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With bomb shelters, numerous protests for disarmament, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War, in 1961 the Cold War was hard to forget even within the gates of Harvard. Just four years after Sputnik was launched into orbit by the Soviet Union, the American imagination was filled with questions about the communist nation across the Atlantic.
“It was the height of the Cold War,” says Richard E. Pipes, professor of history, emeritus. “Everyone was curious as to what was going on in Russia.”
At Harvard, curiosity was turned into a meaningful intellectual exchange with professors at the University of Leningrad. However, even with some interactions, what interested many—the politics of the day—stayed largely off the table, even in the classroom.
PLANNING AN EXCHANGE
In 1958, William S.B. Lacy, President Eisenhower’s Special Assistant on East-West Exchanges, and Georgi Z. Zarubin, Soviet Ambassador to the United States, negotiated an agreement to help facilitate a cultural exchange between the United States and the USSR.
Then in the summer of 1959, Dean of Faculty McGeorge Bundy met with a group of Harvard professors including Pipes to begin planning an ongoing exchange between Harvard professors and those at the University of Leningrad.
“The idea was seen as a good step forward and away from the Cold War,” Pipes says.
Following the discussion with Bundy, the first Harvard professor went to the USSR to deliver a series of lectures in the fall of 1960. Seymour Slive, a fine arts professor, arrived in Leningrad to speak on 17th-century Dutch painting. Four more professors visited the USSR during the ’60-’61 school year.
In the same year, five professors arrived at Harvard from the University of Leningrad, with expertise in a wide variety of disciplines from law to history and the sciences.
The visitors stayed in their host country for periods of several weeks—though their arrival date was not known by Harvard officials until they were notified of visa filings by immigration authorities.
“In the days of the Soviet Union, Western and Eastern scientists mingled freely and in a friendly manner,” says Richard M. Goody, one of the professors who lectured in the USSR, in an email. “In the sciences it was a mingling based on mutual respect for the other’s achievements.”
AVOIDING THE QUESTION
But academic achievements were clearly separated from discussions of politics or the daily realities of life in the respective countries.
“When in Russia, we were treated like princes, and were clearly not participating in normal Soviet life.” Goody writes. “When you did meet normal Soviet life it could be pretty frustrating, and I sometimes felt it to be threatening. There was always tension—until you passed the final security barrier on the way out.”
But many cultural questions remained in spite of attempts to keep discussions as intellectual as possible.
“After my lecture the Russian students wanted to ask questions, but the professor in charge thought they better not, as they were questions of a provocative nature,” Pipes says. As a result, “the students would surround me after lectures to ask questions.”
Not only were conversations about politics avoided, but discussion actually carried consequences for those in the USSR and for the Soviet professors in America. For instance, Goody recounts a story of his good friend and Rector of the University of Leningrad, Kirill Kondratiev, who was reportedly too friendly to foreigners and was subsequently banned from traveling abroad for 15 years.
“We never discussed politics—that was too dangerous for our Russian colleagues,” Goody says.
“The ‘tiki’ or ‘silent ones’ were always there, somewhere. The slightest slip on their part could have consequences,” he adds, referring to the danger that Soviet professors’ actions might be reported to Russian intelligence services.
While back at Harvard, discussing politics did not carry the same severe consequences, but the discussion was still limited. Robert W. Back, a graduate student in Harvard’s Regional Studies-USSR program at the time, says he was frustrated even with the Russian language curriculum.
“The problem was it was all literature and no politics,” Back says. “But at the time we wanted to talk politics.”
“It was boring to be a student in Russian at Harvard because the conversation was all literature,” Back adds. “They couldn’t discuss politics to save their lives.”
—Staff writer Erika P. Pierson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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