1959 in the USSR: Nixon, Khrushchev argue in the kitchen

It was an evening for remembering how, 25 years ago, Russians hungry for information about America clustered around young American exhibit guides and peppered them with questions:

''Do you have refrigerator?''

''Can a divorced woman get child support from the father?''

''Do you need a passport to travel in your country?''

''Why does your President believe in God?''

''How much does a truck driver earn?''

To those of us who were there, the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 was an exhilarating, demanding, heart-warming experience. It represented a breakthrough in Soviet-American cultural relations.

After six weeks of talking and arguing with thousands of the some 3 million Soviet citizens who attended, we left Moscow with an indelible feeling that on a human, personal level, Soviets and Americans can communicate and, despite their differing political systems, find something in common.

To celebrate the anniversary, some 200 exhibit participants gathered in the Great Hall of the Smithsonian last week. It was an extraordinary reunion. Many of the 75 American exhibit guides came - from New York, Illinois, Texas, Israel. State and Commerce Department organizers came. Exhibitors and specialists showed up. Guests included Susan Eisenhower (Ike's granddaughter; Dwight D. Eisenhower was President at the time of the exhibit), and Vladimir Mikoyan, a Soviet diplomat and grandson of the late Kremlin leader Anastas Mikoyan.

Then there was Richard Nixon, whose surprise entrance into the Smithsonian touched off a burst of excitement. Twenty-five years to the day - on July 25, 1959 - he had debated with Nikita Khrushchev in the kitchen of the model American home at the exhibition. And here he was, commenting on that historic event known as the ''kitchen debate.''

Mr. Nixon reminded his listeners that the debate was actually the second of three verbal confrontations with Mr. Khrushchev in Moscow. The first took place in a television studio, and a videotape of it was smuggled out of the country and shown to the American public. The last round took place at Khrushchev's country dacha and was a ''five-hour, off-the-record debate that I am sorry to say was not on tape,'' commented Nixon.

''We had a lot of other things on tape that I wish were not recorded,'' he quipped. Nixon, who was vice-president then, described the Soviet leader as having a ''devastating sense of humor'' and being ''highly combative'' - a man of ''great warmth, and totally belligerent.''

He rated Khrushchev ''at the top'' among world leaders he had met.

It was more than his comments about Khrushchev, however, that impressed those at the gathering. Like an elder statesman, Nixon discoursed briefly on Soviet-American relations, pointing to the need for the United States and the Soviet Union to resolve differences where they can. Distinguishing between governments and people, he called the Russians ''a great people'' capable of ''warmth and hospitality.''

One listener remarked: ''You don't hear much talk like that these days.''

Cultural exchanges - with the Russians, Chinese, and others - are of ''vital importance,'' said Nixon, adding that getting to know one another does not necessarily mean the achievement of peace, but does foster an understanding of one another's problems.

Nixon added that he hoped that once the US elections are over, a ''constructive relationship'' could develop with the Soviet Union and an exchange program be accelerated.

As it happens, the Reagan administration just recently proposed renewal of the US-Soviet cultural exchange agreement, which was allowed to lapse after the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.

After Nixon departed, the exhibit ''alumni'' resumed their party, munching caviar and bliny, while a balalaika ensemble played spirited folk tunes. There were acquaintances to renew and lives to be caught up on.

It astonished us to find how many guides in the exhibit had gone on to careers in diplomacy and professions in the Soviet field. To name but a few: William Davis is today public affairs counselor in the US Embassy in Jamaica; Edith Rogovin Frankel is director of the East European research center at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Henry Aaron is an economist at Brookings Institution; Elizabeth Valkenier, a research scholar, has published a book on the Soviet Union and the third world; John Thomas is at the State Department, dealing with US-Soviet scientific exchanges; Peter Maggs teaches Soviet law at the University of Illinois.

Looking back at those heady days in Moscow's Sokolniki Park, site of the exhibit, we recalled the attractions that drew so many thousands of visitors, not only from Moscow but from the Ukraine, the Baltic regions, and such outlying republics as Uzbekistan and Kirgizia: Buckminster Fuller's golden geodesic dome (later sold to the Soviets); Edward Steichen's ''Family of Man'' photo exhibit; Circarama, the 360-degree film travelogue of the United States; IBM's electronic RAMAC, which answered questions about America; the live fashion show; and the hundreds of displays mounted by 700 private American companies to show off everything from books, Polaroid cameras, and kitchen equipment to musical instruments, Detroit automobiles, and Singer sewing machines.

The Smithsonian fete was underwritten by Herbert Sadkin, builder of the model house in which the kitchen debate took place, and Donald Kendall of the Pepsico Company, which dispensed free Pepsis at the exhibit and now sells its product in the Soviet.

Since 1959 there have been many US exhibits in the Soviet Union and many Soviet exhibits in the US. But the spirit and adventure of that early one, in which more than 500 Americans participated, were something special.

''The Russians were curious, and the young Americans who went over had a spirit of wanting to do something for America,'' commented Bill Davis. ''There was anxiety about moving into unknown territory, but once we were there and talked with Russians, we found most of them were about the same as ordinary Americans.''

We left the brief reunion in a mood of nostalgia and camaraderie. As Gil Robinson, an exhibit coordinator who helped organize the celebration, remarked, ''I never thought it would come off like this. It's been wonderful.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.