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Roland Merullo served as an exhibit guide following service in the Peace Corps. From 1977 to 1979, he was a guide on the "Photography USA" exhibit and served as a general services officer and director for the "Design USA" Exhibit, from 1987 to 1990. Following is the edited excerpt of an interview conducted by Howard Solomon, Senior Political Officer of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Mr. Solomon is also a former exhibit guide to the U.S.S.R.
I thought it was beautiful. I thought all three exhibits I worked on were really stunning. And maybe Photo was the most visually stunning. The center of it was a slideshow. And you walked into this… it felt almost like a movie theater. And they had a slideshow of America, you know, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the farmlands of the Midwest, and the New York City skyline. John Denver music, which I’ll never forget; every time I hear John Denver music I think of that. And there was a beautiful portrait gallery, with portraits by the
most famous American photographers. And then there was a studio where we did portraits. There were also specialists, our professional American photographers, who usually came on a rotating basis, one per city. And the Soviets would line up and the photographer would call the person in and do a formal portrait of them. And that drew a big crowd.
There was almost unbelievable curiosity
. I mean, we had lines out the door that were sometimes a mile long. Admission was free, as you know. And the police, and our side also, we would only let people in at a certain rate, for safety reasons. And they’d just… there were mobs of people going into the exhibition. And then they would circle around each guide – 2, 3, 4, 5 people deep – leaning in very close and firing questions at you. And it was a little different than the later exhibits that I worked on, because the relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were not very good at that time, in fact they were quite bad. Glasnost
was certainly nothing anybody had ever heard of. So there was a fair degree of hostility. Most people were curious. Sometimes we would get invited to homes, or invited out for a cup of tea. And then there were always the people who were belligerent – often we heard, ‘u nas luchshe’
– we have it better. You know, we’d show them a picture of a supermarket aisle, with fresh fruits, and things that you could never
find in the Soviet Union. And someone in the crowd, inevitably several people would say, ‘u nas luchshe, u nas luchshe’
– we have it better than you. So there was that competitive feeling. And the KGB would sometimes send in provocateurs who could be really nasty. I mean, they would yell at us, they would really get right in your face and call you a liar in front of a bunch of people. We were followed after work and harassed…in different ways that were really unpleasant. So it was a mixture of a warm, welcoming curiosity and then this other side – that was definitely the minority – but memorable nevertheless.
By 1989-90, when I was on Design, when Gorbachev’s changes had really taken hold, I was stunned
. I was the director and I would go and listen in on guides’ conversations, and the curiosity was the same, the crowds were the same, but the types of conversations were radically
different. I remember very well listening in on one of those conversations, and one of the guides said, “you know, this is what we have, and now that your country’s changing, you’re going to have this kind of… a free market system, things are going to change.” And I remember a woman – a well dressed, maybe thirty-five year old woman – looking the guide in the eye and saying, ‘pyatsot lyet’
– 500 years before we have something like this. And she was wrong – but that openness – for her to be able to criticize her own country in that way was absolutely unheard of when I was a guide.
I think the exhibits made a tremendous impact. I did go to a Soviet exhibit in Boston and it was minimal impact. I mean, the curiosity level on our side of the Iron Curtain, if you will, was much less. The crowds were very skampy. I think, when I was Director, we showed to maybe 900,000 people in 3 cities. And exhibits were typically 9 cities – so we’re talking a million, or two million, or more people saw those exhibitions. And those millions of people went home and I’m sure told many other people what they had seen – whether it was good or bad – whatever their impression was. So I think we made an enormous… we had a real big impact, I think. Plus, we traveled all over the country. There were some closed cities we couldn’t go to. But I was in Irkutsk, Tashkent, T’bilisi, Rostov Na Donu, Kiev, what was then Leningrad, Moscow several times, Ufa. So we really – east to west and north to south – we showed what we wanted to show to a lot of people. I think it was a kind of benignpropaganda. I mean, it was obviously propaganda on our part. And I don’t think we showed America absolutely the way it was - there weren’t a lot of pictures of inner-city poverty or rural New England people living in shacks with plastic over their windows. And the Soviets would mention that to us. The other side of that was that the guides could say anything they wanted to say, as you know, and people would be very forthright. Some guides were very conservative and some guides were very liberal, and I think any person who went through those exhibits and actually listened to several different guides would get a pretty fair representation of American opinion.
