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Michael Hurley served as an exhibit guide for “Outdoor Recreation,” the “1976 Bicentennial Exhibit,” and “Photography USA.” Following is the edited excerpt of an interview conducted by Ian Kelly, Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
At that time the exhibit was called “Outdoor Recreation,” and it was an interesting exhibit. The guides usually worked for six months at that time, two months in each city, so of course there were six cities in the whole exhibit. My three cities for that exhibit, and of course this was the Soviet Union, not just Russia, were Yerevan, Odessa, and Chisinau, which are all in different countries now. Those were great cities; they had a huge turnout at the exhibit. People would stand in line for hours and hours and we saw the running total was in the neighborhood of 10,000 people a day that would actually come through the exhibit.
It was an amazing phenomenon to be talking to people who had likely never had any contact with anyone from the West, much less an American. It was fascinating work, though sometimes it was difficult. Some of the Soviets were kinder to us than the others and it was very interesting to see the shift from the 1970s when I was a guide to the late 1980s when I was in the embassy and I had responsibility for exhibits. I did the advance work and, of course, went to observe a couple of exhibits. In the old days, the 70’s, we got quite a few hostile questions, for example, ‘Why do we treat African Americans so poorly,’ ‘Why is there poverty in America,’ ‘Isn’t it true that there are slums in every city?’ All of this reflected the usual Soviet propaganda, but in the late 1980’s often you would get questions that were leading questions like, ‘Isn’t it true there are stores where you can buy 16 brands of blue jeans?’ And of course blue jeans are so much a part of our culture that we don’t even think - it’s nothing special - but blue jeans to a Soviet citizen were a status symbol like, you know, the Lexus of outer garmentry, I guess. Jeans were something really desirable to have, especially the coveted brands, like the best known brand - Levis.
Yes. There was no end to the invitations, and some of them were a little risky. Some people got in trouble in those days. People were followed; people lost jobs because they were meeting with us. And we tried to be a little bit careful and, though we had all the wisdom of a normal 22 and 23
year, sometimes we didn’t exercise the best judgment. And so to answer your question, all the people that we met in the Soviet Union were enormously hospitable. They were often average, you know everybody in the Soviet Union was an engineer who relatively speaking was sort of like middle class but not like our middle class. They didn’t have a lot of material things, but when they invited you to be their guest, the tables would just be laden with everything from wines to vodka to cognac, to all kinds of food imaginable. The ethnic differences were often in the foods - the foods of Georgia for instance. The next exhibit I worked on was photography and the first place that I went was Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian republic. And of course the foods there were fabulous. The wines were very interesting, very good. In those days the hospitality was, the Russians always said ‘Oh well, the people from the Caucasus are known for their hospitality.’ We had great hospitality in Russia too, but the hospitality was really over the top in Yerevan and Tbilisi. I never did an exhibit in Baku. I did visit there as an exhibit advance once, but hospitality was really something. And that’s where the ethnic differences came out sort of, especially in terms of cuisine on the table.
Well, people always asked ‘How much money do you make? How much money does your father make?’ And they wanted to know the measurement living space in terms of square meters. It was always ‘Well how many square meters do you have?’ because they were always making comparisons. And we did make the point that we were there as students. In 1971, I was 23 years old, so just out of college, out of the university. I came from a middle class family, not wealthy by anybody’s standards, and we lived in an apartment. It was a two bedroom apartment for my sister, me, and my mother; my father had died. It was just sort of a standard apartment, I grew up in Seattle. But the dimensions were much larger than the average Soviet would have. In the bicentennial exhibit, I don’t know why, but we had a stuffed longhorn Texas steer, and they would always ask questions about the steer like, ‘How much does the average Longhorn Texas steer weigh in the United States?’ So we’d scramble around and try to figure that out.
Yeah and they would try to test out various theories and really be hard on the racial thing, they couldn’t understand why it was, what they were hearing. Of course, in fact there was, there is, racial discrimination, and it was something that required a lot of contextual explanation because it was sort of a part of their mental makeup that Americans abuse black people and they put Indians in jail and on reservations, and there are a lot of poor people who eat out of garbage cans. And those are the types of things we had to confront all day long. Yes there are poor people, and yes black people are discriminated against as someone is always discriminated against all over the world. It’s a terrible thing; it’s not something we’re proud of in the United States. Yes it’s true but, on the other hand, there’s a black middle class, except they didn’t really have the contextual background to understand why these things may or may not have been true, at least the way that they understood it. That was an interesting sort of thing though. We did quite a bit of work on elections. They wanted to know - they couldn’t understand, nobody could understand - about the electoral college. Of course, none of us Americans understand it either, but ‘What is this type of thing,’ ‘What do you mean there’s no direct voting in the United States?’
Right, right. For president. And how does a bill become a law, and all those sorts of things, but mostly on a personal level, about you, ‘Why are you here? What is your income? How big is your family?’ And that sort of thing.
Tell us a bit about, “Informatika,” the last exhibit.
It was ‘89, ‘90, ‘91, that’s when they closed the exhibit. USIA made a decision to shut down the exhibits program because of the cost factor and because the wall had come down and it was the end of communism. I think there were a lot of people who wished we had continued it a bit more, but, in any case, that was the last U.S. publicly funded exhibit to go around the Soviet Union, and by then they had expanded it to three parts, so we went to nine cities for the last couple of exhibits and it was more bang for the buck. It was some equipment, mostly, I mean the exhibit people were professional exhibitors with very professional photos with some text in Russian, but the main attraction was clearly the guides.
Michael Hurley was sworn in to the U.S. Information Agency in June 1985. His overseas assignments have included Malaysia, Indonesia, the Soviet Union, Russia and Hungary. The two domestic assignments in Washington were in the Office of the Coordinator of East European Assistance, where he was the democracy projects officer, and the European Bureau’s Office of Public Diplomacy, where he served as Deputy and then Director. Hurley is currently the Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. He is married to Marlena Hurley and has four children and a dog.