STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of the most famous episodes in relations between Washington and Moscow took place a half century ago, at the 1959 American Exhibition in the Soviet capital. That's where a debate took place between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It was known as the Kitchen Debate, and the event has special significance for NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer.
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Unidentified Man #1: Vice President Nixon escorts Soviet Premier Khrushchev on a preview of the United States Fair at Sokolniki Park in Moscow.
GREGORY FEIFER: Barely six years after the death of dictator Josef Stalin ended the worst Soviet repressions, more than two million people thronged to leafy Moscow Park, where pavilions brimmed with the latest American consumer goods.
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FEIFER: Braving a broiling summer sun, they gawked at Polaroid cameras, the latest washing machines, and a model house.
The American goal was to blow Soviet minds into accepting the superiority of capitalism over communism.
Vice President RICHARD NIXON: You never concede anything.
FEIFER: Standing in a model kitchen next to the portly, combative Khrushchev on opening day, Nixon suggested the United States was ahead of the Soviet Union in some areas. He used as an example the development of color videotape, which was recording their meeting.
Vice President NIXON: This indicates the possibilities of increasing communication, and this increase communication will teach us some things, and it will teach you some things, too - because after all, you don't know everything.
FEIFER: Khrushchev wasn't having any of it. The Soviets were ahead in most areas, he insisted, and anyway, the video would probably be used for propaganda back in the United States.
Premier NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV (Leader of the Former Soviet Union): (Through Translator) What I have to say is being translated only in through your ear, but the American people will never hear it.
FEIFER: At times, it seemed Khrushchev had spent his entire political life preparing for that opportunity to demolish the apparent benefits of capitalism. But at the time, most Americans believed Nixon won the debate.
However, for many of the young Americans serving as guides at the exhibition, the major interest was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the Soviet Union, a state portrayed back home as their mortal enemy.
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Mr. GEORGE FEIFER (Guide): (Foreign language spoken)
FEIFER: That's one of the guides standing next to a Ford Thunderbird, recorded in a documentary of the exhibition by filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. The guide happens to be my father, George Feifer. He says he found himself spending far less time answering questions about the car than about the American school system and other aspects of American life.
Mr. FEIFER: There was this great sea of affection for the American people. There was also among these supposedly downtrodden and oppressed peoples - as we incessantly were told - a great deal of humanity and originality and humor.
FEIFER: At the front gates, visitors stood in line for hours to get into the exhibition, where many got their first taste of Pepsi-Cola.
Ms. TATYANA STEPANOVA: It was very difficult to get to anything there.
FEIFER: Tatyana Stepanova was a 16-year-old Muscovite in 1959. She's also my mother. She says the most crowded displays were those where the American guides spoke freely and with a sense of humor.
Ms. STEPANOVA: I just somehow sensed how free that country was, through their gestures, through the way they behaved, through the way they were dressed. You just could see that these were free people, and we were not.
FEIFER: At the Ford display, my future mother asked my future dad a question about American jazz that he was unable to answer. But he got her to return the next day by giving her one of the most craved items in Moscow that summer: an exhibition pass that meant she wouldn't have to line up again. They eventually married, and she left the Soviet Union.
The current American ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, was a college student when he got his first guide job at a later exhibition in 1977. He says the exhibitions gave millions of Soviets a chance to hear young Americans speaking without Soviet censorship.
Ambassador JOHN BEYRLE (American Ambassador to Russia): The impact it had on pushing back against some of the worst anti-American propaganda pushed by the Soviet Union in those days is hard to calculate. But I know that it had an effect on a lot of people, because I've met some of these people now coming back as ambassador.
FEIFER: Still, Beyrle says the exhibitions also showed the limits of personal connections. He believes they can't overcome profound misunderstandings between the two cultures. Today, most observers say the level of hostility and distrust toward America and Americans among ordinary Russians is much stronger than it was when Nixon debated Khrushchev 50 years ago.
Unidentified Man #2: Every aspect of the Cold War and Soviet-American rivalry is argued in blunt and forthright terms.
FEIFER: Whatever the limits of cultural diplomacy, the participants in the American exhibitions believe they can be a useful model for President Obama as he seeks to improve ties with Moscow. Those personal contacts between ordinary Americans and Russians - even during the bitter days of the Cold War -benefited U.S. foreign policy, not to mention this radio correspondent.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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