Fifty years ago this summer, the American National Exhibition opened in Moscow. It turned out to be critical; a breakthrough in relations between a superpower (the United States) and an aspiring superpower (the U.S.S.R.)
To understand the significance of the event, one must recall the times. Following Stalinґs death in March 1953, his successors found themselves in charge of a country no one wanted to deal with. U.S. trade sanctions meant that nothing could be sold to the Soviets, or bought from them, not even caviar or vodka. The U.S.S.R. returned the favor in kind.
Gradually, however, the Cold War ice began to thaw and the countries began a new dialogue. By 1957 the Soviet leadership was sounding out the possibility of cultural exchanges with the United States, but the State Department kept rejecting the idea.
This might have gone on indefinitely, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened. After the furor in the U.S. over the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, he considered it essential to take revenge, if not in space, then in the American kitchen. Things began to happen.
The Americans put up their pavilions in Moscow's Sokolniki Park using their own technology. My father, Nikita Khrushchev, closely followed all the innovations. He was intrigued by the dome made out of aluminum hexagons resembling honeycombs. [This was designed by Buckminster Fuller for the exhibit's chief designer, Jack Masey. For Jack Masey's recollection of the exhibit, see www.rbth.ru]
On a hot sunny day, July 24, 1959, the Americans impressed viewers with the abundance and variety of their consumer goods, from ladies shoes to refrigerators and washing machines. They organized their exhibit like a department store, forgetting one thing: none of these marvels could be bought. And given that, looking at them did not make much sense.
Fifty years later, I asked my friends what they remembered about the exhibition. Primarily it was the crowds; the lines at the entrance and the crush inside. The whole country was dying to see. My friends also recalled that they could touch everything, especially the Pepsi Cola, which everyone could taste. Everyone tried, but no one liked this novel drink. For some reason they thought it smelled like shoe polish. My friends also remembered the ball-point pens and the cars, especially the red Corvette. The sports car was surrounded by a large crowd.
But my friends had only a dim memory of the kitchen where Khrushchev and Nixon engaged in their historic debate. Yes, they remembered something, a house with furniture, but what the debates were about they couldnґt say. Those were the Russian exhibition-goers. American image-makers, on the other hand, raised the "kitchen debates" to the essence of the exhibit.
U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon thought of himself as an anticommunist crusader with a calling from above to shame the infidels. Yet he was afraid of Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had earned a reputation as a politician who was never at a loss for words and did not tolerate anyone who threatened the dignity of his country.
Nixon chose an aggressive strategy which his aides called "argue or perish," aimed at the U.S. audience in light of the 1960 presidential campaign ahead. Nixon wanted to show his conservative allies that he was a tough customer who would not give anyone a break.
My fatherґs credo was peaceful coexistence. But on the eve of the exhibitionґs opening, the U.S. Congress passed The Captive Nations Resolution in defense of peoples who, in their opinion, were subjugated by the U.S.S.R. My father could not leave such effrontery without a reply.
Both leaders arrived at the exhibition fully armed, but in different moods: Nixon was nervous and tense, Khrushchev good-humored and ironic. Like professional traveling salesmen, they both praised their respective wares, but the details of the conversation remained off-camera until they reached the RCA stand with the worldґs first color video recorder. It was suggested that they continue their conversation in front of the camera.
Nixon became agitated, while Khrushchev felt right at home. Khrushchev said the United States was far ahead, their goods were of better quality, but that we were diligent students and would soon catch up and overtake the teachers. Nixon said nothing. Khrushchev complained that it was hard for him, a former miner, to debate a licensed lawyer. Nixon grew gloomier and growled: "I donґt think so. You didnґt let me get a word in." My father suggested a demonstration of openness: a broadcast of their unedited conversations on television in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Nixon had no choice but to agree; the two men shook on it with the cameras rolling.
Nixon asked the exhibitionґs organizers to take them into the model of the American house where space was limited and outsize TV cameras would not fit. The kitchen debates took place in the presence of only two journalists - one American, one Soviet. Each took down the exchanges according to his own sympathies and preferences.
That evening, Muscovites saw all 16 minutes of the video. Nixon's words were simultaneously translated, while in the U.S., Khrushchev was muted and not translated. My father reproached the vice president the next day: "What kind of freedom is that?"
Nixon and Khrushchev spent the next day in the country, eating breakfast at Novo-Ogarevo and then going for a boat ride on the Moscow River. It was a bright warm Sunday and the banks were crowded with sunbathers. My father kept asking to dock and suggesting to Nixon in a loud voice, so that everyone could hear, that they chat with the "subjugated" people. The "people" replied with friendly shouts and laughter, but Nixon declined to chat with them.
After that Nixon flew off to Sverdlovsk. He was accompanied by diplomat Raymond Garthoff, who had recently moved to the State Department from the CIA. On the landing approach, Garthoff took pictures of the positions of ready-to-launch SAM-2 anti-aircraft missiles, the same missiles that would shoot down an American U-2 spy plane a few months later.
Overall Nixon did not impress my father. Until the end of his life, Khrushchev never called Nixon anything but a small-time shopkeeper of a politician.
As for the kitchen debates, both sides knew who was supposed to "win" and, indeed, who "won" was a matter of technology, or rather political technology. No one could compete with the Americans in this realm. In one photo, Nixon is poking Khrushchev in the nose. That photo became a textbook symbol of American superiority. Incidentally, I have a similar picture in which Khrushchev is poking Nixon in the chin.
Sergei Khrushchev, son of the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, is a Senior Fellow at Thomas Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Brown University.
A condensed version of a documentary made by DA Pennebaker in Moscow in 1959