View from the East. Writers switch-hit on national exhibits. How good are Soviets and Americans at explaining themselves? Two journalists - an American and a Soviet - went to exhibits on their own countries and each other's. They drew different conclusions.
Washington — `WHERE can I find the exhibition `Information USA'?'' I asked a passer-by in Moscow. ``When you see a big crowd of people,'' came the response.
He wasn't kidding: When the exhibition first opened last June, the line wrapped around the building several times. Soviet people couldn't wait to see the latest technology Americans are using in education, medicine, science, leisure, communications, and culture.
Nice young Russian-speaking guides greeted the visitors. Pleasant music played. TV screens flashed. Everybody felt invigorated. And it was all done in the best Hollywood tradition, like a big show.
I generally liked the exhibition, especially the section on computers in medical care. I listened with pleasure to recordings of my beloved Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz performers.
But I can't say the exhibition deserved an A. For example, I noticed how a couple of teen-agers made dismissive gestures as they watched a Cyndi Lauper video. ``This isn't anything new,'' I overheard. ``We thought this was supposed to be great. We have tapes of this already.'' Other visitors, mainly computer specialists, were also disappointed. They felt it was an exhibition about yesterday.
And some visitors - myself included - were struck by the aggressiveness of some guides. Many of them were students, whose future professions had nothing to do with the displays they represented. It seemed to me they couldn't give competent answers to my questions on computers in agriculture and medicine.
But when it came to discussing human rights or the advantages of a capitalist society over a socialist one, they felt much more at home - and they tried to steer discussion in that direction. One had the feeling they had studied up on the matter. Such efforts to engage in ideological arguments were inappropriate in this setting and left me with a bad aftertaste.
If someone had asked the visitors what the organizers should have done, I think most would have said: ``I'd like to see fewer ads for successful companies, and more information about the life of simple Americans.
``Soviet people want to know your dreams, your concerns, how you work, what we have in common, and a thousand other simple things that would help us understand your country.''
Still, the exhibition generated interest in Moscow. The big debate about the exhibit that flared up in our press among both journalists and readers showed this interest.
The Soviet exhibition in America, ``USSR: Individual, Family, Society,'' wasn't nearly so entertaining. It was more like a finely crafted encyclopedia. People of all ages and professions could find something of interest on art, sports, family, space, construction, or science.
Schoolchildren were the most regular and probably most attentive visitors. They came out of curiosity - and because they wanted to do their homework assignment. They told me their teacher had suggested they come to find answers to questions such as: What is perestroika? What share of monthly income does a Soviet family spend on housing? How old is the Soviet Constitution?
From an informational point of view, the organizers were equal to the task. They portrayed Soviet life objectively. And for the first time at such an exhibition, I think, it was possible to hear about our shortcomings as well as our achievements. ``We talked openly about our problems in health care, in education, in housing,'' said exhibition director Vyacheslav Melnik. To flesh out the information provided by the displays, non-professional guides - scientists, artists, teachers, religious figures, all of whom spoke English - were on hand to answer questions.
Americans also had the rare opportunity to chat with leading specialists whom most Soviets only dream of meeting, such as cosmonauts Nikolai Rukavishnikov and Valery Ryumin, the world-famous ophthalmologist Svyatoslav Fyodorov and traumatologist Gavriil Ilizarov. Where else could average Americans meet with such people?
Many visitors were attracted to the display on religion, which contained various types of religious paraphernalia: literature about Baptist societies in Moscow and Latvia, about Muslim societies in Central Asia, about the Russian Orthodox Church. People seemed especially interested in talking to Vyacheslav Ovsyanikov, a theologian and editor of various church publications in the Moscow patriarchate. Many Americans believe in God - more than I expected to find when I came to the United States two months ago - so I'm not surprised that visitors peppered Mr. Vyacheslav with questions.
Young people were especially drawn to the fashion pavilion, though honestly, I've seen more interesting styles in Moscow. The organizers hadn't intended to dazzle the American public with ultramodern or exotic fashions, the director explained. They wanted to show how a typical Soviet family dresses during the week and on holidays.
So was the exhibition interesting to Americans? I'll let my colleague decide [see accompanying article]. But for what it's worth, the visitors I talked to responded favorably, especially those who had never been to the USSR. They could form their own opinions about the country, and not be limited to journalistic stereotypes. One well-informed visitor will get to see the USSR for himself, courtesy of the Soviet government, as the winner of the competition held at the exhibition on knowledge of the Soviet Union.
And speaking of stereotypes ... one of the Americans at the exhibition told me he had long wanted to visit the USSR, but was afraid - afraid they would throw him behind bars and not let him go home. Where did he get that idea? He shrugged: ``Our propaganda!'' Such a silly stereotype can be shattered only by associating with Soviet people. Not many Americans have that opportunity, which is why it was such a shame there were so few visitors at the exhibition. Maybe it wasn't well advertised. Maybe the press didn't pay enough attention. Maybe the organizers didn't consider the psychology of Americans: Even the tastiest candy won't find a buyer if its wrapper isn't beautiful.
But despite any shortcomings, the Soviet and American exhibitions represent a big step forward toward mutual understanding. They open the window of trust between our countries. Without it, peaceful coexistence is impossible.
The Soviet exhibition, now in Memphis, continues there through Feb. 11. Then it travels on to Cincinnati and to Kansas City, Mo., before closing May 15.
The American exhibition, now in Irkutsk, will travel to Magnitogorsk, Leningrad, and Minsk before closing Dec. 30.
Yelena Hanga works for the Soviet weekly Moscow News. She is one of two reporters in the US on a journalistic exchange arranged by the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.