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Ambassador Robertson served as a guide and then, an exhibit manager with the U.S. Information Agency, from 1975 to 1981, working on cultural exhibits in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania and Zaire. In the U.S.S.R., he served as a guide on the “Technology of the American Home” exhibit and was the deputy director for the “Photography USA” and “Agriculture USA” exhibits. Following is the edited text of an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
The interesting thing about the American Home Exhibit is that, like the original National Exhibit in 1959, it had all the technology of the American home and it really was promoting the well-being and the lifestyle of Americans living in homes all across the United States. The very fact that most Americans lived in their own home was so out of the realm of the possibility for Soviets – it was fascinating. They would tend to ask a lot of questions about the exhibits – and questions that were connected to the exhibit, such as: “how much do you as a guide on this exhibit make?” And, “what does the average worker make?” “What are your taxes like?" "What happens if you lose your job, you don’t have any money anymore?” And, healthcare: “we read about people in the streets in the United States who don’t have healthcare, so how do people get by?” You would get questions on the whole gamut of issues, but probably more than a lot of exhibits, because of the nature of this exhibit, they were more related to the exhibit. I would say, probably only thirty or twenty percent of the questions were on the theme of the exhibit.
What surprised me was the readiness of so many Russians and Soviets, who were in Ukraine at the time—and we had people from all over the Soviet Union coming—was their willingness to believe what they heard. There was always credibility about the guides because people were telling their own stories. Obviously, we had our collection of facts about what the average income was for an American family, what the average worker made, what the average American made, what private college costs or public college costs, those kinds of things. I think most of us had the same answers. When you asked about politics, [it was different.] This was right at the end of the Vietnam War. When people would ask about the Vietnam War, there were many of us who had been very much opposed to our role in Vietnam during those years. There were others who supported it and believed we were fighting the good cause in stopping the spread of communism. So you could ask the same question of different guides and you would get different answers, which made it so much more credible. People would often say: “Geez, I think at a Soviet exhibit you wouldn’t get this kind of openness about issues like this that you would from Americans.”
The Russians, the Soviets, had always had a tradition of lapel pins, znachki.
And USIA, since probably the original exhibit in 1959, had made a special design for each exhibit, and they’d put it on the znachok
, and these were handed out to everybody who came in. We also had a very good brochure, in Russian, about the exhibit that everybody could take. You know, it’s hard to describe this to Americans, who see going to an exhibit as kind of something you might do, but it’s not really that big of an event. The American Exhibit, when it came to the Soviet Union, was a big event. You knew this because when you were out on the exhibit floor, people would come up, say, in Ufa, in what is now Bashkortostan, and they would bring with them the button from the exhibit that had been there four or five years ago, and the brochure, and they would tell you about it. The way I describe it is in the turn of the 19th
centuries—the early 20th
century—when the circus came to town. It was a part of your life that you always remember. And, people really do. You talk to Russians now, who are my age or older, about the exhibits, and “oh yeah, we remember,” when the T.A.H., the Technology of the American Home Exhibit was there, or the photography exhibit after that, or any of the earlier ones.
I think I’m right in saying, as someone who spoke Russian and read the newspapers, that you could see, over the three and a half, four years that I was there, a change in the Soviet propaganda that was written about the United States. The exhibits were only one part of three parts of our public diplomacy policy at the time. We had the Voice of America
, which of course was famous throughout the country. We had America
magazine, which we sold in kiosks, although the Soviets made a point of making sure they didn’t all get sold. But, they were very popular, and on the black market they went for several times their face price, and then exhibits, which were the only real people-to-people programs we had for reaching out and touching Russians, beyond what of course our folks in the Embassy and Consulate in Leningrad did. Getting back to the whole propaganda [theme], I remember arriving in Zaporozh’e and reading the papers. You would find these sorts of tirades about how bad it was in the United States, and people were unemployed and starving in the streets, and people without medical care dying left and right, and this kind of thing. By the time we left, you would see in many of these articles a reference to pocobiyepobezrabotitse
(unemployment insurance and unemployment benefits). I had only been unemployed for two or three months, but I had actually gotten unemployment benefits, which in fact were more than the average Soviet wage at the time. This blew people away. My point is that over time, because of Voice of America
and the other things we were doing, people were getting a little bit more sophisticated, and the Soviet propaganda machine, if you will, was trying to get a little more sophisticated, too. They would mention the fact of unemployment benefits, they’d mention health insurance, but of course, it was always that there was a larger percentage that didn’t have health insurance. You would get into these discussions about how people get medical care if they don’t have health insurance. And, as we all know, as bad as the situation may often be in the States, there are ways for people to get health care of some sort here. It was interesting to see how the debate—the Cold War debate about the two systems that Dick Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev had started in 1959—how it developed.
Generally, I have to say that back then in the 1960s and the 1970s—it was in the 1970s when I worked there—there was real warmth, really across the board, amongst the Soviet people about the United States, despite the propaganda, despite what people heard. It was on two levels. One was the historical—everybody knew that the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies. But, even more importantly, Soviets knew that the United States had given billions of dollars of Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union, which made it possible for them to, along with us, win the war, and of course finally bring down Berlin in 1945. So, that was one aspect of it. The other thing was this identity that I think Russians in particular and Soviets more generally had with Americans. We were the two big bears in the Cold War, facing each other off. We were two continental powers, pioneer countries – we had the Wild West and they had Siberia – and multinational countries. And, there was a sense that the Russians had, the Soviets had really, that “we Russians and you Americans really have much in common.”
As I said, this was one of the most important things I think any of us who worked on the exhibits has done in our careers. I really think we made a serious contribution to the improvement in relations between our countries, and especially between the peoples of our countries. And that’s why it’s important that we continue doing exchanges. Over the last twenty years we’ve had so many of these exchanges that bring high school and college Russian students to the United States to let them see what we’re all about, including all of our strengths—like the openness of U.S. society—and all of our faults. The exchange students don’t have to agree with us on policy all the time, but they have a better understanding. I think that this ultimately leads to much greater understanding between our peoples. I have always supported this in my career, whether serving in Moscow or elsewhere, that we expand our exchanges. In some ways it’s too bad—this transition we had from USIA coming over to State—because neither those of us who worked for State, nor those of you who were USIA, we didn’t really link up as well as we should have at the beginning. Also, I don’t think the leadership we had was as strong as we needed to keep the exchanges alive and effective. I think that today the relationship between our two countries is a little bit different. We’ve got a very strong relationship with the Russians. I spent a year at the NSC doing Russia during the year after 9/11. In an ironic kind of way, that was one of the best years in the U.S.-Russian relationship, much because of what President Putin and the Russians did to not get in our way and to work with us in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in that initial year.
Thomas B. Robertson is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and served as the U.S. Ambassador to Slovenia from 2004 to 2007. He is currently Dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State.
Ambassador Robertson began his career in the Foreign Service in 1981. He served in Moscow as an aide to the ambassador from 1982 to 1984, and in Bonn, Germany, as a political officer from 1984 to 1986. From 1986 to 1989, Robertson was the deputy director for exchanges in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs at the State Department.
Before entering the Foreign Service, Robertson was a guide and then an exhibit manager with the U.S. Information Agency, from 1975 to 1981, working on cultural exhibits in the Soviet Union, Hungary, Romania, and Zaire. In the U.S.S.R., he served as a guide on the “Technology of the American Home” exhibit and was the deputy director for the “Photography USA” and “Agriculture USA” exhibits.
He has a bachelor's degree from Princeton University and a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs. Robertson speaks Russian, German, Hungarian, Slovene, French, and Italian.