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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Revamping Exchange Rates

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Exchanges are, by definition, two-way streets: You give something, they give something, a deal is done and everybody's happy, or at least temporarily satisfied. Russians and Americans have been two-way streeting on the educational, cultural and scholarly-scientific routes for a good half-century now -- and good for us. In 30 years' involvement in the process, I don't regret a day as exchanger or exchangee. And the countries shouldn't either, since my good fortune has been theirs as well.

True, the deals have sometimes listed a bit toward the asymmetrical. As an exchange student in Leningrad in the mid-1970s, I often wondered whether my counterpart at some U.S. campus was also enjoying a dingy communal dorm room, food-like substances of ill-defined origins and tap water bubbling with an exotic parasite. The U.S. side apparently sent self-selected students keen on studying Russian while the Soviets sent state-selected grownups keen on studying power plants. But whatever my counterpart actually did, I had an amazing semester at Leningrad State, amenities be damned. Knowledge gained there in the classroom, dorm and near-mystical city serves me well to this day.

Evolving from educational to cultural exchangee a few years later, I served for seven months as a guide-interpreter on a U.S. exhibition touring the Soviet Union. This was part of a 40-year exchange of exhibits which began in Moscow in 1959, when the initial U.S. entry hosted the famous Kitchen Debate between mercurial Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his doggedly competitive tour guide, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon.

Twenty years after this historic episode, the job of exhibit guide was more informational and less confrontational: We talked (and talked and talked) with an endless stream of Soviet visitors about our exhibit, our country, our lives -- and theirs. It was spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants public diplomacy, alternately invigorating and enervating, and it was a training program without peer for some critical cadres. Three of my fellow guides became ambassadors, another runs the Carnegie Moscow Center, another is the U.S. Consul in Yekaterinburg, another does Russian-American exchanges for the Library of Congress -- it's a long list.

The late 1980s saw the traffic in warm bodies between the United States and the Soviet Union approaching rush hour status. By the end of the decade, I was a veteran of three scholar exchange programs, each of which profited both me and those I taught; and I had become an exchanger as well as exchangee, moving students and scholars between the two countries under public and private programs unimaginable only a decade before. At a reception in Washington for the first U.S.-Soviet high school exchangees in 1989, I listened with my students and their Soviet counterparts as U.S. President Ronald Reagan confided to us, in his inimitable style, that this was a special time and that exchanges were good. It was and they were.

They still are, of course, and we need to remind ourselves of this fact. Thursday, the Carnegie Moscow Center will do a bit of memory jogging, noting the 50-year history of this two-way street with a symposium uniting exchangers and exchangees from both sides. We will reminisce, evaluate and speculate together, then meet the immediate future, the departing wave of Russian student exchangees, at a reception thrown by the U.S. ambassador. This varied collection of scholars, diplomats, professionals and younger mortals will in its very convocation offer eloquent testimony to the value of the exchange function.

As we recall the virtues of the process -- what exchanges told us about each other and how they helped nudge history in a better direction -- it might also make sense to ask if the current Russian-U.S. public dialogue, which runs the gamut from irritation to hostility, might profit from some retrospective inspiration. If Khrushchev and Nixon could hector one another in public, then shake hands and send each other flowers in the form of exhibitions, why can't their successors? Instead of long-distance rhetorical sniping, perhaps our leaders could meet at another cultural exhibition, posture all morning for the cameras, then do some practical good and send off bigger waves of students and scholars and a new round of exhibits. A fanciful notion, but could anything be more fanciful than expecting success from the non-dialogue we're conducting now, 18 years after we stopped exchanging exhibits?

This summer marks the 200th anniversary of Russian-U.S. diplomatic relations. Both sides should celebrate, of course, and not least by getting more traffic moving on our underused two-way street.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.