: How did your Russia experience influence or feed into what you do as a writer?
: I can’t overstate that, because it had a gigantic influence on me and my wife Amanda, who was with me for the second tour and she says the same thing, it was a huge part of our life. For me, I had lived a very insular life. The first time I ever got on an airplane was when I was in training in DC – we flew to New York City. So I had led really a provincial life. And all of a sudden I was exposed to this utterly different way of thinking and being, an utterly different political system and economic system. And I spoke with thousands and thousands of people from kolkhozniki
to, when I was director, to secretaries and cabinet level people. And it was a realeducation in life for me. Not just in Soviet life, or Russian life, but in life. In meeting people so different from the people I grew up with. And it just… it opened my mind up in a way that I can’t describe… you know, my business in describing things, and I cannot even describe it – but it really changed my being inside and out.”
: Did you draw on experiences in some of your works – characters; things that you played out in real life – in your fiction?
: I think I write from a place where people are people – and really 99% the same. We have the same desires, same fears, same hopes… Most of our biology is the same, even if we are of different races or a different gender. And I think that’s always been my attitude, and it probably was reinforced by having been in the Soviet Union. One thing that was shocking to me was – I grew up in a fairly conservative family, and not a particularly well educated family or environment, and so our impression of the Soviets… we didn’t call them the Soviets
… the Russians
were that they were aggressive, hateful to us, backward. And when I went there and got to know people, there was some of that – you know, there was some backwardness, there was some hatred, and there was some aggression – but really, I really broke through that assumption. I began to see that they were really people, and really mostly wanted what we wanted – despite the fact that their system was a very different system – their culture really isn’t as different. And the Soviets said that to us again and again. And it really surprised me. They would say, “of all the countries on earth, of all the people on earth, we feel closest to you.” And I thought, “what the…?” More than the Poles, or the Czechs, or the Bulgarians? No. We feel closest to you.
And I think some of that had to do with the fact that we were the two superpowers. We were the two countries that could end civilization as we knew it. And also there’s a certain pride that we have in common. I think Americans have that pride. You know, big country, powerful country. In their case, they have a longer history. But they’re proud of their literature, as we are. They’ve made an impact on the world, as we have. There was much more commonality there than I had expected to find.
Roland Merullo was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1953, and brought up in Revere, MA, a working-class Italian American community five miles from downtown Boston. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH, in 1971, and Brown University in 1975, where he also earned a Master’s in Russian Language and Literature the following year. At various points in his life, he has worked in a parking garage, worked for the United States Information Agency in the former Soviet Union, served in the Peace Corps in Micronesia, worked as a carpenter, and taught creative writing and literature at Bennington and Amherst Colleges.
Merullo is the critically acclaimed author of seven novels, including Leaving Losapas; A Russian Requiem, currently optioned for film rights by John Turturro; Revere Beach Boulevard, finalist for the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Prize; In Revere in Those Days, a Booklist Editors’ Choice; and Golfing With God. His memoir, Revere Beach Elegy, won the 2000 Massachusetts Book Award for Non-Fiction, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Yankee Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, Boston Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Travel and Leisure Golf, LINKS, GOLF Magazine, Forbes FYI, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His writing has been reviewed in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dallas Morning News, Newsday, and by dozens of other papers, magazines, internet sites and radio and TV stations. Merullo has given hundreds of informal talks and speeches at colleges, conferences, libraries and civic organizations. He currently lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.