Cultural exchanges open doors and minds

Aleksey Sorokin didn't personally end the cold war, but he certainly played a small part. He's one of 50,000 Soviets - students, scientists, journalists, dancers, government officials, and, undoubtedly, some KGB officers - who came to the US on various exchange programs in the waning years of the cold war.

As a teenager in 1986 he spent a month as a exchange student at Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Md. It was partial fulfillment of a dream outlined two years before by Ronald Reagan who said he looked to a time when "Americans and Soviet citizens travel freely back and forth, visit each others' homes, look up friends and professional colleagues, and if they feel like it, sit up all night talking about the meaning of life."

The dream became reality, and two years after Aleksey returned home to Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev proclaimed, in effect, the end of the cold war. Several years after that, Aleksey graduated from a diplomatic academy in Moscow and came to Washington as a Russian diplomat.

Turn the page again, and we find Aleksey in Utah this month with a team of Russian athletes, in his new role as a top adviser to the Russian Olympic Committee. He hopes to bring the 2012 Olympics to Moscow. Of his early acquaintance with America as a young exchange student, he told a local journalist: "I know how useful it is to get to know each other personally and see how things are. There is no substitute for it."

During the cold war, hostility and misunderstanding between Americans and Soviets was every bit as tense as is hostility and misunderstanding between Americans and Arab Muslims today. While we cannot pretend that people-to-people exchanges alone ended the cold war, they certainly helped. Could they help reduce tensions between the US and the Islamic world today?

A lot of Americans are eager to give it a try and add some private-citizen support to the limited resources the government is apparently able to devote to people-to-people exchanges.

Last month I wrote a column advocating the value of such exchanges. The response from readers has been enthusiastic.

A reader in Boston wrote of an earlier international visitors' program there that brought foreign journalists, physicians, labor inspectors, archivists, businessmen, and professors to stay in her home. "I am certain," she said, "that the relatively small amount of funding channeled into US hospitality by our government, coupled with the warm hospitality provided by volunteers in Boston and other cities, provided a priceless base from which understanding between cultures did, and could again, flourish."

From Virginia, a reader wrote of a reverse-exchange - traveling to Moscow one winter's eve with donated coats, hats, and scarves made by teenagers in his church for 200 Afghan refugees living there: "Your essay reminded me that those who take such comfort for granted need to better the lives of everyone."

An attorney who started an international cultural exchange foundation says its supporters have a great spirit and little money. But they reach out and "have a great love for the international people who bring the very best of their countries to us."

A Utah reader involved in a sister-city program with Russia, wrote of entertaining Russian colonels and generals in her home. They were involved in monitoring a weapons-destruction program at a Utah military facility. "Most of the world bases their perception of America upon our movies, soap operas, and nighttime TV," she wrote. "No wonder so many dislike America."

A local clogging group told of hosting Russian dancers and taking their American art to folklore festivals in Germany, Hungary, China: "These American youth have been building bridges of friendship. People who have never been to the United States have poor impressions of America and its people."

And Yale Richmond, a veteran foreign-service officer, wrote in his book,"Cultural Exchange and the Cold War," that such exchanges "demonstrate the best policy to pursue with countries with whom we disagree is not isolation but engagement."

If these exchanges were so effective in helping end the cold war with Russia, maybe there is a useful role for them in reducing misconceptions between Americans and the Muslim world.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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