Even as the United States and Soviet governments were recently cutting away at each other's embassy staffs, the ranks of unofficial US diplomats on missions of good will to the Soviet Union were swelling. There is Don Carlson, a self-described ``card-carrying capitalist'' who says he could not stand to live under the repressions of Soviet society. Yet he led a group of Bay Area businessmen to the USSR last year in an effort to harness ``people power'' in the immense job of normalizing relations between the two superpowers.
There is Barbara Wiedner of Sacramento, Calif., who says that if she lived in the Soviet Union, ``I'd be in the Gulag immediately because of my outspoken views.'' But she cherishes the moment she knelt in prayer alongside Soviet women in a Russian Orthodox church, one of many fond memories of her trip to the Soviet Union with a delegation of American grandmothers.
Then there is Mark Zembsch of San Francisco, who went to the Goodwill Games in Moscow to row for the US crew team. He remembers a testy conversation with a Soviet guide about the supply of athletic shoes in Russia. ``People were always trying to buy the shoes off our feet, and this guide is telling me there are plenty of shoes for everyone,'' Mr. Zembsch says. ``I just told him we'd all respect him a lot more if he didn't try to tell us things we know from experience are not true.'' Still, the trip was ``an incredible opportunity to drop a lot of prejudices about the Soviets,'' Zembsch says.
Citizen diplomats, traveling in increasing numbers to the USSR, represent a cross-section of America. Some have been spurred to action recently by President Reagan's public support for people-to-people exchanges. Others took their first trips in the early 1980s, when formal relations between the two nations were sour.
Some travelers are peace activists; others go to make friends. They are liberals, and they are conservatives. But almost all believe that, collectively, they eventually will change the course of Soviet-American relations.
``It's so obvious that, if we ever want to stop the arms race, we have to find ways to coexist with the Soviets,'' says Mr. Carlson, who has launched a philanthropic foundation that focuses on world-peace issues. He is coeditor of a new book called ``Citizen Summitry,'' which envisions a vibrant kaleidoscope of people-to-people exchange. ``We have a lot more power as individual citizens than we think we do,'' he says.
But how, critics ask, can citizen diplomacy be effective in a country like the Soviet Union, where individuals cannot speak freely, cannot travel freely, and are subject to human rights violations?
Americans who have recently been to the Soviet Union admit that travelers to the USSR must set up their schedules and make accommodations well ahead of time. They will visit Soviet citizens and official groups that have been approved by the Soviet government. They will probably be accompanied by an Intourist guide, and KGB agents have been known to float in and out of view.
But Robert Fuller of Berkeley, Calif., a former president of Oberlin College in Ohio and a frequent traveler to the Soviet Union, says he is ``pleased by how little manipulation has occurred, given the opportunity that exists.''
He cites a recent teleconference, or ``space bridge,'' between the US and USSR for the ``Phil Donahue Show.'' The Soviets, who broadcast the show on national television, did not edit the tape to omit a politically sensitive question by an American girl who wanted to know why the Soviets would not let Jews emigrate freely from the country, Dr. Fuller reports.
Fuller, who departed this week to talk with rebels resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, says he, like most citizen diplomats, is fully aware of the vast differences between the US and USSR. He says he probably knows more about the serious problems with communism than most of the naysayers who are skeptical of grass-roots diplomatic efforts.
``My challenge to them is to take their next vacation to Russia instead of to Hawaii,'' Fuller says. ``The factuality is always so much more interesting than the ideology. It gets people interested in other human beings. That's my hope for the world.''
It seems that, indeed, more Americans are taking vacations in the Soviet Union. In 1980 there were 12,922 US visas to the Soviet Union issued. Five years later, the number rose to 45,049. It is expected to be even higher by the end of this year, says Nancy Graham of the Institute of Soviet-American Relations in Washington. She attributes the rise to President Reagan's public request last November, after the Geneva summit, that American citizens make more contact with their Soviet counterparts.
But what, really, can one citizen do?
Dr. Fuller is helping to create the first global television news show, based in London and starting Jan. 14.
Ted Turner, head of the Turner Broadcasting System among other enterprises, was the driving force behind last summer's Goodwill Games.
Princeton University senior Taylor Smith was one of a group of American students who went backpacking in the southern Caucasus Mountains with a group of Soviet students in 1985.
Lois DeDomenico of Piedmont, Calif., hosted three ``highly accomplished'' Soviet women in her home in June, giving them a taste of what life is like for American women.
The list of individuals who have been impelled to pour their creative energies into diplomacy goes on and on, Carlson says. The hope is that, eventually, the people-to-people contact will attain critical mass, setting off dramatic changes in the way the leaders of both nations approach issues like arms control.