views, should continue and expand. Both countries, particularly during periods of tension, need to keep open the channels of communication at all levels, governmental and private. Needed is more dialogue between public figures as well as government officials, between cultural leaders and professionals in all fields who can interpret the views of their countries. And at a time when a new generation of Soviet leaders is about to emerge, it would appear that reinstating the exchange of young political leaders would be a high priority for both countries. The so-called ''round-table'' discussion used in these exchanges gives the participants, both US and Soviet, an opportunity for a firsthand encounter with the other country, its people, and their positions on major issues between the two nations.
There was a naive view when US-USSR exchanges first began that they would help to bridge our differences. In fact, they have shown that many of the differences between the two countries are fundamental and cannot be easily resolved. Exchange participants, however, have gained a better understanding of these differences, and this should be seen as a useful asset for both countries in the long-term development of US-Soviet relations.
We do the Soviets no favors by encouraging and supporting cultural exchanges. They are as much in our interest as in theirs, and both sides win.